Where Does Happiness Come From. Part 2

Mextures

This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa.  It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.

But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.

Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.

But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:

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Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.

Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.

Think about that for a second.

The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!

Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.

If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:

 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.

So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.

I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.

Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.

In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.

Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…

It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.

Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.

Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.

Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.

Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.

Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.

Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.

Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:

Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart

So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.

Finding Your Way Home Again

Mextures

On the American plains in the midwest in the mid 19th century it was commonplace for farmers to hear stories of farmers working in the fields when a whiteout blizzard appeared on the horizon. These storms were known to swallow up vast farmlands in a matter of minutes, and there were countless tales of farmers who died in their own yards unable to find their way in the midst of the storm. Many of them, less that a hundred yards from safety, never found their way home.

With this warning in mind, many of them learned that when the weather was still good, they needed a lifeline. They would fasten a rope from their porch to their barn. The rope would lead them home when they could not see where to go or which way to turn.

Likewise I can recall stories of people that I have known that that, when the storms have descended upon their lives, they were spiritually lost. I can’t count on both hands the number of people that I have seen who’s faith has died in the midst of storms. When skies were calm they seemed to live with such spiritual ease and surety. But when things went dark, they were lost. Their bodies lived on, but their faith was abandoned and left to die in the place where the storms arose.

Many people never fathom that life can turn very dark in the blink of an eye. That loss will come their way. That great pain and confusion will arise.  That you might suddenly find yourself alone in a terrible storm.

This is typical of the young people and families that I work with. They are immortal, and nothing bad will ever happen. The thought is never entertained that storms will arise, and no preparation is made for the storms of life.

Your soul needs a rope. 

You must build that rope through regular spiritual intake. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines, the quietness of solitude and meditation on scriptures and the teachings of Christ, a routine practice of sabbath. These are the things that will lay the groundwork for the path that your soul will take when things are dark.

Our regular practices during peacetime become habitual responses in times of conflict. A person will always long to return to the place where it has learned to gleam nourishment. And in the midst of the storm, the unfed soul will wander to and fro aimlessly looking for answers and finding nothing.

In 1873 Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife that would have slain the soul of many-a-man. He was a real estate investor in Chicago, successful by any standards. Two years earlier he had lost his only son to typhoid fever, and the following year lost every bit of real estate he owned in the great Chicago fire. He sent his wife and daughters home to England the following year while he stayed back and focused on rebuilding his life. Two weeks later he received the message that would change everything:

“Saved alone. What shall I do?”

The ship had suffered tragedy and went down with his remaining children, leaving only his beloved wife.

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Spafford quickly boarded a ship headed for england and as he passed over the very spot where his daughters had perished, he penned the words of the famous hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Needless to say, this was a man who had prepared his soul, who had strung a rope to lead himself home again in times of storm and peril. And when those times came, he found his way to the comfort and safety and nourishment of his savior. He was able to drink of that well and his soul, though undoubtedly damaged and scarred, survived.

I wonder if mine would do the same, or if it might simply die in the storm. I wonder if my faith would survive, or if I would leave it behind.

The salvation of your soul is not just about the afterlife. It is about the present life. Salvation means healing and deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus.

Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. For some of you, like Horatio Spafford, it will happen while you are still alive… but for most it will happen when we die. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed. It will be what you are left with. Your empires might fall, your loved ones, your accomplishments and your riches might be lost. But your soul will remain.

If you focus on building your life alone, then you will run the risk of losing everything. But if you build your soul, you will find that your life is filled with all of the things that you have always wanted. In addition, your soul and your life can be a light that others will find direction in, and a rope that can lead them, and yourself, home again.

Matthew 16:26
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” ~ Jesus of Nazareth.

Stones in your Garden.

A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.

The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.

Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.

But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.

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Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.

This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.

We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow. 

Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.

Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.

Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.

Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.

Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.

My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.

Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.

So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.

Further reading: “Necessary Endings” Dr. Henry Cloud. “Boundaries” Dr Henry Cloud”