Rod and staff: strange comfort

Afghanistan Shepherd - From Afghanistanmatters, (Flickr: Creative Commons licence)

Afghanistan Shepherd – From Afghanistanmatters, (Flickr: Creative Commons licence)

This is the fourth week of an M.E. relapse, which means I am more isolated than usual, needing to spend even more time in bed, in silence.

 

I am an extrovert. I find that when I’m with people, I have more thoughts and ideas, more motivation and excitement to write and learn, than when I am in periods of silence. In order to write well, I need conversation. I need other people. When I am silent, I don’t really know what I am thinking. My thoughts swirl around idly and I can’t grab ahold of them. I only know what I’m thinking when someone asks me a question.

 

The irony is not lost on me. I am in bed, with all this time to write, and now probably enough cognitive energy to write a little, every other day – but I am not writing. The lack of stimulation is silencing me. I have forgotten what I wanted to say, and have lost confidence that anyone is interested. (Logically, I know that people are interested, but annoyingly, my muse does not run on logic, only on emotion.)

 

My voice feels quiet and small.

 

I am guessing that this is how introverts feel when they talk to extroverts – their voice is quiet and small. When they retreat, when they have silence, that’s when their voice resumes its volume. They can finally know what they think, and their voice resounds majestically around the cathedral of their mind.

 

This is not what quiet does for me. The quiet makes me quieter and smaller, and all I can hear are others’ voices, bouncing around my head.

 

****

 

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” Psalm 23:2

 

The image is of a shepherd, leading his sheep. We hear it sung by angelic choirboys and we think, ‘how idyllic’. I don’t. Perversely, I start to feel all indignant for the sheep, and their lack of control over where they go and what they do.

 

He makes me lie down. This verse is all very well; but what if you don’t want to lie down? What if you want noisy waters?

 

I have also always been intrigued by verse four of Psalm 23: ‘your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ Because what does a shepherd use a rod and staff for? Not for stroking the sheep, certainly.

 

A shepherd uses a rod to ward off potential attackers, but also to tap the flank of wayward sheep, to guide them if they wander. The pain keeps them back on track. A staff is for hooking sheep out if they’re stuck somewhere. I presume the shepherd hooks the crook around the sheep’s neck or flank, and then tugs and drags them out.

 

We know, as outsiders, that the Shepherd has good purposes – but what does the sheep know? All that the sheep really knows is that he/she is being hit, or yanked. The rod and staff both bring pain and discomfort to the sheep, even as they are rescued or kept from danger. And sheep, being sheep, probably don’t understand why on earth they are being hurt.

*****

 

Let me be clear: I don’t believe this relapse is discipline to me for being ‘wayward’. I think it is the normal progression of the illness. This is just what the illness does, and there is little I can do to influence it, though I do try. I don’t know of any ‘greater purpose’ or lesson from this particular episode or indeed this whole, horrible illness. There may or may not be one. This world is broken. Sometimes suffering is just hard.

 

And yet, suffering – of various kinds – always feels like a blow from God’s hand, whatever the natural or logical explanation. “The Lord has afflicted me”, complains Naomi, when her husband and sons die (Ruth 1:21). “His hand is heavy against me,” says Job, of his suffering (Job 23:2).

 

Sometimes, the blows fall repeatedly, and it is just hard, it is just painful, and you don’t know why it is happening.

 

At those times, I like to read Psalm 23 and hear its challenge.

 

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I lack nothing.” (Psalm 23:1).

 

Verse five tells us David has enemies – so technically, this is not true. He lacks peace, freedom from attack, slander, enemies. But he says it anyway – “if I have God, that is enough.” He doesn’t say it descriptively, he says it prophetically, with the eyes of faith. David has the same kind of unquestioning trust that a sheep has for its Shepherd. It is no more foolish for a Christian to trust God in the midst of pain than it is for a sheep to trust their Shepherd in the midst of a dark valley, with only the painful tap of a rod to guide them.

 

A rod. A staff. Made to lie down.

 

This is a different kind of comfort, to be sure. This is not the easeful blanket that I long for.

 

I sigh, and read the psalm again. I read it to be reminded that there is goodness and mercy; a banquet prepared for me, and a place in God’s house forever. I pray David’s words, for God to restore my soul and guide me in paths of righteousness.

 

Sometimes it is just enough to remember that I don’t need to understand everything.
Sometimes it is just enough to remember that there really is a Shepherd.

 

Over to you:

  • When has suffering felt like God is dealing you heavy blows?
  • Which parts of Psalm 23 do you like the most?

