He Restoreth My Soul: A Meditation on Psalm 23

He Restoreth My Soul
A Meditation on Psalm 23

Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich

Aston Presbyterian Church

May 3, 2020

 

“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.”

 

Of all the passages in the Bible, this might be one of the most recognizable. As Christians, we hear this psalm used often in our liturgy and hymns; in our services of remembrance or communion or as we witness to the resurrection at the funeral of someone we dearly love. Yes, Psalm 23 is so recognizable that I would imagine that even people who aren’t connected to the church or to a specific denomination—-perhaps even those who do not consider themselves religious at all—have heard these words and know these stanzas.

These are our words of lament and comfort and rejoicing. These are our words we turn to when we look out, surveying a landscape of grief and pain, and still pronounce it all HOLY. These are the words that have been comfort to the sick; that have brought reassurance to the prisoner; that have buoyed the widow in grief; and offered consolation to the dying. These are the words we turn to again and again in our funeral services, wanting to be reminded once more of the way the Good Shepherd walks with us—mountaintop to valley to mountaintop again.

These are the words that a king, born a shepherd, wanted his people to hear. David thought about the God of Israel as a shepherd to his sheep: leading them, guiding them, returning them to the fold when they wandered off. This image—-of a shepherd and his sheep—is one that has been sacred since the time of even the earliest Christians, and David himself knew the experience first-hand, recalling his boyhood as a shepherd before rising to in stature to a king. In choosing these words and these images, David wants his people to know a personal, protective God, deigning to come close in spirit and heart to those who most need His presence. The Lord as a Shepherd is an image of sustaining; of leading; of guiding; of consoling; of reminding; of encouraging…. This psalm is for those whose spirit is struggling; whose strength is fading; whose faith is outshadowed by fear. This psalm is for every one of us.

It is quite fitting that these are the words we hear so frequently when our hearts need comforting…in times of trial and suffering and even death. It is quite fitting that these are the words we turn to so often to reassure us in the liturgy of hours in a funeral. It is quite fitting for us this week, because we are facing so much death.

We are facing the undeniable reality of physical death, to be sure, but along with that, we are facing the death of so much of what we once knew. That hit me this week—-hard. Like walking into a wall in the dark. That unyielding certainty that everything has changed. I thought of all it—-all at once. Like being caught in a swirling tornado of nostalgia and grief. Loss, whirling around me, taunting me with its cruel reminders of all that should have been and all that will never be again. A day of terrifically wild weather spoke like a metaphor for all that sat heaped upon my heart. Each whipping gust of wind a reminder of something else that was forever changed; each broken branch a reminder of something else that was forever broken.

Grief is a fickle thief. Sometimes it settles upon us in pure, inky blackness, obscuring completely that which once brought us joy; but more often, it just dulls the light we can see with its opaque, sublime, grey dust. So that as we sit and think and remember, we can do little more than watch the light filter between dust motes, each memory falling one onto the other as the dust gathers at our feet.

I held all the sadness this week. I held the sadness of people who have lost mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and loved ones of all relation. I held the sadness of doctors and nurses and chaplains who have worked under the gloaming weight of death, the veil feeling somehow thinner in these days than ever before. I held the sadness of people who head to jobs and offices each day, struggling to balance their gratitude at having a job with the stress of getting there and home. I held the sadness of people who have watched their business suffer and shutter, precariously balanced on that seesaw of benefit and loss. I held the sadness of everyone who is missing something; losing something; changing something; forgoing something….I held the sadness of God’s people as the Shadow of Death loomed large over my witness, and reduced me to dust in my mourning. I let it wash over me as one might pass beneath a wave they knew the were not strong enough to stand against, preferring instead to go under and through, knowing that either option would leave them breathless and stunned. Yes, the sadness came and I let it in. Because we all know that when you try to lock the door hard against it, it will battle its way through.

Yet, as the psalm reminds us—as David himself speaks to us—-we hear the reassuring truth in these words. “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.”

Still waters. The paths of righteousness. Fear no evil; my cup runneth over; goodness and mercy shall follow me ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE. Like the imagery of Adam raised from dust, we know that something beautiful and astounding is going to rise from these ashes. We can’t be who we were. Things won’t go back to what we knew. We are irreversibly and irreparably changed. And that is a magnificent, sustaining, wonderful, astonishing truth.

Something redemptive and restorative and REAL is coming from this. The psalmist promises us that. The hymn assures us that even as we look out on ashes, something new will rise in place of all that we once held dear.

It won’t look like what it looked like before. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. The recreating, reconciling, restoring Spirit of God doesn’t make the same thing twice. Something new is being formed and created and is dawning on us with new light. Green pastures. Still waters. Oil anointing our head as our cups are too full to be contained. The valley of the shadow of death has darkened our paths before and will surely darken our paths once again….but our spirits will not be tarnished by the bleak blackness. Through that swirling tornado of grief, when we feel our vision clouded and our senses dulled, the Good Shepherd rescues us once again.

This is the God who is. Our Good Shepherd, leading us through the trials and travails of this messy, uncertain, unpredictable life, knowing when our souls need comfort. Knowing when our spirits need solace. Knowing when our hearts need shelter from the coming storm. Knowing just how to hold us in our anguish, as how to celebrate with us in thanksgiving. Knowing that we must die to what was, to welcome and rejoice in what is to be.

Psalm 23 is everything we need to know, given to us in six beautiful sentences by a shepherd King. From celebration to loss to celebration again, we are constantly reminded and reassured of God’s loving presence alongside us through it all. We are promised—not the absence of evil, but the reassurance that we can face it without fear. We are promised—not that we will always choose the right path, but that the comforting rod and staff of God’s Word will lead us back no matter how many times we wander away. We are promised—that even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not dwell there, but continue on our way. We will face judgment; and know mercy. We will face sadness; and know goodness. We will face the shadows, and be led again to the Light. David’s words in this psalm remind us that even as we live it all in the shadow of death, the comforting presence of God does not stray. Sadness and grief will pass over each of us, but they will not settle into us.

Six sentences. Six sentences that encapsulate everything we feel on this journey that we each are on. Six sentences that see us in our suffering; our sadness; our grief; our mourning; our wandering; our being found; our excitement; and our elation. Six sentences that walk us from the storm to the still waters; from the chaos to the calm; from the groaning to the rejoicing and bless it all with mercy and grace.

God is here. Just as God has been since David surveyed his flock on a hill and his people Israel in courts of gold. God is here. Just as God has been since Jesus calmed the waters of the storm and brought bounty from emptiness. God is here. Just as God has been since Paul walked the streets, sharing the Word in freedom and as he sit in prison, sharing the Word in confinement. The God who formed stars to give light in darkness; who created feast where nothing was known but famine; who brought forth a people of strength out of a life of persecution….who worked miracles and healed the sick and comforted the dying….who sat with sinners as easily as he sat with saints, and shared bread with them all….who knelt in a Garden of shadow; walked through a crowd of torment; journeyed to a hill of death; rose in splendor….God is here. United with us in our confusion and our struggle and our wandering….promising each day that only goodness and mercy will follow us. That even as the darkness might cast its long shadows on us from time to time, something new will rise. We will be strengthened by our struggle for even as we face uncertainty and trial— in so many ways— our cups runneth over. The sadness can visit, but cannot stay here. For only goodness and mercy can dwell. The promise of the Resurrection casts the light of the Cross onto the shadows of the Valley of Death. God is here. The Good Shepherd will find us again and again. Be not afraid. Amen.