Reflections on Psalm 23: Words Revealing MYSTERY

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, I am delighted to be joined by the members of Holy Cross’ Worship Team as we reflect together upon our experiences with the 23rd Psalm. We begin with a familiar translation of the Psalm. Our own reflections are punctuated by Rabbi Jamie Arnold’s translation from the original Hebrew.

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.

For most of my life, the words of the 23rd Psalm, as they were translated and interpreted by the authors of the King James Version of the Bible, have been with me, here and here. When I was just ten years old, we moved to Newmarket and lived here less than a year. It was a lonely year.

My brother and I were what we called back then, latch-key kids, which meant that we pretty much took care of ourselves while Mum and Dad had to work. I vaguely remember a brief friendship with a girl who lived down the street, who had the audacity to invite me to join her for a week of Vacation Bible School. Never having attended church, I had no idea what to Vacation Bible School was. Nevertheless, my parents’ discouragement about church, was all the encouragement I needed to want to attend. There was something exciting about the independence of striking out on my own, without parental encouragement, to explore the goings on at this place my parents avoided; indeed disparaged. I remember very little about that week except for the ongoing lessons of a gifted teacher who taught us the 23rd Psalm. I say taught us, but it would be more accurate to say, that he imprinted the 23rd psalm on our memory-banks, where it remains to this very day. I remember a sense of confusion about the meaning of these strange words. I remember feeling their weight, their importance, as if they were to be treasured and remembered because of their power. Power which my ten-year-old mind equated to the only other thing I had ever memorized, my twelve-times-table. If I could only capture those words, the way I’d captured the twelve-times-table, the power of numbers stored in my memory, would pale in comparison to the power of these magic words. I remember the teacher carefully explaining that these words together are poetry and that it is important to memorize poetry because poems are alive; they are sacred living words.  At the time I had no idea what the word “sacred” means, but like the strange and mysterious words of the poetry of the psalm, the word “sacred” sounded mysterious and so filled with wonder.  So, I stored the word “sacred” away as a precious gift. Over the years the sacred gift of Psalm 23, graciously given by wise teacher, has over and over again, filled me with wonder and opened me to the power of MYSTERY.

The King James Version of the 23rd Psalm, lends itself well to the mysterious power of poetry. Recently, I discovered another version of the 23rd Psalm translated from its ancient Hebrew origins by Rabbi Jamie Arnold. Rabbi Arnold’s translation adheres to the original Hebrew and like the King James Version captures the mysterious power of poetry to reveal the SACRED. Earlier, I invited the members of our Worship Team to briefly reflect upon their most vivid SACRED encounters with the poetry of the 23rd Psalm. What follows is a reading of Rabbi Arnold’s translation wrapped around some of our Worship Team’s reflections. Rabbi Arnold’s translation of the 23rd Psalm, which he calls:

Six Verses of Refuge (Equanimity) begins, “A song for LOVE’s sake: When our LOVE’s the Guide by-my-side, I want for nothing…

Marney Curran:

As a child, I remember my Mother sing a setting of the 23rd Psalm by a composer by the name of Samuel Little and it was a direct translation, of course of the King James Version. The first phrase of the music follows the text and is simply: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. Not need. Want. It seems to me that until we can rest with that phrase, we really should not proceed any further with the text.

Chase me through lush meadows, set me adrift, stretched out on meandering waters ease with the current, time stilling to all but the shore,

Andrew Slonetsky:

When I think about the concept of being restored, of being brought back to a place that’s healthier, it’s learning to listen to those little voices that when we are really obsessed or distracted, we don’t hear anymore. And that, it’s that voice that is so significant in reconnecting to where I need to be and finding my path again, my footing.

Nephesh-soul will recover like the land Noah reseeded with vines, revive like Hannah spinning grace with tears upon the wheels that grind and bend the arc of justice revealing Your name’s sake.                     

Jane Winstanley

I remember Good Shepherd Sunday in 1984. Now, 1984 was a year in which I lost some very precious people. I was stuck in despair and sinking further. On that Good Shepherd Sunday, I was offered the image of Jesus carrying me on his shoulders like a valued lamb. I leant on that image of rescue and protection for hope and strength, believing that one day, I would find joy again. Experiencing the power of that image has given me a greater awareness of how valuable metaphors and stories can be in bringing healing and hope to us. Such images are gifts to us. But not ends in and of themselves. But given to share with others. As my journey with God continues, the images and metaphors change. I think that’s important. It would not be growth for me if an image of helplessness became permanent. I do believe the HOLY ONE meets each one of us at our moment of need.

Even when I descend into valleys crowded with figures of death and disgrace,        I will not succumb to fear, now knowing where I am. I am with You, I AM. Ancestral staff of family tree in hand, courage and comfort blossom under the sun, casting shadows revealing time in melodies measure for measure, these and these harmonies lay my frets to rest.   

