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Cover image: Home by Greg Olsen.
Easter of 2018 is a remarkable and historic one for us as members of the Church. On Easter Sunday, (April 1, 2018) as we celebrate the risen Savior and His perfect life, we will all be together through the miracle of technology in General Conference. We will sustain President Russell M. Nelson as our Prophet, Seer and Revelator for the first time! We will also sustain a new apostle. We will gather in the knowledge and power that we are covenant members of the Lord’s restored Gospel.
We need to be prepared for this event! I earnestly want to feel Him standing beside me and to expand my capacity to understand. I am prayerfully reviewing Easter scriptures and last October’s conference. I am also treasuring two very special books that bring it all to life in marvelous ways that deserve to be shared.
A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23
By Phillip Keller
Who doesn’t love and carry vivid images in their hearts and minds of the 23rd Psalm? Who doesn’t seek for ways to bring His perfect life and love more vividly into our minds and hearts with a wish for Him to heal our maladies great and small? Especially at Easter! Here two books that may bless you, as they have for me, with a greater sense of His being right beside me.
The gift of a couple of unexpected hours in a thrift store with shelves and shelves of books yielded an unexpected pearl of great price for me: A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller. A quick check on Amazon revealed how special it really is. First published in 1970, it is nearly 50 years old! It has been republished several times since, with many millions sold. There were nearly 900 joyful and tender-hearted reviews with comments that I now fully understand and agree to with equal gratitude.
Phillip Keller (1920-1997) was a shepherd in his youth and made it a full-time profession in his early adult years. He later became a pastor, a specialist in animal husbandry and a photographer who travelled the world. Unlike most of us in the 21st century who do not live on farms and know little of raising livestock, he knew the requirements for a flock of sheep to be healthy and well cared for. Just like King David who wrote the 23rd Psalm! As a pastor devoted to his own flock/congregation, he was inspired to create a series of sermons for his congregation based on his experiences as a shepherd. This book is the published version of those sermons.
In “A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23”, each line of the Psalm is its own chapter. From the first few paragraphs in the first chapter, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ it is surprising to see that there is far more sheer backbreaking work involved for the devoted shepherd than the idyllic pictures we have in our minds. The images of a serene and devoted shepherd with a crook, watching or holding a little lamb are a far cry from the long hours and days spent sowing seeds in pastures and getting up in the middle of the night to lead sheep to water. In these pages are born new visions of the great labors of the Savior and His devotion to us, new visions of ourselves as the needy and sometimes silly sheep who need such diligent tender care and new visions of what we can do to please Him.
While each line of the Psalm is its own chapter, unbeknownst to the average reader, King David is actually taking us through an entire year in the mindful tending of a flock. Brother Keller (the author of the book) does the same, each line of the poem and each season in turn, which is how David (the author of the Psalm) wrote it. Along with the flock’s continual need for food, water, and protection from enemies, injury and illness, each season has its own particular challenges
For example In Chapter 8, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”. It sounds so simple and serene! Yet, this is a very tricky feat for the shepherd because sheep (like young toddlers) have their own strong ideas about where and when to lay down. We learn that the purpose of lying down in the green pastures of Spring is to “ruminate” or chew their cud to properly eat and digest their food. The shepherd wants only to assist them, but they will not lie down if they are hungry, disturbed by the antics of other sheep, fearful of predators or bothered by flies, insects, the weather of the day or parasites. That hard-earned contentment of sheep lying down is a testament to a very skilled shepherd who has helped his sheep overcome those conditions and provide security for his flock!
There are many fascinating things to learn in each chapter, i.e. Chapter 8: “Thy rod and they staff, they comfort me.” A shepherd’s “rod” is not the long staff that we usually see. Instead, it is an additional strong stick that is chosen with great care from the sapling of a tree, then fashioned (using the knotty section of where the tree trunk branches into the roots) into a valuable and extremely personal tool that is considered to be a literal extension of the shepherd’s arm. It is used in various ways to protect their sheep and flocks and to distract predators. Young shepherds may spend a lot of time choosing, making and learning how to use their rod. Some areas even have competitions and exhibitions where young shepherds throw their rods with great skill.
Sometimes it is used to lightly rest along the back of a favorite sheep while they walk along the trail as an expression of affection as the rod is literally an extension of the shepherd’s arm.
