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Give Yourself Some Slack
July 11, 2021
The message I believe God has for you this morning is to take it easy on yourself, and to take it easy on other people.
As I’ve spoken to many of you in recent weeks, I’ve heard your anxiety and confusion about what is happening in our world as we come out of the COVID stay-at-home life.
We’re all trying to find our footing in a world that doesn’t feel solid anymore.
One of the things that struck me about last week’s 4th of July celebration was that we are essentially living in two Americas – each with their own set of facts and their own narrative of American history.
So now with friends, colleagues, even family members we never know what comment about vaccinations or a dozen other topics may set the other person off.
Walking on eggshells like this is very stressful.
And we are emerging from months of social isolation into a world that we expected would pick up right where we left off in March 2020, but has changed us and changed our world in ways we can’t yet put our fingers on.
Even the notion of accepting a “new normal” is meaningless – what is our new normal?
We call this experience “ambiguous loss”.
I think that is a helpful term: “ambiguous loss” is where we know that things are different but we don’t yet know how or why, and we don’t know in what ways it is going to impact us.
But God is saying to stay calm in the midst of all that is happening, be easy on yourself and on those around you.
Give yourself some slack.
Easier said than done?
Yes, but we can begin by remembering that God has a long history of getting His people through uncertainty and change.
Remember God was with Abram as he entered a strange new land, with the former slaves as they snaked their way through the Sinai wilderness to the Promise Land, and with the Hebrew exiles returning as strangers from Babylon.
In Psalm 23, King David gives us several insights about how God will see you through the coming months.
And David knew what he was talking about: from lonely shepherd boy to national hero, to fugitive, to king, to murderer, to target of palace intrigues, David’s life had been turned on its head more than once.
Most of us are so familiar with the 23rd Psalm that we gloss right over some hidden gems buried in its text.
For example, did you know that its central message is built into the word structure of the psalm?
Remember the Hebrew people placed emphasis on the structure of their writings in a way that seems foreign to us.
Some of the psalms are written as acrostics where the first letter of each line spells out a word or message.
Psalm 23 is not an acrostic, but it is structured to highlight its most important message.
If you count the Hebrew words, you’ll find that the very center word of the psalm is in verse 4, what we translate as “with”.
Psalm 23:4 … God is with me ….
We wouldn’t notice that, but the reader in the Ancient Near East would.
“With” is one of the most important words in the Bible.
Think about that.
God isn’t distant – He knows what you are going through because He is with you.
Psalm 23 pivots on the word “with” because it was contrasting Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, with the competing Canaanite gods that were distant and uninterested in human needs.
That was a radically new understanding of God.
The Hebrew people had discovered that the true God is for us and with us … that’s the message of Psalm 23 in a nutshell.
Centuries later, when the angels announced Jesus’ birth they said (Matthew 1:23) … and they shall call His name Emmanuel (which means, “God with us”).
And Jesus parting words to us?
Matthew 28:20 “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Those aren’t the words of Baal or Zeus, nor the words of the past seventy years in America.
As Stan Mast has noted, from the bland religiosity of the 50s, to the revolutionary 60s, the me-generation of the 70s, the “greed-is-good” philosophy of the 80’s, the pluralistic 90’s, and the cynicism of the last two decades, people have wandered from one thing to another in search of identity, fulfillment and happiness.
But, as diverse as the last 70-years have been, there is a common thread running through each new development.
All of them were self-referential, that is, they assumed you will find the directions for life within yourself.
As we step into today’s shifting, uncertain post-COVID world, Psalm 23 is good news with its assurance that life is not a self-guided tour.
Some of you have told me that since COVID you feel like you’re living in a fog – it’s harder to make decisions or to get energized.
But when we remember that God is with us, we can release some of that anxiety and relax into God’s guidance.
The psalm begins with a hopeful claim, The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing, pointedly using the same verb, haser, for “lack” as found in Deuteronomy 2:7.
That is where Moses reminds the people of how God had not abandoned them through their forty years in the wilderness.
Deuteronomy 2:7 … These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked (haser) anything.
