Rosh Hashanah, we know, is the beginning of a ten-day period of soul searching that concludes with Yom Kippur. It is a time for Teshuvah, for turning, and therefore it’s hard, the questions we ask ourselves are hard. As the reading goes,
For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn.
It means the breaking of old habits.
It means admitting that we were wrong and this is never easy.
It means losing face,
it means starting all over again and this is always painful.
Substitute “fear-provoking” for “painful” and we are well on our way towards my topic tonight. Soul-searching triggers all sorts of difficult emotions in us, and one of them is most certainly fear.
Happily, the tradition of Judaism does not just trigger fear in us and that’s that. It also offers precious resources that help us know fear and soften it.
One of these is the immortal psalm that goes, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The 23rd Psalm. Feel free to say it with me:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’ sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
From these immortal words, we can learn so much about fear…
Now, part of the challenge of understanding the 23rd Psalm (or any other piece of scripture) is achieving a historical grasp of what’s really going on. The past is truly a foreign country—they do things differently there—but too often we forget this; too often we can find ourselves rejecting something because it does not make instant sense to our modern American sensibilities. Bring an intolerant, snap-judgmental attitude like this to the Hebrew scriptures, and we’re always going to miss the good stuff.
So: the 23rd Psalm: its largest meanings about fear are ultimately informed by the practice of shepherding in the ancient Middle East. Take, for example, that evocative line, “You anoint my head with oil.” Writer W. Phillip Keller, who is familiar with sheep herding in the Middle East and who was himself a sheep herder and sheep rancher, says that in the summer time, hordes of insects will emerge with the warm weather. “Sheep,” he says, “are especially troubled by the nose fly…. For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush…. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself…. And so, at the very first sign of flies among the flock, [the shepherd] will apply an antidote to their heads…. Once the oil is applied, there is an immediate change in behavior. The sheep will start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”
Or again, consider another line of the psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” W. Philip Keller explains by saying that “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. And so, the greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move.”
Now press pause for a moment. We have before us the image of flies crawling on sheep and driving them into destructive behaviors; and we also have the image of sheep stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills until the land is ruined. Both are powerful images of what happens when people are challenged to come clean about their role in causing a problem or are threatened with losing face, breaking old habits, starting over again. Often what happens is an explosive reaction going in the opposite direction. Fear thoughts swarm like a horde of insects, and the unfortunate manner of coping is to hold on to what one stands for with triple the passion. Don’t break the pattern but reinforce it. Scapegoat the poor, scapegoat the gays, scapegoat “Black Lives Matter.” Punish the victim, even as you pretend that the victim is you. Destructive behaviors all—equivalent to beating one’s head against a tree or a rock or a post—because the fear has been mishandled.
This is also true when we talk about people getting stuck in a rut. The spreading contagion of fear locks communities and cities and nations into rigid habits and patterns. The relationship between the political states of Israel and Palestine is one tragic example of this. Another is the lock-step of a consumer-oriented society afraid to give up on its unsustainable ways, afraid to change. Sheep, stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills … until the land is ruined.
For myself, all I can say is, I relate. I have an inner sheep. Some people have an inner child; I have an inner sheep. And I admit this sheepishly, since fear doesn’t seem to have the same dignity that grief has, or anger. Fear is just for scaredy-cats.
All I can say in response is … BAA.
I’ve got an inner sheep and that’s that.
And listen to something else W. Philip Keller has to say: “The strange thing about sheep is that it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless [they are free from fear]. As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger from dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears or other enemies, the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run.” That’s my inner sheep! It’s hard to admit, because ours is a culture that shames people for feeling fear. But there it is.
How many of you have an inner sheep too? Fact is, it’s painfully aware of its vulnerability. Life puts a big target on our foreheads. Bad things could happen any time to us, to our families, to anyone and anything we love. And in case we happen to forget, the media dutifully reminds us about all the dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears, and other things that are out there, out to get us. So our poor inner sheep: constantly on guard, constantly ready to run, constantly ragged and worn down, not fresh like they need to be if in fact they do encounter adversity and hope to have a truly creative, effective response.
The 23rd Psalm is powerful because, in part, it helps us own up to the fact that we have an inner sheep that needs intentional tending. Without that, it can act destructively, towards others and towards itself. It needs oil rubbed on its head; it needs to be led to new pastures; it needs soothing to release it from constant free-floating anxiety. That’s what it needs.
And so we turn to the figure of the shepherd. The shepherd who does all this for our inner sheep, and more. Who is this shepherd?
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” says the psalm, “I fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd is whatever goes with us into even the scariest places—and note especially the image of the rod and staff. W. Philip Keller says that for practicing shepherds, “The rod is a symbol of [the shepherd’s] strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation…. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch…. [In addition to this, the] good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see if all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.”
