Who Restores My Soul

The Lord is my shepherd, who restores my soul. As we continue our summer look at the 23rd Psalm, we suddenly find out that this shepherd is much more than just a shepherd. Not only do the sheep have their needs met and find themselves in grassy places and beside calm water, but this shepherd is also apparently in the business of nothing less than soul restoration.

The word “soul” in Hebrew is not all that precise. “Soul” could just as well be translated “self”. And the word for “restore” is also translated “return”. So the meaning of this phrase lies somewhere between “restores my soul” and “returns myself.” And even though the latter makes it sound like we’re being dropped off at the great central library, the implication is the same: we have become less than ourselves, and the shepherd wants us to be whole again.

Part of that purpose is reflected in our lessons this morning, reminding us of both the command and the need for Sabbath. If this feels like familiar ground, that’s because we were just here two weeks ago, talking about Sabbath. And rather than belabor the point, I’ll simply review and summarize. Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments, and we seem to revel in breaking it. Sabbath is about rest: we work hard, we play hard, and we give our bodies and souls time to recover.

In short, we need Sabbath; but we act like we don’t. And that’s why I think it’s worth returning to this topic so soon again. It is very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are capable enough to handle everything that comes our way. But when we do finally stop, when we sit, rest, listen, we know the truth: we need Sabbath it because our souls, our very selves, require it. Life demands many things of us, and these things chip away at our truest self. Over time, we become less than who we were created to be. We feel that need to be whole, and this is the promise that Sabbath holds out for us: restoration; healing; wholeness.

What strikes me about today’s lessons is that they uphold the need for Sabbath. Our reading from Exodus is from the Ten Commandments, so that’s not surprising. But the letter to the Hebrews was written at a time when early Christians were struggling to understand their relationship to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish identity. Some practices, like circumcision and keeping kosher, fell by the wayside. Given that we are talking about people who followed Jesus, who seemed to relish not playing by the rules, that’s also not surprising. But Sabbath keeping is still recommended as a faithful practice – not only so that we bind ourselves with God, but also so that we do not tempt others to disobey. In other words, we have obligations to strengthen and encourage each other.

Do we do that? In some ways, I think we do. There are churches where the time before and after worship is prime time for business connections, comparing notes on vacations and cars and the like. But none of that seems to matter here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. I have described us as a church that is in Brookhaven, but not of Brookhaven, if that makes sense. In other words, we are a church of our community. And we love and serve that community. At the same time, we know that there is much more purpose to life than the rat race, the bigger, better, faster, stronger that too easily infects our society. We put a high value on service. We prioritize relationships. We have unconditional welcome.

But…do we encourage one another in the rhythms of faith? Do we put in time to study? We say we value Sunday School, and yet, we don’t attend. Do we build our schedules so that we have a regular habit of prayer? I would like to believe so. Do we give one another permission to say “no”, recognizing that there are a multitude of demands for our time? Most of our meetings and events end up being on Sunday – worship, education, committees, session, meals, and so on – meaning that we maximize the one free day that many of us have, but those who are actually working those events end up just as exhausted on Sunday as on any other day.

I know full well that I’m much better at asking the questions, than suggesting the answers. That said, I’m not sure the problem with Sabbath troubles us as much as I think it should. If we in the church cannot encourage one another to honor the Sabbath, where are we going to get that encouragement?

So I hope you will hear this from me, and despite how it sounds, I mean this as a word of grace: the world does not need you as badly as you think it does. It will keep on turning whether you attack that endless “to do” list or not. And though the world may not need you, God does. But the way God needs you and the way the world uses you are two very different things. God, our Lord, the shepherd of the Psalm, is the one who commands you to rest. More than anything else, the shepherd desires your restoration. Trust it. Trust yourself to that same God, because with the God we know in Jesus Christ, all things are possible!