Good Shepard Sunday – Psalm 23
April 25, 2010
April 25, 2010 Good Shepherd Sunday
Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church
Guest speaker – Deborah Hage
I think one of the reasons why this psalm is so beloved is because of the love it expresses. The love the writer feels from the shepherd is clear…yet the word love is not used…not once. We talk a lot about love here. We sing a lot about love here. Love for our neighbor, love for God, love for each other. God’s love for the world. God’s love for us. We sing and talk about love in a variety of ways every Sunday. Some of you may remember Pastor Rich’s admonition to the kids when he would quiz them during confirmation or when they gathered around him for a message just for them…… “If you ever do not know the answer to any question I ask, just say love and you will be right.” Yet Psalm 23 is about love and it is not said once. How do we know, then that this is about love? We know because love is a way of doing not a way of talking. Love is a way of acting and interacting.
An infant cries and mom does not say, “I love you” and keep on going about her business. She picks the child up, rocks the child, feeds the child, smiles at the child, touches the child. She could be cooing “My purple toed cabbage head” and the child will still feel loved because of the tone of voice, the look in the eye, the smile on the lips. While learning how to ride a bike the child falls off and skins up his legs….Dad does not call out, “I love you,” and just stand there. Dad goes to the child, touches the wound gently, holds the child close. The love is felt to the very core without it being said.
As a child and family therapist I have learned that the feeling we call love is actually due to a series of events that occur in the brain as a result of very specific stimuli being present. I used to give a series of talks in Pat Foote’s health classes when she taught at the high school. The topic was early childhood development and the importance of attachment to the infant and young child. As a way of illustrating the behavioral elements that create attachment I would describe how adolescents begin a courtship dance. I would ask, “If you want to get to know someone in the school that you find attractive better, what is the first thing you do?” Some girl would quickly state, “You look at him.” Right, if he looks away then the relationship is not going anywhere as the originator of the look will feel rejected. If he looks back then you can go to the second step, which is…….? Again, a girl would answer, “You smile. If he doesn’t smile back forget about it. Not to return a smile is to project rejection. If he does then the relationship begins to look like it might go somewhere. Step 3 is to share a few words. The words are not the point. Anything can be said to gain attention. If there is no retort forget about it. Step 4 is to find a way to touch. A girl will typically innocently brush up against the young man. A boy will typically hit her or rough house. Either way, a relationship is forming. Clearly the girls are all over understanding this process intuitively. The boys are clueless. Out of their league. If they have been engaged in a courtship dance they are stumbling through it and accidentally getting it right often enough to learn something for the future. The girls are much more planful. They tend to know exactly what they are doing to engage a young man’s interest and attention. So…what happens in the next step? Typically the teens share some sort of food….something sweet, rich. You don’t send carrots on Valentine’s Day.
As each one of these adolescent interactions is completed neurotransmitters in the brain flood the body with endorphins and serotonins…..chemical messengers that release a tease of pleasure. That rush of pleasure is connected to the person who is associated with the release of the neurotransmitter and the resulting feeling is called “love”. How dry to reduce it to a chemical release in the brain due to a very predictable and creatable series of actions. However, that is the neurological principle…..very simply put.
So what do we have in this psalm? The shepherd is totally present. Providing everything needed in abundance. He looks at his sheep, they look back at him. Endorphins flow. The eyes are the windows to the soul. When an infant is born his focal point is only about 8 inches in order for him to focus just on the mom’s face as she cradles him in her arms. Fill his vision with her smile. He has just experienced the traumatic trip down the birth canal and he is placed in his mother’s arms, they gaze at each other, and in that moment all of the pain of the birth is forgotten. At that instant mom and infant are one. They become engulfed in each other’s vision and all they see is the other part of them self. They float in their own world, everything else is blocked out. Endorphins flow. I worked in a home for teen unwed mothers. Part of my job was to teach the young mothers how to attach to their infants. I could get the women to hold their baby and hold the bottle, however, they could not get the importance of looking at the baby while they fed him. It was simply not entertaining enough for them. Instead they talked to the other mothers feeding their babies or watched TV. All the baby got to see was nose hairs. No connection there! No endorphins there!
