Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: A Job Description for Parents
Text: Psalm 23
Today we continue our series of sermons Finding Ourselves in the Psalms.
Someone recently asked Jack Dodds, “Hasn’t Kirk already preached a series on Psalms?”
Seventeen years ago today I started my ministry at Morningside. Over the years I have preached more than 850 sermons, a number that does not include Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. Yes, I have preached sermons on the Psalms in the past. The Bible includes only sixty-six books. J.B. Phillips, an English scholar most noted for his translation of the Bible, wanted to call his version Phillips 66.
I try to prepare each sermon by coming to the text with a fresh point of view. Doing so is important for you and certainly vital for me. You have heard some of my stories and illustrations on previous occasions. That practice will continue. After all, the parables of Jesus are worth repeating; and some of my stories are worth repeating.
I would just call to your attention the fact that a mother cat carries her baby about two months, a horse ten months, a camel thirteen months, a sperm whale eighteen months, and an elephant twenty-two months. A mother rabbit delivers her babies after one month, and mice take twenty-one days. Creativity takes time. Still, preparing a sermon every Sunday does mean that I will return to text I have used at other times.
Today I have chosen the same text I selected for the first Sunday I came to Morningside seventeen years ago. Just out of curiosity, by a show of hands, how many of you were present for that service? Many of those with a hand raised have trouble with short-term memory, so I am sure I am okay. The fact is I would probably be safe preaching the exact text as the one on Father’s Day in 1996. I did, however, prepare this message before looking back at that sermon.
Much has changed in my life since I was first called to Morningside. At that time Clare and I arrived with our five children: one married; one a recent college graduate, one a freshman in college, one a junior in high school, and one a ninth grader in junior high school. Since then we have attended many graduations for our children. Some have graduated two or three times. We have seen at least two ordinations, four weddings, two divorces, one death, and three second-marriages since then. We have also welcomed eleven grandchildren into our family who make amends for any suffering and hardship we experienced with our children. My perspective has definitely changed during these past seventeen years.
My dad used to say, “Grandchildren are the reward you get for putting up with your children.” That saying has much truth.
Over the years we watched the small handprints on our storm door get higher and higher and higher and then disappear. Now the handprints have returned, though lower and greasier than in the past.
I come back to a text today that has so much to teach us, Psalm 23. I quoted that passage, which is often associated with funerals, just yesterday at the service for Yvonne Fagen. This morning I want us to consider this shepherd’s psalm, one that is spiritually enriching, by addressing it line-by-line. We can go in many directions when we come to this psalm; but I submit to you that if we focus our attention, especially on the verb phrases, we will find a job description for parents and grandparents. Hear now the Word of God.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will 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 your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
“The Lord is my shepherd.” This psalm reflects David’s identity as a man after God’s own heart and as a shepherd, a role he understood well. It also tells of a personal relationship between David, the author of this psalm, and God, the Shepherd. Notice the use of the personal pronoun “my.” God wants each one of us to have a personal relationship with Christ Jesus.
Phillip Keller, himself a shepherd, wrote the beautiful book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 and the companion volume, A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd. I recommend that you read both books, which are a part of our church library.
“I shall not want.” God provides for our needs, the necessities, which are different from our wants, the luxuries A distinction must be made between the two. The Bible takes seriously the task of being a good provider. I Timothy 5:8 says, “The man who does not provide for his own family, especially those of his own household, is worse than an infidel and has disowned the faith.” Providing for the family does not mean just bringing home the bacon, just putting food on the table. Being a good provider also means teaching family members generosity, the nobility of work, the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. Furthermore, it means teaching the discipline of delayed gratification. All of us must understand that we do not have to receive everything we want immediately. We can learn to wait.
Good providers have the responsibility of passing on to children and grandchildren a good name.
One day when I was just a little boy, I was talking with my grandfather and noticed on his belt buckle the initial “N.” I asked Pappy, “What is that?”
He explained, “That is the initial ‘N,’ which stands for our name, Neely. Kirk, I do not have much I can give you, but I am giving you that name. I want you to know that I have done everything I can to make it a good name for you.”
Proverbs 22:1 teaches “A good name is better than great riches.” That good name is a part of the heritage, a part of the legacy, a part of the provision, parents must give to their children.
“He makes me lie down…” Have you recently been through the battle of bedtime with young children? Many of us have. That battle shifts when they grow into adolescents and becomes a battle of morning time, a battle of getting out of bed. Part of being a parent or grandparent is learning how to put each child to bed gracefully. The process is different for every child. Some are so tired and sleepy they just want to rock a few minutes before going to bed. “Sing me a song,” one of my granddaughters will say to me. Singing soothes her, and she quickly goes to sleep. Something about my voice just does that to people.
Sometimes grandchildren will be worried, maybe frightened, of a monster in the closet or under the bed. They fear the monster will grab them when they get too close to the bed. Those children need reassurance. In order for them to lie down, like sheep in a pasture, they must feel safe, protected, sheltered. It is our responsibility as a good provider to supply that security.
