The first time I remember going to church was to some kind of Bible School when we lived in Michigan. I haven't the faintest idea what kind of church it was, can barely remember what we did, but I do remember memorizing the 23rd Psalm. I remember this because there was some kind of prize at the end of the week for those children who could say it correctly. And, because memorizing came easily enough for me--even at 6 or 7--and the carrot held out was sure to be something I'd want, the 23rd Psalm became the very first section of the Bible I knew. Long before I actually knew much about the Bible at all, I could recite it straight through, just like I could recite the prayer my parents prayed with us every night.
And just like that prayer, the 23rd Psalm had little meaning back then. I mean, what exactly did it mean with all those strange sounding phrases and word endings? I hadn't faintest idea. King James will do that to a little girl who hasn't been raised on cadences of the Psalms and the language of the scripture.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." What? I don't want my shepherd?
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." Maketh. What is maketh?
Well, you get the idea.
But after I became a Christian, and actually began to understand scripture, I had something of a distaste for Psalm 23. I don't know if it was because it was long familiar, or if it still carried some kind of "I don't get it," from my early childhood, or if it's because Psalm 23 is the 'go-to' Psalm for memorial services. Right? It still is, come to think of it. As long as people are leaving this planet, there will be Psalm 23 read at funerals. That's just the way of things. Whatever the reason, I tend to skip past it rather rapidly in my perpetual re-reading of the Psalms.
But a few years ago, when asked to speak at a retreat, I felt led to talk about the Gardens of scripture. "From the Garden of Eden to the Garden of the Resurrection." And in the middle, suddenly, there was Psalm 23 as the garden of living--not dying--as a follower of Christ. This may not be new to you. Maybe you've long since figured this out, but it was a revelation to me. AND it redeemed a Psalm that is worth the price of admission.
So I thought I'd do an annotation of this much memorized, much honored Psalm (taken--sort of-- from my notes from the talk) about living it.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.--Perhaps this Psalm was given to David the day he went to face Goliath. Perhaps he had already gotten nosy, then big for his britches. "Shoot, I can kill that old giant!" On the basis of God's strength, David announces this. Then, eschewing the armor and sword, he goes off to gather stones for his sling shot. Maybe it's as he's kneeling by the river that he first prays these words, picking up these stones. "The LORD is my shepherd. I need nothing else. No armor, no sword. Just the Lord. I have been trained for THIS day by Him." A shepherd's staff, a sling shot and five stone. Everything he needs.
AND, we have everything we need as well. The equipment needed for battle comes from GOD--not from the world. The equipment needed for whatever life brings us comes from the Shepherd.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. This is the great spiritual discipline of solitude and silence. He knows we need rest and quiet. "Be still and know that I am God," He says (Psalm 46: 10) It's a theme of the Psalms. And this is modeled in the Incarnate. Jesus practiced the quiet and solitude we also need. If we are too busy, it's not of God. And--we can't blame it on temperament. No matter what kind of person we are, active or not, we must 'lie down' and rest with Him. Grow into His likeness alone.
He leads me beside still waters. This is the spiritual discipline of the Word. Jesus says, "I am the Living Water." We need to living word "The word of God is living and active..." We need to drink from it, bathe in it, immerse ourselves in it. "My soul thirsts for you," Psalm 63 says. This is how we should feel about the Word. Many people read self-help book after self-help book, looking for ways to 'try' to make their lives work. But these are rushing waters. We take them in, take them in, take them in, and then--like an overly-saturated sponge, we can't be used as God intends. Still waters, that's where He leads.. He will lead us to the pool of His living word, and reveal what will both quench our thirst and enable us to move.
He restores my soul. The spiritual discipline of fellowship. The Shepherd takes personal care of what each of us needs. When we are overwhelmed, busy, He makes us rest, when we are dehydrated He leads us to His water. But He also surrounds us with the Body that restores us when we are hurting and need comfort. Or simply need material aid. We don't have to suffer alone. We are given the Body exactly for this purpose--to restore us when we fall, to help hold us when we can't walk.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. This is the spiritual discipline of obedience. These words are the center of this Psalm--the core of what the Shepherd does, what our spiritual life is about. Growing up in Christ. Being led toward maturity--to become 'Little Christ-ones.' We are called by His name, and what we do, we do IN His name. We are made in His image, to walk in a manner worthy of what we are called. Ephesians 4: 13 speaks of our goal as being "to become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. This is the spiritual discipline of prayer. In fact, at this moment, David has begun to pray in earnest. He's gotten down to it. He's going into battle. No matter what comes, He fears nothing. In the church, it's a whole lot easier to talk about God or to do things for God, than to talk to Him. But we must learn to pray so that at the moment of difficulty, we pray in complete faith. This moment is not simply about prayer, it's about trust. And we must acknowledge that it's really difficult to walk there. We aren't, by instinct, a trusting species. Perhaps we would have been if sin had not entered the picture, but we'll never know. However, we don't have to TRY to trust. We walk in this 'valley' with the shepherd. AND, we must also acknowledge the presence of the enemy--that we do battle against him, and that, as Romans says, "Our battle is not against flesh and blood (as David's was against Goliath) but against principalities and powers." But--we need NOT, should NOT fear evil. The Cross is the great answer to the presence of evil. The great final solution.
This is where I'm going to leave it today. Yes, in the middle of a sentence. Because I have a great story for the next clause, and I don't want to rush through it. So, tomorrow. For tonight, marinate in the front half of this Psalm about living with Christ. Let it wash over you, and--perhaps-- be redeemed in you, as it has been in me.