The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. —Psalm 23, NRSV
I sometimes wonder why one of the most familiar, most encouraging and empowering scriptures in the entire Bible is read often at funerals and seldom, by comparison, in other Christian observances. Psalm 23, with its powerful words about walking through the bleakest of circumstances, yet not being overwhelmed because of God’s steadfast companionship, is cited on occasions of death and dying far more frequently than life and living. Why is that? Yes, it is a tremendous comfort to hear that last verse when we are grieving the loss of a loved one and celebrating the promise of eternal life—“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long”—but there is more to those poetic words from the psalmist than a final statement on a person’s earthly life.
When I think of Psalm 23, I place it in the context of everyday living. Each day, the Lord is my shepherd. Every day, the Holy one restores my soul. And even though I walk through low valleys thick with constant threats of hopelessness, Sophia Wisdom is walking right alongside me, reminding me that these temporal shadows are nothing, and that there is a table waiting for me up ahead placed securely in view of and beyond reach of anyone or anything that would do me harm.
I share this because the daily news seems to be a never-ending death cycle. Now, I am not condoning escapism. After all, our discipleship with Jesus calls us to be, as we say, “in the world, but not of the world” (John 15:19; 17:14-16), which is to say that we must engage the world around us, but not succumb to its temptations toward apathy and indifference. This is where the daily meditation on Psalm 23 comes in.
The inescapable fact is that awfulness exists. The news of the world is real. Indeed, a climate crisis is upon us, war continues in Ukraine, the pandemic in most of our country’s rearview mirror persists for healthcare workers in the thankless trenches, gun violence and mass shootings are a shameful reality, the chasm between the rich and the poor is widening, transgender people and their families are under ideological and legislative assault, and the democracy of our country is in trouble. Yes, but while that news is upon us, it is not greater than the overlooked, unreported news of hope. As the psalmist writes, we walk through low valleys, but we are delivered into goodness and mercy that follow us “all the days of my life.” All the days. Every day.
It is not naive or overly optimistic but faithful to point to the truth that the goodness of green pastures and still waters far outnumber the bad news that can consume our spirit if we allow it. So, here’s some news from my experience in the last few weeks, some hope I can share that is true, and that is just one person’s offering among billions:
A woman who had endured years of an abusive relationship that left her all but convinced she was not worthy of love was married on Saturday to someone who adores her beyond words.
A man living under the weight of grief and loss got a job at Goodwill, and suddenly he has an abundance of people he is getting to know as friends from among co-workers and the strangers showing up daily with donations, all of whom are reaching out for happiness.
A baby boy was born to ecstatic parents in our congregation, making their little daughter a big sister.
Donations were pooled to assemble more than 100 personal hygiene kits to people in need at the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, all of which were delivered recently along with several more from churches throughout our Conference in Texas and Louisiana.
People who had almost given up on God and community worked up the nerve to attend worship services in our sanctuary on Sunday and afterwards said that they felt restored.
Our church’s high school graduates were prayed over and applauded by their faith family, bringing joy to their faces and courage to their heart, mind, and spirit for the “what now” set before them.
Children in our congregation planted sunflower seeds in solidarity with the children of Ukraine, and those sunflowers are now reaching heavenward from a little keyhole garden behind the church building as a sign of resolving hope.
Parents met at the church last night to learn about the details of a mission trip to Albuquerque they are entrusting their kids to go on with a handful of adult volunteers from our congregation, sharing laughter, trust, and prayer with one another in hopes that the trip will give their youth and our congregation even more of a glimpse of God’s goodness that follows us today and every day.
I could easily go on, but this is just a taste of what’s good and real and true, all of it outshining the “evil” which the Good Shepherd invites us to engage but not be afraid of. As Frederick Buechner says, “Look at the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.” Yeah, but the beautiful is far greater than the terrible, and God is with us every step of the way. Remember this today, and take courage. Take hope.