Also inherent in the line “He makes me lie down” is the concept that children need to have a time to stop their activities of the day and rest. That lesson is so hard for most adults.
“…in green pastures.” We have an obligation to provide our children a place of abundance. Many children in this world suffer from hunger, from a lack of food, and often go to bed at night hungry. Children also suffer from a second kind of famine, the famine of hearing the Word of God, the prophet Amos called it. Some children never hear the Word of God.
How can we eliminate this second famine? We can read a bedtime Bible story when putting children and grandchildren to bed at night. We can say prayers and help them learn to pray. Sometimes children use prayer as a filibuster, reciting every Mother Goose character they can recall. That is fine. You do not have to stay for all of that. A good provider models what it means to have a growing faith.
“He leadeth me beside still waters.” We have heard the expression “Still waters run deep.” Children need to learn quiet reflection. Teach them to stop and meditate, to hold still long enough to appreciate the world and people around them. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” How will they ever learn to be still if we do not teach them by example? Children learn primarily through example. They need to learn to read and write, skills that take time. In this instance I am not addressing just the skills of communicating in writing, but writing as a way of reflecting.
Dr. David Elton, who wrote the book entitled The Hurried Child, says that we do to our children what we do to ourselves. We fill their lives with sports, dance, and many other activities. We want them to learn French in the first grade, and we put them in a league uniform before they care anything about the game. The parents and coaches are the ones who care about winning and losing, not the children at that early age. Whatever happened to children just lying on their back and imagining shapes in the clouds? Whatever happened to wading in a creek and catching crawfish? To playing baseball until tired and then playing football for a while? To the carefree days of making up original games?
“He restores my soul.” Golf and fishing are two very different sports for me. I do not feel relaxed if I play a game of golf; I feel worn out and tired. For me, golf is extractive. Some people are extractive. Being around them makes us feel as if we have been in the presence of an emotional vampire. They suck the life out of us. Fishing, however, is a restorative activity for me. I find it has a healing quality, a soothing effect. People who have the gift of restoration affirm us. They cherish us.
Parenting can go one of two ways. Parents can use constructive criticism, which can often be severely harsh. Sometimes that approach beats children to a pulp. On the other hand, affirmation supports children in a positive manner. Catching children doing things right and telling them so has become a lost art.
During a garden walk at our house last Friday afternoon, some children there wanted to throw rocks into my pond. The parents objected, but I said, “It’s okay with me.”
They protested, “They’ll use up all the small rocks, and you won’t have any more.”
I said, “I can buy those rocks for $3 a bag. Let them throw all the rocks they want.”
They fussed, “You are acting just like a grandparent!”
I said, “It’s entirely your call. I do not want to be subversive here.” Grandparents can be subversive.
Do you know why grandparents and their grandchildren get along so well? They have a common enemy. Guess who that enemy is.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness…” We must teach our children to do what is right every time, every day for a lifetime. One way we can help them learn the paths of righteousness is by teaching the concepts expressed in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That Scripture provides guidance and instruction on what is right in every single instance. The Ten Commandments, the two Great Commandments, and the Golden Rule guide our children to walk with honesty and morality.
Notice that the psalmist adds, “…for his name’s sake” to this thought. Two barriers to good parenting that crop up repeatedly are pride and embarrassment. We can be so proud of what our children do; they make us look good. On the other hand, our children can make us look bad. If pride and embarrassment drive you as a person, you will not be a good parent. Good parents understand that what they do has to be for God. Our children are not created in our image. They may look like us and come from our gene pool, but they are created in the image of God. Whether biologically or by adoption, every single one of our children is created in His image. The phrase “for his name’s sake” means that we have the task of helping them become disciples of the Lord Jesus.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley…” This line addresses the many dark experiences encountered in the journey of life. As a teenager I went through the valley of the shadow of rebellion, which many adolescents also experience. More and more of our children are experiencing the valley of the shadow of war. At times every single one of us falls on our face and encounters the valley of the shadow of failure. Other dark valleys include the shadow of divorce, the shadow of grief, and the shadow of death.
“I will fear no evil for you are with me” is the second part of this thought. As our children and grandchildren endure those dark valleys, they need to know we are with them. We sometimes offer the gift of presents, but what they need most of all is the gift of presence. We must support our children, even if walking with them through the valley of dark shadows means accompanying them to a principal’s office or to a courtroom. We will go as far as possible to support them whatever the circumstance. They survive the dark valleys because we are with them.
I will never forget the day I was standing in the lumberyard when a man told my dad, “I’m about ready to give up on my boy! He has been arrested three times. I have had enough!”
Looking at that man and pointing a finger at him, my grandfather, using incorrect English, admonished, “Don’t you never give up on that boy! If you give up on him, who’s going to be with him? You cannot give up on your own child!”
