I was a small boy when I wrote my first song. It was summer. My dad was at work; my mom was home. The ice cream truck drove down our street during the hottest time of the day, the cheerful bell triggering salivating desperation for ice cream. Mom would give me the exact change so that I could purchase a little chunk of heaven frozen around a tongue depressor, otherwise known as a fudgsicle.
One afternoon, a neighborhood kid who had no money ran to the truck. I bought my fudgsicle and then spontaneously wrote my first song. Dancing in front of the empty-handed kid and waving my fudgsicle, I sang, “I have ice cream but you don’t.”
It was a short tune. I was a short monster.
Suddenly a large shadow eclipsed me and an adult hand jerked the fudgsicle out of my hand. I looked up at the beatific and smiling face of my mother. That’s when I discovered that she was also a songwriter. She borrowed my melody, but wrote her own lyrics.
“Now you don’t have ice cream either.”
I was embarrassed and furious and overmatched. I ran to the house, tears streaming down my face.
That was one of the best experiences of my childhood, even though I did not see its value at the time. My mother was not being mean; she was loving me.
We continue our study of Psalm 23 with verse 4. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
Palestinian wildernesses are dangerous places, even more so at night. In ancient times, shepherds applied harsh comfort using big sticks. But what is so comforting about a rod and a staff?
Shepherds wielded the rod to fight off enemies of the sheep, predators that craved mutton after sunset. But the sheep made the shepherd’s job challenging. Sheep wander. Sheep effortlessly expose themselves to dangers from which they cannot extricate themselves. The staff was a long extension of the shepherd’s arms, enabling the shepherds to impose their will over the sheep because the shepherds knew better than the sheep what they needed, where they had to go, and what would kill them.
The rod and staff never felt comforting in the moment. If the shepherd employed the rod, it meant the sheep were in immediate and deadly danger. If the shepherd employed the staff, it meant the sheep had wandered off, were stuck on stupid, and had to be forcibly guided back. The crook of that shepherd’s staff around the neck of a sheep was unpleasant, but it beat the alternatives.
A shepherd who cared nothing for the sheep would not use those two big sticks.
What does the shepherding metaphor teach us about God’s nature? Good shepherds loved the sheep, but they were not always nice. They were often blunt and direct. So was Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus was unbelievably loving, but He was not always nice. We limit and even cheapen God’s image when we decide God has to be nice. God is much better than nice.
Like sheep, we will follow our noses or our eyes or our ears or our mouths or our impulses or our urges or our hormones or our obsessions or our addictions. We will follow other people when they are compelling or seductive. We will follow our irrational fears. We will walk into trouble or danger.
A nice God is the last thing we need.
God loves us deeply enough to be direct, to be blunt, to protect us from ourselves, even when it is painful. The recovery movement calls this tough love. On that hot summer afternoon, my mother was not being mean; she was tough-loving me.
When our hearts pray, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me,” we are entering a healthy place with God. We can have confident trust in the Good Shepherd, who doubles up roles as the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29, 10:11). When our hearts pray, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me,” we are willing to be led, redirected, and pulled back. We are okay with God being aggressive, even hurting us, when that is the only way God can lovingly help us.
Maybe this is what the fear of the Lord is all about. We are in worshipful awe of God. We own our identity as sheep, and we embrace God’s identity as Shepherd. We have such holy reverence for God and such ardent trust in God that we fear no evil when life goes dark on us for a while.
Where in your life do you need the Good Shepherd to come on strong with a loving imposition of divine will? Have any habits or lifestyles put you in danger? Does your heart insist on wandering? I offer you this prayer.
“God in Christ, I WANT Your rod and Your staff to comfort me. I WANT You to protect me, even when the predator is also me. I accept that You can see in the dark even when I cannot see anything. I accept that You know and do what is best, even when I protest or resist. Please stay aggressive with me. And please remind me of this prayer when it is in my best interest for You to snatch the fudgsicle out of my hand.”
Maybe you don’t need to pray that last line, but you get the idea. And I hope that neighborhood kid has eaten plenty of ice cream over the years.
Grace and peace,
Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)