No matter what our shifting world looks like, as I walk with God, I will be provided for.
Some of you have said that the shifting economy and the changing work patterns leave you feeling uncertain about your future.
It is so strange.
On the one hand, we hear about unemployment and financial hardship, on the other people are not returning to work as we’d expect.
A conservative estimate is that 40% of Americans say they are returning to their old jobs, many having to change industries to make that happen.
And about 2/3 say that they don’t want to return to work in their office – they’d rather work from home.
Destination Science is renting our grounds for their summer camp which they normally hold at CSUN, but they cancelled one full week because they didn’t have enough student sign-ups and now another week because they can’t find enough teachers.
It’s all so odd.
But no matter what our shifting world looks like, God says that He will provide, so instead of anxiety about the changes, allow yourself to relax, trust God and be grateful for what we do have.
The more I’ve learned about shepherding, the less I like thinking of myself as a sheep.
I think that I’d rather be Roger the Lion, whose strength and skill guarantee my safety and wellbeing.
But, according to the 23rd Psalm, I am Roger the Lamb, one of those animals with the knack for getting lost, confused, and distracted.
Much of the history of Israel is about its people becoming lost, confused, and distracted.
These are people who for centuries dreamed of a homeland that they were trying to get into, then to hold on to, and then to get back to.
The people yearned to live in green pastures but when life became hard or confusing, they became impatient or afraid.
So, they latched-on to more tangible gods: golden calves and wooden statues they could touch and that promised plentiful crops and fertile wives.
Will Willimon once said,
“The way to tell the difference between the true God and false gods is this: false gods will never shock you (that is, they will look like the gods you want them to be, and they’ll not demand many things of you)”.
There are many false gods competing in the COVID world – easy answers, autocratic leaders, ways to blame others for our problems.
Lots of people have made cable news into their spiritual advisors.
One of the best things you can do today is to turn off cable news.
They give you inflammatory half-truths and a heavy dose of anxiety and anger.
If you’re counting on FOX or MSNBC to see you through this transitional time, you are on the road to following a false god.
And of course, false gods never deliver on their promise of green pastures … in fact, they eventually take more from you than they give to you.
As Hebrew authors chose words carefully, they also carefully ordered their collection of psalms.
Psalm 23 is a response to the lament of the haunting, opening words of the preceding psalm:
Psalm 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
In reply, Psalm 23 assures us that while the future may look uncertain, the Shepherd has not forsaken us.
Psalm 23 does not sugarcoat, shrugging that it’s no big deal to be lost in the wilderness.
David says there are dark valleys, but be calm and confident because the shepherd is with you.
We are used to hearing Psalm 23:6 as, Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
But the Hebrew verb radaf, which we translate as “follow”, could better be translated as pursue.
The Good Shepherd pursues us when we’re lost, actively seeking to engage us.
What if you were in a relationship with a partner who came home every night exhausted and distracted, maybe spending dinnertime tapping away at Candy Crush?
That wouldn’t be much of a relationship for you, would it?
You’d want your partner to find refreshment and focus for their sake and yours, right?
It’s the same with God.
God cares about you … and God also wants you refreshed for His sake, too.
God cares about your health and God cares about His relationship with you.
That’s why Psalm 23:3 says he refreshes my soul, and then adds … for His name’s sake.
The Hebrew people were familiar with shepherding, so tranquil green pastures were not the first thing that came to mind for them.
Their first thoughts would be parched land and hidden dangers.
When we are afraid, we behave very much like startled sheep, who mindlessly run and scatter.
The psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
When we act like startled sheep, we dart this way and that, rushing down whatever trail appears before us.
It’s not surprising that so many of us feel a bit lost, or why there is such a rise in anger in America today.
The economy is shifting, some people have chosen not to return to work, politicians are spreading disinformation, two Americas are arising, some friendships have grown distant or tense … yet amidst all of this ambiguous loss, the Good Shepherd is pursuing you to restore your soul.
These are challenging times, so this week take it easy on yourself – just as God is doing for you.
Give yourself some slack by trusting the Good Shepherd, who is pursuing you because He loves you and wants to see you through this.