Abundance and the Sound of the Shepherd

Kenny Roger’s voice still rings in my ears, circling like the grooves of the old 1970’s record player, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.  Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”  Song number two on my new album, “Reciprocate” is maybe a loose interpretation of “The Gambler.” 

We don’t talk much about discernment these days.  It’s sort of an old-fashioned virtue.  But being able to discern truth from fiction is an essential survival skill.  Learning to differentiate the trusted voices in our lives is important work.

When I put on one of Sara’s songs, her voice settles like an heirloom blanket wrapped around me.  As I hear her sing, I can believe in spite of whatever circumstances might be swirling around me that everything is gonna be ok. 

When my fiancé leaves me a message at dawn on Sunday morning before church, his voice supports me long-distance like an oak tree, with warmth and strength that holds a thousand rings inside it.  

And I can also remember my Dad’s voice in a moment a few years ago when he patted my shoulder and said, “You’d make one heck of a runner.”

The sound of a trusted voice has the power to speak something substantial into being.  The recognition in a trusted voice is like a song, like a familiar refrain. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.”  (Jn. 1:1) There’s something mystical and holy about God being the word, speaking the word, and embodying the melodic voice that carries the word into our hearts and leads us on.

A bit later in John’s letter, Jesus tells his friends about the voice of the good Shepherd.  (John 10:10)  The sheep know his voice, they recognize it when he calls and they won’t listen to the voice of another Shepherd.  They are his.  They belong to him.  And by the sound of his voice, the sheep learn ‘when to walk away and when to run.’

When I think about God’s voice, and the power of his invitation to bring his sheep safely in and out of pasture, I think about abundance.  When I think about abundance, I think about this place I visited on a retreat out in Malibu, B.C. If you’ve ever seen the Young Life camp up there, there’s this breathtakingly beautiful mountain landscape stretching out in every direction. In the middle of the water, there’s a small island with pine trees, bald eagles nesting in the tops.  If you throw a rock out there in the water, as hard or as far as you can, it gets swallowed up in the landscape before you can exhale.  It is a picture of abundance. 

Abundance is freedom and beauty so vast that it swallows up any small attempts of sabotage or violence or failure.  And we all know firsthand that the darkness of this world is intense.  But in the landscape of God’s abundance, the darkness is no match for his mighty power.  That darkness is like a rock hurled into the water, it makes a sound but then is quickly forgotten, swallowed up by a greater beauty.  Beauty wins. Love wins. This is the economy of grace. 

In the quiet questions, I’m praying that God would impress upon us the sound of his own voice, that we would become so familiar with it that we could distinguish the smooth talk of the enemy from the rich comforting voice of our Shepherd.

Suggestion for Prayer:  Close your eyes for a second and read this excerpt from John 10 (Message). Imagine the voice of the Shepherd.  What does he sound like?  What words does he say as he invites you out into the pasture in the morning and back in again for safety at the end of the day?  How might you consider the ways his abundance can swallow up the darkness in your life?    

“The gatekeeper opens the gate [and the sheep] recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.” 

Listen to track 2, Reciprocate, from Sandra’s new album, Songs From The Valley. Available now digitally HERE.

Ashes

To ascend the hill, you have to start at the very bottom. From here, it often feels like what’s ahead is a steep climb.   Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when many followers of Jesus remember that we have come from dust, and to dust we will return. We mark our foreheads with ashes and we pray. 

The people of Israel used to travel annually to the temple to make sacrifices for their sins.  They journeyed up a long climb, a slow ascent toward Jerusalem.  The Psalms of Ascent (beginning with Psalm 120) are the songs they would sing together as they walked.   As I’ve begun to ask questions about some of the ancient traditions of Lent and Easter, I have found unexpected beauty in practices that at first seemed a bit strange to me or even morbid.  

I’ve come to appreciate that the observance of Ash Wednesday can be a compelling demonstration of humility. Many people give something up during the 6 weeks of lent, like sugar or coffee or wine.  These small ways of holding back remind us that we have limitations.  We have hunger.  The hunger is already there, of course.  But when we give something up, we are making the space to feel it.

The ashes of repentance on my forehead help me to remember that I have not always been here on this earth.  And one day I will return to dust.  I am a sinner whose offenses are both known and unknown.  Do I really feel my need for God?  Do I cry out to him?  Or do I just manage to keep busy enough to superficially forget how truly dependent I am upon him for every good thing?

This brings up a theological question.  What’s the difference between penance and practice?   Fasting does not earn us points with God, because if we are in a relationship with Jesus, His love for us is sealed in Jesus’ work on our behalf.  We cannot add or take away a single thing to the finished work of Christ. 

But fasting can be a way to reckon with our spiritual hunger.  When my young children save their allowance money for a special occasion, it’s hard for them to wait.  But restraint and anticipation enlarges their hearts for the celebration.  Fasting opens us up to be able to feast more fully. 

The best part is still ahead, and it’s coming soon.  This is not the end.  This is not the whole story, but the journey starts with ashes.  The way down is the way up.  I am living forward into that light.  I am trusting the promise (from Psalm 23) that the Lord is with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  

Though the details of our stories are varied, the same story has been written on each of our hearts.  Ashes transformed into to beauty is the story of redeeming grace, of light breaking in, of ascending the hill, of singing the songs of ascent so that when we get to the top, we will join in that glorious celebration.  There, we will each find our own seat at the table.  

And along the way, grace happens every time the sun comes up over the horizon;  even when we sleep through it with the shades drawn; even when the sun is hidden by storm clouds; always, it faithfully rises.  May these ashes be a sign-post.  We are walking each other home. 

Suggestion for prayer: Meditate on this verse or read it a few times times slowly, and let the words lead you into conversation with God.  

What does the word death feel like for you when you read this today? The idea might feel far away or it might make you think of physical death or a death of another kind.  What comes to mind for you? Ask God to be with you in the valley of the shadow.  Ask him to walk you home or to shelter you in the valley.  Close your prayer in gratitude.

 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” –Ps 23

Listen to track 1, Fool’s Gold, from Sandra’s new album, Songs From The Valley.  Available now digitally HERE