Herding sheep has never been a safe occupation, at least when it comes to the flock of God. Maybe I just never got the hang of the rod and staff but I’ve been plenty scared lots of times. For example, I came to our last church at a very scary time. There were simmering conflicts. People didn’t trust each other. Most were disheartened. We were six weeks from bankruptcy. People were leaving. My very first Sunday I found myself having to arbitrate a looming split. I was so frightened. Then God brought Psalm 16 to me.
Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord [Yahweh], “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
Pastors spend a lot of time helping God’s people fend off fear but sometimes, when it is our fear, pursuing God’s peace is a pretty lonely endeavor. In Psalm 16 David took his fear by the hand and marched into Israel’s National Archives to review God’s covenant with Israel. There, in God’s ancient and timeless promises, his prayer for God’s protection got a grip.
In those first weeks I specifically remember coming to verse 3:
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
I had already seen some disturbing behavior in my new congregation. Others were disillusioned and eyeing the door. I wondered just what kind of people I had come to pastor. Then I read how the shepherd-king David saw God’s protection among God’s saints, like God telling Elijah, “I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.”
There are holy people in this beleaguered congregation, I realized. Noble, splendid, high-born people of God who will help keep me safe and be the delight of my life. I wrote the date, 2/98, in the margin. Twenty-two years later when it came time to say goodbye I looked back on the safety and joy they’d brought me.
This psalm reminds us that we are not alone. We have precious brothers and sisters. The Message say it this way, “These God-chosen lives all around—what splendid friends they make!”
One night years ago I faced the wrath of a couple who felt I’d not adequately supported them. They’d asked to see me and insisted another elder and some friends be present also. The Lord pointed me to 1 Peter 2:23, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate,” so I bit my lip and kept quiet as they laid into me. But when they left I was black and blue. And, being a pastor, I had to go straight into another meeting as if nothing had happened.
It was about 9:30pm when everyone left. I was bone-tired and shaken. As I walked out of my office into the dark foyer I noticed a light on in the church library. I went to shut it off and found Tom there. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I heard you had kind of a rough meeting,” he said.
“Yeah, it was,” I agreed. Tears came to my eyes. When I regained my composure I asked, “Have you been waiting all this time? How did you know how long I’d be?”
“I didn’t,” Tom said, “but I would have waited here all night to be sure you were alright.” And he hugged me.
Yes, David, “what splendid friends they make!”
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.