May 3, 2009 Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

What does it take to get you out of your comfort zone? Over the last 3 years embracing a new image of God has encouraged me to move past the familiar and move beyond previously impregnable borders in my life.

The image of God as Crosser of Borders and the One who leads people across similar borders has opened up new horizons for my living and loving. This is the function of a coyote (Thanks to Daniel Smith Christopher for this wonderful image. See his book Jonah, Jesus and other Coyotes), and God is pictured as coyote over and again in Scripture. I’ve missed it all these years by fixating too exclusively on more popular (and simplistic) images of God such as lover, comforter, savior. Indeed, these later images are intimately tied up in our most beloved Psalm, #23. We read this text at funerals and times we crave comfort. But comfort is not the only and certainly not the primary image found in Psalm 23.

First and foremost, God in this Psalm is our shepherd who leads us. There are several locations into and through which our Coyote-God leads us. First is the setting of green pastures and still waters. This is where we long to be, the place we assume is our final destination. But this couldn’t be further from the truth! The purpose of this first setting is strength for what lies ahead on the journey. God leads us to a second setting, the valley of the shadow of death.

The NRSV translates this text, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” the first two words suggesting an accidental happenstance. An “oops” mistake that sends us careening into some terrible place we do not want to be (like illness, weather, or abuse). This, however, is not accurate. Remember, the primary image of God in the psalm is leader, and here too God is stated to be leading us. In Hebrew the language is emphatically not accidental but rather intentional. A better translation would be “Indeed, I certainly will walk through the valley” with the text answering the question why? Why would you do that? “Because [God is] with me.” God is leading, so the psalmist is intently willing to follow.

God leads us into the valley not because God is the author of evil, but rather because of what lies on the other side. The third setting Coyote-God leads us is to table with our enemies. This is the key that unlocks why we must travel through the valley at all: precisely because it represents those borders, boundaries and comfort zones we do not want to cross and would not cross on our own! We draw lines around us and ours, excluding one group of people or another for some arbitrary reason. And unless we have good reason to cross that boundary, we remain content to scapegoat and distance ourselves from them. These self-made “enemies” might be immigrants illegal or otherwise, people whose sexual orientation differs from our own, the poor or the rich, annoying co-workers, bullies at school, non-believers: anyone we cringe at to think of interacting with. Relationship with these people –signified by table imagery – is the point! And unless we see God as Crossing Borders we likely won’t cross any ourselves.

God is leading us out of our comfort zones! These stories run throughout scripture, from Jonah and Ruth in the OT, to Jesus and Paul in the new. God is breaking down the barriers that exist between people, and filling us with the courage to join him in his project.

And so I ask you, Where’s your valley? What is your border you struggle to think about crossing? And who is waiting for you on the other side? God as Coyote and Chief Border-Crosser is leading. Are you going to follow?

I invite you to an experiment: 

  • Identify a particular border or valley that you would like to follow God through this week. It can be any boundary of your choosing big or small, so long as at some level it requires you to move outside your comfort zone. Some examples might be: sharing your faith with someone, reading a book by a minority author, initiating a conversation with neighbors, invite someone to church, an actual geographical border, shopping at the new Supermercado de Walmart on LongPoint, watch a movie about something that stretches you to understand someone in a deeper way (such as Milk, The River, or The Visitor), attend another Houston church worship service, eat at a restaurant where English is not the first language, write a letter to family or friend with whom your relationship is broken and ask forgiveness, or ask someone to teach you a new hobby. These are suggestions to wet your own appetite.
  • Trust God as you walk through the border with God. John Paul Lederach says in his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation, “In many ways the valley represents our stepping by faith into the stream of our own fears and into the messiness of a violent world, dependent on and following the Shepherd. That Shepherd is forever leading us into the world. But always we are with a presence that creates something different, new possibilities, redemptive seeds pregnant with change for us and them. With the Shepherd, we are fearful but not anxious.”
  • Finally, report back to the church how your experiment went. The point isn’t total transformation or bliss. It is learning to take risks together as a community committed to God and God’s way of peace in our world. Which means it is perfectly ok and equally helpful to fail. We’ll have a time of sharing this Sunday May 10 in the worship service. But you can also email your experiments and we’ll compile a list of how God is leading us to cross borders. But remember, for many of us, sharing our stories publicly is itself crossing a significant boundary!

As you cross over, remember you are not alone. The Psalm presents a travelling cohort on parade together across the valley. God is leading and we are following, but bringing up the rear are goodness and mercy. Have fun, and remember Nick Gehman’s advice: reciting the psalm empowers us to move beyond our comfort zones and faithfully follow God wherever the Spirit leads!

Peace to you this day.

One Response to “Coyotes and Crossing Borders”

  1. Esther Says:

    i am from a Mennonite Church in Jamaica so good to view your website

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