If our memories failed us and we could only remember one piece of Scripture, one word of comfort from our God to us, that would carry us through our earthly days, through each triumph and tragedy, I have no doubt that for many it would be the twenty-third psalm. This psalm speaks to our deepest fear and to our deepest angst. It is a part of our human condition that we fear that we will be left alone, forgotten, forsaken. And we fear that we will not only be forsaken by those who love us, but also by God. This is a fear to which even Jesus succumbed on the cross in his own cry of dereliction. Thus it is to this psalm that we turn at our darkest hour. It not only comforts us when all seems bleak, but challenges us to believe in the midst of our doubt. It challenges us to claim the reality of the Good Shepherd, our Risen Lord, who neither forsakes us nor forgets us, but walks with us and holds us close, even as our faith wavers and our hope falters.
It is a powerful piece of Scripture to which even the un-churched turn in times of crisis. I have a friend whose ministry is almost exclusively a ministry to the bereaved. He officiates at Christian funerals for those whose faith is but a distant memory. He often asks them if there is a particular Bible verse that they would like read as part of the service Invariably they pause for a moment and then say, “Oh yes, do you know that one about the shepherd?” He responds gently, “Yes, I think I know that one… Does is begin, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd?’” “Yes,” they respond, “that’s it!” If they want nothing else, they want Psalm 23. This has certainly been my experience, as well, in working with families with tenuous connections to the Church. Thanks be to God that there is a piece of Scripture that does call to them.
What is it about this simple Hebrew canticle that continues to resonate even with those who have little or no faith. I believe that it is simply this, that our Lord never forsakes us… we are not alone, have never been alone, and never will be alone – even if all others around us fail, God does not fail us. In the words of the psalm, God is reaching out to us, even when this same Lord seems absent from our midst. It is a means through which we can hear the voice of God, feel’s God’s warm embrace, know God’s strong and loving comfort, even when all hope and joy seem but a phantasm beyond our grasp. Thus, it is no surprise that people turn to these words in their deepest moments of loneliness, and particularly in moments in which loved ones are seemingly lost forever to us; when our world has become a lonelier place. For it is not us reaching out for God; rather it is God reaching out for us in our grief and our pain in timeless words of comfort and challenge. I have often wondered if this was one of the Scriptures to which the disciples turned after the crucifixion of their Lord. Was it a Scripture that relentlessly pursued them in their sense of abandonment? After all, Jesus had told them that he was the Good Shepherd, that he would not abandon even one of them to wolves, that if even one of them was lost, he would go searching and find them. Were they able to seek comfort in the Shepherd Psalm when they had lost their Shepherd? Could they find hope in the words “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me,” or “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me?” Could they understand that in these words their Shepherd sought them still?
I knew a man who carried a clipping of Psalm 23 in his wallet, throughout his entire life. It was, for him, a tangible way of expressing the reality that God never left him, that the Good Shepherd was daily leading him beside still waters. He knew the psalm by heart, but he could take it out when times got tough, read it, and form those familiar words on his lips, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or “Thy Rod and thy Staff they comfort me.” When it seemed like his Shepherd was out of his line of sight, he took out the words, read them, and knew that while the Shepherd might be out of his sight, he was not beyond the sight of the Shepherd. He knew that he was not alone.
For the disciples, after the death of Jesus, perhaps Cleopas and the others along the Emmaus Road, it must have seemed like their Shepherd had abandoned them. Where now was his rod and staff? And yet, along the road they met a stranger who opened the Scriptures to them, broke bread with them, and then their eyes were opened. Had not their hearts burned within them on that road? The stranger then disappeared from their sight, but this time, they knew that they were not abandoned – no! Christ was Risen! He was with them! Their hunger and thirst were met, their tears were wiped away! Their Shepherd was indeed with them, even though removed from their sight, guiding them to springs of living water. As they broke bread with him that day, their wanting and lamenting turned to feasting and joy. Perhaps, just perhaps, the words he spoke when he was with them echoed in their ears, perhaps, just perhaps, his sheep once again heard his voice … “no one will snatch them from my hand.”
A couple of years ago, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family asked me to say prayers with them, and with him. I could tell by his breathing that he was moments from death. I began to read the prayers appointed for the time of death. I arrived at the part of the service in which it says “the 23rd psalm may be read,” I did not turn to it, but recited it from memory… until suddenly I drew a blank. An embarrassing pause that seemed like an eternity was broken by the man’s wife taking my arm and saying “I think it’s, ‘yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ dear.” Everyone smiled gently, and we all continued together, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
“For thou art with me…” Even in the fumbling of a young inexperienced minister; even in the grief of a family losing their husband and father; even in the moment of our own death… Thou art with me.” I shall fear no evil. Even if I cannot see the Shepherd, I know, Thou art with me. Even if I cannot hear his voice, I know, Thou art with me. Even if it seems all have forsaken me, even you my God, my God, I shall cleave to the truth, Thou art with me.” Why is it that these words ring so true in the midst of our loneliness and loss? Because they are true. God does not forsake us or abandon us. While all seemed lost on that Emmaus road, along which the disciples walked in sadness and fear, they were pursued by their shepherd, who, in the breaking of bread turned their longing into joy. And while the pain and grief and loss we experience on the road of ithis life is real, so too is the presence of God, the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we meet as we break bread together. For that great Shepherd of the Sheep walks with us through the valleys of our angst and shares with us in our feasts of joy.
Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves