The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters;
He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over..
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Psalm 23 is the most popular of the 150 Psalms in the Bible.
The word psalm comes from a word that means ‘to play the harp.’
Our Minister of Music, Ed Thompson, plays the piano and the organ. Making music is an important part of our worship, which is why we have a ‘minister of music.’
David was the author of the Psalms. David was a shepherd. You probably heard the story of how David slew the giant Goliath, when David was just a boy. It’s a legend about the need for courage, sometimes the courage to stick up for yourself and your family, and the courage to face big decisions.
David was a shepherd, and the story says that while he was out there taking care of the flocks he composed the Psalms. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Just as the sheep need a shepherd–someone to watch over them–so does the shepherd need ‘someone to watch over him.’ So he imagines being ‘watched over,’ and it makes him feel safe and comfortable.
This Psalm is used as a prayer—a prayer about feeling safe in the world, as if you were one of the sheep and you felt like you were in the capable hands of a caring shepherd.
Ministers are sometimes referred to as pastors, which is another word for shepherd. (Catholic priests are called Father…Jewish religious leaders are called Rabbi or Cantor.)
David was a faithful shepherd; he tried to take good care of the sheep in his flocks: he took them to places where they could eat nice, green grass, and where they could drink cool, clear water. Pretty important stuff, wouldn’t you say?
This Psalm-prayer says ‘thank you.’ That’s an important part of a prayer—saying ‘thank you.’ That’s what the line, ‘my cup runneth over,’ means. It means, “I have enough.”
Some people say prayers as if they were talking to God; some people say prayers as if they were singing a song, or saying a poem. Some people say prayers as if they were talking to something deep within themselves, as if there was ‘another person’ in there.
Whether you think you are talking to God, or talking to your inner self, all you need to do in order to pray is to give yourself permission to do it.
Praying isn’t so much about what you believe—it’s about what you feel, deep inside.
The 23rd Psalm says ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” In other words, I won’t ‘go without.’ To be ‘in want’ is to be hungry and not have food, to be thirsty and not have anything to drink; to be lonely and not have anyone to talk to or to care about you.
But this isn’t so much about the food we eat at mealtime or the snacks we have between meals; it’s not about drinking water or milk—it’s really about feeding a different part of ourselves…that part we call the ‘spirit.’ Some people call it the soul.
Psalm 23 says, “He restoreth my soul.” The Psalmist is saying that sometimes he feels bad about something, but then something happens to make him feel better. It’s sort of like going to the supermarket when you run out of food; you have to replace the food that you ate.
Prayer is like going to the spiritual supermarket, to stock up on things you need to help you through the day, or through your life.
The Psalm says, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
People who have a hard time thinking about God as a big person who is listening to you and watching you say they spell God with two o’s in the middle; that spells ‘good.’
The path of righteousness just means ‘to be good.’ Maybe God’s name simply means ‘good.’
At first the Psalm is talking about God or ‘the Lord,’ and about halfway through there’s an important change. It says, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear not evil, for THOU ART WITH ME… THY rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Do you see the difference? Instead of talking about God the Psalmist, or the person saying this prayer, starts to talk directly to God: ‘for Thou art with me.’
I knew this Psalm by heart for many years before I realized this change. It points to something very important about our Unitarian Universalist faith—it points to the idea that each of us has to have our own beliefs, and that our real religion is in our own hearts and minds, and it’s what causes us to do what is right—to go down the paths of righteousness.
It also suggests that we go from talking about God to a more grown-up way of thinking about religion—by talking directly to God, in our own minds and hearts.
Finally I want to say something about one other line: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Has anyone ever been a shepherd in the Christmas pageant? The shepherds carry a staff—a long pole with a hook on the end.
Have you ever thought about what that hook is for? It’s to reach over to a lost sheep and bring him back into the flock, to keep him from straying away. And the rod is used for a couple of things—for the shepherd to use as a walking stick, because a shepherd has to do a lot of walking, going from place to place so the sheep can eat. It’s also used to hit a fox or wolf that may come after the sheep.
The shepherd’s job is to lead the sheep to good places to eat and drink, and to protect the sheep, not only from the other animals that may attack them, but to make sure they don’t wander off and get lost.
Sermon: “Restoring the Soul”
You’ve heard the children’s sermon, so we can jump right in to ‘part II.’
Psalm 23 is not only the most well known and beloved of the Psalms, it has been the favorite prayer of countless millions of Jews, Christians and even Unitarians.
It was my father’s favorite, especially the verse that says, “My cup runneth over.” He considered himself fortunate, not only because he survived the great flu epidemic of 1918, which his parents and one of his brothers did not, but because he and my mother created a big family with nine children.
We had that verse from the 23rd psalm carved on his tombstone: ‘My cup runneth over.’ I never heard him recite any of the other lines, but that one was enough.
I never heard him pray, but I always knew that he was a very spiritual man. He lived his religion.
What do you have to believe in order to pray?
The traditional view says that you have to believe that there’s a god out there, who is listening, and who cares, and who will respond.
Another idea is that you don’t have to believe any particular theological notion—you don’t have to believe in the traditional god, who many describe as a childhood idea (and sometimes a childish idea) of God as an old man with a long white beard, who needs to be tapped on the shoulder so He will pay attention to your need; a God who may or may not respond, depending on your denominational affiliation.
You don’t have to believe in that kind of God, or in any kind of god that’s ‘out there.’ You simply have to give yourself permission to pray.
Does that make sense to you? It’s often an obstacle to prayer—the inability to stop thinking about it and simply doing it.
I’m not suggesting you should give yourself permission to pray. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you should pray. All I’m saying is that a rational person must give herself permission to pray; to talk to some higher power as if there are ears to hear, and as if the help is available, or the apology accepted, or the expression of thanks is acknowledged.
Prayer doesn’t have to be addressed to a supernatural person—you can simply skip the opening lines—cut to the chase.
Let me tell you a brief story about my own struggle with this question.
While I was in seminary at Boston University I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Mass General Hospital. It was required of all seminarians, and the chaplain’s office at Mass General included students from a wide variety of religions. I waited until my final year—I did CPE during the first semester in the fall of 1971.
We had a few days of preparation before we started to visit patients—we did some reading, and had discussion in class, dealing with the theory of pastoral visits in a hospital setting. Then came the real McCoy. I’ll never forget the first day of actual visiting, and my first visit.
Each of us was given an area of the hospital, a certain set of rooms on a particular floor. Mine happened to be heart patients, some of whom were to undergo open heart surgery, which was in its very early stages back then. We were given 3 by 5 cards with the patient’s information: name and address, date of birth, date and reason for admission, room number and religion denomination.
We were to write a verbatim—recording, as best we could recall, the exact words that were said on each side. After morning visits we had a class session in which you were asked to choose one visit, one verbatim to read to the group and get feedback.
On that first day we were handed a set of those 3 by 5 cards, and since we knew one another’s denominational background, we were told that it was okay to exchange cards. The Unitarian cards were few and far between, so I looked for cards that listed a person’s religion as ‘none.’ My colleagues were glad to pass those to me in exchange for Methodist, Episcopalian and so forth.
As we were leaving the chaplain’s office to make our first visits, the chaplain handed me a note that said a family in room 718 requested that someone from the chaplain’s office visit as soon as possible, so that was my very first call. On the way I read the information on the card: the patient was a 56 year-old woman who was admitted two days ago; she was from the deep South and scheduled for open heart surgery.
I walked into the room, more nervous than I was allowed to show—the first task of the visiting minister is to be a non-anxious presence. The patient was in her bed surrounded by her family. Her husband spoke to me in a heavy southern drawl and said, “Thank you for coming, Reverend. My wife is going to have surgery and we need to have a prayer.”
I don’t have a verbatim record of that brief conversation, but I have a powerful memory of it etched into my soul!
I fumbled for words and explained that there was a Baptist on our staff and I thought they would be better served with him. It was a brief, polite conversation, and I went directly back to the chaplain’s office and explained the situation.
When I came to the office a little while later to write a verbatim, I saw a sign posted on the request board; it said, “Chaplain needed in room 718 ASAP to pray; Hall is a Unitarian, he doesn’t pray.”
My heart sank. I stood and stared at that little scribbled note for longer than it took to simply read it. I chewed on it; I digested it, feeling a deep discomfort, a serious challenge. It wasn’t supposed to be about me. I was there to serve them! I had to get myself out of the way and be concerned more with what they needed rather than what I thought or believed.
