[Adapted from an article written in March of 2014]
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Psalms 23:1-6
The small town in northwestern Missouri where I grew up evokes many fond memories of green pastures and still waters. One scene in particular, located a few miles outside of town, is that of a small pond beneath a sprawling oak set in the gentle slope of an isolated meadow. As children, railroad tracks provided our well beaten path into a world of wooded landscapes, fields of grain and pastures dotted with all varieties of livestock. On a summer day, you’d find the leaves of the oak stir in the breeze that rippled the pond’s surface and lifted a patrolling hawk. Magnificent thunderheads cast shadows that crawled over the ground dispensing temporal relief from the heat. On the high end of the spectrum of sounds would be the brilliant song of a lark. The lower end held the subdued buzz of honey bees harvesting treasured nectar from a rainbow of wildflowers. The humid air that wrapped your skin like a woolen blanket carried the sweet fragrance of wild clover, plowed soil and cattle that still infuse the rural Midwest character with its wholesome, earthy balance.
The Psalmist’s imagery was no doubt inspired by his contrasting desert landscape not unlike the one in which I now live in western Colorado. From a shepherd’s perspective, with an average of 300 days of sunshine and 9 inches of precipitation per year, still waters are outnumbered by dry washes. Remove the man-made lifeline of irrigation and our green pastures quickly revert to their native sage, cactus, and yucca that punctuate this sun-baked terrain. It is with newly acquired affection that I hold the towering dust devil and the perpetually wandering tumbleweed as key contributors to the character of this part of the West. The Psalmist, I believe, would have been perfectly at home in my adopted neighborhood. Contrasting every shepherd’s dreamland of green pastures and still waters with desert realities, the writer successfully employed his craft to evoke soul-restoring images of plenty and peace promised to those who invest their trust in God.
The most profound of spiritual messages is the reminder that we dwell in the house of the Lord forever, that the paths of righteousness that sometimes take us through valleys shadowed with the momentary death of our awareness of God’s presence. We always come out on higher ground to a banquet table spread out for us in the very presence of our internal enemies of peace. This house of the Lord is vast and all encompassing, yet immediately accommodating to all regardless of their present habitat. Wherever I am, God is, beautiful words from James Dillet Freeman’s Prayer for Protection, come to mean that wherever I am in consciousness, God is. No one is barred from this house. No one is taxed to enter. No one is ever disaffiliated.
Whether it is a pleasant reminiscing and writing of childhood memories or, decades-later, against a backdrop of naked cliffs bathed in the pink glow of waning sunlight, an evening walk in the desert with my wife, I never leave the house of the Lord. Yes I venture into the shadows of appearance-based issues, perhaps to bring some self-assurance that we’ll never stop talking and teaching about this house, that we’ll keep in check this tendency to veer off into brain science and pop psychology, sparkling trinkets that seem to continually capture the fancy of this chronically unsettled, ever-shifting collective we call mainstream religion. My first calling is to this house of the Lord, so intricately and eternally woven into my consciousness, a murmuring brook, a healing balm to the intuitive ear, a living essence that never ceases to stir and restore my soul.
As my thoughts drift back to the many green pastures and still waters that I have known, I celebrate something much deeper than scenery. The very hand that painted these unforgettable landscapes has painted me as well, has painted us all and continues to paint us still. For nearly four decades I have written books about it, sung songs of its beauty, spoken of it from the open air of the pulpit and in the intimate setting of the classroom, and I’ll continue to do so as long as these faculties hold out.
The house of the Lord is the one constant in my life, a refuge of peace whose doors do not close. Having dwelt in this house, I’ll never tire of the deep satisfaction that comes with knowing I may have had something to do with showing others the way through these doors.