Eric Schultz:

So, my experience with the 23rd Psalm comes somewhat from history. I’m a farm boy raised in the fertile grounds of southern Ontario and had many neighbors that were farmers. As well as a whole variety of farming. So, one of them happens to be a sheep farm and all of us kids grew up about the same age. So, we spent time in each other’s barns in each other’s yards with each other’s animals. So, I thought I knew about sheep and I thought about I knew about sheep farming, until I had the privilege of traveling to the Middle East, to the Holy Land, and learning about the context of shepherding from that part of the world. And what I learned there, which helped me understand this psalm in a new way, was that unlike in southern Ontario sheep farming isn’t so much about putting sheep in a pen where there’s already fertile grass to eat and lots of water. A Shepherd is so responsible for the wealth, health and welfare of the animals as well as the future. So a Shepherd provides guidance for the sheep to only stay as long in one spot as is healthy for the animal. But also healthy for the environment. That if a sheep grazes or a herd grazes, a flock I guess not a herd, graze in one spot too long, they will eat the grass down to the roots and the grass will die and there will be no future there. So, a Shepherd provides that guidance for the immediate flock but also for the herd, flock that comes into the future. I had struggled with the 23rd Psalm in that you know, I read “makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” and I struggled with, that’s not the kind of God that I wanted to believe in, one that controls everything that I do. But hearing this from shepherds and seeing it in a different context helps me understand that this type of shepherding is very intimately connected with the sheep. It’s not a real controlling thing but ensuring that, the sheep and the Shepherd have a longevity into the future. And that is a wonderful thing as I look at my past and my ancestry in and my future and those that will succeed me, to ensure that there is a faith that adapts and changes sustenance for the future that is necessary.

Patience and perseverance, playing with polarity, stand and say, “Send me. Send me before you; tabling shame and sorrow for tomorrow that you may feast today, head anointed with oil, LOVE’s cup pouring-over the rim with plenty.”

Sharon Willan:

I grew up in a mining town, and so streams, fields, sheep, we’re not on my radar. But I used to dream about sitting by a stream and watching lambs play in the field. And watching shepherds sit at the field and watching them. So far away from reality. It was later that I learned that, in the time of Jesus, these shepherds we’re, had rather a lonely job. And it was a, could be a dangerous job, wild animals, thieves would try to take the sheep and they would have to get them into the fold at night, or watch them in the field. And so, I always wondered how the shepherds really worked. How did they know how many sheep they had? But I learned that they knew them by name, and they would call them by name. And they didn’t even have to count. They would just bring them into the fold or check them and make sure that they were there. And so, I was reminded about story that a friend told me. She was in training for search and rescue just outside of Dublin, and they were called to rescue a couple of lambs that had fallen over a Cliff and landed on a ledge. Because she was in training, they went to try this. They were wrapped in makeshift blankets and harnesses and lowered over the cliff. And the poor lambs were huddled against the ledge. And so, they were trying to whisper and be quiet and nudge the lambs so that they wouldn’t jump. And they managed to get them into a blanket, and they were hauled to the top of the cliff. By the time we got there, there were there number a of bystanders and these people began to clap and shout and congratulate them for getting these lambs to safety. It was a great joy.  Sharon said it was an ecstatic joy. And I was reminded of the hospital sand when patients are recovering from COVID, and they walk out of the hospital, how the medical staff stands almost as an honour line. And they clap and they sing. And so it’s a form of shepherding as they bring these people to safety.

Gratefulness and lovingkindness run me down and up, coursing through my veins to live in all my limbs, words and ways, coming home at last to sit and sabbath Your ever-presence, here, now embodying, housing LOVING CONSCIOUSNESS in time-space-and-soul.

I hope that these reflections have inspired your own recollections of living words, which reveal the SACRED in your life. Living words are multivalent metaphors which carry us beyond ourselves, revealing the HOLY ONE, in which we live and move and have our being. Our scriptures and our neighbours’ scriptures along with the countless volumes upon volumes of literature created over the centuries have the power to reveal the SACRED to us.  But the SACRED cannot be contained or limited to one book or indeed to many books. The SACRED is revealed to us in all sorts of art, for art is the human way of expressing the SACRED which lives, moves, and has being, in, with, through and beyond us. Religion at its best is an artform. Religion at its worst isn’t any kind of art at all.  When religion, any religion tries to cast the WORD or living words into stone, those words lose their LIVING quality and no longer have the ability to reveal the SACRED to us. Each generation is called to a kind of shepherding as we express our awe and wonder at the magnificence of Creation in which the HOLY ONE is, was, and ever more shall be EVOLVING in, with, through and beyond us.

So, we treasure the LIVING WORD and words handed down to us, even as their relationship to us continues to change, holding them lightly enough to provide room for new and unexpected expressions of the SACRED, in words, music, painting, dance, and play; artforms of every kind, created in response to the PRESENCE of our CREATOR. There are shepherds aplenty all around us. Just as there are flocks of people seeking shepherds.

May the ONE who IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also continue to inspire living expressions in us. So that each of us may become living revelations of the SACRED. Let us live into our own call to shepherd, even as we are led. May our cups continue to overflow with the blessings of the SACRED, the ONE who is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Amen.

CLICK HERE for Rabbi Jamie Arnold’s translation of Psalm 23

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