Who or what plays this role in your life? Helps hold you together as you face your mistakes? Helps you bear your shame and your sorrow even as it encourages you and never lets you forget that you are created in the image of God and you have worth and dignity that is inherent and permanent and un-eraseable? And when you DO start to forget this—the one who throws the club and you hear the whistle and it reigns you in?
One form the shepherd can take is activity that calms—activity that makes it more likely for us to face our fears without blindly reacting to them, or banishing them, or numbing them. A moment of deep breathing. An hour of watching Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show because the laughter gets us unstuck. A workout at the gym. Whatever calm us down, relax us, helps us regain perspective….
Another form the shepherd can take is a certain quality of relationships—the quality of vulnerability. Without it, we know what can happen. Our fears turn into anger, and all of a sudden people who care for each other are playing a version of Mortal Kombat. Know what I’m talking about? “Why can’t you listen to me?” one partner cries. “Why can’t you respond to my feelings?” The other counters, “Why can’t you accept me as I am? Why can’t you see all the things I do to please you?” Portrait of a couple at an impasse: portrait of a couple arguing the same argument for what seems like forever. Inner sheep, stuck in a rut, the earth ruined….
But the angry words are just a symptom of something deeper, of fears unfelt and lying beneath the surface. Only through vulnerability are we open to acknowledging them, and through acknowledgement comes healing. To that couple playing Mortal Kombat, we might say, “If you could just pause when you are about to say something angry, and search deeper to see the fear beneath. And then—give voice to that fear instead. Share your fears. Say, “When you don’t respond to me emotionally, I feel afraid that you aren’t there for me, and I’m just free floating.” And to this, reply, “When you criticize me, I’m afraid that you’ve lost all respect for me.” Share your fears with each other, rather than going for the throat.
When people learn to do this, hearts that are hard begin to soften. Speaking our fears directly to each other can lead us beside the still waters, restore our souls, help us find the right paths.
We want the shepherd to come into our lives. Our inner sheep need it. And yet another way is through spiritual community like this one.
This morning, one piece of the service was “the ritual of atonement,” and every voice in this space said and sang these words:
For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
It felt like the shepherd’s rod opening my inner sheep’s fleece, examining me for signs of parasites or disease. And not just me but everyone because everyone needs forgiveness. We are all in the same boat. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. Because what else can we do?
Tonight we invoke the shepherd, through our words and our song. The shepherd is among us right now…
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me.”
May all of us experience shepherding through our personal relationships and through this congregation. But there can be yet another dimension to shepherding, and this particular dimension won’t appeal to all of us in this wonderfully diverse community, but to some of us it’s crucial. I’m talking about a transpersonal dimension to shepherding. Experiencing it as a force or presence that transcends the human. The shepherd as God. The shepherd as the Divine, the Goddess, a Spirit Guide, the Tao. I want to speak for a moment to those of us for whom this dimension is meaningful. What’s all-important is trusting in your relationship with the Divine. Trusting the larger unfolding pattern. Knowing that you can have God’s peace right now, this instant, even if things feel way out of control and things are not yet clear to your mind and the problem is not yet solved. Trusting that nothing is going to come your way that you cannot truly bear. Trusting that somehow you are being reshaped to fit a larger order, you are being ushered forward, you are being nudged towards a greater fulfillment of your destiny. And you CAN trust it. So stop pushing the river. Let go and let God.
The shepherd comes to us in so many ways. And the shepherd is good, for this is what he does: he “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.”
Now just listen to that. Isn’t this an amazing image? An extremely odd one for sure, for in the face of the enemy, who might jump up and grab us anytime, how can we eat? How can we actually put food into our mouths, and swallow?
Yet the good shepherd knows something—the good shepherd that is a calming activity, a close relationship, a religious community, or a God. This: That life is abundant when one learns how to dwell richly in the midst of one’s worst fears. You can’t get to joy in life if you insist on perfection. The truly good shepherd teaches us that. Not escape from problems. Not smoothing away all the wrinkles. The Good Shepherd doesn’t solve it for us, doesn’t dumb down the complexity. It can’t do that anyway.
But what it can do is invite us into a deeper relationship with our world and ourselves, and it does this with a sense of wonderful flair. Lays out the finest tablecloth and china. Polished silverware, napkins folded into swans. Pours the drinks, serves the food. Says, “I know you might feel totally out of control right now. I know all about your sins. I also know all about the sins of the world, the hate, the politicians who can’t seem to get their act together, the threat of terrorism, the environmental threat. All sorts of dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears in here and out there, just licking their chops. I know that. The world is scary all over.
“But it’s not going to help things to just thrash about and hurt yourself and others. It’s not going to help things to get into a rut, or hide out. So sit down. Relax. Continue the small sustaining rhythms of your life. Rediscover a sane routine. Find your center, be at peace, and then: accept your fears. Let them come. Let them wander over. Let them find their own seat at the table. Let them become known, and look them square in the eye. Be curious. Talk to them, and let them talk to you. Share in the hospitality of the table, your fears and you, and that’s how you will find your cup overflowing. That’s how. That’s how goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. That’s how.”