“Your rod and your staff comfort me.” The rod and the staff are the tools of the shepherd. The staff, a tall stick with a crook on the end, is the instrument of correction, used for bringing sheep back onto the right path. Everyone has wandered off course and needs correction. Isaiah 53:6 tells us, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Sheep usually do not bolt and run. They just graze off in the wrong direction. The shepherd must constantly steer them back into the right way as gently as possible, using that staff. Likewise, we wander off in the wrong direction and need gentle nudging to push us back on the right path.
The rod, a short, blunt stick similar to a billy club, is terribly misunderstood. Shepherds use it for protection against predators. We know from David’s accounts of tending animals that lions and bears, as well as other kinds of animals, tried to devour the sheep under his care. We hear the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and think we must whip our children as punishment. Instead, we must look after them, giving them protection from the evil influences in their lives.
When people ask me if I ever spanked my children, I answer them in the same way Mr. Fred Rogers did: “I did not want to spank my children, but I did.”
My dad explained to someone that he raised four boys by wearing out the seat of their pants and the knees of his. I am not totally opposed to spanking, but it ought to be used as the last resource of correction.
A shepherd never used a rod against a sheep unless the animal was particularly unruly. He had to consider the consequences of using that club. If he struck the sheep and broke its front leg, the shepherd had the huge responsibility of carrying the sheep in his arms until the limb mended. Once healed, however, the sheep had created an unbreakable bond with the shepherd. Sometimes love must be tough, but it must be measured very carefully.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
A little boy who had been out-of-bounds all day went to meal time with his family. His mother informed him, “You must eat supper by yourself.” She set his place at the card table over by the side while everyone else sat at the dining room table. When the father called on this son to say the prayer of blessing, the child recited, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
How does that particular line from the psalm direct parents? It means we are to provide nourishment, nourishment even in the presence of things that hurt a child. I refer back to the Great Commandment. Jesus grew, according to the Scriptures in Luke 2, in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and other people. The Great Commandment says that we are to love God in those same ways with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our children grow in the same way that Jesus did.
If we are intentional about parenting, we care about the emotional side of our children. We care about their relationships and their heartaches resulting from broken courtships, broken dreams, or maybe the death of a peer. If they are to mature emotionally, they have to learn how to weather all of life’s despair. If they are to mature intellectually, we must teach them to think outside the box, to think for themselves. They need to at least try their hand at art and music, using both the right side and the left side of their brain. Physically, they must know how to care for themselves through exercise and hard work. Parents and grandparents, it is vital that we be attentive to obesity, which is a big problem among children.
The spiritual side of development is the area most neglected. Sometimes I hear parents say, “I wish the church would do more to help my children spiritually.” We will be glad to do more, but you must also take it upon yourself to teach them about Jesus. The greatest tool we have in this world for evangelism is the Christian home. If you want your children to know about and accept Christ, witness to them. Please do not put the spiritual growth of your children off on someone else. Help them grow.
“You anoint my head with oil. My cup runneth over” is simply a way of saying that we give our children a blessing. We have read about the conflict surrounding the blessing in the Old Testament with the story of Jacob, Isaac, and Esau.
Someone asked me recently if I was a foot-washing Baptist, and I answered that I have been for forty-three years. I wash feet every single night when the grandchildren are at our home. I let those who are ticklish wash their own feet, but I make sure they get clean.
We can pray for our children and give them our blessing by simply saying, “I love you” or “I am thankful for you.” I offered numerous prayers for our children when they were sound asleep. I have repeated that practice for grandchildren who spend the night with us. I go to each bed, place my hand on the child’s head, and pray. I also pray for every child and grandchild by name every day. We talk about dedicating our children; we also need to bless them every day.
Someone asked my dad how he remembered the names of every one of his great-grandchildren. He answered, “I pray for all of my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren by name every single day. You do not have trouble remembering names when you do that.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Grace is God’s unmerited love for us. Sparky Anderson said that grace is getting something we do not deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve. This line in Psalm 23 means that God has unconditionally accepted us, that He has given us the gift of forgiveness.
“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” When I recite Psalm 23 at a funeral, I am referring to heaven when I say “the house of the Lord.” I also think about Hannah taking Samuel to the temple and dedicating him to the Lord. Samuel became a part of “the house of God.” In daily life this line means that we must remember always that our children do not belong to us. They belong to God. So I recite this little poem:
Your children are not your children. They are like arrows In the hand of the Great Archer. And you are the bow, Bent and drawn taut to release them In the direction The Archer wants them to go.
As I pondered Psalm 23 this past week, I realized how much I have learned from my father and grandfather. God has blessed my life through them. My prayer is that God has blessed your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren in the same way.
Is the Lord your Shepherd? Is God your divine parent? Have you put your faith and trust in Christ Jesus? On this Father’s Day, we extend to you the invitation to acknowledge Christ Jesus as Savior. You respond as God leads.Kirk H. Neely © June 2013