Wednesday, January 02, 2008

NY Resolution: Letting the LORD be my Shepherd

Beginning the Year with Ps 23:1
In many urban places, a hurried life is part of a culture of getting lots of things done quickly. People do not simply say ‘As soon as possible’ preferring the short form ASAP. Pronouncing the abbreviation shortens it even more. At the traffic junction in a busy city, some people even define a ‘microsecond’ as the time between the traffic lights turning green and hearing the first horn from the rear vehicle.

Time for quiet conversations can be drowned in a sea of pushing and shoving. Even meetings can be held in a rush. If the planning, the scheduling and the arrangements are likened to traveling on the outside of a swirling whirlpool, the actual moment for dialogue can succumb to getting swallowed into the middle at a split second. A fear that I have is that the rising use of technological tools may have unwittingly decreased our ability to hold and develop a good conversation. Have we swapped intimacy with one another for ecstasy arising from our fascination with technological inventions daily? Can a technological generation hold their conversational sway without their modern gadgets?

Our technological devices may give us a feeling of supremacy over our time and traditional barriers. People are able to type and correct their typing much faster with modern word processors. Communications can be sent speedily via phone messaging, email, cellular phones and many different means. Games are easily available to help us ‘kill time.’ How will we know if technology has become an idol in our lives?

Playing Fast or Playing Strong?
My computer has a chess program where a preference setting can be used to adjust the skill level of the game to be played. At the minimal level are the words “Computer to Play Faster.” At the other end are the words “Computer to Play Stronger.” If I were to move the selection toward the ‘Stronger’-side, the computer will clobber my game in quick time. If I were to choose the ‘Faster’ side, my chances of winning increase significantly. If the computer plays faster, it will have less time to consider the permutations necessary. Grabbing the fastest tactic available, the computer rushes headlong toward the competition. Every move, subjected to the hasty time control, compounds the risks as the game progresses. On the other hand, if the computer is given the time to process every possible move, armed with its mass of computing prowess and storage capacity, it will be able to defeat its opponent speedily.

Likewise, if we choose to speed ourselves up, life in urban society can easily become a mass of disconnected point-to-point dashes. We rush to get each subsequent deed done. The more we get done, the more we think we are fulfilled. The faster we do things, the happier we feel when we clock a personal best time. (This might explain the popularity of self-help manuals on time management and various resources on efficient living.) Unlike children, the adult version of joining-the-dots or dashes activity, do not necessarily give a complete picture or a portrait. The relentless sprints from place to place, and the minute-by-minute busyness via fast-paced activities can trick us into thinking that we are accomplishing lots of meaningful things in less time. If not, they could resemble unwitting forms of ‘huffs-and-puffs’ against a stoic brick wall, never able to overcome the height of the obstacle of life’s unrelenting demands on our time and resources? We become an agent to speed others up rather than to pace one another to natural speed. Pushing one another in the name of competition is hardly ever helpful in helping one another discern their callings in life. When this happens we allow technology in the name of competitive advantage to enthrone itself in our hearts of discontent. However, all is not lost.

The Shepherd
In the Shepherd psalm, it is interesting to note the strong imagery of a quiet place and pasture before the soul is restored in verse 3.
Psa. 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Psa. 23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
Psa. 23:3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

We all need quiet moments to stay awake to our passions and our desires. We all need peaceful settings that keeps out the distractions and hurried activities. A hurried lifestyle tends to blur our abilities to discern the important from the urgent, to confuse our wise choices with foolish ones, and to jumble up the meaningful and the meaningless. The psalm begins with an affirmation that the LORD is our Shepherd, where one will lack nothing. It is with this state of contentment in the LORD that we will then be willing to be led out to greener pastures. Without this safe refuge and confidence in God, we will be vulnerable not only to the external demands on our time and resources, we can also succumb to our maimed sense of self-fulfilling, doing whatever our minds and eyes deem fit all the time. Like Judges, it is tempting that when there is no king, one tends to do whatever is right in one’s own eyes, leading to disastrous circumstances. (Judges 17:6)

I cannot imagine a Shepherd psalm that does not begin with an affirmation that the LORD is our Shepherd. Suppose we were to have a rushed person re-write Ps 23, it will be devoid of all the calming imagery that the original psalmist affords us. A widely available version for the busy Christian is as follows. Note that this is widely quoted like here, here and here.
The Lord is my Pacesetter, I will not rush.
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with stillness, which restores my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency, through calmness of mind;
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here.
His timelessness, His all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity
By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours,
And I shall walk in the peace of the Lord for ever.

Some of us may laugh it off. Personally, I do not like this version. Firstly, making the LORD our ‘pacesetter’ denigrates the Christian God to simply a device to maintain our velocity in life. Does pacesetting contain any of the care, the warmth and the love that a Shepherd exuberates? Secondly, making one stop and rest without reference to a place shows the shallowness of the understanding of true rest. Being human, we all need an appropriate place in order to achieve a state of rest. We cannot underestimate the importance of place. Good writers know where and when to find their most creative literary moments. Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer began inside a garage. Starbucks started with a single store, and even Nike was said to begin in a car boot. There is even a venture capitalist that calls themselves ‘’ recognizing that brilliant new ventures often began in a garage environment. For Christians, while on the one hand we can say that God is with us everywhere we go, we cannot deny that great moments with God are frequently in the quiet streams and towering mountains. When we embrace creation to contemplate the Creator, we are tending the earth at our very best. There are a lot of other points I can bring out, but suffice to say, that there are many things in life that cannot be compressed. Scripture is definitely not to be reduced in any way, even in a rushed culture. By diminishing Scripture, it is a telling sign that one has given in to some forms of idolatry.

My dear readers, Ps 23:1 calls us to seeing God as our Shepherd first before anything else. Let this awareness sink in deep until we are lost to our worldliness and wholly found in our identities in God. Then we will be willing to be led toward greener and quiet pastures. We will be eager to drink from the streams of living water. We will be well rested inside even as the outside world rushes by and pushes us along. Having this state of contentment keeps us awake to the things of God and sleepy toward the things of the world. Under the mighty shadow of God’s wings, we will have security, not available with metal detectors, bomb shelters or material abundance . Knowing and believing that the Lord is our Shepherd, we will not be deprived of things needful for fruitful living. Like the Israelites in the wilderness who survived 40 years with plain quail and manna, we can take comfort in the providence of God who promises us all things that we need according to his perfect time.

Is there a tip for living in this rushed culture? Perhaps I can throw one in. Expand on the Sabbatical principle of 6+1. Work six days, rest one day. Do that every week. This has to be repeated. It is the longest of all the ten commandments.


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