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Comfort From the Lord Doesn't Always Feel Comfortable

 
 

By Debi Russell
 
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Your rod and your staff they comfort me...." - Psalm 23:4
 
This very familiar part of Psalm 23 anchors much of the grief counseling I do. Grief and suffering can rightly be compared to a valley surrounded by fear and darkness, and we encourage those in suffering to look to the presence of the Lord as comfort in those times. And clearly, there is great comfort in knowing we do not walk through those dark places alone. Recently though, I have seen something new in these verses that has both challenged and encouraged me in my own suffering and in my perspective on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
 
I am not a farm girl–I am a proud suburbanite through and through. I feel stressed about any living situation where getting to a Target is "a trip" instead of an easy errand. I like all the convenience and options. So while considering the Lord as my Shepherd I had to step outside my natural experiences and do a little research.
 
A shepherd, if having any wisdom at all at the time in which this Psalm was written, would never ever be caught without his rod or staff. It was a multi purpose tool, offering both protection and direction for the sheep. Have you ever wondered what a shepherd did with his rod and staff? Probably there were other functions, but in thinking about how it pertains to the sheep here is what I learned:

The staff protected the sheep from outside attacks of wild animals and from the sheep themselves wandering off a cliff or getting lost

and

The staff kept the sheep from getting stuck or giving up and lying down on their journey until they were safe in green pastures.

But, guess what that help and protection felt like to the sheep? A poke in their hind parts to keep them moving or a swift jerk around their necks when they began to wander too close to the edge.The shepherd did not use his staff to pet the sheep and it most definitely did not feel comfortable. And yet David writes, the Lord's rod and staff comfort him? What comfort is there in being poked, prodded and yanked? None, in the moment, The comfort David refers to is in the knowledge that the Shepherd does what is necessary to keep the sheep safe, secure and moving forward through suffering to greener pastures.

On our journey, we often seek for the Lord to make us comfortable in our pain, when in reality, what we need is to keep moving forward. The valley of the shadow of death is no place to camp out, get comfy, and hang curtains! Depression, resentment, cynicism and self loathing all lurk in that dark place, and our good Shepherd will poke us from behind when we try to get too comfortable in those places. 

When we are suffering, it is easy to lose our way. There is immense comfort in knowing the Lord will keep us from wandering away from Him into danger, though often when His Word or a close friend confront our wandering hearts it feels like being yanked. Sheep do not know which way to go to get out of the valley. Sheep left to their sheep-selves will try to find the easiest or closest path. (I'm so much like a sheep!) Thankfully the Shepherd knows. He knows just where to guide the sheep and how much farther they need to stretch to make it out of the dark valley and back into abundance, where our cup overflows.

On the other side of suffering, we can rejoice, knowing no matter how many times our journey leads us back through a valley, the Lord will be with us! He will keep us moving forward and keep us with Him. We will not be abandoned or lost or stuck. Because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went before us in suffering at the Cross but also comes behind us to help as we suffer, we have hope even in the darkest of valleys. As the last verse of Psalm 23 says:

"Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

Posted by Debi Russell with

Cotton Candy Community: 2 Challenges for Life Together

When I see cotton candy at the circus or county fair it always appears so fun and attractive. I always want it. Why would I not? It’s colorful, fluffy, and smells like sugary goodness.

It doesn’t usually take long to remember the ugly truth: cotton candy is like eating air that tastes like skittles. Sure it leaves a taste in your mouth, but it is hardly fulfilling or sustaining.

Many of us have made developing community like eating cotton candy. We have false expectations of what it can provide us because it seems curated so well. Then, when we’ve consumed it, we find ourselves underwhelmed. Confronting these false ideas with the truth can put us on the right path with God and others.

Here are a couple of ways how:

Curating our lives prevents community; Communing with God and others promotes community.

Unless you work for a museum, curating shouldn’t be part of your daily life.

This is evidenced by how much time we spend managing optics. We share, both virtually and actually, only good news. We are prone to treat our conversations like job interviews. We work hard to present ourselves to others as our ideal selves, not our actual selves.

Could it be that we are afraid that if someone knows us as the hot mess that we really are then they won’t accept us? This pursuit of control over other people’s perceptions actually creates a barrier to letting people know who we really are.

Of course we are not as awesome as our social media posts boast.

Communing with God in his Word is a difficult practice for many of us because we’re reminded often of how not-awesome we really are.

We’re sinful….still. And we need to be reminded that our righteousness comes in the form of a man dying on a cross and raising from the grave, not from how well I’ve word-smithed my last comments or filtered that last photo.

We need people in our lives who will remind us of where our hope really comes from. It doesn’t come from us speaking good words about ourselves but through remembering the good Word spoken over us in Christ by his Spirit and through his people.

In the gospel we are reminded that God accepts us 100% through Jesus Christ. We should pursue a kind of community that reinforces this truth.

Consuming others in community kills; Cultivating relationships in the gospel breeds life.

You’re not a project, and God doesn’t view you like one, and you shouldn’t view yourself like that either.

You’re viewed as a son or daughter who God deeply loves in Christ (1 John 3:1a) and is made in his image. So your need for community is not just because you’re a person with sin and problems who needs some help. This is true, but it is not the reason you need community.

Thinking that I’m a project leads me to treat my relationships with other people as transactional. In short, we become consumers when we think of ourselves as "projects." I give you some time and you give me some help. We hang out and you help me work through my problems. Over time this process ends up breaking down your relationships instead of building them up.

The real reason we need community is because we are made in God’s image. He has designed our interdependence upon one another to be a reflection of his nature within the Trinity. Self-giving, honor exalting, deeply loving relationships are cultivated by being proactive, not reactive.

Cultivating gospel-centered relationships means drawing out the truth and beauty of God’s character in other people. We become others-centered rather than self-centered.

So what does this mean? Communing and cultivating in the context of relationships is hard. It takes time. It’s messy. And all that is OK.

I think many times of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-11 as I reflect on what community ought to look like. It takes work, deep love, affection, opening yourself up to others, and even conflict.

My prayer is that our church will become the kind of people that quickly recognizes our tendencies to pursue a cotton-candy community rather than a gospel-centered one. But I also pray we spur one another on to love and good works that point us to our true satisfaction that is only found in Jesus Christ.

Posted by Dustin Walker with

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