Of Shepherds and the Sh'ma
As we work our way through the Book of Psalms during the Bible Challenge, I find myself lifting my eyes to certain psalms with no small degree of anticipation. I wouldn't call it being eager, for some of the psalms I look to are weighty. Some are laments that have consoled me in times of distress or grief. Some are songs of exaltation that have given me extra lift when I am in a good place. Some that offer consolation have been there for me, and for people I have offered pastoral care to in the past, and are a balm-truly-to pain, loss and death.
The 23rd Psalm is one of those turning points, a place where scripture and life intersect so many times and in so many ways that in the recitation of the psalm, I find myself in many places, at many times and with many people. Meditating on the psalm opens up relationships and events in which the psalm has been the key to a deep connection to God, and to the people of God.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."
How many times have I read this psalm by the bedside of people in hospital, those in need of consolation in the face of great suffering. How many times have I prayed this song with people distressed by crises in work life, family relationships or crushing loss of same. How many times have I led a congregation during a funeral liturgy in the recitation of these passages, watching bereaved spouses, children, parents and friends take comfort in them as they release their loved one to sleep in Christ. How many times have I whispered it to myself, when I needed God to be with me as that shepherd, guide, protector, shelter, hope....
Many times. So many times....and yet, the words don't age, become dusty or begin to seem worn from over-use. They speak of the thing we seek most from a loving God, and articulate a desire we all possess to know that God is with us in some very tangible and particular ways.
As we move to the intersection of God and the people at Sinai, in Exodus, we are getting the other side of the coin of God's presence. Clouds, a shaking earth...and a ram's horn blast fit to split ear drums. Fear of the holy, a holiness that consumes and does not console. God is great, surely, and in this instance terrible as well. Overwhelming in the extreme, how can we measure up? Simple enough...keep covenant. Know that the Lord is God, the Lord is one. Don't put anything else in front of that. Live together and make choices in relationships based on fidelity to that submission to the Creator and Redeemer of all things. In Judaism, that first confession, called the Sh'ma, is Israel's consolation and place of primary connection to God. It opens the daily prayers. It calls the people together to worship. It celebrates new life, and marks the end of days for people as they rest in peace in their God. I expect that same awareness noted above in the 23rd Psalm is also felt when people recite the Sh'ma as well. It brings peace in times of duress. It is that moment of intersect for us with each other and for us with God.
"....and I will dwell in the House of the Lord, forever."
Those words are so important, such a reminder. Even as Jesus reminds us that all things do in fact come to and end, and that the trials of the people of God are imminent, he reminds us to call to mind just how God works in creation. Ponder the lesson of the fig tree...when you see it start to bud and leaf, that means that a time of growth is near. Signs and portents abound around us, and God's presence and consolation is ever with us...but we are still required to live into a watchful, aware sense of connection that bridges the mundane with the holy. We are still called on to open up to the challenge, and consolation of God who is that Shepherd who cares and leads us...as well as the Holy ONE who shakes the world so profoundly that the least we can manage at times is a stuttering Sh'ma that is more beseeching prayer for mercy than anything else.
Today, I will have this psalm as a companion, remembering those I have walked with, in the presence of God. Whether through the valley of the shadows, or beside still waters...we have known God's presence and in that knowledge have found a peace that does surpass all understanding. Today, thankfully, may we recall those moments when we have known that peace in God, and may we hold that lightly in trust that God is always with us...no matter what.