Scripture readings: Psalm 23, and John 10:14-16
The Kent coastline is a 350 mile stretch of picturesque chalky white cliffs, sandy beaches and shingle bays. My favourite beach for walking the dog can be found by the Reculver Towers and Roman Fort near Herne Bay. There, sandstone cliffs separate a mixed shingle and sand beach from the green fields that lead away from the shore into the distance.
After a day of work and on a calm summer evening, it is the perfect place to meditate on the words of Psalm 23. Standing on the grass the words “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” are met within and without by thought and experience. You can see the green pastures and close your eyes to form a picture of them in your mind, then open your eyes to look out across the ocean, and as the golden glow of a setting sun gently dances upon calm waters, the words “He leads me besides still waters,” have a tangible sensibility. Listening to the calming sound of the waves gently breaking along the shore, God’s creation and His words penetrate deeply into the soul. Away from the hustle and bustle of the world, His words, time, and life entwine. The voice of the Good Shepherd becomes a very present reality.
‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me,’ imbues this sense of presence. The Lord is with us.
But the Psalms teach us what it means to be human, and this sense of presence is not continuous, and often through the course of life we may feel alone and abandoned. In fact, when the suffering Jesus cries out on the cross the words of Psalm 22 ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’ I am convinced, this is the point at which His experience is the most human – for this sense of absence, of being separated by a great distance from the mountain top – far from His light – in the deep darkness of the valley, the lowest point of the earth – in the shadow of temptation and death.
So, to be human is to experience this ebb and flow of a sense of absence and presence. As sensory beings we often rely on our own senses and experiences to guide us –it is easy to feel when times are good we are blessed, but when times are hard we wonder where God is. Our emotions are tied to our experiences and to our sense of truth and reality.
We question, we doubt, but it is through our honesty, and our sharing; through our relationships, and our Christian communities that we are given the strength to hold on to our faith. But the reality is God never leaves us, He is always there. In the Gospel of St John, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will live with us and in us, teach us and guide us. Through the mystery of the Trinity, the Good Shepherd is always present. He does not abandon us.
‘I shall not want,’ or ‘I lack nothing,’ are the same side of a coin. We want what we do not have. Wanting is therefore based on a perception of absence, of what we believe is missing from our physical reality. We often experience love in this manner – as a kind of craving to possess an object or person that we do not have.
We all have an innate desire for connection, to be present with an other. We are after all made in the image of God, who is Himself a community of being. We were not made to be alone, our very identity is known only by the relationship of one to another. Physical and authentic connection becomes our bridge from imagination to reality – our link between mind and matter, between what is seen and unseen. But wanting is about taking, and Love is about giving.
So in order to love, we do not desire to take and possess, but instead to be with and to give. To be with an other in relationship is about walking alongside them. About journeying together. A shared relationship exists in a state of perpetual balance – each one, always moving outward of themselves, tempers the other – and a kind of dynamic equilibrium is reached.
If love is a giving of ourselves to another, it requires a kind of heroism, it requires courage. ‘Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.’ The protection and faithfulness of the true shepherd allows us to rest in His presence without fear. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ To sacrifice the most precious gift of our life transcends our nature – that chasing of what is good for ourselves and our neighbour – because it removes the self completely. The greater the letting go of ourselves, the greater the fullness and completeness of our love for one another.
If God is Love, then the Trinitarian relationship must be in a perpetual state of being Love. If Love is all things that ‘work’ together for each other, then love is an action, an outward sign of an inward reality. The sacrament of the Eucharist is a participation with the greatest action of Love. Love itself must therefore be the ultimate participation with the Divine, and it is only in love that we can reach a perfection of the image of God.
If we walk in the paths of righteousness – our lives give meaning to God. He is visible, His gentleness, patience, peace, His love is all seen in us and through us. He is our banner in every relationship we make – be that with partner, family, friends, with communities, with the world.
‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’ The banquet is symbolic of the equity of God – that in this life we will sit down to eat beside friends and enemies. Yet the favour of God prevails upon those who love Him. God’s goodness works behind the scenes for His purpose of love. Our endurance and our suffering for His names sake, will be rewarded – not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
‘Our cup overflows.’ We do not lack. He is with us – now – in this place – in every place.
We dwell in the presence of God, and we can find Him, and hear His voice when we find that place of rest and peace within us. Peace, like beauty, is not given to us by the soothing sounds or sights of nature – but is again generated within. Peace is the sensation of belonging to the present, to that moment in the place where we are. We must bring ourselves home to the moment, to that everlasting now – and it is there that we find Him – we find His goodness and His love present and alongside us for the length of our days.