The Fourth Week in Lent: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I’ve been avoiding writing all month, uncertain of what will come out when I start putting my thoughts to (virtual) paper. My bishop, Todd Hunter, very wisely encourages both clergy and laypeople to practice being a “non-anxious presence:” God is always already at work in the world around us, and so not only do we not need to worry ourselves, we ought to actively resist the anxiety and fear in the world around us.
I love this idea. I want to work towards it. But how in the world do I hang on to this non-anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic? How can I be this non-anxious presence?
Several things are helping me control my anxiety: my meds, of course; yoga; long breaks from social media; the field full of robins I saw on a walk last week; connecting with friends, even if we can’t be together in person; making space to pray the daily office.
But this week, we also have the liturgical gift of Psalm 23 in the lectionary.
This psalm is likely one of the best known passages of scripture. Familiarity can sometimes obscure fresh understanding, but this week at least I found the familiarity comforting; as so much is new and so much changes, the timelessness of this ancient poem soothed my heart.
And so this week, as I reflect on the lectionary, I’m not offering exegesis or even fresh insight. Instead, I offer this psalm as an invitation.
An invitation to remember that God is our shepherd, the good shepherd who cares for the sheep: even amidst the anxiety caused by the less-than-reassuring responses of our elected leaders, God does not abandon us.
An invitation to remember that the valley of the shadow of death is just as real as the green pastures and still waters, and that sometimes we’re not in the sunny field but the dark and terrifying valley. But the Shepherd is with us every bit as much in that valley as in the field.
Here’s where I can’t resist making a connection to Lent: during this season, we remember Jesus' suffering — and we’re nearly to Holy Week, when we walk alongside Jesus during the final week before his death and resurrection. But remembering Jesus' suffering isn’t meant to simply make us feel bad that God went through all of that for us.
No: Jesus' suffering should fill us with gratitude, yes, but also hope, because our God became a human being and walked among us. When Jesus the Good Shepherd walks alongside us in the valley of the shadow of death, he can comfort us because he too walked through that valley. And we have hope because he also walked out of the valley, and will lead us out as well.
Finally, Psalm 23 invites us to remember that this is not the end, that we will dwell with God forever. I want to be clear: this shouldn’t make us dismissive or fatalistic, and it certainly shouldn’t make us ignore the dark valley. But we can live non-anxiously now because we know it’s not the end of the story.
This is a dark and frightening time. Many people are suffering and will suffer, because of illness or financial hardship. It’s hard to say how much things will change when we come out from the other side of this pandemic. Everything, from grocery shopping to planning for the future, is wrapped in uncertainty.
But Psalm 23 reassures us that we have a God who doesn’t let us walk on our own, who doesn’t just promise to wait for us at the end. No, the Good Shepherd walks alongside us with the love and compassion that comes from having himself walked through suffering and death, having himself experienced anxiety and fear.
I’m still anxious, I’m not going to lie. I’m not to the point of easily being a non-anxious presence to those around me. But this psalm guides me to remember that God is still here, still with me, no matter what happens.