The staff, sometimes with the crook as we are most familiar with, is a different tool used to gather and to herd the sheep.
After eloquently telling us about the shepherd’s experience in caring for his flock with what each line is actually saying in terms of the care for a real flock of sheep, the author, who was also a pastor, then likens that segment to real life, real people, and the Savior’s devotion and unending love for us, His little flock.
Perhaps the best way for you to feel the beauty and power of this book is to share a few paragraphs: Here are highlights of Chapter 10.
“Thou Annointest My Head With Oil …”
As one meditates on this magnificent poem, it is helpful to keep in mind that the poet is recounting the events in the full year in a sheep’s life …. Here now, the sheep are in the summer.
Summer is a sublime setting on the high meadows, where there are clear running springs, where the forage is fresh and tender, where there is the intimate close contact with the shepherd. Suddenly we find “a fly in the ointment” so to speak.
In the terminology of the sheepman, “summer time is fly time.” By this, reference is made to the hoards of insects that emerge with the advent of warm weather. Only those people who have kept livestock or studied wildlife habits are aware of the serious problems for animals presented by insects in the summer!
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly, or nasal fly, as it is sometimes called. These little flies buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp, mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose. If they re successful, the eggs will hatch in a few days to form small, slender, worm-like larvae. They work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head; they burrow into the flesh and there set up an intense irritation accompanied by severe inflammation.
For deliverance from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts or brush. They will rub them in the soil and thrash around against woody growth. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to regain respite from the aggravation. Often advanced stages of infection from these flies will lead to blindness.
Because of all of this, when the nose flies hover around the flock, some of the sheep become frantic with fear and panic in their attempt to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their feet and race from place to place. Some drop from sheer exhaustion. All this excitement has a devastating effect on the entire flock.
At the very first sign of flies among his flock, a good shepherd will apply an antidote to the heads of each sheep. I always used a homemade remedy made of linseed oil, sulphur and tar which as smeared over the sheep’s nose and head a a protection against nasal flies … What an incredible transformation this would make among the sheep! This process was repeated individually for each sheep numerous times over the summer season.
This to me is the exact picture of irritations in my own life. How easy it is for there to be a “fly in the ointment” of even my most lofty spiritual experiences … not to mention daily life. So often it is the small, petty annoyances that ruin my repose ….
Just as the sheep needed a continuous and renewed application of oil to forestall the “flies”, in my life there must be a continuous anointing of God’s gracious Spirit to counteract the ever-present aggravation of personality conflicts. Only one application of oil, Sulphur and tar was not enough. It was a process that had to be repeated.
There are those who contend that in the Christian life one need only have a single, initial anointing of God’s Spirit. Yet the frustrations of daily dilemmas demonstrate that one must have Him come continuously to the troubled mind and heart to counteract the attacks of daily small torments.”
Just for fun, after reading the book, I went to Youtube.com and put in a search for videos of shepherds calling, herding and guarding their flocks. Not having ever spent time on a farm or with sheep, I confess, I cried in front of my computer when a shepherd from the Middle East called into a misty field for his flock with his rich accent. From the fog, soon many sheep were all running towards him! “They know my voice and I know them!” He said with love as he patted their heads. “Except for those,” he said pointing off into distance with a little sigh and a chuckle. “Those two still have some learning to do!”
I chuckled as he did at these stubborn sheep who ignored him, but in truth it left me desiring more than ever to be one the Savior knows will come a-running the minute I hear His voice calling my name.
Each chapter/line is examined so carefully, thoroughly and eloquently that you will never look at a picture of the Savior with a lamb or a flock of sheep in the same way again. The author’s perspectives of likening the sheep and their behaviors to human behaviors and needs in relation to the shepherd’s skill and devotion has endeared the Savior to me in wonderful new ways that words cannot express.
Thank goodness that even though “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” is nearly fifty years old, it is still in print to benefit each of us who wish to deepen our love, knowledge and understanding of the Savior and his role in our lives as the Good Shepherd.
