Just a few days back from a trip to Morocco, I have fresh images of shepherds dancing in my mind. Like the nomads who tended flocks 3,000 years ago when the 23rd Psalm was written, the Berber shepherds I witnessed the past couple of weeks dress in long, flowing robes and have turbans wrapped around their heads to protect them from the sun. Seeing these shepherds guiding their sheep to food and water opened a window into what it must have been like in biblical times.
I’ve also seen shepherds in Scotland; another country where sheep are abundant. Those shepherds have long since traded in their flowing robes and turbans for blue jeans and baseball caps. Yet regardless of ancient or modern day attire, the duty of a shepherd is the same as it has always been: Guide. Protect. Reassure. And never abandon.
The 23rd Psalm has been providing comfort to people in distress for three millenniums. Even today, when most have not lived in a rural setting and have never set eyes on a shepherd, the imagery communicates a vivid message. God loves and cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. This simple, yet profound psalm, reveals the essence of God. God is loving, God is dependable, and God is with us come what may.
Best-selling author and Duke professor, Kate Bowler notes that the COVID 19 pandemic held up a magnifying glass to a problem that was already prevalent in our society – loneliness. According the U.S. Surgeon General, “at least 60% of Americans report feeling alone and that number rises to 75% in young people…(And it is not simply a problem in our country). The UK has a Minister of Loneliness to combat the global problem of isolation. Because when humans feel isolated, other kinds of suffering are compounded.”1
Some feel lonely because they have no close friendships, others have begun to work remotely and rarely interact with colleagues in person. Some have such demanding schedules that they cannot build in social time, others feel alone despite standing in a room full of people. “The 23rd Psalm offers a vivid picture of how God comes to be with us as the Good Shepherd who seeks and finds the one who is alone and brings them home.”2
The 23rd Psalm does not promise that God will keep you healthy and your children out of danger. It does not claim that God will give you a long life or an adequate income. It does not declare that war or earthquakes or pandemics will never harm you. It does not pretend that if you just pray hard enough, you will have the baby you desire or land the right job, beat the cancer or save your marriage. This psalm has been a comfort to countless individuals over the years because it is realistic about the vicissitudes of life and yet gives hope in the abiding presence of God.
If you have been to the Holy Land, you know that the environment is predominantly desert. It’s dry, it’s brown, it’s rocky. It is unbelievably harsh and, in hot weather, it can be deadly. In such a barren landscape, even the smallest sprig of vegetation stands out. Green pastures are a delight that capture your eyes and in our psalm they are a metaphor for hope. In the same way that life can sprout in a desolate patch of land or the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse, hope can spring forth even when we are in the throes of a desert of despair.
Further, in such an arid climate, water is more valuable than gold. As the saying goes, “Water is life.” And the psalmist does not picture just any water, does he? He says that the Great Shepherd leads him beside “still waters.” The Hebrew can also be translated “restful waters.” The psalmist evokes a tranquil scene. Despite the turmoil he is currently undergoing, the faithful Shepherd can lead him to a place of peace. Perhaps a calm place away from the turbulence, or perhaps a spiritual state of peace in the midst of hardship.
This classic psalm includes the evocative phrase: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Can you relate? The writer of the psalm names a place that each of us has experienced – a dark period of life that threatens to destroy us.
I find it reassuring that the psalm does not promote the fantasy that you can skate through life unscathed. It acknowledges the hard truth that no one escapes anguish. We will experience dark times. The psalm does not say “If,” but rather, “even though” I walk through the darkest valley.”
If you have ever known someone with serious depression, you may have made some of the mistakes I’ve made. Like trying to remind the person of the blessings of life or suggesting some uplifting things to do. In a recent piece he wrote about depression, columnist David Brooks, points out that a friend’s job “is not to cheer the person up. It’s to acknowledge the reality of the situation; it’s to hear, respect and love the person; it’s to show that you haven’t given up on him or her, that you haven’t walked away.”3
Those who experience a devastating loss or clinical depression know the shadow of death more viscerally than those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape it. But none of us dodge dark times entirely.
The psalmist does not attempt to minimize the darkness with some contrived optimism. He does not bellow, “Cheer up! Look on the bright side!” The psalmist does not shy from stating reality and how it feels. Naming an emotion can help us understand it and devise strategies for handling it.
When we are young, we may imagine that God will prevent bad things from happening to us or that when they do, God will quickly fix them. One of the hard lessons of life is that God does not make pain and suffering disappear. Rather, God lightens the burden of human suffering by feeling our pain and absorbing some of our pain. The awareness that God does not walk away, but stays with us to shoulder part of the burden, gives us strength to carry on – to carry on even when the future is shrouded in mist.
There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew Psalter. Some give thanks to God for the blessings of life. They are like songs we cannot help but sing when life is sweet and beautiful. The 23rd Psalm is not one of them. It refuses to declare that God is with us only when life is rich and things are going our way. Rather, it swears that God is with us even when the earth beneath our feet gives way and we have fallen into an abyss. This is the affirmation that can empower us to handle hardship. We are not alone. God is with us and can help us when we are sinking.
Pastors have the privilege of occasionally being with someone at the end of her life. I remember standing next to the hospital bed of Sandy, a fortysomething woman who had brain cancer. She had undergone radiation therapy and battled a fierce regimen of chemotherapy. She had fought the good fight, but the cancer was relentless. I was with her in her final hours as her body was shutting down. Many people lose consciousness a few days before they die, but she remained lucid right up to the end.
I read a few passages of Scripture – passages that remind us that God is with us in both the troubles and the joys of life, and passages that point to a new existence after death. I picked out a few and she suggested a couple she wanted to hear. Not surprising, one of those was the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Her eyes glistened as I read, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
After reading several passages, I prayed with her. I gave thanks for the life she had lived and for the many people’s lives she had touched in beautiful ways. I prayed that she would not be in pain, that she would not be afraid, and that she would feel God’s presence.
After concluding my prayer, she spoke. Her voice was reduced to a faint whisper, so I had to lean my head down and put my ear near her mouth in order to understand her. She whispered, “I’m okay. I’m not afraid. I’m not sure if I feel God’s presence, but I feel at peace. I feel totally at peace.”
I cannot say for certain, but that sounds like God’s presence to me.
May we never feel alone. May we never forget that God is with us always.
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