On the one hand, talking about suffering is easy. Everyone has experience with suffering. On the other hand, we struggle to talk about suffering because we often do that comparison thing and decide that our suffering isn’t as bad (or maybe is worse than) other people and, therefore, we feel guilty thinking about it, or even naming what we feel as suffering. But our pain is our pain. And it is real, and it shapes who we are and how we respond to the world. That is what Peter is trying to get us to understand. How we live with suffering and how we acknowledge God’s presence in our suffering is what makes us able to endure. There is a presence, a guardian of the soul, he argues, that gives us hope. That presence is one who is familiar with suffering. And the key here is not to diminish our pain by comparing it to his. Rather, the promise is that this one understands; this one has been where we are. This one walks with us into the suffering. This guardian is a close companion, not one who waits until we make it through on our own and then gives us a gold star or some other commendation. No, this one is right there with us. This one knows us. This guardian cares for us. This is why in addition to being the guardian of our souls, Jesus is the shepherd, says Peter, the fisherman.
We understand shepherd, even though most of us are somewhat removed from the sheepherding business. We’re familiar with that image, though. We’ve heard sermons and seen images of Jesus as the shepherd. We get it. And in large part, we get it because of a guy named David.
You know David, Old Testament guy, king of Israel, war hero, builder of palaces, writer of psalms. A lot of psalms get attributed to David. The truth is, we don’t really know how many or which ones were actually written by David and which ones were just attributed to him - meaning someone else put his name on them to get them published!
But I like to think that this one, our text for this week, was one that David wrote—something he plucked out on a lazy afternoon as he looked after the sheep. It was just a little ditty that he couldn’t even get his brothers to listen to when he got back to the homestead that evening. “Hey, guys, I wrote a new psalm. Listen to this.” Moans and hand gestures abound, and the brothers scatter to the four winds. Even old Jesse wouldn’t listen. “It’s real short, Dad,” David whines, “it’ll just take a sec.” “Maybe later, Davey, I still got work to do, and you know how your mother gets when we are late for supper.” And he scoots out the back door, making sure the screen door doesn’t slam behind him because he gets heck for that every single time.
With a sigh, David glances at the old sheepdog curled up in front of the fire who doesn’t lift his head but does manage a wag that thumps against the floor. That’s all the encouragement David needs, and he pulls his lyre off his back and says to the dog, “It’s my best so far. It’s gonna be a big hit; I just feel it in my bones.” And he starts to sing.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
The final note seems to hang in the air like a spark ascending from a warming fire. David senses that he isn’t as alone as he thought when he began to sing. He sees his mom come in from the kitchen, wiping her eyes on that calico apron she’s worn to prepare more meals than anyone can remember. She flashes him a proud smile before she scoots back to her stirring and baking. The brothers, who sought an escape from yet another psalm of David, now seem mesmerized, caught up to another place as they bump into each other as they drift out of the room. Even Jesse seems at a loss for words; he opens and closes his big farmer hands as though grasping for words that are out of reach. “Davey,” he croaks with a voice filled with unusual emotion. But still at a loss for a way to name the moment, he instead clears his throat and heads out to wash up for supper, the pump handle creaking in the silence made by the new song.
David turns back to the only one unaffected by the event: the old dog, tail stilled, basking in the warmth, tilts his eyes toward David and seems to say, “It’s better in the King James version.”
Well, that’s how I imagine it anyway. How could he know those six verses would become the single most remembered part of scripture around the world? But maybe he sensed it even as he wrote it. Or as it came to him in that curious process called inspiration. In-spirit-ed. A human/divine encounter that left us with six verses that speak to deep places in our souls. A psalm about wanting; or wanting and having. Or having so much, being so filled, that wanting doesn’t even enter the picture anymore.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Not because wanting is bad, but because there is nothing to want anymore. The Twenty-Third Psalm speaks of a someday when the deepest longings, the strongest wantings are satisfied by a relationship with the divine, with something bigger than anything our minds can comprehend. We call that something “Father” because we want it to be as real as those strong arms that wrap around us when the storm begins to rage around us. We want it to be like that guiding hand that helps us see the world right in front of our face, but because of our fear or our ignorance or our selfishness, we can’t see it. Until those strong and patient and infinitely loving hands take pains to point it out to us.
In the meantime, we want. And because we live in a world of amazing resources, we can be convinced that this thing or that can fill that aching need. And if we just had one of those; if we just looked like her, or drove a car like him, or dressed like those folks, then our wanting would be done. Except it isn’t. The fixes that the world offer are always short term. They might last a while, but then we need to upgrade. Then we need the next new thing. Or then we discover that the features of our current thing don’t include satisfaction or contentment despite the advertising telling us otherwise.
Our solution, we think, is to settle. Settle for less. Be satisfied being half empty. Be content with a vacancy in significant places. Learn to live with what is. Good enough is good enough. But that’s not what the Twenty-Third Psalm says either. It talks of banquet tables; it talks of overflowing cups; it talks of peace and of being pursued by goodness and mercy. It talks about not wanting, not because you’ve trained yourself not to want, but because you are filled up to the top and spilling over.
Yes, some of it is learning to want properly. But mostly, it is being so filled up with love and support and care that you can’t imagine what could possibly be better than that.