Rabbi Kushner is best known for his bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He says he was inspired to write that book, and every one since, by the death of his son, who was born with an incurable illness and died at fourteen years of age. In 2003 Rabbi Kushner released a book called The Lord Is My Shepherd. He believes that the 23rd Psalm is the answer to the question, “How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?”
He points out that the author of this psalm has enemies and has known failure. He has lost people he loved. He had learned that life isn’t easy. The psalmist says “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
“The psalmist is not saying, ‘I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.’ He is saying, ‘This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, . . . not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.”
Here’s how one scholar puts it: “In a mere fifty-seven words of Hebrew and just about twice that number in English translation, the author of the Twenty-third Psalm gives us an entire theology, a more practical theology than we can find in many books. He teaches us to look at the world and see it as God would have us see it. If we are anxious, the psalm gives us courage and we overcome our fears. If we are grieving, it offers comfort and we find our way through the valley of the shadow. If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people, it teaches us how to deal with them. If the world threatens to wear us down, the psalm guides us to replenish our souls. If we are obsessed with what we lack, it teaches us gratitude for what we have. And most of all, if we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the priceless reassurance that ‘Thou art with me.’”
Is that comforting to you? Maybe, maybe not. Even though I can’t see you, I can hear some of you saying, “Yeah, right!” or “Easy for you to say” or “I can’t even.” We do lack. We are afraid. And we don’t care so much about a table in front of our enemies as we do about how lonely our table is.
Because of these thoughts, I was moved by a recording that I’m going to share with you now. It was created by Samantha Beach Kiley for Austin New Church, with music by Caleb J. Murphy, and it is used with their permission. Although she speaks no words, it is her dialogue with this scripture. The scripture is in red, and her responses are in black.
God makes us lie down. Now, that doesn’t mean God MAKES us, as in, “I’ve seen the mess you’re making down there and you need to be in time out!” No, this virus is not punishment. It is not from God. And God doesn’t “maketh” us lie down. I prefer the Common English Bible translation to the King James. It says “The Lord lets me rest.” I think that’s what the video was talking about—all the spinning that we do with the worry and the anxiety and the uncertainty. And in response, God lets us rest. God helps us take a deep breath and say, “None of this is what I want. None of this is what I would choose. None of this is how I want to live my life. None of this is the road I want to travel. AND, in the midst of it, God lets me rest in grassy meadows. In the midst of it, God leads me to restful waters. In the midst of it, I don’t have to give in to the fear.
And then we get to the last of it. The King James Version says “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Right now, we might want to say, “Could you quit following and just catch up with me? Or could you at least follow a little more closely? Because I can’t even see you from here.” But a better translation is “Goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” God’s love is pursuing us, trying to catch us, willing to catch us if we’ll just stop spinning.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The line isn’t actually referring to heaven, as we might surmise given its prevalence at funerals. The “house of the Lord” literally means the temple, but metaphorically means God’s presence. I will dwell in God’s presence forever. But that dwell word is not quite the whole story. Another way of translating is “return.” I will return to God’s presence. This translation reminds me of the instructions I have received about meditation. I have been told that it is perfectly normal for your thoughts to wander during meditation, and the correct response is not to scold yourself but to simply return you thoughts to your mantra or to your center. So maybe “ I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” actually means “I will return to God’s presence my whole life long. No matter how many times I turn away, I will return. No matter how much I question that God is with me, I will return to this knowledge. No matter how much I spin, I will return because, after all, who else would lead me beside still waters? Where else can I find rest?
Listen now to what is called a Love Psalm and Invitation to Communion.
Love is my center and guide; all I need is within me.
Love leads me to a sheltered resting place, a place of safety and peace.
Love awakens my soul to beauty and truth, and points me toward life-giving paths,
for that is the nature of love.
Even when storm clouds gather and darkness closes in, I will not be afraid,
for Love is beside me and within me, and whispers to me Love’s truth:
In life or in death I am one with the world Love has created.
And Love prepares a table that is open to all,
to friends and former foes,
where all may feast together and be nourished.
For Love is the bread that is broken,
Love is the wine poured out,
Love is the still point of the ever-shifting world,
the tranquil eye of the storm,
the hope that changes everything.
Let us prepare to come to this table as Bruce Lockwood sings for us.
God our shepherd, through all the valleys of our lives—
in the rough places, the deserts, the mountaintops, and in our homes—
we need not fear, for you are with us.
You have always cared for your people.
Even when we rebelled and turned against you;
even when we said “Who needs God? We can take care of ourselves;”
even when we found ourselves in places of hopelessness and despair,
you have never ever given up on us.
You offer us living water, feed us, and satisfy the needs and longings of our souls.
You sent Jesus to be like a shepherd for us, to show us by his living, dying, and rising,
that your goodness and mercy would follow us all the days of our lives.
And so we remember that same Jesus,
gathered with friends and with those who would become enemies,
preparing a banquet table, and offering himself there as a gift for all the world.
He broke bread and shared it; blessed a cup and shared it;
opened his heart and shared your never-ending love with all people.
Jesus still invites us to feast at your table,
offering a hospitality that includes everyone and excludes no one,
sharing with us a cup overflowing with the promise of your love.
Jesus is the living promise that we can dwell in your house forever, O God,
and so we celebrate this feast in remembrance of Jesus.
 Written by Penny Stokes
 Seasons of the Spirit, Lent/Easter 2004