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God is My Shepherd

Date: 11/05/2014/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers here – and especially to Mrs Yap. While we celebrate Mother’s Day, I would also like to acknowledge that today can be a difficult day for those who lost their mothers – today is the day we feel their absence more keenly. I also want to acknowledge that some of us have a less than harmonious relationship with our mothers, and today is the day when we are reminded of the pain in our relationship with them.

Bobby McFerrin dedicated his interpretation of Psalm 23 to his mother, changing the male pronouns to female pronouns. We here at FCC believes that God is not gendered – God is both Mother and Father to us. So I would read Psalm 23 with female pronouns in honour of mothers.

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherdess, I shall not want. She makes me lie down in
green pastures; she leads me beside still waters; She restores my
soul. She leads me in right paths for her name’s 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 shall dwell in the
house of the LORD my whole life long.

I just came back from a short break – one that I needed in the midst of everything that is going on. I had time to rest, time to read and more importantly, time to reflect. Halfway through reading Peter Rollins’ Insurrection, there was a part of me that regretted bringing such a heavy book on a trip that was meant for me to unwind.

One takeaway from the book was about anxiety. Anxiety is described as “a condition that is distinct from the experience of fear. Fear is always related to some thing, such as an enemy, spiders, or cancer. But anxiety has no object; instead, it is a response to the foreboding shadow of nothingness itself.”[1]

The twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote about the anxiety of death and of meaninglessness. Each of these is better described as anxiety than fear because both are a response to some kind of lack (the loss of life, the loss of meaning).

“For Tillich, both of these anxieties have a subtle and an aggressive form. The subtle form of the anxiety that arises from a sense of my own end is the feeling that my existence is threatened at a certain point in time (perhaps, for instance, when I narrowly avoid a speeding car). The more aggressive form is manifest when I am directly confronted with the inevitability of my death (perhaps when I find that I have a terminal illness). The more subtle form that the anxiety of meaninglessness takes is the feeling that what I am presently doing has no real value (such as my present job), but it becomes a crushing despair when I sense that everything I could possibly do is without point.

Anxiety is so unnerving that most of us are very adept at protecting ourselves from it, expending a great deal of time and energy ensuring that we never have to confront it. The God of religion is one of the primary ways of protecting ourselves from the onslaught of anxiety and despair. This God enables us to feel that our life is never really under threat and that there is an ultimate purpose to everything.”[2]I am sure you have heard someone say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It is God’s will” when something bad happens. You may have said it some time or another. I am sure I have said it before some time ago. I no longer say it. I came across this comic online that puts it in perspective. You may want to take a look at it here. I hope that if you have been telling folks that “everything happens for a reason,” the next time you want to say it, to take a long pause and think about what you are going to say, and if it would be helpful to that person. If you want to offer your support, and your love, I think silent accompaniment can be even more powerful than what we can offer in words.

I think we have misunderstood what “God’s will” means. I think God’s will isn’t something that is imposed on us. I think God’s will is an invitation, just like how Jesus invited people to follow him. There were those who chose to follow, and those who did not. He told the rich young man that he had to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow him to gain everlasting life. That, is God’s will for this rich young man – one that grieved the young man because he was attached to and could not part with his possessions – his “things.”

To deal with our anxiety, we make God into a function to explain the unexplainable, to resolve what we cannot resolve.

Peter Rollins makes a pointed criticism of the idea of God as a function. He writes:

“Near the end of his life, the theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer became concerned that the Christian understanding of God had been largely reduced to the status of a psychological crutch. He described this understanding of God as deus ex machina.

This phrase, which literally means “God out of the machine,” originally refers to a technique used in ancient Greece in which a person would be lowered onto the stage via a mechanism in order to signify the introduction of a supernatural being. The process however, got a bad name whenever many second-rate playwrights used this device in a rather lazy and arbitrary way. If they wanted to kill off a character, create a new challenge for the main antagonist to overcome, or resolve a conflict in the plot, they would simply wheel in a god to make it happen. In this way, the supernatural being is not an organic part of the story but rather an intrusive presence employed purely to move the plot along or resolve an issue.

As a result of this, the term deus ex machina came to mean the introduction of something that was not part of the internal logic of an unfolding story but instead a clumsy device dropped into the narrative purely to perform a specific role.”[3]

It is just like reading a composition that ends “and then he woke up.” It is lazy, sloppy writing. But that doesn’t just happen in writing.

