Pastoral, Providing Presence

4th Easter – Mother’s Day

Psalm 23                                                                              

11 May 2014

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                        

My week was filled with interesting conversations about how we see God at work in the significant problems of this world – poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, and mental illness.  What does compassion look like and what is God’s justice in such situations?     Where do we see God’s love at work and how do we hang on to hope in such circumstances?   How can we make a difference?   How can we inspire hope in those who seem to have no hope?   Psalm 23 is one answer to those questions.

Harold Kushner is the rabbi who in 1981 wrote the very popular book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” when his three year-old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that would end his life in his teens.   Kushner wrote another book, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” just after 9/11 when he was struggling again with the unfairness of life and how God doesn’t promise us an easy path, but a loving and restoring presence with us on the path of life.   I recommend it to you, even as I recommend that you meditate on two phrases of this psalm each day for the next week.

All through this week, as Mother’s Day was approaching, I could not help but think of Bobby McFerrin’s version of this psalm, in which he sings all the parts, layering his recording.   Bobby had two parents who were professional singers and grew up in church.   He says, “The 23rd Psalm is dedicated to my mother. She was the driving force in my religious and spiritual education, and I have so many memories of her singing in church. But I wrote it because I'd been reading the Bible one morning, and I was thinking about God's unconditional love, about how we crave it but have so much trouble believing we can trust it, and how we can't fully understand it. And then I left my reading and spent time with my wife and our children. Watching her with them, the way she loved them, I realized one of the ways we're shown a glimpse of how God loves us is through our mothers. They cherish our spirits, they demand that we become our best selves, and they take care of us.”  (Bobby McFerrin)

Listen to McFerrin’s Psalm 23, on this Mother’s Day, as he takes the Psalm in a decidedly feminine direction.   As you hear it, give thanks for the women in your life who helped you to appreciate the shepherding care of God.

Now please recite with me the Psalm.

                                                                        Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside the still waters.

3 He restores my soul;

He leads me in the paths of righteousness

For His name's sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;

For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.

(New King James Version)

Why do we love this psalm more than the others?   Why do so many people turn to it in difficult times?    Why did Mickey and Emily Miller write their own psalm to get themselves through the pain of watching their own young son face his mortality?   This psalm is hopeful without being triumphalistic.   It reminds us that God is present and providing for us, even though we have to face enemies and grief.   It teaches us to look to God for this presence and provision, to trust that God’s goodness and mercy will follow us, even though we live in an imperfect world.   It gives us not just reassuring words, but comforting images of protection and provision – of green pastures and still waters, of overflowing cups and soothing oils.  It speaks of getting us to the right places and in the right spirit of contentment with what we need, trusting in God, knowing that we belong to God.  

There is a sense in which proclaiming the Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want becomes faith-building more than faith-declaring because even though a person may have much to long for, physically, emotionally, spiritually, the expression of gratitude that God gives us everything we need leads us to be more content, coveting less the things that others have.   So even if I am struggling to be content with my life/my relationship with  family or friends/my job/my health, I become more content when I teach myself to believe that I shall never lack what I need. It’s what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology.  

So whether you live in the wealthier global north or poorer global south, whether you live in a happy family life or you are lonely or recovering from a painful broken relationship, whether you are the picture of perfect health or whether you have a disability that severely limits choices – you have everything you need.    But we can only speak for ourselves.   Notice the psalm does not teach us to tell others to be content, but to be content ourselves.   I do not recommend telling a poor person or a grieving person that they should just be content with their situation.

Now one of the most overlooked but meaningful phrases in this psalm is this:   He restores my soul.   There is a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving in the morning that gives thanks to God for restoring our souls within us.    Through sleep, God restores our souls.   When someone dies, we say, “God rest her soul.”   For all of us, no matter what grief or loss or burden of family life, or busyness at work depletes us, God promises to restore our souls.     There were some people on Safari in Africa who had been traveling, and their guides insisted on the third day that they must stop and rest.   The young travelers, eager to see more, said, “Why must we stop?   We are not tired.”  The guides said, “We have traveled far and fast.   We must wait for our souls to catch up.”   (story found in Kushner’s book) Sometimes we lose our souls in traveling too far or at too fast a pace in life.   Sometimes we do harmful things to others when we have lost our souls.   But God promises to restore our souls, and that is very good news for us and for others.   God’s restoration of our souls is what brings us back to life, when either our sin and its consequences or the valley of the shadow of death or their enemies have taken the life out of us.  

God gives us green pastures and still waters.   For sheep and those in arid lands, that means food and drink, precious commodities.   Green pastures and blue, still waters.  Did you know that blues and greens are the most soothing colors?   Still waters, not chaotic waters.   Jesus calmed the storm on the sea and walked on water.    In the creation, God gave the chaotic waters boundaries, and when those boundaries break, when there are floods or tsunamis, we know better than ever, the value of still waters on the earth and still waters in our souls.

I would venture to say that the most important thing this psalm does is pay attention to the valley of the shadow of death and the very present enemies.   Think of how different it would feel, if the psalmist said, “Because you carry me into life, I fear no evil.”   Or if it said, “Because God prepares a table for me, I have no enemies or my enemies disappear.”   No, that would not be real.   There is still death, and there are still enemies.   There is depression and there is disease and and there is disability.   We do not get to avoid them.  We walk through them with God, which appears to be where we learn that goodness and mercy are chasing us.   Often times, it is not in the valley or in the presence of enemies that we have the perspective of being surrounded by goodness and mercy.   It is in retrospect that we see those.   It was William Barclay who said that he imagined goodness and mercy to be the Good Shepherd’s dogs who are running back and forth, constantly pursuing the flock.

The psalm beautifully divides itself into the three scenes of our lives.   Most of us begin in youthful trust, needing to affirm that God will provide everything we need.   In the middle of the psalm and the middle of life, we have experiences that threaten to undo us, but we learn to trust God, even in the valley and in the presence of enemies.   Lastly we come into an enduring and tested relationship in God’s house, surrounded by the goodness and mercy that we can see better in retrospect, as we learn to dwell with God forever, knowing that the Lord our Loving Shepherd is the only One who will never leave us.