Praying to our Father, the Good Shepherd

After making it quite clear that God is not a tempter, not the one who causes lust for things we don’t need, James goes on to promote a very positive view of God: Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17).

Previously, we considered the absence of God. But we talked about the absence of God as our space. God withdraws from us, or allows us to go out from his recognizable presence, so that we can grow up. We are enabled to walk on our own. This is a good thing, because it shows us that we are not God at the same time that we see our need for God.

There are some who say that babies don’t understand themselves as separate from their mother, at least not at first. As a baby nurses on her mother’s breast, this little one is attached, quite directly, to her mother. Soon, the baby will begin to recognize her mother’s face and, presented by this face, will realize that her mother is different from her. The baby will then begin to realize she needs her mother and must wait on her mother for help. The more the baby trusts the mother to help in a time of need the longer she can go without her.

Similarly, the more that we trust our Father in heaven to provide for our ultimate needs, the more we can feel free to explore. Rather than being a prodigal son, slapping our Father in the face with our leaving, we can go out from the Father, knowing that our going out is watched over by him. It is even encouraged.

We can learn this deeply from the 23rd Psalm. In this beautiful bit of poetry, we are met with God the Shepherd. Here we are led through a peaceful, green meadow. We are going along without a care. Quiet waters are near us, where we might quench our thirst, refresh ourselves with a cool bath, or just listen to the gentle murmuring. It’s a 19th century Romantic dream.

Soon, we come to the vale. Most translations render this vale as valley: “the valley of the shadow of death.” But the Hebrew is more like a vale; it’s a covering that obscures the vision. It’s a shadow that falls over our head. And that shadow is death.

But death is not the end.

The writer of this Psalm confidently claims to have no fear. And the psalmist credits this lack of fear to the good shepherding skills of God. If there is evil, God will use his rod to ward it off. If the psalmist should begin to stray, God will use his staff to redirect him. There is nothing to fear with this kind of guide who pays so close attention.

The psalmist is soon surrounded by a feast with the soothing salve of oil on his head. Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary on the Psalms, wants us to be clear that this is a sensual  scene. We could say that most of this Psalm has appealed to the senses: sense of rest, sense of danger, and now a sense of final victory. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:6).

Perhaps the strongest sense that we get from the Psalm is that we are traveling with God. Again, we are not prodigals here. Even in the danger, we are with God. God does not always preserve us from danger. Sometimes it can be good to get the heart pumping. Broken bones heal stronger than they were before the break.

James teaches us that God is not a tempter. That is something our enemies do. But God does bring us through trials with the goal of making us stronger.

Blessed is a person who perseveres under trial; for once this person has passed the test this one will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (James 1:12). Surely…I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:6).

God gives us just enough distance so that we can truly be something separate from God, a creation. But God never pushes us so far that we will ultimately be without God. God wants us to explore this great gift of Creation that God has given us. “Dear Child,” says God “Go play. Discover what you can do. I’ll bandage you up if you get hurt. I will be here when the sun goes down to pick you up from the playground. But play, play for now.”

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