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48 Responses to Rod and staff: strange comfort

  1. Donna 19th July, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    Tanya, I’ve read Psalm 23 many, many times, and I’ve never seen it like that before! You made me laugh about being made to lie down beside the still waters – I very much relate to your tone of frustration and exasperation with God, and your circumstances. I’m not a particularly strong introvert or extrovert, but I think I’m on the introvert side of the equation… so right at the moment, when I’m in the middle of school holidays in winter with 4 energetic and very loud children, lying down beside still waters sounds incredibly inviting! Guess it’s all about perspective 🙂
    Hope you’ve recovered from your relapse.

  2. Stephanie 7th June, 2013 at 5:22 am #

    I am in a relapse and struggling to think. I cannot reply to this adequately, but I had to say thank you for the reminder of Psalm 24. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Also, I never, ever considered how M.E. would affect an extrovert before reading your blog. You are spot on about introverts and I appreciate understanding a bit more how you think. I’m so sorry for how M.E. affects you.

    • Tanya 7th June, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      Thank you so much for spending your hard-won energy on commenting here. I know how precious that is. Thanks for entering into my frustrated-extrovert world with me. 🙂

  3. Helen Murray 6th June, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Tanya, what a poignant, powerful post. Thank you for sharing even when it doesn’t come easily. You’re in my prayers.
    I read somewhere once (I’ve been trying to find out where but I can’t) that the shepherd also used his rod for something else. Every shepherd made his own rod, apparently, to suit his own strength and size, and so each rod was unique. When a shepherd led his flock through a valley it might have been a very narrow, rocky place where the sheep were almost in single file. The shepherd would hit the rocks now and again with his rod, and the sheep at the back of the line heard the sound and knew which way to go, because they recognised the individual sound of their shepherd’s rod. I thought this was more comforting than the ‘nudge them back into line’ sort of way.
    Another thing was that the reason David mentions ‘still water’ might have been because sheep are easily unnerved and unwilling to drink from fast flowing streams, so the shepherd sought still pools where they could quench their thirst.
    Wonderful psalm. No matter how often I read it there’s always something more. You showed me a different dimension today. Thank you.

    • Tanya 7th June, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      I love these thoughts! Thank you, Helen.

  4. Brandee Shafer 6th June, 2013 at 4:21 am #

    I’ve been there, too, Friend, though I’ve questioned my brother’s illness and pain more than anything I’ve suffered. Bless you for seeking Him, for trusting Him. He will sustain, I know.

    • Tanya 6th June, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      Thank you for this – for understanding.

  5. emily wierenga 6th June, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    my dear friend, i ache for you. i had no idea. and i will always care about what you have to say. the good thing about the internet is, words are words, no matter if they’re written in bed or in an airplane, while lying down or by noisy waters, and your words make a difference, Tanya. don’t let the enemy discourage you.

    i’ve been really trying to understand psalm 23 lately too, and these are two books i’d recommend to you:
    http://www.amazon.com/Shepherd-Looks-Psalm-23/dp/0310274419

    http://www.amazon.com/Scouting-Divine-Search-Honey-ebook/dp/B002VBV1RW/ref=la_B001IXTUT0_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1370484963&sr=1-2

    • Tanya 6th June, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      Thank you, lovely Emily. “your words make a difference” – thank you for that, today.

      I’ll definitely check out those books – they look good, and I see one of them is free, or almost free!

  6. Cathy 6th June, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    PS I know that my comment above was long, but I forgot you asked about connecting to Psalm 23. I had never really felt any attachment to it until a crisis in my emotional health and marriage about 15 yrs ago. Then, all I knew was that I had to repeat the entire Psalm over and over just to stay afloat. “He restores my soul” and “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” were my lifelines. Actually, during that time, the rod and staff seemed like things God would use to beat off my enemies. I needed Him to protect me. But then, I am perpetually confused as to why people who have no bone to pick with me like to pick on me. (Much like your experience with the healthcare system, it seems.)

    I still don’t understand why sometimes things have to get really, really bad before they get better. If they get better. Sometimes it takes a very long time. Waaay longer than I would ever have imagined. I think of scientists and the years they spend on research for a tiny little break-through. Then I think of my life and how at 51, I am just beginning to learn some spiritual lessons that I thought I would have learned a long time ago. I think our perspective is skewed because Jesus was 33 at His death. How old was Paul when he wrote some of the NT letters?

    • Tanya 6th June, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      I love this story of how Psalm 23 kept you afloat. A shepherd definitely uses a rod to beat off enemies. Sometimes I think we’re not aware of how much God is protecting us, and then other times, like your experience we’re really aware of it and grateful for it.

