I continue, as I look at prayers that have carried me and others through trying times, to look at Psalm 23.
Since a lesson I learned in grief was the value of prayers grounded in community and tradition, I draw on the rendering of this prayer in my own tradition, the United Church of Christ, as placed in our Book of Worship. This Book of Worship includes two versions of this classic Psalm. The first attempts at inclusive language:
You are my Shepherd,
I shall not want;
You make me lie down
In green pastures.
You lead me
In paths of righteousness
For your name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
your rod and your staff
They comfort me.”
“You prepare a table
Before me in the presence
Of my enemies;
You anoint my head
With oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in your house forever.”
The second version they provide is more traditional. I actually prefer the inclusive language version myself, but as I find patients with dementia and other cognitive impairments often are helped by the familiar, I tend to use this more traditional version when praying with patients:
“The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me
Beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me
In paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake.
“Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death, I fear no eveil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table
Before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.
Two things stand out about this prayer as I reflect on it now, both from my role as caregiver when I have been chaplain, pastor, and spouse caring for a dying wife; and also in my role as grieving, heart-broken child of God for whom the way ahead is a darkening maze: First, how it describes both leading and being led. Secondly, the deep intimacy it describes between our Creator Spirit and us. Today I want to focus in on the leading and being led and hopefully in a later blog look at the intimacy between Creator Spirit and us.
When I woke in the darkening wood of grief, having found my wife’s body still as a stone one crisp fall morning, I found myself unable to think, speak, or make coherent decisions that made sense. The trauma shattered my usually fairly confident and self-assured identity. I found in those dark moments the hands of others, the voices of my family and friends, helpful in ploddingly moving forward.
I find in my work previously as pastor and now as chaplain this experience of being numbed, shell-shocked, and adrift in life in the face of unimaginable loss is common to all of us. You may say to yourself “I will never be one of those poor souls, so shaken and uncertain”, confident in your comfortable life that nothing can so disturb you. But it will. As certain as the sun rises in the morning, each of us will be struck by grief, loss, horror, and pain.
The Buddhists have a beautiful reminder of this in their faith: the image of the lotus flower. Well-meaning Western folks who are not Buddhists often embrace its image as of serene innocent beauty. But if you listen to and talk to any really informed Buddhist who deeply practices their faith, you will find this is as false as it can be. For to the Buddhist, the beauty of the lotus, seemingly innocent and pure, must always be held together in one’s awareness with what allows the lotus flower to blossom and grow. And what is that? Rot. Decay. Waste. Death. Which reinvigorate the soil, making it fertile for life. The beauty of new life must be held together with the pain and tragedy of death and decay. They are inseparably linked.
Every faith really has such imagery. A good friend, Nola, beautifully blended this image of the lotus with the Christian picture of the crown of thorns, red with blood, on a gorgeous tattoo on her arm. She told me that she had it drawn when married to a lady who was a deeply spiritual Buddhist, and it expressed how on this truth both her Christianity and her then wife’s Buddhism touched: that we acknowledge in our best moments that pain and suffering, loss and tragedy, are not meaningless. Rather the beauty of new life in Easter, the joy of love in relationship, the serenity of faith pictured by the lotus, cannot be had without the risk of loss. As C. S. Lewis said in his classic THE FOUR LOVES: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
The beauty we love in life all comes with that cost – it will at some point be linked with deep heartache. The only way to avoid the darkening wood of pain and grief is to close one’s self off to love, thus never truly living.
When we find ourselves, as I did, as all one day will, in this darkening wood, in this maze of loss, we are promised we are not abandoned. But One, the very One of life, is with us. We need not fear.
I think this message of this prayer alone is what makes it such a source of encouragement to so many in times of pain. It is why I prayed it so fervently on days words otherwise would not come at the loss of my wife, and why I carried a stone with its words dear friends I grew up with gave me in my pocket which I would cling to when I felt I could not stand. These words remind us we are not ever alone.
I see as people pray this prayer, them discovering its truth.
They open their eyes and find friends and family taking them by the hand, helping them move one step forward at a time. They open their eyes and find others whisperings words of hope and promise. They find themselves not alone.
When they find fall down, they find others around them who can lift them up.
When I hit the wall of grief that I thought would shatter me, I was shocked to find myself with friends, family, church members, co-workers who would not let me collapse in the grief. Who helped me get through, bit by bit.
I even found dogs, with their furry faces and wet noses, prodded me out of the darkness of my room into the light of day.
The image of Shepherd is an image of companionships that leads.
Yet it is not one that takes over for you. The Shepherd invites you — Walk with me. Let me lead. Let me guide.
Because the goal is not to keep us mindless and numb, broken in our pain, but to help us find the strength to move our feet, to see the sky, to embrace life.
Ultimately in the Jewish and Christian faiths, God is not some puppet-master holding complete sway on our lives, but a partner on our journey. This God invites us to be co-creators, co-redeemers, of our lives and our world. God will help us come to a bright future, help redeem us from every exile and oppression. But as Moses had to lift up his staff, as Jesus had to march to his cross, as Elijah had to stand down the oppressive monarchs, so we must take up our own lives. We must be willing to little by little realize that the God who leads us does not just lead from outside, but from deep within. And in that place deep within where the Spirit of God shines forth in our every darkness, we have power to shape our lives. We have an inner wisdom to show us our path. And together with that God, we can mend our lives. Mend our world, and transform it into life.
May we find this together this day and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,