I was already serving a Unitarian congregation in Lexington and no one had ever asked me to pray with them, or even for them. We had discussions about prayer, but we didn’t actually do it.
I’m reminded of the old story of the fork in the road on the road to heaven. An arrow pointing to the right said, “This way to heaven.” An arrow pointing to the left said, “This way to a discussion about heaven.” All the Unitarians went to the discussion.
Very soon after the incident with the Baptist I visited with a middle-aged Episcopalian and we struck up a nice relationship—in those days the open-heart patients were kept in the hospital for a month or more. He asked me to have a prayer with him, and I did, including the 23rd Psalm.
One day he asked me to bring and serve communion to him. I drew the line, explained that I didn’t think I could do that, and, besides, I didn’t even know how to do it, Episcopalian style.
He insisted: ‘I want you to do it.’ Remembering what happened on that first day, I finally agreed.
I went to the chaplain’s office, explained the situation, and they gave me the communion box with the wafer and wine and an instruction booklet that spelled out everything I was supposed to say—or, more specifically, to read.
I did it. I got myself ‘out of the way,’ so I could be there ‘for him.’ He was satisfied, not only to receive communion, but he was satisfied that he accomplished his mission—to get me to break another barrier—to give myself permission to do something I was resisting. I don’t think he realized how important it was for me; but he did it, and it doesn’t matter how aware he was. He made me aware.
Prayer is about connecting. It’s about connecting with another person or persons, and it’s about getting in touch with something deep within, which I’ll simply call the human sense of compassion. Isn’t that what we mean by God being inside? Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.”
We often have people who stand up and light a candle and ask for prayers for themselves or for loved ones. The request, “Pray for me,” may simply mean, “Think of me; hold me in your thoughts; pay attention to what’s happening to me.”
The 23rd Psalm speaks to Jews and Christians—it’s one of the best connecting links.
The word Psalm, as I told the children, is from the Greek verb psallein, to play the harp (psaltery: stringed instrument) The Psalm is a sacred song.
The Psalmist begins by talking about God: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Sort of in the same category as, “I’m a Catholic, Jew, Methodist.” Or I’m a believer.
Then death comes along: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil.” Suddenly there is a significant change from talking about God to speaking directly to God.
“For Thou art with me.” Ah, yes. The one doing the praying has internalized the source of his strength. The God who was an It, suddenly becomes a Thou. (Martin Buber talked about the ‘holy’ being present in the I-Thou relationship, and absent in the I-It relationship.
The Psalmist says, ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.’
Who are the enemies? Our Psalmist has taken us on a spiritual journey, inside. The enemy to which he’s referring is the one Chief Yellow Lark called ‘my greatest enemy, myself.’ (See his prayer: ‘O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds,’ found in our collection of readings.)
The table on which the food is prepared and set is a symbol of spiritual nourishment—it’s not about a banquet with all kinds of food; this is an internal event, this ‘table’ that has been prepared.
I think he’s saying, “I am able to take in spiritual nourishment in spite of myself…in spite of my resistance to it, in spite of my doubt, in spite of my faults and failures…my internal enemies.”
Bringing up the idea of ‘enemies’ and a ‘table prepared’ in the same breath suggests something about forgiveness.
It acknowledges enmity, but locates it within the depths of the soul; and this ‘banquet’ is what restores the soul: ‘He restoreth my soul.”
What is the soul? On the most basic level it is that which makes us human—the conscience; the awareness of the gift of life. The word comes from the ‘breath of life’ that was blown into the dust in the Creation story: “And man became a living soul.”
Why does the soul need ‘restoring?’ If you read the morning paper about ‘wars and the rumors of wars,’ about crime and corruption…about the worst of the human tendencies… greed, pride, anger…your soul will need some restoring.
We’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the Terri Shiavo case—about removing her feeding tube to allow her to die. I have held back from talking about this case, for a few reasons. Her life has become a political football—people on both sides seem to have their personal agenda, about which they’re more concerned than they are concerned about her, and even about others in her state.
I’ll close, then, with a poem by e e cummings, about which I was reminded the day Terri Shiavo died. It refers to ‘both sides,’ without ‘taking sides.’ Read…and perhaps say it out loud to give an interpretation to bring it up from the screen or page. (I’ve printed it just the way he wrote it, spacing and all.)
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death