Psalter for Today: Psalm 23 (Lent 4A) (KJV)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
(Yes, I used KJV because, according to my Grandmother, you cannot read Psalm 23 in any other version…)
Lent is a season of shadows. During this time we walk through the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, and, even, the shadow of our former selves. Maybe that’s the point of Lent–to wrestle us away from our comfortable, perfectly-manicured lives, from all those things that we plan and perceive, from all those things that we hide and, finally, teach us to traverse the nuances that the journey holds. And yet, think about it. What exactly creates shadows? The answer is light. Light must be behind the shadowed object. So, the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, even the shadow of our former selves cannot be without the Light.
This season of Lent is one that by its very nature is a journey through wilderness, through loss and despair and doubt and not really knowing what comes next. It is a journey through a place where all of a sudden God is not as God should be. No longer is God a freshly cleaned-up deity handing out three cotton candy wishes to faithful followers. In the wilderness, we find God in the trenches and in the silence of our lives. Or maybe it is that that is the place that we finally notice God at all. When our lives are emptied out, when our needs and our deepest emotions are exposed, is the time that a lot of us realize that God was there all along. Maybe Lent is way of getting to the depths of ourselves, the place where in our search for God, we find our faith in God, and there in the silence we find our hope.
In her book, When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor tells “a story from the Sufi tradition about a man who cried, “Allah! Allah!” until his lips became sweet with the sound. A skeptic who heard him said, “Well! I have heard you calling out but where is the answer to your prayer? Have you ever gotten a response?” The man had no answer to that. Sadly, he abandoned his prayers and went to sleep. In his dreams, he saw his soul guide, walking toward him through a garden. “Why did you stop praising?” the saint asked him. “Because I never heard anything back,” the man said. “This longing you voice IS the return message,” the guide told him. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those people that think that God sends us suffering or heartache or grief to make us stronger or to test our faith or just to prove something. I don’t think I’d have a lot of respect for a God that has so little compassion for those who love God so much. God is always there, listening and guiding, and wanting us to get a sense of the holy and the sacred to which we’ve been called. But the point is that those times when life is not that great, when we struggle in the very depths of our being, are the times when God reaches through our waiting and our struggles and we can finally hear the silence that is God. We experience the biggest part of God when our need is the greatest.
Now I know that this Psalm brings about different thoughts and memories for each of us—some wonderful, some painful, some bittersweet. It’s probably one of those few passages that you can actually recite all the way through. It goes beyond the words, beyond the rhythm, beyond the hearing. It is truly beloved. It is a glimpse of the holy and the sacred.
My own standout experience with it happened several years ago. I was in seminary with little or no worship experience. I went to the funeral of one of my great aunts. And then, after the perfunctory family lunch (with our rather large family) and the funeral, we began to make our way to the cemetery for the burial. It was just a short drive. As we arrived, one of the ministers came up to me and asked me if I would like to read the Scripture at the graveside. Well, I have to tell you, when you’re in seminary, have little or no worship experience, and must now do this in front of your entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman is going to seminary to become a pastor, it’s a little overwhelming. I opened the funeral handbook (yes, there’s a funeral handbook! Perhaps we’re not as smart as you think!). And there, there it was…this wonderful Psalm. I would read that. But I did not choose it because I had opened to it; I did not choose it because it was familiar to me and I knew that there weren’t any hard words. I chose it because I knew that my grandmother, though nearly deaf, could hear it. As I began to read, there was a stillness that settled over the crowd. The Spring wind that had been blowing all day stopped and all I heard was the faint sound of some wind chimes near the cemetery entrance. And I heard my voice but it didn’t sound like it was coming from me. As we got into the car to go, my grandmother whispered to me, “I heard you.” Don’t think it was a miracle; she didn’t hear a word I said. But it was part of her. She had repeated it for 92 or 93 years at that point. She no longer needed to listen to the words. She could hear them anyway.
Several years later, I stood in another cemetery beside my grandmother’s casket, reading these words again. This time I had graduated from seminary and had a little experience in worship. But don’t get me wrong…there was also my entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman has become a pastor. At the cemetery, I read the Scripture. I chose the same Psalm, not because my grandmother could hear it, but because I could. (I will say that my grandmother always insisted that this Psalm could ONLY be read in the King James Version, so let that be a lesson too!)
Life is filled with shadows, places that you did not plan to go, places that scare you and challenge you, places that are filled with pain. But God did not call us to walk through blinding Light. God called us to learn to see. Maybe the shadows help us do that. Maybe the shadows are the reason we see the Light.
Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world. (Thomas A’Kempis)
On this fourth Sunday of the Lenten season, look into the shadows. Live with them. Let them lead you to the Light.
Grace and Peace,
3 thoughts on “Psalm 23: A Season of Shadows”
This is my favorite of all your blog posts so far. Thanks for helping me to see in the shadows.
I agree with your grandmother and so do a lot of Biblical Scholars (including some Jewish ones) that think the King James translators captured the Hebrew poetry so well that in the case of the 23rd Psalm it simply cannot be improved upon!
Thanks Shelli. We sang the 23rd Psalm twice in church Sunday. Once as a congregational hymn and then a choral version.