He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters”
This familiar verse conjures up memories of the paintings that are often found hanging in Sunday school classrooms. You know what paintings I’m referring to: The ones where Jesus is cradling a lamb in one arm while holding a curved shepherd staff in the other. He always seems to be surrounded by clean, white, doting sheep, standing ankle-deep in lush green grass next to a cheerful stream.
These images are charming and comforting, but they are also painfully inaccurate. On my first trip to Israel/Palestine, our guide provided us with a much clearer portrait of what shepherding meant to the author of our psalm. The Negev desert where David would have grazed his sheep is a far cry from the abundantly grassy meadows of Sunday school paintings. It is a desert after all. From time to time our bus would pass by a hill covered in sparse grass and we would see Bedouin shepherds grazing their flocks on it. Then miles would pass, miles of hills covered in nothing but dust and rock, before another hill would appear which sported the tiny patches of green.
“A good Shepherd,” our guide told us, “is a shepherd who can find grass for his sheep in the midst of a desert.”
What about the still waters? As other travelers could tell you, the climate in Israel is typically hot and dry, but my group had the opportunity to visit during the brief rainy season. It rained almost every day, soaking us to the bone and pushing our cheap tourist umbrellas to their limits. During this season, the wadis are suddenly filled with water. A wadi is a stream bed in the desert that is dry all year ‘round until the rainy season comes. During this season, all the water that falls on the hills is channeled down into the wadis and they burst violently into life, rushing angrily down the hills into the Dead Sea.
If a shepherd led his sheep to drink in a wadi, they would be dragged in and under. They would be carried along by the merciless current and smashed repeatedly against the rocks until their drowned and broken bodies reached the wadi’s destination.
“A good shepherd,” explained our guide again, “is a shepherd who can find still waters in the midst of a desert, from which his sheep can drink in safety.”
Lent invites us to journey into the desert. In the desert, Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning his ministry, and the Israelites wandered 40 years before entering the Promised Land. Now in Lent, we journey into “the desert” for 40 days before Easter. Here, the world is stripped of all pretenses. We are invited to see the world for what it is, and to see ourselves for what we are. Our world and our souls are deserts, thirsting and hungering for relief.
Our lives are not the pristine picture that Sunday School Jesus frolics through with his cute little lambs. In reality, we need a shepherd who will lead us through this desert and provide for us in the midst of the challenging landscapes of our lives.
The world around us offers us only cheap imitations of the guidance that we need. Like the wadis, our world is fast, loud, violent, and shallow. “Wisdom” comes to us in the form of asinine inspirational quotes set against generic backgrounds posted on Facebook. Our news comes to us in the quick, violent, and too-often deceptive form of clickbait articles. Our politicians incite us to anger with garbled sentences crammed into 140 characters and spit out onto the internet without an ounce of forethought.
Where in this desert are we to find silence, stillness, and the nourishment that we need? Too often, even our church services simply mimic or try to outshout the world’s noise. Our youth ministries and our worship services are always seeking to be louder, faster, and flashier. Is this all we have to offer each other and our world?
I believe that our good shepherd knows the way to these still waters, but first we must let him lead us away from the noise. We must learn to be still, to cease our activity, and know that we are not God. In the silence of our praying hearts, in the loving presence of true community, the wisdom of scripture, and the nourishment of bread and wine, our souls are fed and watered by the Spirit.
In this Lenten season we may see only desert, but God sees green pastures and still waters. May we trust and follow his leading, drinking deeply from the depths of stillness and peace, and may our souls be restored.