This is a reflection on Psalm 23 for the times in which we live.
The Lord is my shepherd: I’ve often wondered about the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep in scripture. Shepherds and sheep are not particularly common in our part of the world but would have been very common in the ancient world and still are in certain parts of the globe. But if sheep and shepherds are so uncommon here, why is it that this psalm is so powerful for so many people?
Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of a sheep’s vulnerability. Even if we don’t know a lot about sheep we can get a sense that they are more vulnerable than many other livestock that we keep. Cows are big and heavy. Goats have the ability to climb their way out of a sticky situation. Horses are fast. Pigs are fierce. Llamas are used to guard other livestock. But how are sheep able to protect themselves? Maybe we love this psalm because we can relate to the sheep’s vulnerability and the sense that we cannot survive in the wilderness of life on our own.
I shall not want. You would think a shepherd and protector would provide everything that we need and yet we often find that we want more—whether it’s having more stuff or a having our spiritual and emotional needs met. The psalm speaks to us of our own sense of lack in our lives and sometimes it is hard to be content.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; What if the green pastures are no longer green? What if the green pastures have been destroyed. This psalm is often portrayed as one of contentment and resting and there is something valuable about resting from our labours and consuming. But how do we rest when we see in the world death and destruction around us. The challenge with this is that it is easy to cross over into complacency where we simply live in the status quo without analyzing it or without working for a better world.
He restores my soul. Taking a step back from my work, from consuming does actually restore my soul. Taking a pause to meditate or pray grounds me and renews my spirit. It is counter-intuitive though because the times that are most busy or stressful are the times we need those pauses and also, I find, the times when I am least likely to take the pause to pray. Claudia Horwitz in “the Spiritual Activist” writes about the ways in which our activities of justice making become part of our spiritual practice, a way of praying. Sometimes the pauses are a way of praying but sometimes living faithfully in our actions is a way of praying. We need to pay attention to which one is needed in any given moment.
He leads me in right paths* for his name’s sake. Sometimes the places God leads us are the places we least want to go. We can think about Jesus walking his path that led to the cross. He didn’t want to go but had a sense that his example would serve a larger purpose in God’s work. We see Malala, who just received the Nobel Peace Prize, advocating for girls’ education because it is the right thing to do. By doing so she places herself in danger from others who also claim to be faithful. Being faithful is not always a safe or easy path to walk.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; Lately the world seems a very dark place. We see and hear reports of ISIS attacks and massacres. We see Ebola spreading quickly and killing thousands of people. We might wonder where God is in the midst of this dark valley. We might feel alone and helpless and unable to do anything to change these situations. God doesn’t take away the evil that is in the world but God can and does work through humans to change situations. Sometimes God works through us and sometimes God works through others. The threats to us seem real but the writer of the psalm maintains that they will not live in fear.
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. In literal terms the staff is the shepherds crook used to scare away predators and rescue the sheep from tight places but the staff is also a symbol of rule. And so in the face of evil we can turn to God’s law, God’s rule as a way of finding our way through dark valleys.
Timothy Simpson, a teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, writing after the Boston Marathon Bombing suggest that “If our first impulse is fear in the face of terror, our second impulse is vengeance” So it becomes easy to move from fear to a place where violence becomes the way to respond. When we look at what’s happening with ISIS, we are responding with violence from a place of fear. He goes on to say that the writer of the psalm moves away from violence to a “more thoughtful process which integrates the faith tradition instead of [relegating the response] into the secular sphere, as is so typical in our own society.” He says that a moment of quiet reflection and trust in God’s presence “creates a space that opens up prospects for personal and social transformation, including that of the enemy.”
Mohamed Huque of the Tessellate Institute was interviewed on the CBC’s, The Current, a couple weeks ago. He talked about how one of the ways to prevent young Canadian Muslims from joining ISIS is to put this conversation in the context of faith. Within a Muslim faith, this means talking about the actions of ISIS as sinful. But what about our own response? Are we able to pause and resist our temptation to fear so that the response that comes is one that is faithful instead of just vengeance filled?
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; We often think of enemies being beyond ourselves but what if the enemy lies within? What if the real enemies in our lives are not the shadowy face of a young ISIS warrior but what if the real enemy is our own fear and our own insecurity? We are the vulnerable sheep, worried for our own well-being and fear is sometimes the easiest response. It is also the response which holds us hostage, keeps us from responding faithfully and prevents us from asking difficult questions of ourselves. And at the table of our fear, God is present and provides a support and a path to walk that leads us in the right ways, because they are God’s ways. Rob McCoy of the United Methodist Church reflects on this psalm and what happens when someone eats alone. As an introvert he enjoys eating alone in a restaurant. It is a time for introspection and reading. But at that table, alone, sometimes it is easier to see the enemies within. Sometimes it raises questions and issues about ourselves that we don’t want to see. That pausing at the stream God provides may also take us to those places we don’t want to go and maybe that is why sometimes it is so hard to stop and rest.
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. God is at the table. God welcomes us. God nourishes us. God sustains us. God gives us pause and refreshment.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, God’s love follows us wherever we are and when we have a sense of God’s presence, life is good. Even though the world may seem to be disintegrating around us, God’s presence can calm and soothe.
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. We trust in God’s presence in this world. This is God’s home.
. Claudia Horwitz, The Spiritual Activist: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work, and Your World (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002)