Morning Prayer Reflection
May 6, 2014, Psalm 23
~ Julie Johnson
On Saturday I spent part of the day with some friends on the shores of Puget Sound. We went for a long walk along the water, and I spent much of my time with a 5 year old girl named Paige. Paige was full of questions! She picked up shells and asked me all about sea creatures. We talked at some length about the snails that inhabit shells like these… these are a couple of shells I have saved from past walks.
Paige suggested that maybe we could bring one of the snails home and keep it. So I explained that a snail wouldn’t be able to live away from this place, where it has salt water to cover it and nourish it. And inside my head, I thought … the life of these snails is actually much more complex! All of the intertidal creatures are dependent on the tide, as it comes in, goes out, uncovers, covers. The movement of the tide nourishes. Movement nourishes.
As I have spent time immersed in this well-known – beloved – psalm, I notice so much movement in it. The psalmist begins by stating her or his identity, as if answering the question: Who is my shepherd? “The LORD is my shepherd.”
And then the movement begins!
- The LORD leads me beside still waters
- The LORD gives life, and guides me along right pathways
- Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your rod and staff, they comfort me. Your rod and staff – they push me ahead, inviting me to a different destination.
- The LORD spreads a table, and anoints with oil.
- The LORD follows me all the days of my life.
Movement pervades this psalm. Movement, in fact, is a key in shepherding. Songwriter Richard Bruxvoort Colligan reminds us that one of the keys in shepherding is moving the sheep. The sheep must be constantly moved from field to field, from paddock to paddock. They must be moved in order to find fresh grass, and also so that they do not eat through the grass all the way to the root, which would ruin the pasture itself.
Perhaps life with God is all about movement, as this Psalm seems to imply. Like the movement of the tide, we are constantly led, guided, nourished, given life. We walk, and we are prodded and pushed – called, perhaps? Invited? We are invited from the place that we are, into a broader place in the world – into a new pasture in the world.
With this movement in mind, the final two verses of the psalm are particularly interesting to me this morning.
Verse 5 reads “you spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.” This is the one place in Psalm 23 where the psalmist does not write about movement to another pasture. The psalmist is in the presence of those who trouble her or him – the psalmist is in the presence of enemies – and God seems to say “Let’s stay here.” Here is a table of wonderful food. I will care for you abundantly – your cup will overflow – right here. Right here in the presence of those who trouble you.
The life of faith apparently welcomes the very present tension of God’s abundant care, and those who trouble us. The two are woven together. I wonder as we imagine this image of the psalmist, if we might name experiences in our lives today of God bringing life as we live in the tension of God’s abundant care in the presence of those who trouble us.
And as we live in that tension, we have the wonderful reminder in Verse 6. As we make our way through each day of our lives, God’s hesed – God’s steadfast love, God’s unfailing love – follows us.
Again borrowing from the thought of Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, “follow” in verse 6 is not a gentle, complacent sort of a verb. No, this Hebrew word for “follow” is a very active, aggressive verb! It is the same word that elsewhere describes David being stalked by tenacious enemies. God follows the psalmist in a relentless pursuit bringing steadfast love and mercy.
So often I imagine that I am trying to follow God! While it is true that I follow God, it is also true that God is aggressively following me with unfailing love and persistent grace. I wonder how that truth can frame our lives. Even in the presence of those who trouble us, God’s steadfast love and mercy relentlessly pursues us.
Like the tide, every day of our lives, God’s abundant care – God’s persistent grace, God’s nourishment, aggressively follows us…flows over us… again and again.
Thanks be to God!