Bonhoeffer viewed that Church also approached God as a deus ex machina.

“God was merely an idea clumsily dropped into our world in order to fulfill a task. God was introduced into the world on our terms in order to resolve a problem rather than expressing a lived reality. The result is a God who simply justifies our beliefs and helps us sleep comfortably at night. God is brought into the picture only when we face a problem of some kind that doesn’t lend itself to solution by other means. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this God plays the same meager role as the supernatural beings in third-rate Greek plays.”[4]

When I read Insurrection, I felt pushed over the edge by Peter Rollins. The book made me uncomfortable. It challenged some ideas that I never really thought about. I mean, it is easy to stop saying “Everything happens for a reason” when confronted with tragedy. But what about good things that happen to us? Like getting a carpark lot right when I needed it at the hospital, or when things seem serendipitous? Yes, sometimes, we only remember the significant events, forgetting that statistically, we have encountered far more times driving round and round to find a carpark lot.

What if there is no reason behind everything that happens – what if God isn’t the God who dictates what happens but rather continually invites us to participate in the unfolding story?

I don’t think it is God’s will that the ferry sunk in South Korea. I don’t think that it is God’s will that natural disasters happen. Some people may drop God in as a deus ex machina to explain why the ferry sunk, or why the natural disasters happened – some even blame earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and tornadoes on the LGBT community incurring God’s wrath. I do not believe in God as deus ex machina. I do not believe that God wills people to suffer. I believe in a God that does not exert control but rather participate through the stirrings of the Spirit to invite people to participate in God’s will. That, perhaps, is the point of the Incarnation – that God need incarnate as Christ to have effect on the world.

Will we still believe if there is nothing in it for us? That even though God loves us, God does not intervene directly but rather require us to co-participate in the work that needs to be done. The transformation, growth, resurrection needs us to sow before we can reap. Will we still believe if it requires some effort on our part?

I felt anxious because my faith is being challenged.

I hope you are feeling pushed close to the edge too. I hope you are feeling some level of anxiety. I hope you don’t avoid confronting these anxieties. Because being Christian isn’t about hiding behind deus ex machina statements like “Everything happens for a reason” and not deal with our anxieties. It is through these anxieties that we emerge transformed on the other side. That is the path of Resurrection – the dying to old things so that we would be born anew.

Rollins wrote:

“We avoid a full confrontation with these anxieties is by avoiding too much self reflection. We do this by surrounding ourselves with activities that ensure we never have to really be alone with our thoughts. Indeed it is even common for people to discourage too much self-reflection by pointing to the link between thinking and depression. It is thought that too much self-reflection can lead to dark melancholy. However, what if thinking doesn’t make one depressed but rather unveils a depression that had, up until then, gone unnoticed? What if one can be profoundly depressed and yet not even be
aware of it?”

What do you do in the silences during prayer? Do you want to fill the silence with words just like how you are tempted to fill the awkward silences during a date with trivial stuff like the weather – “It is so hot today!” Do we allow ourselves to sit in the silence and allow the silence to speak to us? Do we do enough self-reflection and look at ourselves in the mirror?

I have read Psalm 23 many times. I have read it to terminally ill patients at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, I have read it at funerals, I have read it when things are going crazy and I needed to anchor myself.

It is perhaps the most famous Psalm – and for good reason – it is a very comforting Psalm of reassurance and faith. Perhaps it is a psychological crutch, a opiate for the masses so we will be numb against the pain and suffering in our lives.

Rollins challenged this crutch. But I want to respond to Rollins point. I don’t think that a psychological crutch is all that bad. We use morphine to deal with the pain that is unbearable in the hospital. We use morphine to ease people in the last moments of their lives so that they do not have to suffer too much.

Morphine and opium is not necessarily bad. It is bad only when opium is abused to numb us to the pain and suffering in our lives, and in the lives of others around us too often that we get addicted to the numbness and we do not get weaned off the opium when it is no longer necessary.

I realized that the issue isn’t that God is a psychological crutch for us, because God will always be a crutch. We are finite beings, and often helpless in many situations. We look up to our Shepherd for comfort, for hope. It becomes an issue when God is ONLY a psychological crutch – the deus ex machina that solves our problems, the Great Vending Machine in the Sky that we ask for things we want, the Get Out of Jail Free Card when we do things that are wrong.

