They Comfort Me
March 27, 2011
For my entire adult life, I’ve avoided the newspaper. Oh sure, I worked for a paper in college taking pictures and reporting and editing-- I loved it then. But that was different. About the most exciting thing that happened about which to report was that there were some cows that were on UT’s campus illegally. It never seemed like there was too terribly much at stake in that paper. For the most part, we coved the sporting events and the things that campus clubs were doing and what the fraternities and sororities were up to. We did the occasional restaurant or movie review and featured a spot about whatever concert was coming up. But once I left that cozy world of the college paper, I realized that what I saw there wasn’t how most papers looked. I realized there was more bad news than I ever realized “out there.” Donovan and I have just started subscribing to the Fayetteville Observer, and these days, my once quiet mornings are filled with Donovan sharing whatever headlines there are. In just this week, there was “Caregiver charged with Mother’s Death”, “2 arrests made in double-homicide”, “Police say marijuana found in man’s boots”, “Hope Mills Man charged with Arson”, “Spring Lake Man Jailed in Shooting”, “Suspect Held in Soldier’s Slaying at Nightclub.” I guess it’s hardly any wonder I worked so hard at avoiding the paper-- with such an uplifting start to my days.
The world is not the same place it was when you were growing up. It’s not even the same place it was when I was growing up. And yet, the words that we read this morning are the same. They are the words that we’ve all learned by heart, the words that we’ve heard read at more funerals than we care to believe that we’ve been to. They are the words that somehow speak to that which is in the depths of our hearts.
I’m not sure when I first heard these words, but I have some vague recollection of being in a yellow nursery, and gluing cotton balls onto the outline of a lamb, and coloring the pastures a beautiful shade of green. On that day, in that yellow nursery, they didn’t say a lot to me. But they did paint a beautiful picture in my mind-- of sheep and streams and fields and shepherds, of blue sky days. That day, my biggest concern was whether or not I’d been good enough during church to merit an after-church trip to McDonalds, and whether I’d get the nuggets or the hamburger with my happy meal. I didn’t know that there were things in the world I needed to be protected from. As far as I was concerned, my parents were responsible for meeting my needs, and they were doing an alright job with that. Telling me that God was my shepherd didn’t mean much to me, because as far as I could tell, sheep and I didn’t have much in common.
But these days, I have bigger worries than a skinned knee or little-girl tights that never seem to stay up. And still, these are words that when I can say nothing else, they are words that I keep tucked away in my heart. Oh, they’re beautifully written, and I love and collect beautifully written words, but they are more than just words.
Do you ever think about why these words are read at so many times of crisis and death? Not just because they are beautiful, but because they’re the very truest words that we’ve known about life. And not only that, but because they are promises that we desperately need to be true.
So how do we read these words when a glance at the paper tells us that all is not right in the world? How do we read these words in the midst of our own struggles, which threaten to be our undoing? How do we hear, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” when life is more than overwhelming? How can we believe that we will be made to walk beside still water when it feels more like we’re standing on the shores of a raging sea? Do these words still mean something, now that we’re in such a different world than we were when we learned them?
I wonder what the Psalmist’s world looked like? This Psalm is so peaceful that it makes us feel like we’ve stepped into a beautiful painting, where the grass is green, the waters are still, and the sheep are just happily munching away. Surely, we think, the shepherd is just sitting around thinking about the beauty of God’s creation when he writes this.
If we look closely, we can see that the Psalmist has been in some sort of trouble. You don’t speak of being delivered from the valleys of the shadow of death for no good reason. In fact, the whole viewpoint of this Psalm is a look through the eyes of someone who has already been delivered from something terrible.
Of course, though, you already know all of that. And you know that the Psalmist isn’t trying to defend his faith in God--he’s not written a big theological statement for us to break apart. He’s just singing a song of praise to the God who has kept him so safe in the midst of great danger.
One of the things I have had to come to terms with this week is that nothing I could say about the 23rd Psalm will add anything to your experience of it. There is no new revelation that my studying all week could provide to make you say “Aha! I’d missed that before.” Though the world doesn’t look like it did when we first encountered these words, still we cling to them as if they are the very best promises of God-- because they are.
All week long, I’ve told myself I’m crazy. The passages that people are so familiar with are without a doubt the hardest ones to preach. What new life could a young preacher bring to words that you’ve treasured longer than I’ve even been alive? But finally, I caught on. My job this week wasn’t to shed new light on these words. My job was to faithfully call to mind the light that was shed generations before any of us were alive to learn these words.
Part of what makes these words so powerful is that we don’t “own” them. We recognize that they are part of the world body of literature-- that even people who aren’t specifically Christian know these words. We know that our mother and father and all the people that we have loved have probably also loved these words. We know that these words have been said at bedsides and gravesides, on the best of human days, and on the worst of them.
No, these words are not among the things that fall apart from too much use. They are like the family skillet that bears the seasoning of so many meals lovingly prepared throughout the generations-- which somehow seems to cook better the more it has been used. These words are like the old quilts I collect, which have their own stories long before they ever come into my house-- stories of sick children they have wrapped up, or the young couple who wanted to look up at the stars and who wrapped up in the quilt as they snuggled close, or the young wife who quietly sewed all the stitches at one of the lowest points in her life. When I curl up for a nap, I reach for these old treasured quilts, because I feel safe and loved in them as I think the other people who have been safe and loved as they were wrapped up in them.
The words we read this morning are beautiful on their own, but they are powerful because of all the experiences that generations of humans have had with them. They are powerful because they sing of a faith that is more than just the Psalmist’s faith--a faith that is all of ours.
I read these words this morning not from one of my own Bibles, but from my grandfather’s bible that my grandmother gave me following his death. It felt like the right thing to do to read this Psalm in the King James Version because that’s the version so many of you memorized. I picked the bible up because it was the only KJV I own, but I found more than the words of the Psalm. I found underlinings and notes from sermons that he’d heard. I found notes on passages that he found especially meaningful--and I could see that this Bible had known it’s fair share of both good days and bad. I found that the words on the pages had been a source of strength for my grandfather, even when the world must’ve felt like it was crumbling around him. The words became so much more than they were on just the page. This well worn Bible is like holding a living body of faith that as I hold it, my own faith increases. My grandfather wasn’t perfect, but as I hold this, I can see his struggles and questions of faith and the things that held him in his walk with God.
Perhaps it is that way with the 23rd psalm that so many of us hold so dear. As we look at the words, we can see the struggles and doubts of all those that have read them over the generations. But as we read them, we can also see the hand of God at work, and the ways that they have been carried with these words.
I asked earlier if these words still meant something, even though the world is such a different place than it was. Perhaps they mean more than they did, because they have seen us through so much over the years. Perhaps they mean more, because they are like the family skillet, gathering up "seasonings" and experiences that make them stronger.
The words of the 23rd psalm have become more than just words. They are words that will take us from the nursery to the grave, watching over all our days in between.They are words that carry the stories of generations, words that bear witness to the fact that the world has changed, but the Savior hasn’t. The words are an account of a living faith that the perils of the world have not yet been able to squash. The words we read this morning are a song of praise that we’ve all sung. And they touch our heart so deeply because we all sing them together.
I invite you to pray the words you all know so well with me--pray them however you learned them, and together our words will make a song of a faith that will not fall away, no matter the ills that come our way.
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, 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.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.