Spirituality for Today – Apirl 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 9
The Lord Is My Shepherd
One of the most beautiful psalms in the Book of Psalms is the twenty-third: The Lord is my Shepherd. It is a tranquil psalm, a soothing psalm; it can create calmness in the person who reads it or hears it read. It is almost always recited at a funeral Mass, for it has a peaceful and calming effect on the grieving. People pray it when they encounter difficult times.
The twenty-third psalm is popular because it speaks to us of a promise made to us by God. The shepherd in the psalm is, of course, God. Jesus, in the gospels, assumes the title of shepherd when he says, "I am the good shepherd." For Christians, then, Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise. And God's promise to us was not that he would protect us from the unfairness of life so that everything would go our way or that life would always be fair. No, it wasn't that. But this is what it was:
whenever the times comes for you to confront the unfairness of life be it loss, illness, rejection, hatred, misunderstanding, betrayal, the pain of everyday living, or even death, don't be afraid because no matter how hard it is, you'll have the strength to handle it, because I'll be there with you. I'll be at your side and I'll give you the strength you need to get through.
The psalmist starts out, it would seem, living in a near perfect world of verdant pastures and restful waters. The Lord refreshes the soul of the psalmist and leads him in right paths. The psalmist rejoices in this perfect world of beauty and tranquility, of green pastures and still waters where he finds repose, for everything including his life is in perfect order.
But then a cloud appears in the perfect blue of the sky. We don't know what it was, but it must have been something horrendous for the psalmist is suddenly cast from his perfect world of sunshine and verdant pastures and still waters and finds himself walking 'in the valley of the shadow of death." But it is here in the dark valley where he feels that the shepherd who bestowed such magnificent gifts upon him has now abandoned him, that he learns a great and wonderful truth about God: that God is not a God who guarantees happy endings to life's problems but, rather, a God who will never abandon you but stand by you and give you the faith, courage, and strength to get through whatever life hurls at you.
The psalmist's understanding of God is realistic and mature. He doesn't ask us to close our eyes to the tragedies and calamities of our world; he tells us we will surely encounter them as we "walk in the dark valley." But we need "fear no evil" for God, our Shepherd, is at our side " with his rod and his staff that give us courage." And it is here in the dark valley that the reality of God becomes more strikingly apparent then in the sunshine of verdant pastures and still waters.
Did the psalmist believe that God had abandoned him when he found himself in the dark valley? Perhaps he did, but he did not let himself get stuck there for he quickly recovered his confidence in God and says so in the second part of the psalm: "You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." "You anoint my head with oil." Someone familiar with the Old Testament would know exactly what the psalmist is saying. To anoint with oil in the Old Testament as well as in the New, and even until today in the Church means to designate that person as someone special. The name "Christ" for example, means literally "the anointed one."
"You anointed my head with oil" the psalmist says. As we read this line of the psalm what are we hearing him say? I think it would be something like this: "O God, when you came and found me in the dark valley suffering from a loss, or a cancer, or a wounded heart, or depression, or rejection, or some other evil, you came and stood beside me. And that alone gave me confidence. You showed me how to live in the dark valley of our dangerous and frightening world. You told me I was not alone as you took me by the hand and led me through the darkness back into the verdant pasture and still waters of your love. You made me feel special because you cared about me. You always know when I am in pain, when I am sad, when I am happy and the best part of all is, you care.
"My cup overflows." In other words, "I thank you, Lord" the psalmist prays. I thank you, Lord because, "Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life," for I know when I am fearful and frightened and vulnerable making my way through the dark valley, you are there walking beside me, holding my hand, guiding my every step. And so, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come."
In the twenty-third psalm we follow the psalmist as he describes his life's story from the man who believes that God would guard him against the evils of life, to the man who begins to question that belief, to the man who finally comes to the realization that he is relating to a mature God, a God who really couldn't protect him from the slings and arrows of an unfair world. And then, finally, he resolves to face and cope with that unfair world, that dark valley, knowing that his Shepherd, his Lord is standing with him, strengthening him, giving him the courage to face and conquer the unfairness.
There is truly a world out there full of threats and dangers and uncertainty. And it is our world. We could try to hide from it, but where would we go? It's the only world we have. There is an awful lot of evil in our world, but God is there too. And God is there for us in the same way the psalmist found him there for him. And he will take your hand and tell you that you can survive the worst life may offer you because he is standing with you, offering you his strength and courage. And you can reply to his offer: "I can survive, I can pass through the dark valley of this world, for you are at my side."
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