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An all too familiar Psalm

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“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Thus begins one of the most familiar passages from the Bible. I’ve known this revered Psalm since I was a child. You may well have it committed to memory. Some of you who think you haven’t really have.

When conducting funerals, I routinely use it as the final word at the graveside. I usually preface the reading/quoting of the Psalm by saying, “Hear this not as a word about your loved one who has passed. Hear it as a word for you. You and I are the ones living in the “valley of the shadow of death.” This is God’s word for us and it brings to us the promise that as we rise and go from this gravesite, we will not be alone. God will go with us.”

I then read/quote the Psalm. As I do so, the same thing happens each time. There will be a number of people who are saying it with me—some out loud and others mouthing the words silently. What amazes me about this is that many of those who say the Psalm with me are not regular church-going folks. But they know this Psalm.

Are they saying it for the reason I’m sharing it? Do they get it? Do they understand that the Creator God never intended that we should muddle through life alone? God didn’t intend that. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve that they might be companions suited for each other. God created us to be part of one another and to have communion with God. Where we go, God goes. Whatever comes down the pike, be it joyful or sorrowful, easy or hard, God wants to shepherd us through. That’s the Psalmist’s message.

But I wonder about our love of this Psalm. It’s easier read... easier learned... and easier felt than it is lived. The truth is that the Lord is not everyone’s shepherd. The Lord is shepherd only to those who are open to being shepherded. We are not sheep. We are human beings with the power to choose, even to rebel and flee the Shepherd.

I fear that for many of us, Psalm 23 brings us only momentary comfort, peace, and hope. Then life smacks us in the face again—the cancer returns, the rebellious child doesn’t come home, the cheating spouse cheats again, the boss remains unreasonable in his/her demands, the bills overwhelm us... on and on comes life.

Where is this “no want”? Where are the green pastures and the still water? When will my soul be restored? Death looms and fear is present. The table is bare and the cup is empty. Goodness and mercy elude us, and we wonder if there really is a house of the Lord in which to dwell.

Perhaps the Psalm is too familiar and the Shepherd not familiar enough. It is those who have met the Shepherd who know the meaning of the Psalm. They know that not wanting is not about having all you want, or even all you need... that green pastures and still waters are often oases in the desert . . . that death is as natural as birth and part of the Shepherd’s benevolent plan for creation... that the table is not about being sated, and the oil is not about being blessed.

Those who know the Psalmist know that it is all about belonging... belonging to the Creator and to each other. Knowing this, they know that to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” is forever to have the Shepherd by their side; and that is enough.

Come to know the all too unfamiliar Shepherd and the all too familiar Psalm will never be familiar again. It will be a daily gift of grace.