      (I’m really sorry to hear of how you have been treated throughout your life – it sounds like you’ve had a really rough time of it).

      “Sometimes it takes a very long time. Waaay longer than I would ever have imagined.” YES. Totally. No idea why it takes so long – but I am comforted to know that I am not the only one who feels that sometimes that hard middle is just so – long.

      “I think our perspective is skewed because Jesus was 33 at His death.” – this is a really helpful thought and a comforting one for me. So often I think that I need to have it all sorted, because “God has given us everything we need for life and godliness”, without taking into account the difference that it makes to walk with God throughout the seasons of life, and understand Him more through the various experiences we go through. You’re right – Paul was older. I think he was in his fifties, possibly sixties when he died, and he was writing up to his death. This is such a helpful thought.

  7. Cathy 6th June, 2013 at 12:00 am #

    Tanya, you are the best, even in the midst of your relapse! As per Alice above, yes, you nailed my experience as an introvert. I cannot hear myself think unless or until I get some quiet time away from the noise of others’ voices. And in your understanding of me, I understand you and other extroverts better. How frustrating as an extrovert to be so confined! I hope that my and other readers’ comments help lessen your loneliness.

    And yes, I have felt that God has dealt me some tough blows. Was thinking about it this morning. I have been unexpectedly angry lately, judgmental toward others–kind of out of the blue, then again, starting to recognize it as a knee-jerk reaction of envy, hurt, pain. (And not coincidentally, some of the challenges in my life have recently lessened. I think I’m grieving in a way I couldn’t when survival was the lesson of the day.) Today I decided to acknowledge it before God and ask for insight. You know, actually ask the “why me?” question. It was heartening to get some bits of answers, especially because deep down, I wasn’t sure it was ok to ask the question.

    Over the past year or so, I’ve had a close friend offer a theory about one of the benefits of my “out of the frying pan, into the fire” life. And now I think she was right. What always confuses me is where God’s hand is so clearly operating: He’s answering prayer or opening doors that only I know exist. And then in the midst of all this good, there is some really bad, bordering on or actually evil, operating. What gives? I do know that I have learned to pray for my enemies, to pray more in general. I’m also starting to get a handle on how we must be training for and/or in the midst of battle.

    This stuff is very hard to put into words, and I am grateful that you not only try, you succeed. As an isolated introvert, I thank God for you with every post.

    • Tanya 6th June, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      Thank you so much for this wonderful comment!
      “And in your understanding of me, I understand you and other extroverts better.” – I love that. Thanks so much for sharing that.
      ” I think I’m grieving in a way I couldn’t when survival was the lesson of the day.” – YES. This is so true of my experience, too – the emotional avalanche comes after the crisis. During the crisis, you’re more ‘shut-down’, just in survival mode.

      I’m so glad you’re in a place now where you’re asking the ‘why me’ question and take it to God in prayer. I think that is half the battle, just allowing ourselves the ‘permission’ to wrestle with it and protest it to God. OFten for me, that’s when I begin to see the breakthroughs, the chinks of light in amongst the darkness.

      “I do know that I have learned to pray for my enemies, to pray more in general.” This sounds like a decidedly Christian response, like real fruit out of a sucky situation.

      I think you’re amazing.

  8. Alice 5th June, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    Yeah, you totally pinned down what it’s like for me as an introvert!

    So often my inner monologue is the opposite of Ps23 – I paint God as a butcher out to get me or decide he’s left me to deal with life alone. I’ve been challenged to try to believe what it says – even though much of the Psalm paints a hard picture, God is good and kind.

    I’ve been challenged that Jesus managed to walk the path as his Father led and he trusted even when it was the valley of the shadow of death. He’s the good sheep as well as the good shepherd!! xxx

    • Tanya 6th June, 2013 at 10:11 am #

      I LOVE these insights!
      “I paint God as a butcher out to get me” – I totally know this one. It is so helpful to be reminded that we need the word of God to realign our views of God to his truth. I also like the juxtaposition of the goodness of the Shepherd with the darkness in Psalm 23 – it feels honest.
      “He’s the good sheep as well as the good shepherd” – love this thought!

      (and also glad that I guessed right about the introvert thing…)

      Thanks, lovely Alice.

    • Mark Allman 6th June, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      Alice,
      Sometimes I do not trust God that he wants what is best for me. Sometimes I think he wants to take away that which I hold so dearly and know part of my soul would die without it. Most of the time I am not a good sheep. I think I feel the hook on my neck even now.

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