I had to struggle with Psalm 23 after reading Peter Rollins book. I wonder if I could read it again in the same light. I was listening to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s (one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement) explanation of the 23rd Psalm, and his interpretation was illuminating.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Because we have no lack. Far too many times I hear of folks complaining about not knowing what to eat, or where to eat. Or that their phones are too slow, or the camera on their phone is not clear. Is that really a lack?

I don’t think this is a modern problem – just like the people who were led out of Egypt – they were hungry, and God gave them manna and quail, and they complain they have no meat. They were thirsty, God gave them water from the rocks. Yet, they complained. God told them to “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.”’

But some got greedy – some gathered more, but when they measured it with an omer, they all had as much as they needed.

They were told not to keep any manna till morning but of course, they did not listened – and the manna bred worms and became foul.

Do we gather more than we need? Do we keep manna till the morning until it bred worms? Are we so focused on hoarding what we have that we fail to give it away, we fail to make use of it to bless others?

Will we realize that holding on to these things may give us temporary comfort and distraction from our anxieties, but they are what they are – temporary. Like what Jorg said in his sermon last week – we can’t bring these things to the next life.

We do not realize that “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.

My mentor, Jim Mitulski, always closes Sunday worship with the benediction quoting Jesus from John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This peace – this shalom – is the freedom from anxiety. Not shielding us from anxiety or skipping over the anxiety but bringing us through the anxiety. Just like there is no resurrection without death, our peace, our shalom requires us to go through the anxiety and emerge on the other side.

“He leads me in right paths for his name’s 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.”

Rabbi Zalman points out that it is odd that both the rod and the staff are comforting. The staff is what we lean on, what the shepherd uses to extract sheep out of sticky situations – but the rod – the rod is used to discipline.

God isn’t just a psychological crutch – the staff that comforts us – God is also our sense of conscience, of justice, the inner compass that does not leave us alone when something is not right – when we do something wrong. The rod that disciplines.

We cannot avoid confronting and facing ourselves. It is the difficult work we need to do in our transformation and our embrace of God as our shepherd. I have heard folks remark that I tend to preach scolding sermons. Well, that is rod.

“He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”

It is the rod and the staff that will help us back to the fold when we have wandered off. God isn’t just a crutch, God is also the inner compass, the guiding star.

Paul Tillich talked about the third kind of anxiety – besides the anxiety around death and meaninglessness, there is the anxiety of guilt. I think we busy ourselves and distract ourselves, and avoid self-reflection and quiet time because we would be face to face with our anxieties. But we are to heed these anxieties because they are – in my understanding – God’s will prompting us, inviting us towards change.

What if the evil we fear is the evil we commit ourselves? That, to me, is the evil I most fear. Not evil that someone else commits – but something that comes from me. Too often we escape from our anxiety of guilt by denying we are the ones in the wrong, that we are the ones who commit evil. We need to recognize our responsibility in the evil we do – whether it is evil in the way we treat others, how we joke about others, how we belittle other people, how we gossip about others, or in the way we perpetuate evils in the world – the degradation of the environment, racism, xenophobia, exploitation.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil”

Rabbi Zalman has a different reading – and that has to do with the translating. In Hebrew, there is no you in “you anoint my head with oil.” He reads it as You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies who anoint my head with oil. It is often that our enemies – the ones who give us the most trouble in our lives – who are the ones who have the most to teach us. The experiences we gain are those that will transform us.

“My cup overflows”

Again Rabbi Zalman corrects the King James translation that the cup runneth over – it is a mistranslation. The word revayah (rev vai yah) means saturated, abundant. It does not mean overflow. We have enough – like the manna from heaven – not to the point of overflowing. Our thirst is satiated. We are not thirsty anymore. Have you drank so much water that you feel terrible? Bloated? Or even worse suffer from water poisoning?

In our lives, have we been seeking, desiring, wanting and hoarding for more and more things, to the point when they are overflowing? Are we still wanting more? Are we suffering from having too much, and are we suffering from poisoning from having too much now?

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

God isn’t just a deus ex machina. God is our shepherd.

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
She makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still
waters; she restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for her
name’s 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


[1] Peter Rollins, Insurrection (Nashville, Tenn: Howard Books, 2011), 83.
[3] Ibid., 12.
[4]Ibid., 13.