Psalm 23 Revisited
by Aneel Aranha
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.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
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
One of the things I love about Scripture is the way it paints pictures in bright, vibrant colors that are so vivid, I feel drawn right into them. Psalm 23—which is nearly everybody's favorite psalm—is an ideal example. The instant I start reading it, I find myself transported into a meadow with lush green grass stretching out as far as the eye can see. A clear blue lake shimmers on one side. On the other side, a shepherd walks among his flock, staff in hand, watching over them.
The sheep are safe, because they are under the care of a shepherd who loves them enough to give his life for them. He won't run away when he sees the wolf coming, like the hired hand would. The sheep need never fear any danger—as long as they stay close to their master. But, as wooly headed as they are wooly bodied, they keep straying close to the gate, tempted by the lure of greener pastures on the other side of the fence. It is only when they wander across and begin feeding do they discover the grass is infested with snakes.
Sheep are, admittedly, foolish creatures and have no real concept of the danger that awaits them. But we are surely wiser. Or are we? It seems to me that we can be woollier headed than sheep. A lady once came to me for advice. Married with two children, she found herself attracted to another man. I spent the better part of a morning telling her what she undoubtedly already knew she had to do, and how to do it. She went away promising she would break off all contact with the man and immerse herself in prayer. Two weeks later she called to say she was deep into an affair and couldn't extricate herself from it. Or wouldn't. "It is so beautiful," she simpered.
That's a good description of sin: beautiful. If it was ugly, we wouldn't engage in it. But it's gorgeous to look at. It entices us, like lush green grass entices the sheep to the other side of the fence, and only once we embrace it do we see it's real face, with its beady eyes protruding out of bloody sockets and its fetid breath. By then it is too late; we are locked in its evil grip and it isn't long before our lives begin resembling the aftermath of a bomb blast. The woman's marriage is in shreds today—as is the man's—and strewn amidst the wreckage are the lives of innocent children and countless other casualties, all the result of two people who willfully chose the path of destruction.
The same story, with minor variations in theme, is being repeated all over the world. We're lured into hundreds of sins—all with the promise that "it's so beautiful", and are then devastated by the pain and anguish that sin always brings. What causes me the most sadness is that it is so unnecessary. The pastures where the good shepherd—Jesus, of course—has us lie down are far greener than anything that you will find elsewhere. They are so satisfying and filling, it is positively stupid to even look for, much less want to graze in, other pastures.
True, danger abounds here too, but nobody who stays close to the shepherd has reason to be afraid. Though we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" we need fear no evil, because Jesus is with us, protecting us. The level of protection is directly proportional to the distance that we keep to him. The farther you move away from him, the greater the risk you put yourself in. I have been hurt so badly as a result of my recklessness in the past, I rarely move more than a couple of feet away from him anymore. It puts me in a position of immense strength and though the enemy does launch his assaults every now and then, he ends up utterly humiliated. I have a few experiences in this matter that you might take some encouragement from, so I relate them here.
I formally launched Holy Spirit Interactive (HSI) on January 1, 2004. A few months earlier, I invited a few friends to take a look at the HSI web site, which was to be one of the pillars of the HSI ministry. The invitation was a private one, mainly intended to get some feedback on the site. One of the invitees picked up on what he believed to be an anti-Mary slant in two of the pages on the site, although all those pages contained were verses from Scripture, with both Catholic and Protestant interpretations presented. He promptly spread the word that the site wasn't kosher. I will never forget what followed. Self-appointed guardians of the Church—all lay people posturing as leaders of the Catholic community—took it upon themselves to defend what they thought was an onslaught against the Church, and came down heavily on me.
Given the obsessive—often irrational—hatred many Catholics seem to have for their Protestant brothers, the easiest way to destroy a Catholic ministry is to call its founder Protestant and rumors to the effect started flying. Never mind that I had acknowledged the vital role that Mary had played in bringing me back to God, never mind that I went for mass every morning, never mind that I was under spiritual direction from a Catholic priest, never mind that I was out there engaged in promoting, teaching and defending Catholicism: a few people seemed determined to prove that I was Protestant in my beliefs and went about doing so with a vehemence that was frightening to see. Soon, thereafter, scurrilous rumors about my character began floating about, along with questions about my motives in being a Christian. There were some people who actually went about saying that I was working under instructions from the evil one! This would have been laughable had it not been for the fact that the people making these claims were allegedly "anointed" people whom quite a few took seriously!
