Monday, July 02, 2007

Reflections on Psalm 23: "I shall not want" and nature deficit disorder

We don't go to the mall very often, but this weekend we stopped by our local mall for a food court dinner. And being there reinforced once again how easy it is to be a consumer in our society. Hey, a Cinnabon sounds good. Maybe a pretzel. Look, a coconut creme latte. And that's just the food court - never mind the stores themselves. I dropped into a gaming store and glanced at enticing new Heroclix and Star Wars miniatures before fleeing.

Several years ago while having a personal retreat experience, I meditated on Psalm 23, and even though it's such a familiar passage, the line "I shall not want" jumped out at me in a fresh way. It occurred to me that there's so much that I want. I want to try a new Frappucino flavor. I want to pick up some more comic books. I want season 3 of Lost to come out on DVD sooner. Sometimes it's material stuff, but often it's not - I want my kids to behave better, I want more time to read, I want clarity on some decisions. Regardless, I want this or that. And the psalmist says, "I shall not want."

Of course, the notion behind not wanting is directly tied to God's identity as shepherd - his provision, his protection, his guidance and care. It's because God is truly our shepherd that we truly lack for nothing. And it occurs to me that a direct implication of this is that not only should we not want, but that we should also be channels of provision for those who are in want. Just like a key practical implication of the Lord's Prayer is that if God has provided for our own daily bread, then we should extend that prayer to others who do not have daily bread and see if there are ways that we can provide daily bread for them.

Also this weekend I read an article about "nature deficit disorder" (a term popularized by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods) and the fact that our kids spend far more time indoors playing with video games and electronics than they do outside in nature. In response, there are movements now advocating "No Child Left Inside" to get kids playing outdoors. And it occurs to me that there's a direct connection between verse 1 and verse 2 of Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And how exactly does the Lord shepherd me? He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.

In other words, he gets us out into his good creation. For those of us surrounded by suburban consumer culture of malls and big box stores, one of the main ways that we can counteract consumer covetousness is to enjoy the natural world that God has created. We can go for walks in the woods, play in parks, breathe fresh air. That's a primary way that he restores our souls. So Ellen and I took the kids for a walk last night, and we chatted with some neighbors and played hide-and-seek in the park. That was more restorative to our souls than any consumer purchase we could have made. Thanks be to God.


paul m. said...

Hi Al,

First time commenter, here. I have enjoyed your blog for some months since I discovered your book on Christianity in Suburbia, my mission context for the time.

I spoke with graduating high schoolers at our church recently about this topic of Jesus as our Good Shepherd and how we want. They're off to college and the experimentation that comes with being away from parental constraints and discovering a deeper identity beyond high school. Inevitably, they may look at their life in the church and it's "green pastures" of the Word in hymns, prayers, and sacraments. I wondered with them if they wouldn't look on the other side of the field and begin to want other greener pastures.

They may escape behind a bend and begin their life in the other pastures where their wants are fulfilled. I think we are all like them at many points in our lives. Jesus provides for us green pastures, but that nasty thing in us wants other grass and we wander our sheepish selves over there. Jesus provides love, but we prefer the selfish version of it. Jesus provides peace, but it comes at the cost of us leaving our grudges. Jesus provides justice, but that same justice applies to us so we wander to the pastures where it doesn't.

When I read this psalm, I see that Jesus gives us a certain peace about not wanting that latte or that new watch or that new video game. That peace is content for his greener pastures.

I think that this kind of peace for us in Suburbia can primarily be found by supplying, as you say, the daily bread for those who might not have it. And by supplying, I mean passing along the gifts that God has given us. Our stuff really isn't ours anyway. Though they seem lacking certain things, when I am in close proximity with them, I find that they provide me with the daily bread of being content with my lot in life. Though they have so "little" in my estimation, I find that I'm the one with "little."

Anyway, some extra thoughts for you. Keep up the great work!


Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, Paul! Good thoughts. I've been reading the Seven Basic Plots book, and it occurs to me that the theme of "greener pastures" fits the archetype of the "voyage and return" story, whether it's the parable of the prodigal son or The Wizard of Oz. I suspect there is something of a dual learning to be content with the pastures that God has provided for us as well as generating a sense of holy discontent with the state of the pastures of the world around us.

To take the metaphor a different direction, it is also that the shepherd leads us to certain pastures and not others. We may find ourselves missionally displaced in places that don't feel like green pastures, but that dislocation may be for the sake of the kingdom, that the presence of the shepherd (and the sheep) benefits that land.

L.L. Barkat said...

Al, which Seven Basic Plots book? Sounds interesting.

I realize that the Psalmist didn't have the option of urban or rural... rural was his context... but I agree that there is an inherent healing quality available in creation.

I say "available" because I think people can also feel profoundly lost and overwhelmed in a natural setting. Having God as companion can make a big difference. (Interestingly, though, a psychologist friend of mine tells me that natural things like green fields and flowers actually have a calming physiological effect on both men and women.)

Al Hsu said...

L.L. - The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (currently linked on my "on my nightstand" list) is a massive study of literary themes and archetypes and is great for its wealth of classic and contemporary examples, from Shakespeare to Star Wars. Fascinating reading, especially to think of biblical narratives in these terms. (Samson fits the classic tragedy, Joseph is a version of the "rags-to-riches" story, etc.)

And I'm certainly not saying that rural/wilderness areas are inherently better than urban/suburban areas. But for those of us surrounded by concrete, human-made environments all the time, natural creation provides a healthy corrective to our default setting. (And since you're reading my book, when you get to ch. 7, you'll see that I fully affirm that we can and do experience God in both the wilderness and the suburbs, in different ways.)

Anonymous said...

Al -- I think this must be why I am neglecting the inside of myself so much this summer in favor of being outside. On my walk home, I encounter a lot of pavement and concrete. When I get home, it's nice to be outside with the grass and flowers and trees. So refreshing after a day in the office. And yes, so different when I remember the creator that made it rather than just focusing on the creation itself.

backyardmissionary said...

I like your points and was right with you until you linked 'makes me lie down in green pastures/still waters' to getting out in creation more.

I would have seen that as a more metaphorical statement (given that we are not sheep!)