My mother, Barbara Brewerton Lee, was a full-time temple worker at the Washington, DC temple from 2001-2006. She had her own lovely apartment in the building the Church owns for the temple workers there. During those years she acquired many lovely gifts from her countless temple friends … especially books! She could not take them all with her when her time concluded. I was of the mind that she should leave them at the give-away table by the laundry room for others to enjoy. Not her! I can still see her with a stack of gift books, inscribing each one to someone she thought would need and appreciate it most. She was right. Those people were thrilled when we delivered them to have a little piece of my Mom.
The book that came my way – that I was so sure should have been left at the give-away table by the laundry room, has since become a treasure that I have read more than once and have given away as well to those I think might appreciate its healing power.
Like the 23rd Psalm that is so familiar, the piece of art that this book is based on is “Christ Healing at the Well of Bethesda” by Danish artist Carl Bloch and is equally dear to us. We’ve seen it countless times in Church publications and in our meetinghouses, but do we know much of its fascinating history? Or understand the significance of the lighting and the message behind each person conveyed in the picture?
The Healer’s Art, just barely over 100 pages, is well worth the investment of a few dollars and a couple of hours to read it and learn more about the painting, the Savior and ourselves.
Few will know that it was some Lutheran priests that commissioned the painting in 1882 to celebrate the opening of a mission home. There it was treasured and revered for over 100 years as one of Denmark’s most popular national works of art by the revered Danish painter, Carl Bloch.
In 2000 came the surprising query to BYU to see if they were interested in owning the painting! Why the mission home wanted to sell it and the dilemma of how the citizens of Denmark and the Danish government could say good-bye to their national treasure has the ups and downs, ins and outs and twists of plot of a riveting novel or movie. Its unveiling in 2001 at the BYU Museum of Art was a much celebrated event. It is now available to view at any time there in its own featured gallery. I have sat on the bench in front of it under the spell of the art itself, the Spirit and the message. I urge you to do the same if this opportunity comes your way.
“Wilt thou be made whole?” the Savior asks the man who for 38 years had laid by the pool with no one to help him be the first to enter the moving waters. (John 5:3-4)
The Savior, in a three-quarter length view slightly to the left of the center of the painting, is dressed in a full white robe. Tall and regal, the Savior gently extends his left arm to lift the covering over the man’s tent-like covering. His right arm extends to the man, fingers pointing to this faithful man and his crippled limbs. The arc of the Savior’s arms extending to uncover his face and then to reach out to him while pointing to his limbs is like a welcoming embrace that says, “I am personally here for you!” Though we barely see the man’s face in the deep shadows of the tent-lilke covering, with his lame and bent legs extended in front of him, this represents each of us and the Savior’s desire to lift the covering from our heads and eyes into light and hope of His love.
“I am personally here for you!” his arms symbolically say, pointing towards our covered heads and the problems we each have.
The significance of the light on the Savior’s robe, the brightest part of the painting, is examined in the book, along with his magnificent role of physically healing individuals throughout time in every volume of scripture.
What is most interesting to me, and the call of the book, however is not the history of the painting or the history of the Savior’s healing. It is the questions that are asked of each of us as we look at each of the other individuals in the painting. Do we come, like the mother in the far right edge of the painting with her water jug, child and a mother or mother-in-law beside her, every day for water, even living water and then share it with our families?
Perhaps even more poignant are the subliminal personal questions asked by the others in the painting. Their questions are summarized beautifully on the inside cover of the book:
“Are we like the distracted bystanders, too busy to notice the healing touch of the Savior? Or are we like the man in the red cap, waiting for a miracle but not fully ready to turn our pain over to the Master Healer? Perhaps we are among the crowd behind the pillar, separated by a barrier that stands between us and the Source of Salvation.”
The book contains additional scripture stories, references, hymns and poems and is illustrated with
detailed sections of each individual in the painting. Tenderly written, it is a wonderful read aloud for youth and adults.
Of course the scriptures and the words of the living Prophets are our first source for feeling the Savior standing beside us. How blessed we are when gifted authors and artists are able to share their talents to enrich our knowledge and understanding even more to help us feel the Savior standing nigh, watching over our days, our problems, and our choices with His ever-present and loving desire to bring us safely home.
Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success, One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life. She has been providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999 presenting for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups. She and her husband, Bob, are the parents of five children and grandparents of eleven. They are now happy empty nesters in Jackson, Tennessee, close to Memphis, where they center their online business for an amazing herbal detox drink/capsules.