Baker Publishing Group
Is anybody out there?
During the autumn of last year I was called to the deathbed of a lovely old lady in the parish. She had been bedridden for some years and had been cared for by her son until his untimely death six months earlier. She never recovered from his passing. No parent expects to bury his or her child, but to lose the son who was with her and who cared for her seven days a week was simply too much to bear. I had officiated at his funeral, and now I sat at her bedside, knowing that soon I would be officiating at hers.
The woman’s family was distressed by her constant agitation. “If only Mom could relax and just let go,” her daughter said. Not knowing how much the dying woman could hear or understand, I gently took her hand and read the King James Version of the twenty-third psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .” As I came to verse 4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” I felt her squeeze my hand firmly. Then, as I finished the psalm, she relaxed, the tension melting from her face. Within a few hours she was gone, her soul resting peacefully in the arms of the Great Shepherd.
The effectiveness of Psalm 23 is not rooted in some rational understanding of what it says. A woman on her deathbed, or a group of mourners around a grave, do not pause to contemplate the meaning of each stanza in the psalm; its capacity to breathe comfort and confidence to those facing life’s hardest moments works at a much more symbolic level. There are two factors here. First, the psalm is deeply embedded in the culture and psyche of the English-speaking world; hearing the familiar tones of the King James Version of Psalm 23 evokes a collective memory, a sense of hope in times of crisis. Second, the psalm hinges on the simple yet compelling imagery of a shepherd watching over his flock. Psalm 23 is a shining example of the way in which a metaphor or picture brings to life a fundamental affirmation of faith—“God is love”—and infuses it with emotional energy. Without the image of a shepherd-God, our grasp on the nature of the divine may be quite different.
“The Lord is my shepherd.” To utter these words is to affirm trust that within and beyond our scary world there exists a loving, benevolent presence—someone who cares about us. Our tiny, insignificant lives matter. But how does that belief translate into any kind of reality when we are facing death or dealing with the loss of a loved one? Or indeed, in situations like the bombings that took place in London in July 2005?
Psalm 23 does not offer the hope of constant happy endings or the suggestion that bad things will not happen to good people. Indeed, the psalm centers on the reality of death and the dark shadow it casts over our lives, and on the recognition that enemies—those who seek our harm—do exist. The psalm takes us, in fact, on a journey: from an initial sense of calm in the opening verses, through a dark valley of grief in the middle verses, into a place of renewed serenity in the house of the Lord at the end. Psalm 23 does not say that bad things will not happen; what it says is that we do not have to face them on our own—“for thou art with me.”
In The Lord Is My Shepherd, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing that we have to die.” The one great fear we share is that of ultimately being alone. One man, describing the horror of a pitch-black carriage on the London Underground after one of the bombs exploded, said that people were praying aloud and calling out to God. Those of us who did not pass through the dark valley of London’s devastation cannot begin to imagine how dark it was. Yet some part of the shadow of these events was cast on us all. One of the most moving elements of a situation like this is the driving passion felt by everyone to get home. One man was quoted as saying that it would take him until midnight to walk home, but nothing would stop him from making the six-hour journey. The one thing we fear is to be left alone.
The message of Psalm 23 is that we are never alone, that our lives are not meaningless, that someone cares about what happens to us. Unlike many of the Psalms, the twenty-third is deeply personal. It is about an individual’s relationship with God: “The Lord is my shepherd” (italics added). Jesus, speaking as the Good Shepherd, says, “I know my own sheep and my own know me.” Some will say, “Ah, there you are. It’s a holy club, and if you’re not a member you’ve had it.” People often say to me: “He never went to church, is that all right? Can you still bury him and say prayers for him?” Jesus shattered the club mentality: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he said. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Time and again I say to people, “God loves you no less because you don’t go to church, or because you’ve lost your way or made a mess of things or because you can’t bring yourself to believe.”
The love of the shepherd-God for his sheep is unconditional. There are no “ifs” or “buts” about God’s love for us: “If you go to church”; “If you put lots of money in the collection”; “If you are clever enough to understand complicated theological questions”; “If you are successful, or popular or good-looking”; “If you have a nice little tidy life, a husband or wife and 2.3 children”; “If you are a white Anglo-Saxon, a Christian rather than a Jew or a Muslim, a heterosexual rather than a gay, and so on.” God loved us before we were born, and he will love us through death and beyond. As Henri Nouwen says in Bread for the Journey, “God’s love is from eternity to eternity and is not bound by any time-related events or circumstances.” Does this mean that what we do or don’t do is of no consequence? Of course not. Unconditional love is not the same as unconditional approval. Parents may love their children whatever they do, but this doesn’t stop them from grieving about the hurt their offspring inflict on themselves and others.
