This past week I compiled a grocery list and headed off to our local grocery store. It never fails to surprise me—those empty shelves of cleaning products, yeast, baking supplies, and paper goods. Some joke about the shortage of toilet paper, but I was on the hunt for hydrogen peroxide. The shelf was empty—and not just hydrogen peroxide but rubbing alcohol, even witch hazel.
In our country, we are not used to seeing shortages. We are used to getting whatever we need, for the most part, for whenever we need it. And so, when we see shortages of something that we desire, we might fret, worry, hoard, or go into “hunter-gatherer” mode and visit other stores to ensure our supply.
And yet, we might sit with the discomfort of not getting exactly what we want when we want it. For most people in the world, our discomfort is their everyday reality. What we can understand emotionally and spiritually when we experience the empty shelves at the grocer or on-line is something that perhaps we cannot easily see when we are used to getting what we want, whenever we want it.
So today’s psalm may strike us a bit differently during this pandemic. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” we hear in the very first verse and if we haven’t become numb to the well-known phrasing, we might wonder about that part of not wanting right after the confident declaration that God is our shepherd. What did the Psalmist have internally that allowed him or her to say, “I shall not want…”? What fullness or abundance of spirit or deep trust goes beyond our human needs of the moment or our unrelenting desires for possessions or necessities? What does God provide that Amazon and curbside delivery does not? What lack could rightly make us more bereft than any empty shelf? And how can we, ourselves, feel as FULL, as content, and as cared for as the psalmist?
Imagine trusting God so much so that an empty shelf is an opportunity to find satisfaction in what one already has. Imagine trusting God so much that one’s daily bread blessed, broken, and shared and is sufficient for the moment and the day—manna that does not keep, but manna that is enough for the time at hand. Imagine a God who knows your stress, your tendency to overwork and under-rest, and the fact that you are given to anxiety and uncertainty. Imagine this God taking you by the hand in the midst of unemployment, tragedy, and plunging retirement accounts and leading you to calming waters and rest amid your weariness and worry.
To say that this God prepares a table for each of us in the presence of our enemies—whether that enemy is a person, a troubling circumstance, threatening diagnosis, or a nasty virus—is to say that God provides both peace and nourishment when all that would appear to destroy you lingers close-at-hand. To walk with this Shepherding God is to drink in that kind of providing– or providence– and to experience that kind of trust, where enemies may be nearby and threatening, but they cannot terrorize. Walking through the darkest valley of despair and death does not create runaway fears and foreboding, but instead reaffirms a trust that we do not walk alone in our circumstances. We are guided both in life and death, sorrow and hardship.
But honestly, there are days when I—and maybe you also– struggle with trusting God THAT MUCH. We like to have control. We like to decide for ourselves how to define what is scarce and what is abundant. We like to think that we can provide for ourselves, thank you very much, and we pride ourselves on our independence, rather than our interdependence.
I suspect that one of the reasons why Psalm 23 is so often recited and so well-known is that it is clear statement of the trust to which we yearn and seek. Meaning, it isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing—that we trust God and that trust is always a given. In a world that can be both chaotic and beautiful, human beings fluctuate between trusting themselves too much and trusting God not enough. It is rare when our human experience doesn’t ultimately shake that trust for a moment or a season. That is why trust in God’s goodness and peace is something that is gradually built over time as we choose daily to resist the despair that would have us focus on what is missing instead of what is altogether present. Building trust occurs as one broadens one’s perspective and chases away any number of fears with the very real promises of God being embodied in human life. As the writer Hugh Prather has said, “Today there is nothing to decide… A thousand times today, I will fall back into the arms of God.1
When I first learned to drive, I used to have a scary sensation. It is hard to explain, but I would fear that the road wouldn’t physically be there. So for example, I would be going up a hill in the dark and I would feel my heart beating rapidly as I wondered if the road would “rise to meet me,” so to speak. The closest thing to a similar kind of experience would be on a roller coaster as you approach the top. For a moment, there is this sensation that one teeters on an abyss and that the track or the rail won’t actually be there when you begin your descent. It is an unsettling feeling, yet many live with this kind of uncertainty and fear daily. The fear that the road or the guidance or the “thing that will hold” won’t be there. Psalm 23 is a direct rebuttal from our spiritual ancestors of that kind of feeling. It is a poem of reassurance to soothe the soul when one is teetering on what seems to be an abyss of circumstance.
As I got better at driving and more familiar and trusting of my own responses and of the road ahead, that strange feeling subsided. In some ways, part of our participation in worship is to help us to trust “the Way” when we can’t physically see it or touch the road ahead. We are building our muscles of trust, widening our perspective, and learning to see an empty shelf as something other than our desires not being met in the moment. It is a strengthening of our understanding that our tables are set and cups overflow even when it would seem that scarcity abounds.
I will end with a quote by Rick Jarow, who writes in Alchemy of Abundance,
“Abundance is learning to trust life. It is reality lived fully — being conscious, present, and whole. Therefore, the quality of your attention is the genuine measure of abundance, and it is your greatest capital asset in any situation. What we come to understand and affirm is that even through the most difficult circumstances of life, abundant beauty and richness may be found.
“It is our faith in the goodness and wisdom of things that allows us to work our way through life’s darkest moments. In this way, abundance is also faith in the basic goodness of life. It is saying ‘yes’ to all that we can know of life — including the suffering that surrounds us. It is also saying ‘yes’ to that which we do not know, to open and accept the unknown with grace. A sense of abundance gives us the freedom to participate fully in our lives by doing what we can to assist others.
And then Jarow adds this, “If we do not ourselves feel rich, how can we give to others what has been given to us? In this way, abundance becomes the rainbow shining through the storm, the promise of our divine destiny.”2
Sisters and brothers, remember that search for hydrogen peroxide that I mentioned? Yesterday, my neighbor came over and kindly and spontaneously offered me some of her own.
This week may you grow in trusting God daily for your needs and for your life even in the midst of your troubles, and may you be blessed to see your cup running over when life hands you an empty shelf.