Thoughts on the 23rd Psalm ('The Lord is my shepherd')

© photo by Louise Adey Huish
Published by Louise Adey Huish on Mon, 4 May 2020 16:46
Louise's blog

You may have watched the Diocesan service yesterday, and heard Archdeacon Judy preaching on Christ the Good Shepherd (the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’). Perhaps you noticed the woolly sheep on her bookshelf. You may also have been following the advice of our bishops and saying Psalm 23, together with the Lord’s Prayer, at 11 o’clock each morning during lockdown.

It’s a psalm which became very familiar to me during my years of hospital and hospice chaplaincy, as the reading of choice for many patients and their families, usually in the King James’ Bible translation, the so-called Authorized Version. Because of this I’ve tended in the past to focus on the verse which says, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ – a verse as relevant to the all-too-present fears of the coronavirus crisis as it was to the emotional turmoil of end-of-life care. But I’ve found recently that dwelling in the psalm day by day has given me a different view of it. It’s a psalm that focuses in fact on freedom from fear, on the trust that arises when you hand over your fear to someone who can deal with it for you.

I’ve found it interesting to reflect on how Psalm 23 is associated in my mind with the English rural idyll, not least because whichever way I walk out of our village at this time of year I have a view over fields of sheep, full of lambs either buttressed up against a sedentary mother, or bleating plaintively from a distance, knowing she will always answer. Back in earlier times Britain’s wealth was built on the wool trade, and you only have to consider the barn-like churches of the Cotswolds, disproportionately large and splendidly appointed, to recognize a debt of gratitude repaid. And while a field of cows almost invariably means churned-up mud and a slight sense of trepidation (to this walker, at least!), a field of sheep says only that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Consider the lyrical tranquillity of the aria ‘He shall feed his sheep like a shepherd’, from Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Cantata 208, ‘Sheep may safely graze’ – or even Howard Goodall’s setting of Psalm 23, better known to most as the theme tune to The Vicar of Dibley.

One of the more recent settings of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want’, written by Stuart Townend, offers a key to the importance of the psalm in its ear-worm refrain, ‘And I will trust in you alone / For your endless mercy follows me / Your goodness will lead me home.’ The shepherd provides the sheep with green pastures, with still water; his rod and staff protect them from wild animals and perhaps from human threats as well, and the long-handled crook (still the symbol of our bishops) is there to hoick any sheep that’s gone astray out of harm’s way. (I’ll not forget last September, when walking Hadrian’s Wall, seeing a sheep that had somehow got over on to the wrong side of the drystone wall which marked the edge of the ridge, cropping the grass under a stunted hawthorn, oblivious, while the ground fell away steeply just beyond. There’s always one.)

The verses which move away from a sheep’s perspective to a more human one – ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over’ – seem somewhat at odds with the controlling image of the psalm, namely the sheep with their shepherd. Here, as well, we come closest to the Schadenfreude that mars some of the most beautiful psalms, namely that delight in the discomfiture of enemies. Up to this point all the imagery of Psalm 23 conjures up the peaceful life of the flock, while still applying to our human experience of Providence and danger. But in these verses we are no longer one with the sheep, and this dislocation of perspective causes me, for one, some unease. When my human sensibility is aroused, I’m no longer sure I want to be a sheep, a silly, brainless creature only too susceptible to the panic of the flock.

I’ve found that inhabiting the psalm on a daily basis has brought a different way of looking it. My experience has been that the perils and delights the psalm describes are inward ones. Locked down here in my village, I’m very conscious of being far away from the real troubles of the pandemic. I don’t have to negotiate danger on a daily basis while shopping or working or going outside; no-one close to me has caught the virus; I am not bereaved. I am chafing at restrictions on my freedom, but my confinement is by and large a very pleasant one. It doesn’t stop me worrying, though, or finding it difficult to concentrate; it doesn’t stop me fearing for my family, or my country. It doesn’t stop me wondering what is to come, or struggling with my inability to make plans – or resenting the lack of things to look forward to. And it’s in this inner landscape of unease and concern that the psalm operates for me. The ‘enemies’ are the internal voices that persistently try to undermine me; the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ is the darkness that can invade my heart and my mind.  

Set against that is the generosity of a merciful God who can draw my attention to the bluetit in my nesting box, and the elegant aquilegia by the side of the road which has emigrated from somebody’s garden. To the delight of homemade pitta bread (who knew?!) – or just the satisfaction of using up tins from the back of the store cupboard. To the children across the way squawking with glee in their back garden, or a chat with a neighbour while taking the bins out (at a suitable distance, naturally). To finally catching up with ‘The Good Karma Hospital’ when my energy ran out. Recognizing that in these small things God can lead me from anxiety and despair to a better place in my head, gives me hope that if the going were really to get tough, the same thing would be true. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that if life gives you lemons, God will always provide the wherewithal to make lemonade, for too many people have been crushed by that false expectation. But to know that these inner resources, this inner refuge, has been my experience so far - this is a source of courage when I contemplate the future. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ Amen to that.

 

Below you will find the King James’ version of Psalm 23. 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, 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.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

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