Learning the unforced rhythms of grace

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Irritations and Oil

The 2007 version...but I love my 1970 version...it's worn out and I love it. :)

The 2007 version...but I love my 1970 version...it's worn out and I love it. :)

I found a treasure in a second hand store! Phillip Keller wrote a book in 1970 called A Shepherd's Guide to Psalm 23. It has since been re-published in 2007. Keller was born in East Africa and understood first hand what it meant to run a well operated sheep ranch. He wrote the book to give those of us who live the city life a deeper understanding of what the Psalm is really about. I have been reading this book slowly, and meditating on the thoughts for a few months now. Personally, it has been a great exercise to focus on one Psalm and seek deeper insights through a book as God brings understanding. 

As he uses each chapter to describe each verse, one of the chapters in particular intrigued me.

In verse 5, it says, "You anoint my head with oil" and of course the Psalm is written as if the sheep is speaking.  I always assumed that anointing with oil meant something of honour...of giving dignity or blessing to someone. So I assumed that David, the shepherd, was speaking on behalf of the sheep as if the sheep felt honoured by God. 

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Keller describes it much differently. He says that in the summer, sheep are tormented by flies especially around the nose and eyes. In order to find relief from this irritation, the sheep will beat their heads against trees, rub their faces in the ground, or panic and begin to toss their heads around or run frantically to get away. The result of this is that they are so distracted by the irritation, they are unable to sleep and graze in the warm sunny pastures, drink water and rest. They exhaust and harm themselves trying to find relief. The ewes will refuse to feed their lambs and the whole flock suffers.

Shepherds know this and at the first sign of these summer flies, they apply an ointment or oil to the sheep's face.  It soothes the irritation and as the flies disappear, the sheep are able to feed on the grass, find refreshment and lie down contentedly. 

What intrigued me about this is the order in which the irritation was dealt with. The flies still existed. They were not killed or sprayed with a chemical that made them drop dead at the scene. They were repelled by the oil and flew away. They were unable to irritate because of the protection on the sheep. 

My default reaction is to think that irritations need to be dealt with first and then contentment will come. I want to swat the flies, eliminate them, and then I'll be able to relax. So perhaps that means I will tackle my to-do list with a frantic energy or find a way to fix something that's broken. I might be tempted to talk about a situation with someone to try and feel better...I might be tempted to shop for some new clothes because I feel kinda ugly one day. If I just swat that fly, I can relax. 

So what does it look like to do the opposite? What does it mean to trust our Shepherd enough that when the flies come, we say, "Please, anoint my head with oil" ... "soothe my irritation" ... "keep me from distracting, restless energy so I can eat, get refreshed, sleep and be well". 

Let's ask the Lord to answer this question for us today. It will look different for each of us. But I imagine that He is excited to reveal specific ways that He longs to anoint our heads with soothing oil and give us a break from our spastic ways of trying to find relief.