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The 23rd Psalm for the 21st Century
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Still Waters and Skyscrapers

By Dave Tomlinson

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About the Author
Dave Tomlinson is Vicar of St. Luke's Church, Holloway, in North London, and former leader of Holy Joes, an unconventional church group that met in a London pub. He holds a master's degree in Biblical Interpretation, and is author of the bestselling book The Post-Evangelical (Triangle, 1995) and also Running into God (SPCK, 2004). He is married with three children and three grandchildren.

The 23rd Psalm for the 21st Century

By Dave Tomlinson – During the autumn of last year I was called to the deathbed of a lovely old lady in the parish. She had been bedridden for some years and had been cared for by her son until his untimely death six months earlier. She never recovered from his passing. No parent expects to bury his or her child, but to lose the son who was with her and who cared for her seven days a week was simply too much to bear. I had officiated at his funeral, and now I sat at her bedside, knowing that soon I would be officiating at hers.

The woman’s family was distressed by her constant agitation. “If only Mom could relax and just let go,” her daughter said. Not knowing how much the dying woman could hear or understand, I gently took her hand and read the King James Version of the twenty-third psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … . As I came to verse 4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” I felt her squeeze my hand firmly. Then, as I finished the psalm, she relaxed, the tension melting from her face. Within a few hours she was gone, her soul resting peacefully in the arms of the Great Shepherd.

The effectiveness of Psalm 23 is not rooted in some rational understanding of what it says. A woman on her deathbed, or a group of mourners around a grave, do not pause to contemplate the meaning of each stanza in the psalm; its capacity to breathe comfort and confidence to those facing life’s hardest moments works at a much more symbolic level. There are two factors here. First, the psalm is deeply embedded in the culture and psyche of the English-speaking world; hearing the familiar tones of the King James Version of Psalm 23 evokes a collective memory, a sense of hope in times of crisis. Second, the psalm hinges on the simple yet compelling imagery of a shepherd watching over his flock. Psalm 23 is a shining example of the way in which a metaphor or picture brings to life a fundamental affirmation of faith—“God is love”—and infuses it with emotional energy. Without the image of a shepherd-God, our grasp on the nature of the divine may be quite different.

“The Lord is my shepherd.” To utter these words is to affirm trust that within and beyond our scary world there exists a loving, benevolent presence—someone who cares about us. Our tiny, insignificant lives matter. But how does that belief translate into any kind of reality when we are facing death or dealing with the loss of a loved one? Or indeed, in situations like the bombings that took place in London in July 2005?

Psalm 23 does not offer the hope of constant happy endings or the suggestion that bad things will not happen to good people. Indeed, the psalm centers on the reality of death and the dark shadow it casts over our lives, and on the recognition that enemies—those who seek our harm—do exist. The psalm takes us, in fact, on a journey: from an initial sense of calm in the opening verses, through a dark valley of grief in the middle verses, into a place of renewed serenity in the house of the Lord at the end. Psalm 23 does not say that bad things will not happen; what it says is that we do not have to face them on our own—“for thou art with me.”

The message of Psalm 23 is that we are never alone, that our lives are not meaningless, that someone cares about what happens to us. Unlike many of the Psalms, the twenty-third is deeply personal. It is about an individual’s relationship with God: “The Lord is my shepherd” (italics added). Jesus, speaking as the Good Shepherd, says, “I know my own sheep and my own know me.”

Whenever we see illustrations of Psalm 23, they usually show a bearded shepherd with an insipid smile, holding a lamb in his arms. The reality of life for the ancient shepherd was harsh. He couldn’t take off at 5 p.m. and go home for dinner, then return to the flock at 9 a.m. the following day. Shepherds lived with their sheep 24/7. The relationship was intimate: the shepherd knew each of his sheep individually; he cared for them when they were sick, risked his life to protect them from wild animals, and constantly led them to new pastures and ample water supplies. The shepherd was with the sheep all the time. “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The world is a scary place. Acts of terrorism make it seem even scarier. But we have a choice. We can withdraw and seek safety in isolation and submit to the fear and terror of what may be, or we can draw strength from the presence of the shepherd-God and go out into that scary world.

When we recite the twenty-third psalm in times of trouble or uncertainty, we invoke within ourselves trust in the Good Shepherd. And the central affirmation of the psalm is that “thou art with me.” God does not promise an easy ride, a safe passage, a trouble-free life; he promises to be with us, the Great Shepherd of our souls. I invite you to affirm your own trust in the Lord, your shepherd. I invite you to say three times: thou art with me.

Thou art with me.
Thou art with me.
Thou art with me.


Purchase your copy of Still Waters and Skyscrapers.

Excerpted from Still Waters and Skyscrapers by Dave Tomlinson. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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