This past Sunday (traditionally known as "Good Shepherd Sunday"), we hosted John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23 as our worship texts. John's gospel is where Jesus' title of "The Good Shepherd" comes from, whereas the King James version of the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known biblical passages in the West:
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:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
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.
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 will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
As I mentioned in my sermon, it's almost impossible to say anything new about this text. Yet, while reading it, I was reminded of a story the author Anne Lamott wrote about in her book Traveling Mercies. Lamott recounts in this book a time of her life that was particularly hard--a time of struggle, cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse. At this time, Lamott became pregnant with the child of a married man, and chose to have an abortion. Lamott's story, while also heartbreaking, seemed like the 23rd Psalm in action on the ground.
The sermon was essentially about how the Psalm is a summary of the good news of the Christian Story: that God is with us and for us. The final line of the Psalm that says "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" might be better translated (as Eugene Peterson does in the Message translation) "goodness and mercy shall track me down. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in the Message of the Psalms: "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy." It is God's goodness that comes to us where ever we are. God's presence matters--and can transform even the worst of situations.
Here's the longer passage from the Lamott book:
“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.
[After going to church that weekend...], I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘Fuck it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’
This week, I pray that goodness and mercy will track you down--where ever you may find yourself.