1 The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want;
2 Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.
Near restful waters he leads me, 3 to revive my drooping spirit.
He guides me along the right path; he is true to his name.
4 If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort.
5 You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes.
My head you have anointed with oil; my cup is overflowing.
6 Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever. [Psalm 23, Catholic Lectionary]
These are difficult times we live in, terrifying times.
The pop-up word in many Whatsapp messages from relatives and friends is “fear”. We see fear and anxiety pulsating in human hearts everywhere. We live in fear. We are afraid of the unknown enemy. France’s Prime Minister Macron captures this aspect of the global COVID-19 pandemic particularly sharply when he said: “We are facing an invisible and untouchable enemy right here, right now”.
Our hearts are troubled. We feel vulnerable and helpless. Our anxiety rises as stats surge. Crashing waves of sick patients overwhelm public healthcare everywhere. Supply chains of desperately-needed medical equipment and protective gear are broken. Problems of poverty, work and hunger during the lockdown pose grave uncertainties down the road. Pictures of rows and rows of coffins for Italians who “dropped like flies”, including over sixty Italian priests and many more religious sisters, stunned us silent and grieving. Watching Pope Francis weep in pain for suffering humanity, a distressed message echoed the peak emotion in human anxiety: “I feel like it’s the end of the world.” The depressing narrative continues. But, observe, while lockdowns create boredom, something else is stirring inside. Deep down, there is a restlessness that drives us to the One that cures our boredom, calms our fear, and refreshes our soul.
In times like this, reciting and reflecting on Psalm 23 may not cure all our problems, but it feeds us spiritually. Many know this psalm by heart. All appreciate the simplistic beauty and comfort contained in it. It expresses powerfully a prayer of confidence out of the depth of the human soul to the God who gives peace and rest. Of the myriad images associated with this psalm, three in particular seem exceptionally congenial for reflection in these harrowing times.
1. From Suffering to Faith
Psalm 23 is a thanksgiving that narrates a faith-walk.
God loves us while we are “on the way”, that’s what Psalm 23 is saying. At this time, we are in the “valley of darkness” where the “shadow of death” looms in the form of a deadly virus. But, God assures his children that He is with them in their low-point and will deliver them by His mighty power.
If this psalm is to be pertinent words of an ancient poet recurring to us with new force in this time of the COVID-19 contagion, it is not because of any heavenly imageries of the overnight extermination of a runaway menace, but the concrete realities it speaks to. Recall Psalm 22 just before this. Like us now, David was lamenting and pleading with God for deliverance from suffering and hostility. Read in sequence after that, Psalm 23 records David’s walk with God in which a concrete crisis-experience grew into a statement – a beautiful, poetic, statement of faith, gratitude, and trust. In God’s presence – his rod and his staff – David has overcome fear. Realising that he has been led along the right path, he speaks now of being comforted, of being graced with lush green pastures, and of being revived from his drooping spirit. Emerging from the depressing gloom of a dark night, David’s future – “all the days of my life” – is filled with hope.
We then see that the very opening verse of the Psalm is the core, the thesis-statement, and indeed the climax – all rolled into one – of the entire Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is a clear testimony of solid faith born of hard experience. The very fact that the opening verse is at the same time the climax of the Psalm bespeaks the experience-based reality that preceded it. The words of Psalm 23 are those of an ancestor in our faith who was delivered from danger and who now praises God for help in the midst of that danger. Which is why this too is a psalm made for us who are going through some acutely distressing experiences – of fear and anxiety, of disorientation and restlessness, of disturbing questions like “Why does God allow us to suffer so much?” “Where is God?” “Why doesn’t God intervene and kill the virus?” From David, therefore, we learn a key lesson:
- Like us, David was in deep lamentation, for the Lord appeared to tarry in bringing urgent help to relieve him from crisis where fear and anxiety ruled the day. But now, after the crisis is over, and having experienced a restoration that feels like the refreshment of green pastures and still waters after a season of great want, he jubilates and loudly affirms that God is like a shepherd to him, feeding him, giving him protection, and guiding him along the right path to abundant life.
For us Christians, we know that that shepherd is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11 and 10:14) who himself is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Adhering to him, we shall have life abundantly (John 10:10). Pope Francis, as usual, gave a beautiful homily on Palm Sunday. He said of Jesus who experienced betrayal and abandonment:
- That is the extent to which Jesus served us: he descended into the abyss of our most bitter sufferings, culminating in betrayal and abandonment. Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: “Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you.”
This movement from suffering to faith takes a powerful turn for some people in this stressful time. In Italy, atheists (medical professionals and ordinary people alike) return to God in deep and powerful conversion. Somehow, it always impresses us more when a conversion to Christianity is sparked by human suffering rather than the spectacular sort associated with miraculous healing. The weakness of God in his patiently Suffering-Servant Messiah somehow resonates so much more profoundly with the experiences in our own faith-walk.
The anxiety of this crisis may well be a catalyst for the spiritual renewal we so urgently need. Instinctively, more people are coming back to the faith (or to active faith). Previously pushing religion to the periphery of their lives, people are now catalysed by this terrible “nightmare” that is upon us to put religion back to the center. And it makes a better world. Humility is the foundational step to the spiritual awakening we so urgently need today. Just as God had promised: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). God requires humility for spiritual awakening because he cannot give what we will not admit we need to receive. God cannot shepherd us if we will not admit we need his lead, his offer of peace and rest.
