-Walter Howard, Staff Director
Thanks to Facebook’s Memories on this Date, during the last two weeks, I have been periodically reminded that four years ago, I was traveling through Israel with coworkers and friends. It was a life changing trip at the time, exploring Biblical lands and learning from Ray Vanderlaan, a teacher whose works had impacted me since before I even knew who he was. His “Faith Study” trips, and teachings in general, serve to help Americans (or “Westerners”, as he liked to call us) understand the culture and “Eastern” customs that the authors and heroes of the Bible lived and breathed. This insight allowed us to “step into the story”, and to understand the stories in a deeper and fuller way than I had known from just reading them.
So for two weeks, we hiked through the desert, and climbed mountains, and waded in the Jordan, and stood overlooking the valley where David probably faced Goliath. And throughout the day, RVL would call us together and have us read or recite a familiar passage from Scripture, and then say, “Look around you. This is what it would’ve looked like, or felt like. Can you see it? Can you picture it? Does the text come alive?”
To be honest, some times the text didn’t come alive and I was hot and sweaty and my feet hurt and I couldn’t remember the name of where we were standing and therefore didn’t understand why it was important that something happened to the right of us as opposed to the left of us. But fortunately, many times, the text did come alive in a very powerful way. When overlooking the Sea of Galilee and imagining Jesus and the disciples walking along the shore, I was struck with how close everything was and how it made sense that they could hop in a boat and row from one city to the next. Or visiting a wine press that would’ve been similar to where Jesus was probably staying before His crucifixion, knowing that the weight of what lay before Him would cause Him to sweat drops of blood the same way the grapes would be pressed to make wine, I was overwhelmed with the reminder that Scripture is historically accurate and these things really did happen.
Another simpler lesson, but just as profound, was something we learned while walking through the desert. First of all, the deserts in Israel are not sandy dunes, like I had always pictured. They are rocky and mountainous and dusty. There are occasional shrubs and trees, but it is mainly rocks and boulders, and you’re just as likely to twist your ankle as you are anything else.
So in this desert of rocks and shrubs, we considered God’s promises to His people that He would be their source of provision. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 23, God, as the Good Shepherd, wants to lead his people, symbolized as sheep, to green pastures.
Now pause right there.
When you hear the phrase, “green pastures”, what comes to mind? If you picture prairies with waist high grass or horses grazing on green hillsides as far as the eye can see, you’re not alone. Or at least, that’s what I always thought because that’s what I’d seen in America. However, standing in the middle of the desert, looking for as far as the eye could see, there was nothing of the sort. So is that passage metaphorical? Or did the desert used to not be the desert? Or was God talking about a magical place that we need to accept with blind faith?
No. None of the above. What we learned is that, to the shepherd, small tufts of grass (we’d probably think they were weeds if we saw them growing up between cracks in the sidewalk) scattered every five to ten feet, maybe a single mouthful to a hungry sheep, is what the Biblical people would’ve considered “green pastures”. Now this threw a temporary wrench in my understanding of God’s goodness and ability to provide. I thought, “the more grass the better. Why not lead them to fields where they could just roll around in grass for days?”
While that option would’ve probably been what the sheep would’ve voted for, it misses the point that God is trying to make, and is lost on us if we don’t understand the cultural implications. With little bits of grass scattered about the desert, the sheep are continually dependent on a wise and loving shepherd to guide them to the next bit of grass. It’s not a one time event, but an ongoing relationship. In my non-biblical interpretation, the good shepherd could just drop the sheep off at the pasture, and they wouldn’t need him anymore, at least not for daily provision.
So the takeaway for me was twofold: one, understanding what the desert was really like gives me a better understanding of how dependent God’s people were on Him to provide food and water and shade and direction. And two, that God was trying to use those things to teach them the deeper principle that life is found solely in Him. He is the Good Shepherd who wants to have an ongoing relationship with His people, whom He wants to continue to look to Him for His provision in the right amount and right time. Just like the little bits of grass were just enough for the sheep as they journeyed through the desert, God’s provision is often just enough for what we need in the moment, for that moment.
So for me, being reminded of many of those lessons from four years ago, I’ve also been reminded of how much I’ve forgotten since then. I am “sheepishly” reminded by Facebook, “Oh yeah, I spent two weeks walking in Biblical lands, studying the text, being encouraged by the validity and richness of Scripture, and being challenged to live out my faith in light of that.” I told you it was a life changing trip, and it was at the time, but just like a sheep that’s forgotten how he came to “discover” all these green pastures, I am reminded how easy it is to forget the second part of the example: that God wants to be my continual Good Shepherd and my daily source of provision, in His perfect timing.
So for you, I would hope that you would pause for a few minutes and be reminded of what God has been up to in your life over the last few years. What are the lessons He has taught you and the ways He has opened your eyes to the richness of His Word? And secondly, how has He provided in little, daily, hourly, moment by moment, step by step ways, to lead you to your own green pastures? Maybe not the “everything you’ve ever wanted and could ever hope to imagine pastures”. But the pastures where you see His loving hand, guiding and providing for you, while continually reminding you that He will never leave you, and never lead you astray.
I hope you’ll take a few moments and be reminded.