When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
Psalm 23:2a King James Version (KJV) 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
Many years ago (never mind how many..) there was a television show called “Green Acres.” It was a comedy about a couple from New York City, who moved to a small town in the country. The husband was excited about the move– he was tired of the rat race and bustle of the city; his wife, however, was reluctant to leave all the opportunities– she missed the shops and activity.
More than fifty years later, you can often see these shows on networks like TV Land. They are still popular among some viewers, who like the nostalgia and the gentle humor. These shows all have happy endings. They don’t involve grotesque murders, lots of foul language, preachy lectures on social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction, or copious amounts of sex, violence, or nudity. They don’t talk about war and gangs, poverty or prejudice, or urban sprawl. They celebrate family, fresh air, hard work, community, truth, justice, kindness, and humility.
What does “Green Acres” (or Andy Griffith or any other old TV show) have to do with Psalm 23 and Pursuing Prayer? Not a lot, but I would like to look at the phrase in verse 2– “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..” Not the same as “Green Acres,” but I think the green pastures of God are viewed by the world in much the same way as “Green Acres;” scorned by a small and vocal group, but quietly cherished by many others.
Our Shepherd causes us to lie down– to find rest and nourishment and refreshing– in green pastures. That doesn’t mean that He won’t lead us through times of bustling stress, struggle, anxious moments, or rugged paths. But He will make us lie down. He will cause us to stop our frantic rushing, and renew our strength in green pasture. He doesn’t offer green pastures as an “escape from reality”, but as a reminder that dealing with reality requires us to see beyond the immediate stresses of the day and listen beyond the distracting noises around us.
God’s green pastures won’t look like “Green Acres” with old tractors and fresh-mown hay. They may not look like the small town simplicity of Americana. In fact, God’s green pastures may not be places at all, but practices– spending time in Scripture, time in prayer, times in fellowship and encouragement, time in meditation, even time in service to others. You may find green pastures in the heart of a barrio, or in the quiet of a walk in the forest, or in praying as you climb a flight of stair or fold laundry. But you will find spiritual nourishment and renewal in God’s green pastures, wherever they are and whatever they look like. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-23-2.html
God’s green pastures will have many critics, who will ask that you cancel these practices. They will call them old-fashioned, failed practices– naive, simplistic, even laughable. But as we respond to God who make us lie down in green pastures, others are watching– and taking heart. The critics in our life may be loud and insistent. It may seem like they have the power to “cancel” our rest, and pave over the green pastures to build another fast food restaurant. But there are others silently watching, longing to experience the kind of rest and refreshment they see in us– the kind that cannot come from sophisticated treatises on war or crime, or harsh critics’ disdain, or yet another trip to an upscale shop or fast food restaurant or spa.
A few years ago, I left a full-time job– a job I loved–to help my husband open up a second-hand store that also sells amateur radio equipment. Most people would look on our store as a failure–it doesn’t make a lot of money; we don’t have hundreds of sales in a week; it hasn’t made us famous or important. But it gives me the opportunity to spend time talking and listening to the customers we do have, many of whom are lonely. It gives David the opportunity to do the same. And it gives me time to pray more, spend more time in God’s word, and write and edit this blog. It has allowed me more flexibility to spend time with my family. And it has reminded me that God is our provider and protector in ways I took for granted when I drew a bigger salary and had a more prominent position. From a worldly perspective, this is a move I would never have chosen. I spend most of my days lonely and unpaid–hardly a recipe for worldly fulfillment. And many days, I actually miss the bustle of deadlines, the drama of staff conflicts, and the extra money in the bank. And some days I am frustrated and ungrateful and restless–God has led me to the green pastures, but I refuse to lie down and receive the rest He wants to give me. And God may choose to make me get up and move through valleys, up hills, or over rocky paths to the next pasture. But for this season, in this pasture, He is teaching me to lie down–to be less busy about my business, and more open to His.
The world may offer us Times Square; God offers us fresh air. The world may offer us clever ways to spend our time and money– God gives us peace that passes all understanding. God’s “Green Acres” is the place to be–resting where and how our Shepherd leads us.
It is not popular to write about weakness. We all have moments when we feel weak, overwhelmed, defeated, and depressed. Sometimes, we are just physically exhausted, and emotionally drained by the piling up of little stresses and routine tasks. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by loss or grief, guilt, or worry about situations beyond our control.
We want such feelings and situations to go away, to be replaced by peace, comfort, and contentment. And while well-meaning people tell us that “this too shall pass,” or “God has a plan,” or “you will get through this– I’m here for you,” we are still weak, weary, and worn down by the struggles of the day.
Jesus gave some incredible and inexplicable advice to people who would follow him. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28-29 from the Christian Standard Bible via biblegateway.com)
The first part of his advice offers great comfort– “come to me…and I will give you rest.” But then, without even a breath, Jesus tells us to take up his yoke! A yoke does not seem to offer rest– I want the burden to be GONE–I don’t want to put on a yoke like an ox or a plow horse. How could this be comforting or restful?
But this is the promise of God– not to make all our burdens disappear (though he often chooses to give us total relief from a particular burden)–instead, He asks us to put on his yoke. He will share the burden with us, and He will teach us how to make the load bearable, even lighter, by following Him.
