This month, our Spiritual Formation exercise (assigned by our fabulous Spiritual Director, Laura Heagy) is “Psalm 23 Reloaded.” It involves memorizing the psalm, dwelling on it, and reframing it in other terms. Really great, if you want to play along at home! 😉

As I was exploring the psalm the other day, taking it line by line, something jumped out at me that I’d never considered before. I don’t know about you, but sometimes these familiar, memorized passages just blur into routine in my mind, so these practices of taking time with them, slowing down, and examining them piece by piece, word by word and phrase by phrase, can be so enriching! Let’s look at these lines, in the NABRE version:

He guides me along right paths
   for the sake of His name.
Even though I walk through the valley
   of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff comfort me.

I had never before paid attention to the order of this image, but let’s take a look. This is our Good Shepherd. He has already led us to the choices, lushest grass in the meadow. He’s let us refresh ourselves by crystal-clear pools of clean, cool water. This has refreshed us and restored, has filled us up.

But then we start moving. We don’t stay in that pasture. We never get the chance to stagnate when we’re following after our Shepherd. He leads us onward, just as a shepherd will always lead his sheep out of any good grazing ground, knowing it won’t stay good for long if you just hunker down. So He guides us out of that peaceful place, along the path of righteousness. The right path. Why? For the sake of His name.

He’s not leading us onward just for our own comfort or pleasure. He’s leading us because we have a purpose. We have a job to do, and it’s bringing glory to Him. Our purpose, our calling, is to show the world how great is our God. So we walk. We move. We chase after Him. He takes us up on a narrow mountain path.

And it’s dangerous, my friends. That valley–it’s going to involve trials. Temptations. Predators. Dangers.

Because this isn’t a tame faith, and we don’t serve a tame God. He’s a God who led the Israelites into the Wilderness; whose own Son spent 40 days there too. This wild, untamed God calls us onward into hard things. Painful things. Dangerous things. Where there are wolves and landslides and always, always the risk of falling.

We WILL be there, in that place. But when we are, we don’t have to fear.

Because our Shepherd is there too. He has a rod in hand–and do you know why shepherds carried rods? To ward off those predators. They would use them to kill wolves or lions or whatever other animals threatened their sheep.

Our Shepherd still does the same. When we stick close to His side, we don’t have to fear the predators. He can take care of us.

We may fall though. Either stumble through sin and temptation, or just slip off the road because of circumstance. We may tumble off the ledge, down toward that valley. We may think all is lost.

But He’ll catch us. That’s what the staff is for–that’s how shepherds pull their sheep back to safety. They hook the end around the creature and tug.

That is our comfort. Not that He’ll lead us where no dangers or pain exists, not that He’ll even remove us from those circumstances when they come upon us–but that He’ll be there with us through them. He leads us into them…and He’ll lead us out of them again, eventually. But first we have to pass through. We have to trust that He’ll defend, protect, and rescue.

But we have to stick close to His side. Don’t let the Shepherd out of your sight, friends. Stay close, within the reach of His staff. Where you can hear His voice.

And rest peacefully, knowing that hard, difficult, dangerous path is leading you rightly, toward righteousness. And that goodness and mercy aren’t away off in the distance. They’re chasing after you–pursuing you.

They’ll catch you, friend. I promise you that. Because where our Savior is, there is mercy…peace…goodness…and the house where we will dwell with joy forever.

Allelujah. Amen.

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