A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 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.
This passage should sound familiar. First, It’s in the Bible. Second, it contains one of the most famous line’s in Coolio’s “Ganster’s Paradise.” Third, you may remember it from Denzel Washington’s role as a Bible-quoting badass in The Book of Eli. When you read this psalm, the word ubiquitous should come to mind. But why?
This is an offer that I believe most of us would be willing to take. We are offered tender love and care, more than we need, guidance, renewal, mercy, dignity, and acceptance. Forever. In a world where every day is a pile of to-dos and seemingly earth-shattering decisions, being truly cared for is a tempting offer.
Behind God’s offer, as illustrated by David, is a central root of the Christian faith that we rarely touch in today’s hyper-individualist world: dependency. For most of Christ’s early followers, being “independent” or a rugged individualist was not an option. The choice lay on whom to be dependent. I suppose it was usually a family member, a political figure, or a religious authority, but I doubt they made the enticing kind of offers that God makes here. Or, if they did, I doubt they came through. From my viewpoint today, I still cannot help but associating dependency to servitude. If we are not independent, there is always that potential for us to be taken advantage of. And so we ridicule the dependent. We berate those who are dependent on government support, those who take “handouts,” Romney’s infamous 47%. But why?
Isn’t that what being a person of faith is? Being dependent? Being a sheep? Following a shepherd with trust that he (or she) knows where they’re going because we obviously don’t? How can we ever prove our faith but by dropping everything that keeps us “independent” (though really just a series of small dependencies) and putting all of our eggs in one basket? How else could we call it faith as opposed to a hobby?
Sometimes we’re sheep whether we like it or not; wandering, lost and in search of the greenest pastures (they tend not to be the ones from which we’re eating). But (un)luckily for us, there are a multiplicity of faiths, philosophies, teachers and psychopaths ready to help us find our way, their way.
This passage is bothersome to me in two ways: (1) I could never imagine the kind of unquestioning faith that David presents here and I am truly jealous of those who have that faith as part of their reality and (2) for a passage so deeply ingrained in our national psyche, it strikes me that neither the deep faith or positive moral guidance seems to have rubbed off.
If we were led on the “right paths” for “his name’s sake,” I don’t believe that so much done in God’s name” or for the protection of the faith would involve denying the rights (to live, love, believe) of others.
If the table was “set before me / in the presence of my enemies,” I think we might know one another a little better. It seems that its rare enough that we find time to share a meal with family or friends, much less our enemies.
But I suppose that we can take comfort about “goodness and mercy” following us forever. For wherever goodness slips, mercy is there to ensure another chance, even when we fill “the house of the Lord” with all of the smoke and chemicals we’ve been able to extract from creation. Mercy follows ensuring that goodness can prevail. I hope.
And while David’s words are strong and comforting but, for those of us without his staunch certainty, this prayer from Thomas Merton is probably a little more realistic:
“My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Note: The photo at the top of the page was taken of a mountaintop removal site in Eastern Kentucky. The valley of death indeed.