In this light, we have here a testimony of an Italian medical doctor, at once simple and straight-forward, and yet glorious and inspiring:
- “I was an atheist, but now I’m returning to God,” said physician Lulian Urban Lorenzo. Watching the “nightmare” as patients and colleagues died of COVID-19, the 38-year-old doctor in Lombardia said he and other healthcare workers are discovering: “We have reached our limits,” and, “We begin to feel that God begins where man ends.”
2. From Grief to Peace and Rest
Psalm 23 calms the soul.
David Kesssler, one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, refers to a number of griefs people are feeling in this COVID-19 pandemic. We feel the world has changed, and it has. There is the loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. All this, and more, is hitting us and we are grieving individually as well as collectively. Of particular interest is his take on anticipatory grief:
- Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.
In grief, we long for God. St Augustine goes further. In whatever time and situation, humanity is always yearning for God: “O Lord, our hearts are made for Thee; and they shall know no rest, until they rest in Thee.” “Restfulness” is at the core of Psalm 23. Rest is what the shepherd provides for his sheep.
The adequate provision of lush pasture land, or “grassy meadows” and “restful waters” to which the shepherd has led his sheep, causes them to “lie down” – to rest. He “revives my drooping spirit” (v.3) reinforces the idea of the rest which God provides for His sheep. By that, David expresses gratitude to God for renewing and sustaining his life and, like a shepherd, providing him with rest and restoration. God does this by supplying him with the necessary provisions of food and water. But restoration goes beyond physical nourishment to a spiritual uplift – God restores the soul. Hence the centrality of the idea of peace and rest.
In order to be refreshed and renewed in spirit, rest is required, so that Psalm 23 is not fully appreciated apart from the word of God spoken to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel. Against the backdrop of the false shepherds who had abused and oppressed God’s flock, God the true shepherd promised to return to His people as their shepherd and to give them rest: “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God” (see Ezekiel 34:11-15).
Today, we best understand that God provides us, His sheep, with His Word. This Word, Spirit-filled, is the principal means by which we receive spiritual nourishment, rest, and restoration. And, true to His name, the Good Shepherd through the Spirit and the Word, “guides me along the right path” – the path of justice and mercy, goodness and righteousness. For the sake of God’s good name, Christians are to be mindful that our lives reflect on Him as our Shepherd. A time of pandemic ought to help us to reflect, to be less violent and competitive, and to stock up on compassion and generosity instead.
3. From Grabbing to Generosity
Psalm 23 emphatically sings: Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
David tells us that to have God as our shepherd is indeed to have everything we need. He who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-caring, is sufficient. With Him we need nothing else (Psalm 73:25-26). The Old Testament resounds with the message that God provides, just as Israel had found God to be a faithful provider of their needs during their protracted sojourn in the wilderness: “For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing” (Deut. 2:7).
In verses 2-4, David describes those things for which he, as God’s sheep, will never lack. Filled with poetic imagery, however, these verses are susceptible to abuse. A word of caution is in order so we do not go too far. It is plain wrong to understand David to mean that to have God as one’s shepherd is to have everything one could possibly desire or possess. Wants are not needs. David’s poetic language of God’s care in sheep-like terms goes beyond a strict literal to a spiritual sense.
The mentality behind David’s words is completely opposed to the commercial propaganda where we are constantly being told that we have many needs, all of which can be met by some commercially touted “must-buy”. And, peculiarly in this critical time of viral pandemic, people instinctively hoard groceries, toilet paper and strange enough, guns and ammunition (especially in America), much to the chagrin of even Bill Gates. A wayward strand of herd-mentality drives supermarket shelves empty.
Psalm 23 goes further, for at the end of the journey lies the celebration (verses 5-6). God’s goodness and kindness continues into the rest of David’s life as he dwells in the house of the Lord. God’s generosity can never be outdone. But if we have any real sense of gratitude for what we have received from God, we shall learn to make return-gifts to God, through taking care of the rest of God’s creatures who are in need. Our “overflowing cup” signals an urgent call to share. Thus, while in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, scientific and medical directives are undoubtedly crucial, so too are humility and solidarity (per Director of WHO, Tedros Adhanom). And of course, “the best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else” (per Dr Sanjay Gupta, CNN). Then, we might learn to let St Ignatius of Loyola guide us in his Prayer for Generosity:
Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Throughout this time, Pope Francis never tires of reminding us to take care of the aged, the weak, the Poor and needy and all who represent the vulnerable in society. Physical distancing to prevent virus spread does not equal social distancing and does not have to include all manners of social contact. By phone, we can brighten up someone’s day or “check up” on the lonely and the elderly and people in need of help.
Speaking of brightening someone’s day, there is a delightful video (1.45 minutes) on Youtube titled “Little Girl and Psalm 23 -BluefishTV.com” which tickles us no end. Might we suggest that you visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTQmbLP39Rg to brighten up your day?
May God fill your life with goodness and wellbeing this Holy Week.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, March 2020. All rights reserved.
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