A cartoon in a New Yorker magazine once showed two women who have met at a restaurant. One woman says, “You know, I can’t believe how happy I’ve been lately. Trouble is, I don’t know whether it’s me or my vitamins.”
Most of us know why we are happy, if we are. The Lord is our Shepherd. I suspect no chapter in the Bible has provided so many spiritual vitamins to so many people as the 23rd Psalm. “He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul ….” If we could but allow that confidence to live in our hearts permanently, our faces would glow with an assurance that the world cannot know.
One theologian, when asked what question he would put to the Sphinx in Egypt, if he were given only one chance, replied that he would ask, “Is the universe really friendly?” The Bible’s answer, at the least, is unequivocal: Yes, the universe is friendly. God is a good and loving shepherd.
Where else does our hope in this world lie? During the early part of the Vietnam War, we heard reports of a “light at the end of the tunnel.” But that hope never materialized. Another New Yorker cartoon shows a dejected-looking man emerging from a tunnel. Why is he so downcast? The caption reads, “He discovered that the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey.” Human leaders and human institutions offer only limited and fragile hope, as we realized time and time again during the presidential campaign in the fall of 2012. But when we put our hope in God, we look beyond the realm of human limitations.
Two goldfish were swimming around and around in a big glass bowl. One announced, rather crankily, that he had just become an atheist. “Oh fine, fine,” scoffed the other fish. “But explain to me who it is that you think changes the water in this bowl?” That goldfish was wiser than many people. It seems that we humans take for granted the fact that our lives often, though not always, seem stable enough, and that the air often seems fresh and invigorating, and that water is usually quite plentiful, except when a drought beckons. But suppose we had been brought up in a religious atmosphere that saw the world as being basically “hostile.”
The late great Asian Christian, Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960), born in Kobe, Japan, was brought up in such an atmosphere. That is why the Gospel brought him so much joy and enthusiasm for life itself. Kagawa was a Japanese Christian pacifist, reformer and labor activist, who in 1923 lived through one of the greatest earthquakes ever, which reduced Tokyo and Yokohama to smoking ruins (you can Google his life).
He writes: “I lived in lonesome fright right up to age 11, in the country of Awa Province. There I was told that we would be cursed for such an act as spitting on the soil, and that evil spirits inhabiting mountains, rivers and deep wells would damn us for slight misdeeds. There were supposed to be devils in ponds, water imps in streams and ghosts in solitary places. Thus I spent my boyhood in the midst of fear and terror. Nowhere in the universe was there love or affection, nor any friend who would sustain me (he might have concluded that the 1923 earthquake was punishment for Japanese immorality and bad behavior had he not been impacted by the Christian faith by then). It was the greatest joy for me to learn finally that the essence of the universe is love and that God is a merciful Father, even in the midst of adversity and calamity.
“The good tidings of Jesus lie in the belief that the essence of the universe is an affectionate Creator, however dark the night may be and however fiercely the tempest may roar. Here is the infallible remedy for moral madness. And this is the power of Christianity that has completely refashioned one-third of this world’s history”.
The Lord is our Shepherd — what power there is in such knowledge. The universe is friendly. I can live my life today confident that, in “Star Wars” terminology, “the Force is with me.” But it’s more than an Impersonal Force — it’s a shepherd, a counselor, a comforter, a parent and a friend.
C.S. Lewis insists that our biggest surprise when we see God will be that He will not look all that strange to us. We’ll not have the foggiest notion until that very hour how He will look, but when we see Him we’ll know that we’ve always known Him. And we’ll realize with a startling feeling what part He has played during many an hour in our lives when we have thought ourselves to be alone. That fleeting sense we’ve often had of someone friendly nearby, or of some good “omen” or wishful thought or a suddenly hopeful awareness residing in the back of our minds will be explained then. Those central musical themes that sing through every moment of happiness, and then evade our memory for a season, will be recovered. For we won’t say to the Almighty, when we see Him, “Who are you?” We will rather say, “So — it was you — all the while.”
God’s goodness is so special!
Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist and United Methodist pastor residing in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen. He may be reached at email@example.com.