What is it about these words, written in this way, that have brought so much comfort to so many people over thousands of years? At times of grief, loss, hope and inspiration; this is a passage that has defined the faith of countless believers and nonbelievers alike.
They are not complex words. The vocabulary is simple. The six verses of the 23rd Psalm make it one the shortest Psalms in the entire Psalter. How can a few memorable words do what these words do? Is it purely the images they evoke? In our culture, we know nothing of shepherds and sheep, yet we relate to this image. We live nowhere near grassy meadows or restful waters. Our ground is sandy and the seas are rough. Yet we know what the author means, on an unseen, molecular level. Our ground is flat. There are no valleys. North Carolina’s mountains are a distant memory, far to the west. For many reasons, we know lonesome valleys all too well. Is this a map? From the beginning, as I read the geography of the 23rd Psalm, I do not believe I am reading a physical map. It is not as if I’m holding a piece of paper, a GPS, or a computer and looking for these places, as described and saying “this is where I can pinpoint God’s active presence in the world (or my life)”.
To paraphrase Yoda, triangulating a destination, we are not. Instead, the meadows, waters, valleys, and mountains are in our minds and obscured by the world around us. There are mountains which do not look like mountains but are still before us and difficult to climb. There are dark, lonesome valleys teeming with people and full of bright sunshine. Lush green meadows surround us yet they are covered with sand. How can this be?
I want to talk about the spiritual geography of the 23rd Psalm. When we start to take the terrain of the 23rd Psalm and lay it like a template upon our souls, it becomes easier to chart a healthier relationship with God. This scripture is so much more powerful than a tool for personal devotion and occasional spiritual comfort. Yes, the Psalm can be those things and that’s OK. However, I believe it was intended to do much more. Jesus is always on the move. Read this Psalm closely, you see there’s a great deal of movement. Walking, grazing, and guiding. There is constant forward momentum. As with the hymn the choir sang, Jesus “walked” that lonesome valley. It is, as if, the Psalm is the missing piece of a map which keeps us moving forward.
If you don’t know, I’m a Star Wars fan. In the most recent movie, “The Force Awakens”, the Resistance and the bad guys are trying to find Luke Skywalker. I won’t go into all the details but needless to say, Luke is the last Jedi knight and he’s gone into hiding. Forces of evil and darkness are trying to kill him. The good guys have one piece of a map that might lead them to his whereabouts. That’s nice but it’s no good to anyone unless they have the rest of the map, which happens to be stored in R2-D2’s hard drive. They can’t go anywhere or do anything. They can just read what they have.
We’ve got a map and we’ve got a piece of the much larger map, except we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. If we put our map into place and read the soul geography placed before us; we’re no longer reading about God. We are traveling with God. We’ve unlocked the hard drive.
What are we moving towards? Where are we going? What do we need to be prepared for on this journey?
I believe the first thing we’re moving toward is a greater appreciation of life itself. A more traditional Christian way of phrasing this might be to say, “Abundant life”. I think this is hard to define in this era of prosperity theology. It’s hard to distinguish ideas of abundance from concepts of wealth. If God is our shepherd and we lack for nothing; what does this mean? What does it mean to be kept alive with still waters and rest in grassy meadows? It means our priorities are reordered to reflect God’s geography for our lives. Are we letting our environment, friends, family, job, or culture shape our wants and needs or God? Which one of those influences is shaping your spiritual geography? Those influences (environment, friends, family, job, culture) tell us that still waters and grassy meadows are never enough. They question the relevance of following God’s spiritual geography. Will we accept God’s abundance or the world’s lies about scarcity?
Dark valleys are frightening. This is why they are acknowledged on our map. God doesn’t discount our places of fear. We are not told to man up, get over it, and go home. Instead, we are given a means to cope and go forward. How do we get through dark valleys? Again, valleys do not have to be vast expanses between large mountain ranges. It could be the open water between two sides of a lake. A valley might be the distance from one driveway to the other or across a meeting room. Valleys come in all shapes and sizes. They are lonesome and crowded, light and dark. Despite these variables, they have commonalities. They can provoke fear, dread, and isolation. God acknowledges our fears are valid and we have a need to be protected. Everyone wants to be validated. God is saying, “You’re right, what you’re going through is a big deal.” God is agreeing with you. That ought to make you feel great. I love it when my wife agrees with me. This is God telling me my feelings are justified. The church has made an art of finding ways to demonstrate how God tells people they are wrong. This isn’t one of those times. It feels nice to have God affirm our humanity.
God is saying, let’s not just cope, we can move beyond these fears together in a healthy, productive way. The suggestion to dine with your enemies at a banquet is one of the ultimate signs that God doesn’t want us to live with emotional baggage that keeps us from moving forward. God doesn’t do cute suggestions or good ideas for cross-stitch patterns. God does blueprints for making the kingdom work in real time. God wants us to move forward to the table. Put down your Bible and find your big spoon. Serve some mashed potatoes to the people who you don’t like in your life.
If you’re only reading Psalm 23 and don’t see it as a map, you’re probably going to say, “Bless that David’s heart! I do like to picture myself as one of those cute little sheep in Jesus’ heavenly flock. (Having lived in an Irish shepherding community I can tell you this: sheep are gross.) How sweet of those ancient Israelites to go out on a picnic in the forest with a bunch of people they hated! I’m glad God don’t expect me to do that.” Here’s the thing, God does expect it.
“Surely God’s goodness and mercy” doesn’t mean that your favorite breakfast place gave you two extra Sausage biscuits. The biscuits will only follow you for part of the day, not for the rest of your life. It has nothing to do with parking spaces magically appearing or what others call good luck. It’s not just an inspiring read designed to produce a good feeling when we do devotions or warm our hearts at a funeral. This is a real world map describing how we ought to relate to God and live our lives. Lay it flat on the table, turn it due north, and start looking for the valleys in your life. Connect this piece to the rest of the map you’ve already been given. It’s time to start moving forward.