March 21, 2020 Fifth Sunday of Lent
The Lord is my Shepherd and he comforts with the “rod and staff,” the tools of caregiving and guidance . As a city dweller, the closest I have come to truly understanding this metaphor is our experience among the Maasai in Kenya. The culture and livelihood of this beautiful and timeless tribe are based on caring for their livestock of mostly cattle, goats, and sheep. As proud warriors, the young men keep lions and other dangers away from the herd and lead them to water and pasture land. The men wear a “shuka” a red blanket, and carry “eng’udi,” long sticks that are used to guide and protect and most importantly, serve as a marker of their cultural identity. In Psalm 23, the rod and staff also serve as markers of the character of God as Shepherd, the one with whom we lack nothing, are restored, comforted, healed, and who accompanies us through the green pastures, still waters, and even the valley of the shadow of death.
Reflect. Recite or read through Psalm 23, focusing your meditation on the character of the One who comforts with the rod and staff.
One of the Maasai leaders gifted his “eng’udi” to my husband, maybe prompted by his message in their church on the miracles God did using Moses’ shepherd staff to protect and free his people. Moses stands out as a leader of God’s people who later in life had to let go of his own dream of entering the promised land and pass on his staff of leadership, the marker of his identity to Joshua:
And Moses said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in…Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land.” Deuteronomy 31:1-2
The example of Moses and many others in the Scriptures show us that it is not on us to finish everything because we are part of a larger story, a timeless kingdom. If we have raised and trained the next generation well, the humbling and freeing truth is that we can let go. Parents, teachers, first responders, and all those who love and serve others, need time off to recharge and just be free of the heavy burden of responsibility. This involves trusting those who take over for you so you can put down the caring role and allow yourself to be cared for by others.
Where do you hear others saying, “Allow Me”?
As a care-giver, I struggle to let go of control and leave the bedside of my loved one to practice my own self-care and healthy rhythms. It is a wise and compassionate gift to myself and my loved one to ask for and accept help. Recently, I went to my chiropractor all twisted and hurting from lifting and moving my mother. As I was lying face down, she pushed on my tight shoulders and I felt the pain starting to move and loosen. I found myself saying in explanation, “I’ve been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.” She said, “Yes, and you’ve been carrying it a long time.” The tension broke and I was crying hard right into the paper covering on the chair. She fixed my twisted body and my simply acknowledging the pain to another person was soul healing.
Reflect. In your own life circumstances, reflect on where you need to let go and accept that your unfinished work can be carried on by others. Take an inventory of your physical well-being. Where do you feel the “weight of your world?”
The rod and staff represent the Shepherd’s strength and protective care. The Lord’s staff is used to guide us to the still waters and the paths of righteousness, places of restoration and peace in the chaos of life. The staff also marks the identity of the Shepherd as the one in charge, which means I don’t have to be “personally” responsible, or work harder, but I can be at rest knowing God is with me, comforting, guiding and protecting.
Where do you hear God saying, “Allow Me” ?
Many scholars have explained that the “rod” was used for counting the sheep and protecting them from wild animals, just as David killed both lion and bear to protect his flock. In my own military family upbringing, the rod was the expectation to be independent, strong, and loyal. In the words of this Psalm, we were guided by the “rod,” the tool of authority, love, and faith my parents used to raise us. And we were disciplined…the consequences of going our own way included strong boundaries and protection to put us back on the right path.
Yet, the word “rod,” may bring up a negative connotation of punishment. Like the times my Dad would say, “Go in my closet and get my belt!” Those were times I knew my father was angry and lost patience, yet he always said, “Sit here for a while and think about what you have done.” Knowing I had done something disappointing was actually harder than getting the licks. The Word of God and the Spirit’s voice within my soul, often act as a rod, not to be beaten or abused, but a reminder of my humanness and need for compassion and forgiveness. Yes, it does hurt to disappoint someone you love, but loving parental guidance and boundaries keep us safe and on the right path.
Reflect. How have you seen the Shepherd use the rod or staff as tools of guidance and protection or reminders of ways you have gotten off the path in your life this week?
As I write, the Spirit says to be sensitive to those who did not experience comforting and loving guidance in their childhood. If this is your story, I pray you can sit with God as Shepherd, and allow a new story to be written in your heart, trusting the divine spirit in you for healing and rest. May the Good Shepherd, Jesus fill you with compassion, forgiveness, and a sense of purpose to love others well.
I’ve read this poem in several places lately, and think it may help us understand trust as we seek deep embrace. As you read, hear God say, “Allow Me”:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
The Avowal, Denise Levertov