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Daily Sip: A Lenten meditation on home

Daily Sip: A Lenten meditation on home

This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a website from the Rev Canon Charles LaFond offering daily meditations and reflections

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 23 was what I read, out loud, walking in my monk’s habit in the New Orleans Katrina Disaster Mortuary Unit when I was its chaplain in those early weeks.  At 3:00 am, I prayed with the teams going into New Orleans with massive refrigeration trucks to find, hook, pull and deposit floating corpses from 110 degree watery weather.  Twelve hours later, when the trucks arrived back at the secluded, high-security camp with their cargo of corpses, I walked the trucks, step by step, on hot dirt, to the bleaching hoses, then the autopsies, then into refrigeration. With that truck bumper at my leg’s calf, I walked.  They were lost and now they were found. What did they want in those last hours as their possessions began to float off tables?  A book.  A doll.  A coaster, yesterday’s mail.

And as I walked, I read this psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

I think that in order to fully understand the power of this psalm, we must wipe off years of grime and dirt from the word “hope.” We have devolved the word “hope” since the 17th century to become the outcome of desired ends.  We have confused “want” “need” and “hope.”  Thanks, in no small part, to marketing and advertising, which fund our sick system.

We say “I hope I get that job or Christmas present or parking space.” Or “I hope I don’t have that flu.”  Or “I hope I don’t have cancer.”  All joy hangs on this specific outcome as if there is a mystical spinning of dice and we either win or we loose.  As if God is some sick, grinning Vegas table host in a fedora, red vest and spats and we, a mere nobody in a long evening of poker and craps.  Good luck.  Bad luck. Have a martini.  Have three. Keep playing.

But the hope of scripture is not tied to any particular outcome.  God is not Santa and neither is God the Grinch.  Hope lives a life of its own.  Hope has much more, I think, to do with presence – God’s presence with us in an exchange of relationship – a mercantile exchange almost. “I love you and I hope you love me. As daily vitamins can improve a body,  hope bears fruit in us – strength, joy, satisfaction, patience – even when all seems lost.  And it often does. Believe me.

But at the center of this ancient view of Hope in God, is mercy the way there is that lovely cream inside the center of a chocolate éclair.

“Mercy” in western speech, has developed a decidedly negative connotation.  We think of it as a paternalistic doling out of something desperately needed, and by a distant, masculine, arrogant God whose demeanor is rather too casual, forgetful and haughty.   But not so in our scriptures.  The prophet Hosea tells us that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  While Micah says God would have us to love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  And of course our roots in Judaism and our Semitic cousins in Islam all call God “Mercy” as his foremost name.

The American Heritage Dictionary sheds light on the nature of mercy as a molten core of hope.  ‘Mercy” comes from the ancient Etruscan word “merc” which is the root for commerce and merchant.  So, central to this idea of mercy is what?  Central to this idea of mercy is an exchange between two parties; each of whom has something to give and to gain – a desire, a longing if you will.  Let go of one thing and gain another.  Mercy is about relationship and its give-and-take between we and our God.

I shall not want.

We are a culture of want.  Even a culture of craving – which is “want” expanding just like cancer cells.

The Hebrew of this psalm is best translated as “I shall lack no good thing.” What is a “good thing?”  This psalm, in this Lent, asks “What really matters that I do not have?” What, at the hour of death, would I dare not lack? The answers aren’t clothes and furniture, titles and retirement packages, candlesticks and chalices, dishware or vacation rentals. When Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), The rich young man described himself as “good” he had money and possessions but he was heart-broken, begging Jesus for help.   He said “I keep the law.”  He asked about the next life but really, her was afraid in this one. What did Jesus say? “One thing you still lack.”

The one thing which you and I often lack, in the speed of life and possessions, power and lust for prestige, is intimacy with God. The only thing we lack is God and intimate time with God. Nothing else. God is our only abundance and our lust for possessions and the status we think comes with them, is simply a lust for a counterfeit God.  As Lent comes to its close, the mercy we want is who God is, not what God gives. So, to get the home to which the psalmist refers as he ends, we need to be in a mercantile exchange with God. There is commerce (“merc”) between God and we, his beloved ones.  God gives and gives and what God wants in return is to be “with” us.

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

Of what are you afraid?  I mean really afraid?  Is it financial collapse of our fragile systems or human body? Is it flood and storm?  Is it obscurity?  Is it loneliness?

There is the story of the little fish in a deep ocean who swam in a panic to his mother’s side.  “Mother, mother,” he cried, “that shark over there told me that without water, I would die a horrible death – I am afraid!  Where can I find this water Mother?!  You have to help me find it or we will surely die!”

Do we realize that what we desire is much more than the job or the house or even the cure – what we desire is God’s mercy – that is our hope and our home – our longing for presence of God. And like that little fishy, frightened by that mean shark – our life-long task is to come to the awareness that we are suspended in God’s mercy the way a fish is suspended in water, even while panic-stricken and searching for it. Our only home is God.

I may live or I may die.  I may have what I want or I may be asked to give it all away.  I may know the love of the person for whom I long or I may never find that person or I may have them ripped from me too early.  I may feel happy or I may feel sad – indeed any of us may have a lot to be sad about.  But Psalm 23 is calling us to let go of those groanings and step into the dark room of life blinded by God’s love.

In this present darkness we are being held by a vibrancy and light we cannot always see, a gentle harmony we cannot always hear, a succulence we cannot always taste, a vastness we cannot always feel, an intimacy we cannot always touch.  In God, we are finally and only “at home” than we can possibly conceive. It is not that the shepherd will lead you to home.  The shepherd is home. In Easter, may you sense that home has risen from the dead.

“A David Psalm

1-3 God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
4 Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.
5 You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
6 Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.”

Excerpt From: Eugene H Peterson. “The Message.”

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