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A Meditation on Psalm 23

Paul O. Ingram

For the past twenty years the Fourth Sunday of Easter known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” has aroused in me a deep sense of fear and intellectual anxiety. Of all the Sundays in the liturgical calendar, Good Shepherd Sunday maybe the one Sunday when too many preachers seem most willing to practice the art of killing a metaphor. Of course, this may say more about me than reality. But I doubt it. Let me place my fear and anxiety into historical context.

About twenty years ago, I was invited to teach a three-Sunday adult education class on Buddhist-Christian dialogue at a large and growing Lutheran congregation in Des Moines, Washington. (Yes, there is a city named “Des Moines” in Washington State.) It was Good Shepherd Sunday, and as I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a sheep pen that had been set up in front of the main entrance containing a ewe and two very cute lambs. “Humm,” I thought to myself as I entered the narthex, which contained an espresso stand selling coffee to sleepy parishioners finding their way into the sanctuary. I immediately called my wife, who was ill at the time. “Honey,” they’ve got sheep!”

“Whose got sheep?” She was irritated because I woke her up.

“The Church.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain when I’m home. Love you.”

Whenever I’m invited to speak to adult education classes, I always attend the worship service in order to get the “feel” of the place and some sense of the folks I will later meet in class. Just before the sermon, the pastor called the children to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s sermon. As the kids began seating themselves on the altar steps next to the pastor, a shepherd (yes, an actual shepherd) who has just joined this community marched down the aisle carrying two lambs, who were bleating in fear as the ewe cried in anxiety in the artificial pen punctuated by hissing sounds of the espresso maker working hard to meet the caffeine needs of parishioners waiting in the narthex for the “late service.”

Now things got really interesting. The pastor began explaining to the kids what it means to think of Jesus as a “good shepherd” who takes care of his sheep, meaning his “faithful followers” and how he protects sheep, like any good shepherd, from danger.”

“What kind of danger?” one very smart little girl asked.

The pastor thought awhile, smiled, and replied, “Well, honey, from dangerous animals that eat sheep. Shepherds are always willing to risk their lives to protect their sheep.”

Turning to the shepherd holding two ewes, which the kids took turns petting, the little girl asked,

“Why do shepherds do that?”

He answered,“To take them to market so your Mom can cook lamb chops.”

A hush of disbelief fell over the sanctuary as some of the kids began crying upon suddenly learning that life eats life in order to survive, their first lesson in survival of the fittest!

The pastor quickly dismissed the kids, who fled back to their parents who suddenly had things to explain to their children after church. The pastor suddenly had some things to deal with, too. He stood silently in the pulpit for a time that seemed to draw out like a blade, and then began to preach “off script.” And here his particular homicide of the shepherd metaphor began.

“Human beings are like the sheep in the pen in front of the church,” he began. “We’re not very smart. We make bad choices. We smell bad. We can’t take care of ourselves. And we are so stupid that we would be destroyed by our own violence to ourselves were it not for Jesus as the Good Shepherd who loves us and protects us from all harm (?) as he herds us along the right path for our collective lives.” Basically, the pastor lingered on this theme with little variation for about thirty minutes, thus completely ignoring the lesson of Good Shepherd Sunday: that God loves human beings that God continually creates and like a shepherd, watches over the human flock created in God’s image. When the service was finally over, people left shaking their heads silently, not even stopping at the espresso machine for coffee and “fellowship.”

I remember thinking, “What next?” as I made my way to the choir room, where about seventy-five people were waiting for me with what looked something like the “thousand-yard stare” one sees in the eyes of men and women who have been in combat. Things got better as I began introducing the Buddhist Way to the class and dealing with their questions about what Christians can learn from faithful Buddhists. It turned out to be a very lively and interesting group of people who possessed a wonderful sense of humor and I enjoyed being with them immensely.

But at the end of our first session an elderly lady asked, “I saw you in church this morning. What did you think of Pastor John’s sermon?”[1]

All eyes were intensely focused on me. I thought a little, and then said, “Look, I’m not a member of this community so I don’t think my opinion is worth much. I’d rather not answer your question,” which, of course, implied an answer.

“You’re a Lutheran teaching at a Lutheran related university, are you not?” she demanded.

“Yes,” I said, knowing what was coming next. I have seen too many elderly and wise church ladies not to know.

“So you believe in the priesthood of all believers,” she asked as she focused her deep blue eyes on mine.

“I do,” I confessed.

“Then tell us what you think,” she demanded with a cold tone of voice I had not heard since my third-grade teacher, Miss Bliss, demanded the that I answer her questions.

