Author’s note: I shared these reflections on Psalm 23 during worship in two congregations in my local presbytery. Since then, several friends have expressed interest in reading the sermon again and my translation of Psalm 23. You can find a version of that reflection here.
I vividly remember the day in March 2020 when my husband Lee and I were sitting on our front porch listening to Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announce that the doors of businesses would have to close, schools vacate, and urging us to “stay healthy at home.” At that moment, little did we know what social distancing would really mean or how long it could last. The faculty at Bellarmine University where I teach were quickly called together in the admissions theater to define the rules of our collective quarantine and prepare for a speedy move to online teaching. Within a week we would move from packed classrooms, scheduled appointments, and raucous and roaring athletic events to almost complete social isolation, except for virtual meetings. There were plenty of those. Computer technology enabled us to remain productive, but often lacked the personal connection needed to cultivate real community. I frequently referred to this time as a never-ending Monday.
Many of you may share the feeling with me of readiness to reemerge from our collective quarantine in full force while at the same time desiring to hold onto some of the lessons learned during those long days of social distancing and how they changed us and are still impacting our society and the larger global community. Amid rapid change, chaos, and transition, I challenged myself to pivot the focus of my attention away from feelings of isolation into the kind of solitude filled with meaning and purpose; the kind of solitude that deepens one’s relationship with God and connection to others.
Silence and solitude play significant roles in the history of religions. Thomas Merton, a famous Trappist monk who spent much of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, believed that silence and solitude create the conditions for one to seek God, discover one’s true self, and connect with others in community. Longing to feel more than alone and lonely throughout the quarantine, meditation became a meaning-making daily practice for me on long runs, walks with the dog, and in the quietness of the early morning.
Howard Thurman a Civil Rights activist and social mystic became another one of my guides. For several months, I read one of his Meditations of the Heart (1953) before putting on my running shoes and lacing them tightly. Thurman described meditation and solitude as “lulls in the rhythm of doing … the time may be used for taking stock, examining one’s life direction, one’s plans, one’s relations, and the like … It is like cleaning out the closets or the desk drawers and getting things in order. The time may be used for focusing and re-focusing one’s purposes in the light of what at first may be only one’s idea of the best and the highest” (Meditations of the Heart).
One of the first thoughts that came to my mind when reflecting on Psalm 23 in our current context was how many times it must have been read in the last year as the global community remembered the lives of over six million people lost due to COVID-19. Psalm 23 is often read or sung during funerals to comfort grieving families as an invitation to imagine God preparing for our rest in the life to come. And yet there is also profound wisdom that we can draw from Psalm 23 beyond the hope for God’s care as we transition from this life to the next.
Psalm 23 is one of the most popular psalms for meditation and worship in both Jewish and Christian traditions. It is part of a larger collection of psalms compiled over several centuries that reflect the life struggle and varying moods of faith of the Hebrew people in the ancient world. Psalms were an integral part of the ritualized activities of the Hebrew community developed for marking important personal and public experiences. They could be read at different times and places as invitations to consider God’s activity amidst the human struggle. The psalms also made a profound impact on the shape of Christian worship. Early Christians chanted or sang psalms as part of the liturgy. Church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa urged early Christians to visualize God as they reflected on each poem. The reformers later created a metrical psalter to encourage the use of the psalms in worship and prayer.
Over a hundred images of God can be found in the psalms. These images call us to reflect on the many and varied ways that people experience God’s activity within and among us. In the 23rd Psalm, we encounter an image of God as the good shepherd. The poem is a meditation about a pilgrim traveling on a long journey to Jerusalem, literally headed toward the city of peace, and the wording suggests that the traveler may be on his or her own. The word for shepherd in Hebrew is ro’i and is a verb–a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence—not a noun. Ro’i also has multiple meanings and can be translated as shepherd or companion and friend. A more literal translation from the Hebrew of the verses that introduce the psalmist’s reflection is “I want nothing for Adonai, God, shepherds or befriends me.”
