There is an enduring something in the image of a shepherd watching over the sheep. It is a sense of peace, a sense of security, a comfortable belief that everything will be all right.
The Twenty-Third Psalm
interreted by Deborah
God is my shepherd; I want for nothing.
He brings me to a safe, green field
where I can rest
alongside a gentle, refreshing stream.
The Beloved renews my soul:
and guides me on the path
to peace and joy and life —
just because He loves me.
Though death and destruction
I am not afraid:
for You, my God, are with me;
Your Power and Protection
an ever-present comfort.
You feed and sustain me
right under the noses
of those who hate me:
You claim me as your own;
and I am overwhelmed with delight.
I am sure that Your goodness and mercy
will shine on me for as long as I live:
and I will be sheltered
in the Lord’s pasture forever.
The Twenty-Third Psalm is one of the best-known scripture passages — and by far the most beloved of the all the biblical songs to our Creator. Many of us know it by heart, having learned it in Sunday School, or heard it recited by a dear friend or elder relation. It is recited at baptisms and funerals, confirmations and communions and house blessings.
I find its popularity by turns completely confusing and perfectly understandable.
Sometimes I think it is the “music” of the psalm that soothes us, rather than than what it says. Like the tune of a favorite hymn, the familiar sound is comforting, regardless of what words are being sung.
How else to explain the enduring popularity of a hymn that compares our God to a shepherd and us to sheep? After all, how many of us have even seen a herd of sheep in the past year — far less have any idea how the little wooly critters feel or what they need?
And, even if we had a perfect understanding of Sheep Psychology, it would make little difference. From all available evidence, we really don’t have much in common.
Yet there is something that endures in the image of a shepherd watching over the sheep. It is a something that we sense; a feeling we carry with us, even if we have never set foot outside the city and the only wool we’ve ever seen has already been woven into a sweater.
It is a sense of peace, a sense of security, a comfortable belief that everything will be all right — that everything is all right. If a hungry coyote comes near, the shepherd will chase it away. If the grass begins to grow thin, the shepherd will lead them to a new and better pasture. If they should stumble and fall, the shepherd will rescue them and bring them safely home.
The sheep don’t worry about their lives; about what they will eat or drink, or what they will wear (Mt 6:19, Lk 12:22). It would never occur to them that life can be anything other than all right. The sheep are truly care free.
For most of us such a sense of calm confidence seems almost unbelievable, especially in light of the current economic breakdowns and the fears those have engendered in us. You’d have to be a genuine, four-footed sheep — or some other largely-witless creature — not to be anxious and upset in these troubling times.
But I wonder.
Take a few moments right now to imagine the place our psalmist is describing. Get comfortable in your chair and take a deep breath.
The sheep have been led to a pasture full of tender green grass; soft to lie upon, easy to chew, delicious to taste. Beside them is a gently-flowing stream, chuckling its way over the smooth stones, providing fresh, cool water to drink.
All is peaceful and calm.
The shepherd leans on his staff, watching over the flock, his ever-vigilant sheepdog beside him. The sun is warm, wispy clouds spread softly across the the blue sky like fingers extended in blessing. Birds chirp and twitter and rustle in the trees. The scent of pine wafts through the air.
There is nothing to worry about at all.
Everything is all right. And everything is going to remain all right.
Perhaps we have more in common with sheep than we might think. Like them we long for comfort, safety, for a peaceful place to rest. Like them we need a good shepherd to lead us.
And here’s the good news: the piece of Paradise that the 23rd Psalm describes can be ours. And we don’t have to disguise ourselves in sheep costumes or go to work as sheep herders to make it come true.
This holy sanctuary — this place of safety, abundance, and peace — is no pipe dream; it is not a wishful-thinking fantasy of some perfect, far-distant future. The psalmist is very clear: it has happened, it is happening: the Lord is my shepherd.
From that single, confident affirmation, all of the rest follows.
Certain that God will provide, the psalmist proclaims: “I shall not want.” Or, as I have translated it, “I have everything I need.”
What would it be like to have “everything we need”?
It might begin by us taking stock of what we truly need — as opposed to what we’ve been told we need, ought to have, or “deserve.” Or what is in short supply, or is about to run out.
To trust that we shall be given all we need is the foundation of holy wisdom. Most of us truly don’t need anything: we have plenty to eat and to drink, warm clothing, and a safe place to live. Yet we live in anxiety that someday, somehow, something will run out.
The psalmist’s peace-filled sheep live simply: they do not succumb to advertising campaigns, don’t worry about possible “shortages,” and aren’t concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. They have sense enough to know that they have enough.
“I shall not want” is both an affirmation of God’s goodness and a vow of simplicity. I believe that the Holy One will provide, and I promise not to go around “wanting”/desiring/envying — getting sucked into the endless cycle of getting and spending; succumbing to the culture of greed.
I’m going to stop being afraid that there won’t be enough.
When I begin to trust that I will not want, I will stop amassing things. I will not fill my basement with 50-pound bags of rice, I will not stockpile food or gasoline or toilet paper. (That, by itself, will improve the world: because our panic-driven buying creates the very shortages we fear.)
When I begin to trust that I will not want, I can begin to think about what really matters: about who I am, and what I have been called to do. I can begin to reflect on the gifts and graces, talents and interests that have been given to me. I can begin to live with joy and hope.
I will fear no evil.
When I begin to trust that I will not want, my heart and mind are opened to God’s grace-filled vision. I will stop focusing on what is not here — and take note of what is. I will see the sunrise, bask in the moonglow, stare in awe-filled reverence at the stars. I will splash in puddles, play in the snow, and stop to smell the roses (and pine trees and pumpkins and peanut butter). I will hug my friends, pet my dogs, and praise the Beloved for all that is.
And my cup runneth over.
When we look at the world through the eyes of our Lord, we will see that it is overflowing with blessings and goodness. The Beloved’s generosity is so great that we shall not want.
The psalmist reminds us that all is well: we are already in the sweet, gentle sanctuary of our Creator’s love. We have been claimed by the Good Shepherd; we are the beloved of God’s heart, we are safe from all want and all evil and will be sheltered in the Lord’s pasture forever.
May this great, Good News make your spirits jump for joy like newborn lambs.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Reflect on this sentence: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”