“All right. Your pastor just told us that we all smell bad, that we’re stupid and in need of constant supervision, are incapable of making intelligent choices, and that basically, we’re not worth the care that God lavishes on all human beings past, present, and future. This is what happens when you kill a metaphor by trying to reduce it to its literal meanings and has nothing to do with the meaning of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. When metaphors are taken too literally, we miss the symbolic meanings that the metaphor tries to communicate, which is the error of any form of fundamentalism. This was certainly Luther’s view of the Good Shepherd, which I think is most clearly expressed in the language of the Psalms and the way the Synoptic Gospels portray the historical Jesus’ use of the shepherd metaphor to describe our relation to God.

That encounter with the shepherd metaphor in that Lutheran church in Des Moines, Washington still haunts me to this day like a Chinese hungry ghost. So I have been thinking about this metaphor ever since and what follows is one piece of this reflection.

It was about forty years ago when the meaning of Christian faith started to dawn on me, when, as St. Paul would have said, “it pleased the Lord to reveal his son to me.” Not that I had a sudden flash of insight or heard voices or talked to Jesus as a kind of best buddy. My experience wasn’t like being knocked off a horse, as it was for St. Paul. Nor did I catch Christian faith because of any specific thing I studied in seminary or did research on in graduate school. In fact at the time, I wasn’t even aware that anything had happened.

The occasion was a quiet conversation I had with one of my teachers under an escalator in a New Orleans hotel lobby during a national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. My theology professor at the Claremont School of Theology, John B. Cobb, Jr., had just published a book entitled Christ in a Pluralistic Age. One chapter in this book called for dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. It was a wonderfully cutting-edge piece of theological reflection, but I didn’t agree with some of his interpretations of Buddhism. So I wrote a critical review essay and sent it to him in advance of submitting it for publication in order to give him a chance to tell me if I had misinterpreted or misunderstood his methodology or conclusions.[2] Our first chance to talk was in New Orleans sitting on the floor under an escalator in the main lobby of the conference hotel.

I was surprised and gratified that he liked what I had written—and the fact that I had written it—even though he thought some of my critique had missed several points he was trying to make. Our conversation was intense and serious, which is always John’s way of dealing with people he trusts. What I remember most about our conversation was my defensiveness about Christian tradition in general. Once, when I interviewed for my job at Pacific Lutheran University, Kenneth Christopherson who was Department Chair asked me if I considered myself a Christian. I took a deep breath and said, “My problem with that question is that most people who publically identify themselves as Christian are so obnoxious about it.” There was a great silence. “Especially now,” I continued, “when the Christian right tries to ram their version of Christian faith down our throats.” I also said that I wondered if being a Christian was something we should claim for ourselves. I agree with Kathleen Norris. If “being a Christian” means incarnating the love of Christ in my own life, it would be best to let others tell me how well, or how badly, I’m doing.[3]

Besides, I wasn’t sure I could wear the label “Christian” and still practice the craft of history of religions—an academic discipline that bills itself as a non-theological, non-normative, collection of descriptive methods for investigating religious traditions other than one’s own. Anyone practicing this academic trade sees too much in the world’s religious Ways that is creative and wonderful to make exclusivist claims about the superiority of one religious Way over another. I still cannot support religious imperialism of this sort. But historians of religions also see much in all religious traditions that seem self-destructive, irrational, exploitive, and irrelevant to contemporary life. So I wasn’t sure I could be a Christian and be an historian of religion simultaneously. Nor was I sure I wanted to wear any religious label because I thought it would hinder the objectivity of my scholarship.

John had heard me say all this before—during my student days and in written form in some of my earlier publications, and in papers I had read at conferences about the proper methodology for studying religious “phenomena,” meaning “what religious people say, believe, and practice.” Finally, under an escalator in a New Orleans hotel, he had enough of it and ended our conversation by gently saying, “You know, Paul, you’re a Christian. Get over it. Christian faith is about trusting the truth in whatever dress it wears and following it no matter where it takes you.”

The impact of these words didn’t hit me right away, but looking back I think they initiated my particular journey into Christian faith. What John Cobb helped me to gradually discover is that faith in Christ is essentially an interior journey that leads us through time—forward and back, seldom in a straight line, most often in spirals. Each of us is moving and changing in relationship to others and to the world, and if one is grasped by Christian faith, to God. As we discover what our interior journeys teach us, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intently do we discover when our separate journeys converge in the community that is the Church.

So in thinking about how the journey of faith began for me, I initially thought I would write about how the historical Jesus or St. Francis of Assisi began their faith journeys when they were in their thirties. But as I thought about this, it seemed pretentious. I’m sure there are plenty of biblical characters and Christian people who screwed up, devised a new heresy, or gave up the ghost in their thirties. So what? Instead, I decided to take some clues from the Twenty-third Psalm and its shepherd metaphor for God’s continual interaction with human beings and other sentient beings in a world in which God is continuously creating, a metaphor the early Jesus movement appropriated in their understanding of the historical Jesus they confessed to be the Christ of faith. Faith as a cup overflowing with grace is a much more compelling topic for theological reflection and more to the point.

