I’ve got an old sheep
Unquestionably one of the most widely used and highly sentimentalized of the Psalms, the 23rd is to be counted amongst those that Walter Brueggemann classes as “psalms of new orientation;” psalms that come out of an experience of having come through some crisis or spiritual trauma.This is perhaps ironic, because it is so often used to express or evoke some feeling of overall confidence and pastoral comfort.It is widely requested for funerals, often by grieving families who have relatively marginal connections to the community of faith.References to the shepherd, green pastures, the valley of the shadow of death, and to dwelling in the Lord’s house all seem to make this the Psalm d’jour for such occasions.
I suggested that there is an irony here, and that is because the Psalm has in it, for all of its pastoral prettiness, a quality of resilient and almost rugged faith.It is evocative, but what it finally evokes is a sense of the steadfastness of faith in a God who is faithful even in the darkness.To quote Brueggemann,
The reason the darkness may be faced and lived in is that even in the darkness, there is One to address.The One to address is in the darkness but is not simply a part of the darkness (John 1:1-5).Because the One has promised to be in the darkness with us, we find the darkness strangely transformed, not by the power of easy light, but by the power of relentless solidarity.[i]
This is precisely what the psalmist knows, such that whether in green pasture or darkest valley there is trust in that solidarity.Remember:here the banquet table is set even in the presence of enemies, which is not an image produced by a writer still seeking a reoriented faith.
And so, a story.It was a time in my life and ministry that can only be described as one of deep disorientation.A former pastor of the parish I was ministering in had been brought up on a series of criminal charges related to the sexual molestation of a dozen complainants, and the parish community was finding itself wrestling with difficult and painful questions.That he had been gone from the community for more than a dozen years (having been dismissed from active ministry due to an earlier conviction) hardly removed the sting, as we now had to face the reality that one of our own had in fact been a serial offender.Add to that the general rule that “trauma triggers trauma,” and these were hard days indeed.
I contacted Dr Alf Bell to arrange a conversation around how I might make my way through this time, as he is a pastor with extensive experience and expertise working with convicted sexual offenders, and was the ideal resource for sorting out pastoral strategies.We met for lunch in a quiet restaurant, and spent the first 45 minutes going over some of the literature on working through the issues.At the end of a very helpful, though largely theoretical conversation, Alf pushed back from the table and began to speak of my personal need for spiritual resources.
“I know that some people find writers like John of the Cross to be great spiritual helps, but I always turn to the Psalms.I particularly like the 23rd Psalm, which I think comes right out of David’s experience as a shepherd.Why don’t you just close your eyes, Jamie, and let me talk to you about this Psalm.”And so there in that restaurant, I closed my eyes and began to listen.
“Imagine yourself as one of the lambs, living with the flock in good green pasture land, with fresh clear water in the nearby stream.Life is good there, and the shepherd is your guarantee of safety.”
“Weeks pass, though, and you notice that the grass is drying and the stream is becoming muddy and warm.The rains aren’t falling, and things aren’t quite so good.The grass is prickly in your mouth, and the water fails to quench your thirst.And one day, the shepherd gets up, takes staff in hand, and begins to move the flock.Up the hills you all move, higher and higher toward a mountain pass.The climb is steep, and you begin to lose your enthusiasm for this life.A couple of times you lag behind the flock, and when you do the shepherd is there to push you on with his staff.When you are this tired, and you don’t even know where you’re headed, that staff against your flank just hurts.”
“By the time you reach the pass, it has become dark.The fading sunlight is lost behind the high rock walls, and it is cold and miserable.Tired and despondent, you lie down, thinking it might be better to just stay there and die.”
“It is at this point that an old sheep comes over to talk to you.He has done this before.He knows that on the other side of the pass is another valley, and that in that other valley the grass will be better and the spring-fed stream will be running.He has learned that this shepherd knows what he’s doing, and that the very prods and pushes of that staff are expressions of that knowing.”
“The old sheep speaks only two simple sentences.“I’ve done this before; keep moving.”And then, “Just stay close to the shepherd.” There was a long pause, and I slowly opened my eyes.Alf’s face was dancing with light.“I’m the old sheep, Jamie.Just stay close to the shepherd.”
All through that challenging time, colleagues would ask if I was seeing a counselor, or if I had a spiritual director.“No,” I would say, “I’ve got something even better.I’ve got an old sheep.”