Gandhi once said that he loved Christianity but loathed Christians because he found so little of Christ in them. I couldn't help finding myself in agreement, and for the second time in my life, I didn't want to have anything to do with Christians or Christianity anymore! I wanted to return to my old life and the people I knew. They were an unholy lot, for sure, but at least they didn't pretend to be anything else. It was then that Jesus spoke to me through Psalm 23. "Don't quit," he said. "Stick with me and I promise you that I will set a banquet before you in the presence of your enemies."
I nearly quit anyway, but in the end sheer bullheadedness made me hang on. I am so glad that I did. HSI took off like a space shuttle leaving the ground at Cape Canaveral. It gained almost immediate acceptance in Catholic circles, with priests advising parishioners from pulpits across the world to visit the site. Praise poured in from the clergy, including Bishops and even the occasional Cardinal. Some very anointed Catholic writers, most associated with powerful ministries, began contributing material. And to cap it all, the Vicariate adopted it as its own. The "enemies" could only watch in stunned silence as Jesus kept his promise, serving up meal after meal after meal right before their very eyes!
HSI completed a year on December 2004, and as I thanked God for making it far more successful than even I had ever dreamed in just twelve months, he made another promise. "That was only for starters," he said. "The main course is yet to come!" It is being served even as I write this. HSI now has an Outreach Program, which uses music, drama and dance to reach out to people. An ongoing Discipleship Program is bringing countless Christians closer to God and one another. A Global Intercessory Prayer Circle has hundreds of people from all over the world putting differences aside and uniting in prayer. And much else is happening that is truly wonderful.
I tell this story for a reason, and it has nothing to do with blowing any trumpets. I tell this story to encourage all those out there who want to spread the word of God not to quit when they find themselves persecuted. Being a Christian is not easy; it is one of the hardest things you could think of doing in this world. Bringing other people to Christ is harder still, and often made practically impossible by an abundance of "enemies". These are, of course, the evil one and his lackeys, but they have to use people to perpetrate their schemes.
You might think the people being used would come from outside the Church, but most of them lie right within: small minded, self-righteous and sanctimonious people who are more concerned with guarding their turfs, or ensuring that "rules" are followed, rather than being the people whom Christ asks them to be. Most people who want to take Jesus to others give up in frustration or, more often, leave the Church to start up splinter units, doing no real good other than dividing the body of Christ further.
I tell them what Jesus told me: Don't give up! Don't give up what you feel called to do, or the Church, because giving up plays right into the hands of the enemy. Find yourself a good spiritual advisor—preferably a priest—who can help you in discerning what is right and what isn't, and steer you in the correct direction. Then put your trust in the Good Shepherd who will lead you in paths of righteousness. He will protect you as you travel through the valley of death. And when the enemy launches his assaults on you—and he most certainly will—Jesus will invite you to a banquet and prepare the table just for you! And as your enemies watch in shock, unable to understand why their schemes to take you down didn't work, he will anoint your head with oil and bless you so abundantly, your cup will overflow.
Surely, only goodness and mercy can then follow you for the rest of your life.
May the Spirit be with you.
The article above was written nearly four years ago. Since then the persecution has not decreased but increased. Lay people who ascend into positions of leadership more due to their political skills and intimidatory tactics rather than spiritual grace ensure that their positions are secure by putting down everybody who might dare to be a threat to them, often going so far as influencing priests into taking confrontational stands. They have tried the same with HSI. What is the result of such tactics? Holy Spirit Interactive, which completes five years this year, has become one of the fastest growing Catholic lay apostolates in the world, reaching over two million people each month through thirteen full fledged ministries. We expect this figure to double by the end of next year. (Nov 17, 2008)
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Copyright © 2005 Aneel Aranha. All rights reserved. Image by Simon Dewey courtesy Jesus Te Llama