When Jews bless the cup of wine on the Sabbath, they often fill the cup and let it overflow, spilling a little on the table. This is to recall the Psalmist’s declaration that his cup is overflowing with the abundance and mercy of God. [Of course, several in my little circle of friends always seem to spill their wine out of complete clumsiness, but that’s another story.] Knowing that my cup is always overflowing, no matter how it appears to my senses, has sustained me since my conversation with John Cobb some forty years ago. If any contemporary theologian could be called “a shepherd,” it is John Cobb.

The last time I heard the Twenty-third Psalm in a church setting was eighteen years ago at my father’s funeral. The person who read the psalm read it rather badly, but still, it was the first time I really heard it. Why, I remember thinking, is this Psalm mostly read at funerals? Or mostly during times of anxiety, fear, or danger? Psalm Twenty-three should be read every day.

This was the opinion of Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaw (1772-1810). He argued that all of the Psalms should “be interpreted about oneself with regard to the war against the inclination towards evil, and its cohorts.”[4] Or in more Christian language, the Psalms in general, and the Twenty-third Psalm in particular, are the prayers of Christ in us, and the enemies are all internal. So after studying the Hebrew meanings and the rabbinical commentaries, Psalm Twenty-three has for me taken the form of a Christian targum, meaning a “paraphrased and expanded version” that captures what I believe is its meaning.

The Lord is my shepherd, and by grace, I never lack anything, no matter how it appears to my mind.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters—everything that a sheep requires, although my senses never see it that way.

He restores my soul by causing me to repent,

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, not because I deserve it or would ever walk the path even if I could find it myself.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are continually with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me, by keeping me from straying and by beating back the wolves in my mind that would devour me.

You prepare a table before me—laden with everything I need—in the presence of my enemies, whose voices are tempting me to desire more than I have.

You anoint my head with oil, thereby stilling those voices as I realize my true identity in Christ, the anointed one.

My cup overflows with your poured out grace, freeing me to pour out myself for others.

Surely goodness and mercy are pursuing me every day, and I will remain in the house of the Lord, “the Commonwealth of God,”[5] and never leave that place which is beyond time and space.

The Twenty-third Psalm isn’t a passive recitation or a mantra meant to help us get through a period of grief over someone’s death. In the history of Christian spirituality, it is a method for practicing the “presence of Christ” all the time by reminding us of what’s real and what’s not. Trusting this presence is called “faith.”

So in the struggle against my mind and emotions, which are daily telling me things should be different, faith says simply, “It is finished.” When my thoughts are filled with plans, schedules, projects, meetings, obligations, concern for the future, or worry about the next step in my academic agenda, faith says “Take no thought for tomorrow.”

When I find myself manipulating people and circumstances to my advantage, or adjusting my words slightly to protect myself from scrutiny, faith says, “Take no thought for your life.”

When guilt leads me to try to change myself in a sincere effort to finally “get it right” or to gain more wisdom or understanding, faith says, “By one offering you have been perfected forever.”

In other words, the Twenty-third Psalm is about “transcendence.” Something is transcendent if it goes beyond our selves, demands something of us, or lures us on to new levels of understanding and seeing that remind us that the universe is on God’s shoulders, not ours. God is the shepherd, not us. The call of Christian faith is to abandon our propensities to think that any moment should be different than it is.

We shall not lack. Our cup overflows. Right now. Forever. With no strings attached. And if we can trust the lessons of this Psalm, we had better hang on and brace ourselves. Grace in the form of goodness and mercy should be overtaking us any minute now.


End Notes

[1]. Not the pastor’s real name. I wanted to protect the innocent.

[2]. To John Cobb: Questions to Gladden the Atman in an Age of Pluralism.” As I look back on it, the title of this essay seems rather glib. The word “Atman” translates as “Self” and is an important concept in the Upanishadic Hindu tradition’s concept of the “Great Identiry, i.e., “Brahan equals Atman.” I suspect I was showing off whatever critical abilities I thought I had as a young scholar at the time as a way of making a name for myself. I hope my later work reveals a more evolved self-critical, less self-centered awareness of the importance of my ideas. Still, this essay did help me achieve tenure at Pacific Lutheran University. Perhaps “a visible sign of a invisible grace?”

[3]. Norris, Amazing Grace, 300-4.

[4] Bratzlaw, The Golden Mountain, 351.

[5]. In Greek, Basilea tou Theou, usually translated as “Kingdom of God,” but “Commonwealth of God” is a more accurate translation.


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