Mom hugs her newborn. Strokes the tiny limbs, counts the tiny fingers and toes, caresses the ears. The skin is the largest organ of the body and is the largest receptor of both pain and pleasure. Every time mom and dad touch their little one a thrill of pleasure floods throughout the system as endorphins are released. Mom and dad get an intense rush of pleasure just from stroking their infant. As time passes mom smiles and baby smiles and the world around them cease to exist. Mom & Dad coo…..nonsense words….my mother would say something like, mon petit chou chou, which I later found out means My little cabbage……she must have overheard it somewhere as she certainly did not speak French…..and the baby responds to their voice. Not the words but the quality of tone and volume. Tiny receptors in the ears connect the soft sounds to the muffled sounds heard in the womb and the child relaxes in the safety and comfort of the familiar. Endorphins flow. With every smile, look, touch, soft word, drop of sweet milk endorphins are released from the brain and the mother and child are flooded with the pleasure of the relationship, basking in each other’s presence. The word love is irrelevant to the experience.
The shepherd calls to the sheep, come lie in this green pasture, come drink from these still waters, let me restore your soul, and the sheep don’t know what he is saying, but they get the message of love and concern. They get such a deep feeling of love and concern that even when storms thunder and night falls, they look to the shepherd, knowing that this shepherd who watches over them can be trusted to stay close by even in the valley of the shadow of death. The trust in the presence of the shepherd will overcome the fear of the situation. Endorphins flow. The shepherd prepares a feast for them….not simply a meal…but a feast. The feast is prepared in the presence of the foes, not in order to mock them….but to invite those who would be enemies to come into a relationship. Look, there is enough for you and me. There is enough for all of us. Sufficient food is a sign of abundance and depresses feelings of fear and anxiety. Food causes good feelings to flow. What do you think state banquets are about, when the president invites the leader of another country to dinner in his honor? Rich food, fatty food, sweet food, encourages relationships as feelings of contentment and good will flow out of the satisfied stomach. Those endorphins again. To have a guest in the home without offering them food or drink is potentially insulting.
The relationships we create in our family are based on the same simple behaviors, repeated over and over again until they are second nature, just as the relationship of the shepherd with the sheep is second nature.
During Lent we read the following congregational prayer together out loud:
Generous God, we have been nourished and renewed in your holy meal. Send us now into the world in love. Through our response of devotion draw us to you and to our neighbors, that we may break bonds of injustice, feed the hungry, and set the oppressed free.
Whoa! I was overwhelmed by the commitment required in those lines. We are committing to breaking the bonds of injustice, feeding the hungry and setting the oppressed free? How in the world are we going to do all that? That is so overwhelming! All those things need to happen by someone, maybe even one of us….but that commitment is far beyond what the shepherd is calling us to do. The shepherd is calling us to create daily walk relationships with first and foremost those we see every day! Those we are in close interconnected relationships with…..that is …….the members of our families. We shepherds and our sheep.
So what is the shepherd, practically calling us to do! Love our families and close relationships. Out of that love will ripple the love for the world and all those cosmic values of devotion to neighbors, breaking the bonds of injustice, feeding the hungry and setting the oppressed free. But it has to start with us and our shepherding relationships. It starts with us, each in the walls of our own homes and offices. It starts with eye contact……looking at each other. Pulling our eyes away from the newspaper, computer and tv screens and looking at the speaker when we are addressed. I am not a big one for theatres and rarely go to movies but my son Matthew invited me to see Avatar with him. Beautiful film. One of the most profound lines is spoken by the heroine to the hero, “I see you”. I see you. What an amazing line. I see you. I see you. I am not merely looking at you when you talk but I am listening to you with my whole heart. I see you and what you are talking about is important. I see you with all of your faults and imperfections and I still love you. You don’t have to pretend around me to be something you are not. I see you, really see you, and love you. To not look at someone when they are talking is to cast a shadow over their very soul. Instead of serotonin and endorphins flooding the brain cortisol courses its way throughout the linkages. Cortisol, in sufficient quantities, causes stress to the heart and other body systems. Cortisol contributes to cankor sores, upset stomachs, painful intestinal diseases. The absence of welcoming, affirming eye contact can begin a flood of pain for the person treated so dismissively that they are not even worth looking at. Those are not the eyes of the shepherd.