Contemporary rabbis reflecting on the meaning of Psalm 23 encourage us to think of the importance of the poem in our daily lives. Rabbi Harold Kushner says that deep “healing wisdom” is found here. He writes, “We will hurt, but we will heal. We will grieve, but we will grow whole again” (The Lord Is My Shepherd, 27). What does God’s response to our hurting, grieving, and growing look like? How do we experience God’s good shepherding in our daily struggles at this point in time?
I want to invite you to read a more literal translation of Psalm 23 from the Hebrew. And then invite you to reflect for a moment on the meaning of the psalm. Consider what words or phrases stand out to you. What do you hear in this reading of Psalm 23 that could be significant for you personally and in your daily life? How do you visualize God’s good shepherding? What do you hear that may be important for our lives together as we emerge into a post-quarantine reality?
I want nothing for Adonai, God shepherds me.
It is God who lets me sprawl in pastures of green grass and who leads me to calm waters, to restore my spirit, who walks me in the circuitous path of righteousness as befits shepherds of sound reputation.
Even though I must sometimes pass through dark valleys, I fear no harm for You, Adonai, are with me; indeed, Your crook and Your walking stick are sources of constant comfort for me.
You set a table for me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with so much fine oil that I feel my cup is filled to saturation.
Nothing but goodness and mercy pursue me all the days of my life; indeed, I feel certain that I shall dwell in Your house for days without end.
What I think about as I reread and meditate on this translation of Psalm 23 is that we are never alone even when we have to walk through dark valleys. The psalmist reminds us of who and whose we are. God claims us, befriends us, and shepherds us as we walk along circuitous paths of righteousness. There is a great deal of healing wisdom to be found in this poem. The psalmist invites us to visualize how God’s shepherding and companionship call us to reorient our way of being and living in the world. God invites all of us to sprawl in green pastures, ensures that we lack nothing, that our cups are filled to saturation, and walks with us on a path to the city of peace.
In Hebrew, tzedakah is the root word used to name the paths of righteousness here and conveys a sense of justice and the moral obligation to care for others the alien, the stranger, and the widow—the most vulnerable and estranged—that is always connected with God’s shepherding. Tzedakah is not a single act but an approach to life grounded in the awareness of who and whose we are. Psalm 23 calls us to do more than to remember God’s shepherding but also to reorient our lives in light of it.
Do you know the name of Hamdi Ulukaya? Ulukaya embodies the spirit of this poem. He immigrated to the United States from Turkey. He is also the founder and CEO of Chobani yogurt. “Chobani” means shepherd in Turkish. Ulukaya chose this name for the yogurt company because he wanted his company to convey a sense of compassion and good shepherding that he is grateful to God for and experiences in the U.S. as well as his Turkish homeland. He situated the company in a small town in upstate New York in a plant that another company vacated. He wanted to do something to help the depressed economy and also to share good yogurt in the U.S. As the business grew, he remembered that he could not have accomplished anything on his own and so he shared ownership of the company with his workers. Many people have asked him why he would give such a gift. “This isn’t a gift,” he explained when interviewed by USA Today. “It’s a mutual promise to work together with a shared purpose and responsibility.” For Ulukaya, “shepherd” is more than a name for his yogurt, it is an approach to his vocation as an entrepreneur.
We all likely share a readiness to enter into a new post-quarantine reality. It will be tempting to try to forget what we learned in the quiet and solitude of our long period of social isolation and distancing. But, if you are like me, you also feel changed by the events of the last two years. The lull in your usual rhythm of doing may have given you the time to take stock, examine life’s direction, relations, and plans, and get some things in order. The pandemic which surges on reveals to us much more than our vulnerabilities and the fragility of all human life; it lays bare structural inequalities and systemic injustices between and among close neighbors and nations. May the poetry of the psalmist be more than a comfort for us and help us to visualize new paths to peace and righteousness.