I once had the pleasure of knowing a man named Buck when I lived and worked in East Texas early in my life as an ordained minister. Buck was a member of the Greatest Generation and served in the armed forces during World War II.
In fact, he was one of 75,000 American and Filipino troops who were captured by the Japanese and forced on a 65-mile march to a prison camp in April of 1942. This march became known as the Bataan Death March. The heat was fierce, there was little food and water, and their captors were cruel. Thousands of troops died as they made their way up the Bataan peninsula from Marivales to San Fernando. Buck made this journey with a broken leg aided by a crutch. He said he was able to complete the march, not with only the help of the crutch, but also by repeating to himself some lines of verse from the Bible. Those lines were Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.”
Psalm 23 is probably one of the best-known passages in the whole Bible, especially from the King James Version. Many people, like Buck, have memorized it at some point in their life in the words and cadences of the 17th century English, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” In those words Buck found the hope and the strength to walk.
During our present situation, as we face the disruption and anxiety caused by COVID-19, we may find strength and hope in them as well, for the Psalmist — that person who wrote this Psalm — metaphorically depicts God, the Lord, as a good shepherd.
Shepherds were important for the maintenance and sustenance of life in ancient Israel because they took care of the most important domestic animals that a family owned, which provided for their well-being with milk, skins and meat.
Because the Psalmist follows the Lord, the Lord always makes provision for his well-being. The shepherd leads the flock to green pastures where they may graze, and to still waters where they may drink. Like a shepherd, God takes care of the well-being of those who follow him.
The Lord guides them along right paths, but sometimes even those paths lead through the valley of the shadow of death. The valley of the shadow of death is where it is dark. Whether we walked into it on our own or it was thrust upon us as illness, loss or the current situation, sometimes we experience the lowest of the low.
Even in the dark valley we are not alone. God makes himself known to us.
While I served in East Texas, a small group at the church and I read one of the great works of Western literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, aided by videos produced by the Great Courses Company. In The Divine Comedy, Dante tells of the journey he takes through hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante is never alone on that journey,
In the beginning, God sent the ancient Roman writer Virgil to lead Dante through hell and purgatory, even though Virgil was not a Christian. Then in paradise it was the love of Dante’s life, Beatrice, who led him to the highest level of heaven.
Virgil and Beatrice were symbols of God’s presence. We seldom experience God directly. God’s actions and presence are mediated through people, events and things. In church, God is mediated to us through water, bread and wine in the company of the others who gather around them and pray over them. In our lives, we are accompanied by many people who help and lead us. They help make God known to us: parents, family, friends and sometimes strangers. They are there for us as we walk through the valleys of the shadow of death. And we are God’s presence for them when they walk through that valley.
The Psalmist then describes how in the wilderness where things are barren and scarce, God sets a table for a banquet in which the wine overflows the cup. Recall how God set a banquet for the people of Israel by giving them manna from heaven when they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. Here in the Psalm, God is there making provision for the Psalmist as he did for the people of Israel.
Then as God leads us and as we follow, goodness and mercy are close behind. Instead of enemies seeking to do us harm, we are instead followed by God’s goodness and mercy until we come at last to the journey’s end: dwelling in God’s presence forever.
The house of the Lord, that is the Temple in Jerusalem. The temple would have been the locus of God’s presence in the world. The temple was where people made pilgrimage, where psalms were sung and sacrifices offered. The psalmist says “I dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
For Dante and medieval theologians of his day, living in the presence of God occurred in heaven and was the vision of God. But here, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is similar to the experience of feeling safe and complete. It is a sense of coming home.
A few years ago, I heard a presentation called “Leading in a Culture of Fear” presented by the ethics professor at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Scott Bader-Saye. He proposed in this presentation that we live in a culture of fear and had several examples from the media and other sources to support his case. Certainly now is a time of anxiety, if not outright fear. But Bader-Saye also made the case that there are antidotes to fear, and one those antidotes is trusting in God’s providence. Providence is simply God’s ongoing presence and involvement in the world. Bader-Saye said that to trust in God’s providence is to trust that God is with us, making provision for us creating a future for us. He said, “Even in the worse thing we can think of, God will find a future.”
Buck survived the war and made his way back home, where he became a successful businessman and a leader in the church. Psalm 23 takes us on a journey, and now and in the weeks ahead, I’m leaning hard on the Lord. Leaning on the Lord’s rod and staff as we walk beside the still waters, through dark valleys, into the wilderness and I hope eventually into his holy temple, into that feeling of safety and completeness. May we trust that God is like a good shepherd, and is there with us all along the way, making provision for us, and creating a new future for us.
Daryl Hay is the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Downtown Bryan.