Smiling is next. The smile affirms the total worth of the other person. It communicates acceptance, warmth, affection. It is visible across the room and lights up conversations. Simple, spontaneous smiling. Businesses train their employees to greet entering customers with a smile as they know that people need to feel welcome. Many hire workers to just greet…..Walmart…..Best Buy…..They know that the customer who feels welcomed will return. Here in our church home the same is true. We can have the best music, the most moving sermons, the most stimulating children’s programs, but if visitors are not greeted with a smile and a hand shake they will leave feeling that we are a cold, unwelcoming place to worship. We are not a family they would want to join. Physically reaching out to guests creates a feeling of warmth and acceptance that means more to a visitor then any song or sermon about love. On the other hand, returning a smile with a scowl or ignoring the welcoming embrace of the smile altogether diminishes the other person’s sense of self, sense of worth. Suddenly the other person realizes how unimportant they are to you and pain, physical and psychological pain can result. That is not the look of the shepherd.
Conversation, sharing the events of the day, thoughts, feelings. Teaching moments. Clear up misconceptions, misperceptions. Consoling, comforting, engaging, joyful, laughing, telling jokes. These all cause a rush of good feelings between the participants. The sheep hear my voice and they follow me. Angry words, loud words, rude words, sarcasm, on the other hand create cascades of ill will and resentment. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is not true. They are not the voice of the shepherd. Words have the capacity to lift up and tear down. For good or ill they float on the air, reverberate, long after the sound waves are gone. People replay praise in their heads over and over again….Criticism can have the same effect. Our son Robert, adopted with fetal alcohol syndrome, was an addict and an alcoholic. He broke into our house and stole from us to pay for his habit. One day he came over to the house with some of his buddies and I became angry with him that he would expose our family to them. Very angry words were exchanged. He ended up saying something like, “If that is how you feel then I am leaving and not coming back.” I replied something to the effect that if that was how he was going to treat us I didn’t want him coming back. We yelled back and forth as he stomped out of the house with his buddies. Well….he didn’t come back. We didn’t hear from him for over six months. He was just 17. We worried and grieved. But mostly I replayed the angry tape of our parting words to each other in my head. For months and months I heard myself say over and over again “You don’t need to ever come back.” I regretted them the instant I said them but I could not take them back and they hung in the air for months. I vowed I would never, ever have the parting words I say to anyone be words of anger. I vowed I would end every conversation with a positive as I knew those would be words that would hang in the air between us until we met again. Namygal Tashi, a friend from Nepal, was visiting, and he used his English dictionary repeatedly. Finally he asked me, “What is this Luvya. I can’t find it in my dictionary.” Well, that is how I end conversations with dear friends and family. Luv ya. Luv ya. Now that is something that I can have floating in the air and through time. Those are the words of the shepherd.
Touch, hugs, massage, back rubs, tousled hair……endorphins sweep through the body. Affectionate touch is wordless and satisfying to both the giver and the receiver. Sitting next to the parent while a book is read, getting hair brushed, assisting in holding a pencil correctly, pushing on a swing, touch comes in a variety of ways all day long. Gentle or deep, quick or slow, loving touch is guaranteed to seal a bond between parent and child and between husband and wife. The unexpected hug is pure pleasure. Harsh touch, spanking, slapping, shoving, grabbing roughly, pushing, unwelcome touch, on the other hand releases neurotransmitters of pure pain. That is not the touch of the shepherd.
