Read Psalm 23 in the King James Version
What beautiful words. We hear them most often at funerals, and then once every three years in our lectionary readings. Perhaps we associate this psalm with death, since death is the context in which we hear it most often. This psalm is not only about death – it is about life, about our lives now.
Rabbi Howard Kushner writes that “the twenty-third psalm is the answer to the question, ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’” Do you remember Rabbi Kushner? In 1981 he wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Since then he has written other books about faith and about living in our dangerous, unpredictable, and frightening world.
My grandmother did not like the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” She disagreed with one of Rabbi Kushner’s initial premises, and thus made a decision about the entire book. Hmm. I’ve done that before…discarded an entire article or book – or person – based on some one, initial view.
I found much more of a connection to Rabbi Kushner when I found out that the inspiration for all of his books was the death of his fourteen year old son. His son was diagnosed with an incurable illness when he was three years old – three! – and the Kushner family loved and nurtured this child through what they knew would be a very short life. They knew that as he was living so also was he dying; they lost him when he was a child of fourteen. Rabbi Kushner knows about our dangerous, unpredictable and frightening world in a very real way, and knowing the reality behind his knowledge made me want to read more of what he wrote. Surely this man has some answers about being faithful in the midst of this dangerous world. He wrote once that he would trade all of the knowledge and sensitivity that he gained from writing books to have his son be alive. Here is a religious man who suffers a tremendous loss, has found a way to minister to others through his suffering, has grown tremendously within from all of these experiences … and would still trade it all to see his son.
You see, when we say that sometimes good things come out of bad experiences, those good things do not take the bad away. There is not an even trade, a proper or civilized amend, for tragedy. Yet still we have a way through. There is a way through darkness. Notice that we do GO THROUGH darkness; God does not promise to take us around it. God does not promise that we will avoid unimaginable sorrow. But God will see us through it.
(Here is the psalm)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
We gather around God, recognizing that it is God who watches over us. We are called to recognize our shepherd, to respond to the shepherd’s voice. How might we ensure that the voice we hear is that of the Shepherd? We must know Him.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Green pastures and calm waters wait for us. We are led; into stillness are we led.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
God restores us. He shows us the right things to do, not for our sake, but for God’s sake. Paths of right-doing are those that have to do with God’s will. We are restored in quiet and stillness. God brings calm to us in times of stillness, not chaos. Chaos is not a sign of the Holy Spirit. We are led for HIS name’s sake, not ours. Remember, this is the name above every name, the name at whose sound all things shall bow, above earth, on earth, and under the earth. This is the name. We are restored not because we deserve to be restored but because God loves us and we bow to the glory of our magnificent God.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff they comfort me.
These words fill us. I am reminded of one of my favorite music instructors, trying to teach us to chant the psalms – (do Susan stuff here): yea though I walk through the valley… The words are full and filing. Say them, feel them within your mouth. The words propel us forward; they are words with movement within their pattern, their rhythm.
Here also is our answer to a dangerous and frightening world. I will fear no evil because I know that GOD is with me. There is confidence in this passage: Thou art with me. You are with me, God; I am not alone. There is no “I think you’re there” or “I acknowledge some greater existence of power,” some force, in the world, no! You, God, are with me. This is a personal relationship and presence! The shepherd is with the flock, with us. We are comforted.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
God provided manna…we meet now at the Eucharistic table, where we share in Jesus’ body and blood. We meet our shepherd in the midst of every danger there is, returning always to the place where we will be fed. We are anointed in baptism, “sealed as Christ’s own forever.” With these promises of God, what could we possibly be without? God gave us life that we might have life abundantly – our cup runs over. We have everything when we have God with us. Everything: protection, comfort, food, anointing, joy.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Hear this: the word “follow” in King James’ time is closer to our meaning of pursue … surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life – wow! God’s goodness and mercy is running after me, trying to catch me! Stop! Let it catch up. Dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
We are at home, even now. This is not an eschatological psalm, not one that points only to the future. Psalm 23 is about the here and now. It IS our way to live in the midst of a dangerous and frightening world. The arms of God are not so small that we have to wait to die to be enveloped in them. The arms of God pull us through the darkness in our lives. We still hurt, and mourn, and suffer. We do not have to bury those feelings, put on a “stiff upper lip” for anyone. Our tragedies are real. So, too, are the arms of God. And God knows the sheep of God’s flock. God is really with us, leading us, comforting us, protecting us. God’s mercy and love run after us, pursue us to find heavenly moments right here.
Back to Rabbi Kushner:
“When we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith…. God steps in to comfort us, “to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.”
Thanks be to God.