It’s been said that the twenty-third psalm is an earlier form of the parable of the prodigal son. The psalmist finds himself in a dark and barren place, in the presence of enemies, a long way from home, but eventually he returns to his father’s house. More of that later; it is sufficient for now to say that the real point of both this parable and Psalm 23 is that we can never wander beyond the reach of God’s loving presence. A soldier perishing on a desolate battlefield, a drug addict overdosing in an empty room, a rush-hour commuter dying in the darkness of a bombed-out tube train—God is there; no one is truly alone: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Inevitably, this leads us back to the well-worn question: why doesn’t God do something to stop acts of evil, brutality and injustice in our world? Why doesn’t the Good Shepherd do a better job of protecting his sheep? Rabbi Harold Kushner responds to the question by pointing to the great Christian image of the Pieta, a sculpture created by Michelangelo in 1498. The Pieta shows Mary holding the broken body of her son on her lap, looking at him with such tenderness and sorrow that, as the rabbi says, one doesn’t have to share Christian belief in the theological significance of the crucifixion to be moved by the image. The only problem, he says, is that it portrays a scene that probably did not take place: there is no indication in the Bible that Mary held Jesus when he was taken down from the cross.
So how can Michelangelo’s Pieta move us so deeply, Kushner asks, if it didn’t take place? The significance, he suggests, is not in the literalness of what is portrayed, but in what it symbolizes. The woman in the sculpture holding the broken body of Jesus is not Mary, Kushner ventures, but God: God in feminine form, a God “who grieves for his children when they suffer, who suffers with them when they are cruel to one another, when they hurt and kill one another.” Everyone who suffers the loss of a loved one is reenacting God’s grief at the death of any one of his children. Kushner quotes the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the radical peace activist, who commented after the death of his own son, “God’s was the first heart to break.” Psalm 23 offers no promise of a safe passage through life; rather it assures us that we are not alone when we pass through the valleys of pain, suffering and loss.
Whenever we see illustrations of Psalm 23, they usually show a bearded shepherd with an insipid smile, holding a lamb in his arms. The reality of life for the ancient shepherd was harsh. He couldn’t take off at 5 p.m. and go home for dinner, then return to the flock at 9 a.m. the following day. Shepherds lived with their sheep 24/7. The relationship was intimate: the shepherd knew each of his sheep individually; he cared for them when they were sick, risked his life to protect them from wild animals and constantly led them to new pastures and ample water supplies. The shepherd was with the sheep all the time. “The Lord is my shepherd.”
It is interesting that the most common pictorial representation of Christ in early Christian art—consistently chosen in preference to images of crucifixion or kingship—is that of the Good Shepherd. And it has a particular influence on the iconography of baptisteries that can be traced from the painting of the Good Shepherd beside the font of a third-century Syrian house-church to the stained glass in Victorian churches. When we baptize our children we entrust them to the abiding presence and care of the shepherd-God. When adults are baptized they set out on a journey, committed to following the shepherd of their souls.
Christianity does not offer straightforward, neat answers to life’s hard questions. Faith does not hinge on a totally rational philosophical framework. Despite our best efforts to grapple with the mysteries of human existence, we are left with as many questions as answers. Faith is not about certainty, but about trust. We trust that, despite the evil of pointless atrocities, there is a purpose to life, to history, to personal existence. We trust in a divine benevolence at the heart of the cosmos: that love will overcome hatred, goodness will outlive evil, wisdom will prevail over stupidity, justice will outlast prejudice and discrimination, poverty will be history and kindness will triumph over self-interest. Above all, we hope. And what greater symbol of hope can there be than a child welcomed into the flock of God?
The world is a scary place. Acts of terrorism make it seem even scarier. But we have a choice. We can withdraw and seek safety in isolation and submit to the fear and terror of what may be, or we can draw strength from the presence of the shepherd-God and go out into that scary world. We can commit to creating an atmosphere of courage, trust and serenity, out of which the adventure of a new world order will emerge. Leaders from eight major countries of the world’s economy gather in an annual meeting called the G8 summit to discuss topics of mutual or global concern. During the 2005 G8 summit, we saw people of all faiths and no faith united in a resolve to create a more just and equitable world, a world where kindness and mutual consideration is much more than a mere sentiment.
When we recite the twenty-third psalm in times of trouble or uncertainty, we invoke within ourselves trust in the Good Shepherd. And the central affirmation of the psalm is that “thou art with me.” God does not promise an easy ride, a safe passage, a trouble-free life; he promises to be with us, the Great Shepherd of our souls. I invite you to affirm your own trust in the Lord, your shepherd. I invite you to say three times: thou art with me.
Thou art with me.
Thou art with me.