And, though we have moments of exhaustion and setbacks, God’s purpose is not for us to give up or be defeated by our circumstances, but to be victorious over them, and turn to Him. In order to “take up (his) yoke” we must take the burden off our own shoulders and give it to Him. He will distribute the load, direct our path, and set the pace. And not only that, He will take our hand and speak words of wisdom and peace as we carry the load together. And THAT is truly comforting!
*”Grant Us Peace!” (In Latin, Dona Nobis Pacem) “When Peace like a River attendeth my Soul…” “Peace be with you..” “Give Peace a Chance..” Peace that passes all understanding–Phil.4:7
We spend our days rushing, working, worrying and stressing, always hoping for a time of peace, believing that if we work hard enough, rush fast enough, hope fervently enough, we will be rewarded with peace.
But this is contrary to the Biblical pattern. God has already given us a blueprint for peace, rest, and contentment. And it doesn’t involve working harder! It involves trusting more. God wants us to work, yes, but He also wants us to rest, to seek times of solitude, meditation, and silence. This is not a suggestion given to a lucky few–it is a principle to be practiced by all of us. God wants to give us peace for the asking—not for the earning.
When prayer becomes a priority, and not just something that happens in our “spare” time, or after all the “important” things get done, we should find that peace is a by-product of our pursuit. Taking time for prayer gives our mind a new focus, calms the rhythms of our heart and body. It forces us to step aside from the frantic pace of life– to lift our eyes (or close them) away from the flickering light of the tablet or phone, to sit (or stand or kneel) still and apart from whatever task is beckoning, and listen, not to the blare of the radio or TV or street noise, but to the underlying sounds of life–heartbeats, breathing, the slow ticking of a clock, or the retreating rumble of the world.
Most importantly, through our time spent in prayer, we access the source of peace– The Prince of Peace! And it is this same Prince of Peace who will “grant us peace” if we just ask. You may not be able to set aside hours for blissful meditation. But if you ask, God will help you guard your time, and help you find those few precious moments of prayer and peace– peace with Him, peace from Him, peace that passes all understanding.
We used to teach children to say bedtime prayers by rote:
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I don’t actually remember praying this prayer at bedtime– partly because it seemed morbid and the stuff of nightmares more than peaceful rest. Thankfully, my parents taught me more about praying than just this little prayer. We learned the Lord’s Prayer, and to lift up our friends and family to God’s care. We prayed for family stationed far from home, family members who were ill or suffering in some way, and for neighbors and classmates we cared about. We prayed for missionaries and the people and places that called them far away. We prayed for our nation and leaders. And we prayed confession, and thanksgiving, and worship, and intercession.
But I was reminded of this old prayer when I watched a video our aunt sent us the other day. It was a short documentary about a nature photographer who spent over 18 months building up trust with a wild cheetah in order to get “close up” shots of her in the wild– hunting, eating, resting, bathing. All was going well, until she disappeared on him. Several months later, a park ranger located her– and her five newborn cubs. The photographer knew he was taking a huge risk, but he drove his jeep (known to the mother cheetah), and went to the area where she was now caring for her young. He got out of the jeep and sat down in the grass nearby. Mother cheetah was nervous, but did not attack. Hoping this was a good sign, the photographer did the unthinkable– he lay down in the grass, helpless, to show that he was not a threat. As he moved from the sitting position, the mother cheetah stood up and watched. As he lay sprawling on the ground, she too lay down, letting her cubs know that they were free to explore. They came over to the photographer– they bit at his toes, climbed all over him, and let him pet them and poke at them with his finger. He never sat up, lifted his head, or played rough with them. He never grabbed them by the nape or spoke. When they got tired of “the new thing” and returned to their mother, the photographer was able to sit up, move close to the family, and take some incredible photos of the whole group.
Why did this remind me of a child’s prayer? The photographer kept saying in the voice-over that it was all about trust– he was patiently building a relationship with this single cheetah for over a year and a half, showing her that he could be trusted. And he was rewarded by her reaction when he signaled that he wanted to be close to her cubs. His act of lying down and essentially putting his life in the balance caused her to respond with a similar act showing her trust was complete. And her act of trust signaled to her cubs that this “new thing” was safe to approach– he could be trusted. A mother cheetah in the wild can run faster than a sports car and kill without a second thought to protect her young.
But she lay still and rested in her trust of this man.
How often do we “lay down” in our trust of God– stop brooding, worrying, fidgeting, and fighting to make sense of things, to build a safety net, to get ahead, to keep up with the neighbors, to feed our dreams and aspirations? The Psalmist in Psalm 23 says, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures…”
Trust isn’t just about lying down and resting– we are commanded to “Go” to “run the race” and to “stand firm in the faith”. But what would it look like if people could see followers of Christ at rest in the certainty of God’s provision and power? What if we opened our eyes to see God patiently building a relationship with us, waiting for the day that we would trust Him enough to enter our daily life? How much more might our children learn to trust God if they saw parents who followed God’s cue to lie down in peace and hope, instead of scurrying around trying to do God’s work in their own (used up) energy? What if, instead of praying with a morbid expectation of dying, we lay down to sleep, knowing that our soul is eternally safe, and that our future is secure and blessed because of the One who hears our prayer?
“Now I lay me down to sleep;
I know the Lord my soul will keep.
If I should live another day,
He then will light my every way!”
Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration. But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year. Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers. There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.
I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.). I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor. So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.
But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”
Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year. My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”
My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten. God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died. Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.” Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children. God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers. He sees you too. He hears you. He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.
More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort. He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace. He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love. God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.
God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.