Reviving our Souls
What a hard, hard week it’s been. There was the shock of the bombings at the Boston Marathon followed by the manhunt and the surreal day Friday with one of the great cities of our nation, the city Corrie and I still consider home in many ways, on lockdown. There were the suspected letters containing ricin sent to President Obama and other politicians. There was the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed at least fifteen people, most of them emergency personnel, with many more still missing. There were earthquakes in Iran, China, New Guinea. The national epidemic of gun violence continues unabated with 8 shootings in Chicago on Thursday alone. Our own wider community struggles with grief and all sorts of pastoral issues at well, including very serious illness.
We are distracted, worried, many of us our in despair for what we see around us, in the larger world, in the nation, and in our community. We also know that however deep our own pain and anxiety are, those around us, our families and loved ones, our friends and coworkers, are equally anxious and hurting; that people we might encounter in stores, as we go about our daily business, are struggling as well to understand and to do their jobs when their hearts are broken and their attention focused elsewhere.
This week, especially on Monday afternoon while following the news coming out of Boston, and on Friday as well, I was struck by the very human desire we have to find out what’s going on. In our fear and anxiety, we follow the news on cable tv or on social media. Even as reporters and others speculate and pass on rumor, we grasp at every piece of info, every tweet, no matter what the origin, in hopes that it will help us make sense of what’s going on. In our collective frenzy, in our collective fear and anxiety, much of what is communicated is wrong, misleading, and only helps to increase our concern.
On Monday afternoon, after I heard about the bombings and struggled with the depth of my emotional response to the news, I found myself turning away from the newsfeed and to three sources of comfort—to the familiar prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, to the great treasure of Christian hymnody, and above all, to the Psalter, the Book of Psalms. While none of that is surprising in itself, it was a remarkable coincidence that I had been thinking about the 23rd Psalm because of its presence in today’s lectionary. But to that point, my thinking about the 23rd psalm was how to avoid it, how to preach on anything other than the Good Shepherd, on this Fourth Sunday of Easter which is called Good Shepherd Sunday. On Monday afternoon, I was reminded of its power to comfort in times just like these. This week, I have rediscovered the spiritual and restorative power of Psalm 23 and of the Psalms in general.
We encounter Psalms each Sunday in our liturgy; those of us who do the Daily Office pray them much more frequently than that. Over time their language, imagery, and deep emotion may come to shape our faith, even as regular attendance in the liturgy helps to shape us as Christians. But for many of us, I would guess, whether we are reading them aloud, chanting them, or hearing them chanted, we rarely pay close attention to their words. That’s OK. I think what often happens is that a phrase or verse may suddenly jolt our minds out of their wandering and speak to us deeply, sometimes even subconsciously.
Traditionally associated with David, the psalter as we have it is a collection of 150 poems of praise and lament that were compiled over many centuries. We know that by the time of Jesus, the book of Psalms had been collected in a form not unlike we know it today, but we also know that other collections and other psalms were used by 1st century Jews. The Book of Psalms is the hymnal, the songbook, of Judaism and it was also the hymnal of early Christians. Familiarity with the psalms helped to shape the Christian faith—there’s considerable evidence that the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was shaped by Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” So the Psalms helped to shape the New Testament. For two thousand years, they have also helped to shape the faith and spiritual experience of Christians as well as of Jews.
It is natural and fitting that we turn to a psalm like the 23rd at times of personal crisis. It evokes our dependence on God with rich imagery; it also evokes God’s care for us. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside the still waters. The imagery here is quite tangible—food, drink, and rest; provided for us by the one who cares for us. Early Christians understood the first phrase “The Lord is my Shepherd” to be a statement about Jesus Christ and the self-identification of Jesus as shepherd in John 10 underscores that. How tender, how comforting, how reassuring the idea that there is one who knows my name, calls me, leads me to food, water, and rest, and all along protects me?
But as reassuring as that imagery is, the psalm reminds us that evil and terror are present as well. The valley of the shadow of death; the presence of one’s enemies. But we need not fear them for God is with us, protecting us. The psalm concludes with yet another image, of God’s mercy and goodness following me all the days of my life. But “following” is a rather weak translation. The Hebrew word is often translated with “pursue” and other psalms, it is most often used of enemies pursuing. So, goodness and mercy chase after me. They don’t abandon me, even if I might want them to sometimes. So the idea of a God who cares for me, provides food, water, rest, and comforts me, who is a shepherd. Like a Shepherd, this God also follows after me when I stray from the path and keeps me going in the right direction. But more than a shepherd, too. The psalmist says of God, “he revives my soul.” In times like these, that’s a message we need to hear. He revives my soul.
As I said, it’s appropriate that in times of crisis, personal or national, we turn to the psalms for comfort. That’s one of the reasons we’ve included with your bulletin a brief insert that includes Psalm 23 and a number of prayers that you might find helpful down the line. Take one, or more, home with you. Keep one next to your bed; by the fridge. Take one to your office. Pin it up next to your computer, or keep it nearby in a drawer. When you’re having a rough time, in the midst of the next crisis, turn to it to find words to pray, in hopes that God might revive your soul.
But they’re not meant just for you to keep to yourself. I know hard it is to know what to say when someone comes to me in great need, whether it’s because they are in the midst of a personal crisis, or because they are troubled by what’s going on in the world around them. We don’t know what to say, so we fall back on platitudes that sound meaningless or silly, and may have precisely the wrong effect. Look—how many insensitive or inappropriate things were said this week? By politicians, pundits, even religious leaders? Someone comes to us in pain; we want to help, but we don’t know what to do or to say. Share a copy of this insert with them. Psalm 23 has touched people for 2500 years; some of the prayers I’ve included are hundreds of years old. They’ve stood the test of time. They have spoken to, and for people, in all sorts of crises and situations.
Last week, I preached about the importance of sharing the good news of the resurrection, the good news of new life in Christ with people in our lives. These words of comfort: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want….” These words of comfort are also words of good news, words of consolation, peace, and hope in difficult times. Words we need; words our world needs.