One of the beloved comic songs of the 1960’s was Allan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. If you’re of a certain age, you remember it is in the form of a letter a kid sends to his parents while he’s at camp. Even though he’s trying to sound as upbeat as possible, it’s clear he’s having a nightmare of a time and would give anything to be able to come home…until it stops raining. Probably most if not all of us have written and/or received camp letters just like this, which is why Sherman’s song is so endearing and funny.
May I suggest this can very well be the spirit in which we can enjoy, and be inspired by, the 23rd Psalm?
I know lightening should probably strike me for making such a suggestion, as Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved sources of straight-on comfort and strength for times of deep despair found in the Bible or anywhere. To suggest it might aptly be accompanied by anything even resembling Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours can feel obnoxious, even maybe offensive. And perhaps, even wearing comic lenses, bringing an Allan Sherman oeuvre into the conversation may be a stretch.
However, a “lensed” exploration shows this “Good Shepherd Psalm” to be heavy with irony, and line by line, like Mr. Sherman’s song. It may very well have intended to help those struggling with grief, dread and fear in more ways than are usually considered.
In an earlier blog, “The Lord is My Garbage Collector" (4/27/15), I suggested it was downright goofy to suggest God was a shepherd, if you consider how extremely low-status shepherds were in ancient cultures. Sure, it was a tradition at the time to ascribe leaders the title of Shepherd, but still it makes no sense. They were poor, dirty, despised and, according to scholar/preacher Jeff Dunn at least, just above lepers in the eyes of society.
And that’s the beginning of Psalm 23’s weirdness!
Then we move onto our next line:
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters…. Even though our image of this Psalm and the sentiment it wishes to send is super beautiful and luscious, like this…
The Holy Land, especially where sheep are herded, is more like this.
Scrubby bushes provide dots of green here and there, but that’s about it.
And still waters? Are we talking Dead Sea? That’s the only still water you’ll find in Palestine.
Perhaps the psalmist is imagining the bubbling brooks that can be found here and there, like the scrubby bushes; however, these water sources are centers of great dissension, as the fight over control of potable water sources is and perhaps always has been the greatest instigator of conflict and war in the region.
Onto the next line:
He leads me paths of righteousness…. Is this what we imagine?
Actually the “right path” in the desert looks more like this and, not surprisingly, is incredibly easy to fall off.
In fact, one of the tricky things about desert hiking is that although we think we’re traveling a straight line, we’re in fact slowly veering off in the direction opposite our strong foot. And pretty soon all the landmarks around us look the same. I can’t help but think it’s as hard for the shepherd to stay on this path as the sheep! (Or at least hard to trust the shepherd knows where he’s going, even if he’s a - THE - good one!)
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…. Ancient hearers would have understood the peril of traveling through the dangerous valleys of the Judean wilderness, where hungry wolves and mountain lions could easily lay in wait on the sides of the canyon while the sheep herd vulnerably traversed. We can say, “Why doesn’t the shepherd take the sheep on a detour, through safer terrain?” Well, most of the time that wasn’t an option. The only way to get to get to the next batch of limited resources was the hard way. Isn’t that the way life always seems to come down??
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…. This is NOT praise of S&M or a nod to the proverb about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. The shepherd carried a rod he would use to fend off dangerous animals attacking the herd. Yes, a great comfort indeed! That staff, on the other hand… That stick with a hook at one end was used to gently yank straying sheep back onto the (nondescript) path. While it would be a comfort to be back on the path, I can’t imagine all that yanking (and there is undoubtedly a lot of it, since the path is so hard to figure out) can feel that good.
You prepare a table before my enemies…. Here’s a nod to the ancient practice where the King held a lavish outdoor banquet for friends and favored subjects. Those not “in” with the King would thus see, unfortunately, where they stood, while the favored’s could bask in the comfort of knowing the King had their back. All well and good; however, if I were a sheep, I’d find it stressful to be surrounded by hungry lions and wolves while I, food, am about to also eat food. Why can’t the shepherd feed me in some cool, calm cave where conversation pleasantries are way more likely to flow???
You anoint my head with oil…. Scholarship by Rabbi Moran Rosenblit in a 1/24/14 blog suggests that a more accurate translation for this line is: “You fertilize my head with oil” or “You anoint my head with fertilizer”. Ha! The Rabbi (and I) appreciate what this phrase now suggests…that the Lord is always seeking to help us grow….and so often true growth can only come as we finally embrace our crap, which God thankfully repurposes.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life… That’s nice, but why can’t goodness and mercy surely LEAD me all the days of my life? Isn’t that what makes the Shepherd Good? Among other scholars, Rev. Joe Skogmo in his 3/31/14 blog notes the correct translation of this phrase should be: “Surely goodness and mercy will PURSUE me all the days of my life.” This suggests perhaps that while sheep may be flying off the path willy-nilly because they’re scared, resources are few and they’ve taken it upon themselves to find an easier way to get what they need - a futile effort but who can blame them? - the shepherd never gives up on them and continues to seek them out and get them back on the Way. Of course, it would sure help if those sheep would at least slow down, maybe even stop. Practice some Sabbath. Goodness and mercy could catch up and take the lead! And what a blessing that would be for all involved….
Psalm 23 is filled with good news, but it’s communicated in a most sly and underhanded way. Why? Maybe because it wants to bring a knowing chuckle to our faces, minds and hearts. It’s so easy to expect the journey of life to be a breeze once we believe and accept there is a great and glorious God leading the way. Much like the way we thought camp was going to be - should be - nothing but fun. It brings to mind what M. Scott Peck says at the beginning of his book, “The Road Less Travelled”:
It also brings to mind all the surprising, delightful, even often funny gifts and angels who have graced even the most difficult times of life, making them the worst of times but also, strangely, the best of times. Who can explain it? But slowing down, even stopping to remember - and look - allows this truth to catch up.
Thank you always, Lowly, Loving Shepherd! Why, it’s even stopped raining!! :)