Food – Clearly food means more to our bodies then physical survival. A wonderful meal, well prepared, cements relationships. Paul and I have missed the presence of some special friends in our lives. In order to let them know how important they are to us we invited them out to dinner. We had a wonderful time. It was good to reconnect, talk about our children, old times. Families need that reconnection every day. The best time is during meals. A tv on during meals robs the family of the communion aspect of meal. A bunch of people shoving food in their mouth while staring in the same direction does not arouse endorphins! Food, lovingly prepared, fills the home with warm smells that penetrate to the very core of the brain. I used to start our breadmaker in the middle of the afternoon so that when the kids would walk in the door after school they would be greeted by the smell of fresh bread, slathered with butter! Yum….Nothing is as lovin’ as somethin’ from the oven! Those endorphins again that create a sense of ease and comfort in the inhabitants. Fast food grabbed on the way home causes little endorphin release. It is not the sweet grass and water, the food of the shepherd.
This all takes time! It takes focus. It requires that we stop our braggable ability to multi task. Cassie and I were walking around Rainbow Park. She was playing a game with the wind, pretending it was blowing her forward or blowing her backward, blowing her over, blowing her down the hill. We were both laughing at her antics as I would dash hither and thither to save her from the wind. A woman walked by with her daughter, about the same age as Cassie. I heard her say on her cell phone that she was walking in the park with her daughter. I wanted to scream at her, “No you aren’t. You are walking in the park with your cell phone and your daughter is dragging along.”
Communicating love in the beautiful, meaningful, wordless way of the shepherd for his sheep takes time….lots of time. It takes time and focus….time to focus. When the shepherd is with his sheep they are his only concern. He is not talking on his cell phone, answering email, facebooking on the computer, watching the news on the TV, ……or soaps….or reality shows…..or sports…..the TV is off. He is with his sheep and giving them his attention. In our families that might translate into playing a board game, putting together a puzzle, taking a walk. I would take a leisurely walk around our neighborhood in the evening with the kids and we just chatted. Nothing important…..just chatted…..yet, it was very important. People today spend more time in meaningless verbal communication with people with whom they have meaningless connections then in meaningful verbal and non verbal communication with people with whom they have meaningful, life long, important connections. I am going to say that again. People today spend more time in meaningless verbal communication with people with whom they have meaningless connections then in meaningful verbal and non verbal communication with people with whom they have meaningful, life long, important connections. Facebook….. vs table conversation. Text messaging vs lingering good night rituals.
The cell phone is the biggest offender. Anyone can dial our number at random and we accept their call no matter what we are doing with our significant others…..reading, talking, eating, playing games, doing homework…..all stops while we attend to a random pull on our time and focus. How dismissive, disrespectful to the person we are with! I see parents in restaurants with their children, couples in restaurants with their significant others…….one person is talking on the phone and the other is picking silently at the food on their plate. What is that about!?!?!?!!? Where is the shepherd? I have a cell phone. The ringer is on when I am available, truly available. When I am not the ringer is off. That is what voice messaging is for! I tell everyone, “Do not dial my number unless you are ready to leave a message. I will get back to you.” I log into my contact list almost everyone who calls me so I know whether or not that number is from someone who needs my immediate attention or it can wait until I am done with the relationship I am already engaged in. I screen my calls! If Cassie and I are playing the piano the White House could call and I would not answer. Do I verbally say to Cassie, “I am not answering that call because I am spending time with you?” or….do I non verbally communicate to her how important she is to me by not answering the phone? Or….Do I let her know by spending time with her and giving her the respect of my attention?
The good shepherd was good because he communicated love without saying it. He spent time with his sheep. He looked at them and saw them. He smiled at them and watched for their smile back. He talked with them and heard them. He touched them and was touched by them. He fed them. He spent time with them. We are the shepherds in our spousal relationships, our work relationships, our family relationships. If we are to heed the model of the shepherd then we must take the time and dedicate the focus in our families, marriages and jobs to look at each other, smile with one another, touch each other, talk to and with each other, feed each other….. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He restores my soul. We are the shepherds in our families and relationships. Our interactions with others have the potential to restore, or diminish, their very souls. Just as we look to Jesus to be our Good Shepherd, may we be Good Shepherds in our families, marriages and jobs.