Scripture: Psalm 23
“I’m tired.” My guess is most of us have heard or said those words not a few times recently! I’ve said it myself. I don’t mean I didn’t get enough sleep last night, or this week. And I don’t mean that, this morning, a shower and breakfast and preparing for worship wore me out. What we mean when we say we’re tired is that it takes more energy than usual to navigate what is still a relatively new, and distinctly unsettling, way of life for us all. As Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychology professor at Northwestern University, puts it, “Right now, we are viewing other people as threats who are literally potentially deadly to us.”
“For many Americans,” says an article on Cleveland.com this week, “going to a grocery store or picking up a takeout order had been routine. There are certain expectations for those familiar tasks, so you don’t need to expend much mental energy to accomplish them. It’s now much more stressful to remain mindful of every surface you touch and whether you’re standing six feet apart from the nearest shopper.
“‘Because we’re not able to fall back on our natural habits,” says Kaz Nelson, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, “we’re expending a ton of energy to do what might seem like simple, basic things. And it’s absolutely exhausting” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=0658b8170).
So no wonder we’re tired, many of us. Life has been upended, and it takes considerably more energy than usual to do the same tasks of daily living. We don’t have the same comforts of seeing people and hugging them and sharing space together. With masks hiding our faces, we can’t read expressions as easily, or be engulfed by a smile, or read the irritation or whimsy or delight in the people we do see. Exhausting.
Not to mention the much bigger problems and challenges that overwhelm so many people. I’m struck daily by accounts of the searing pain so many endure. Here a man’s liver fails. There a woman whose job evaporates with this pandemic takes her own life. Some of you will remember Doug Wysocky-Johnson from retreats he has led here at Federated. Several weeks ago, his fifteen-year-old son Soren, in what Doug describes as an unexpected and impulsive decision, ended his own life. Not to mention overwhelmed health care workers, frightened employees at meat-packing plants, residents of nursing homes and prisons who live in virtual petri dishes of virus-promulgation, as well as people whose jobs have dried up and whose mortgages may not be able to be paid and who don’t have enough food for their families.
There’s way more than enough exhaustion, fear, and sorrow to go around. I heard one church member say this week that she feels as though she’s living in a pressure cooker. This isn’t true for everyone, of course. A neighbor told me this week that, as an introvert, this way of living suits her fine. For her, this pace is an improvement. For so many of us, though, we have been jerked into a new reality, and there is a pervasive and energy-draining grief and anxiety and despair.
So every day we are faced with the question of how to navigate this new world, how to make the necessary adjustments and find a new equilibrium. If we didn’t know it before, of course, this is a profoundly spiritual challenge. We’re faced with finding meaning when so much seems broken, finding comfort in pervasive anxiety, finding peace in turmoil, finding hope when everything seems up in the air.
And maybe the first challenge is accepting that there are no easy answers, and that things will never return to some “good old days” for which we may yearn. What we’re invited to is to find meaning, not in some magical solution, but rather somewhere in the middle of the discomfort. Leonard DeLorenzo, a theology professor at Notre Dame, wrote a note to his students after the pandemic upended their spring semester. “There is no silver lining here,” he wrote, “but there is a lesson. It is not the kind of lesson that anyone can merely teach someone else, as if it were a matter of having the right information. No, this is a lesson that must be absorbed. The lesson is that life, in the end, is about loss, and suffering itself is the teacher” (The Christian Century, April 22, 2020, p. 9).
So the first lesson may well be just to enter that loss, to feel it, to let it be. We’ve said it before, but tears and the ongoing expression of our sorrow can be steps on the road to healing and hope. And maybe they can save us from the sort of misdirected response I saw on the back window of a pickup truck on Friday. “Thanks, China,” it said in large, bold letters. And I thought, There’s someone who entirely misses what it is to go through this pandemic. The driver thinks the thing to do is to assign blame, as if Wuhan and China endured their own confrontation with this disease just so they could then foist it on the United States and the world. Talk about sideways sorrow. Talk about misdirected grief. This pandemic is no one’s misanthropic conspiracy. This is a disease that had to start somewhere, and has done what viruses do, replicating itself and making its way over the earth. I can so hear God saying: ‘Don’t blame. Feel. Don’t despise. Find a sense of connection. Don’t hate. Recognize that we’re all in this together.’ “Thanks, China” just totally misses the point. In no way does such a perspective grant us the equilibrium we crave.
“The Lord is my shepherd.” That’s where the equilibrium comes. The Lord is my, and our, shepherd. Peace comes with trusting God. Hope comes with remembering that God watches over us and guides us at every moment. A sense of spiritual stability comes with breathing deeply of that most crucial of all truths: that God is the great “I am,” the One who has given us life and undergirds us now, and now, and now.
Many of us think of the 23rd Psalm as a comfort at the time of death. And it is that. It’s just that it’s also so much more. This most memorable of all psalms is an invitation to trust that, whatever happens in life, God is there for us. You’re tired? God is your rest. You’re worried? God leads you to “green pastures” and “still waters.” You’re beset by destructive forces—anxiety, family tension, worry about what will become of your business? God walks with you through the desolation of the “valley of the shadow of death” (KJV). The psalm was likely written in the wake of the worst disruption in Israel’s history—the exile that robbed them of their homeland and carried them into captivity—and still the writer is able to say that God restores their souls, and serves them a six-course dinner right in front of those very enemies, and blesses them, and gives them more than they could ever ask or imagine.
And all this because God—as we know these words familiarly—will “follow” them all the days of their lives. What the psalm actually says is that God will “pursue” them all the days of their lives. Eugene Peterson’s version called The Message puts it this way: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life” (23:6).
Every day of their life—every day of our life—God’s beauty and love chase after us. And one of the most vivid ways of seeing that divine beauty and love pursuing us is in the richness of the natural world. It’s no accident that, after the psalm’s arresting beginning—“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (23:1)—the first two images used to convey God’s irresistible love are images from nature. “Lush meadows” and “quiet pools to drink from” (23:2, The Message)—these are the sorts of places in which God’s reassuring presence is most richly alive. Another translation puts it this way: “You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water” (CEV).
The other day, as I was walking in the Metroparks, I stood still and just listened to the sounds of the birds singing. I was amazed—as you who are birders will not be surprised to hear—by the huge variety of songs I heard. The green of the trees was incredibly vibrant. The buds were sprouting. A little brook gurgled gently nearby. And I was reminded that in green pastures and still waters and singing birds and budding trees, the enveloping love of God can be seen and heard and felt. I was transported out of heaviness into the rarefied air of holiness and beauty. I was carried to a place where I remembered that, no matter what is going on elsewhere, I am borne aloft always on the wings of grace.
It’s striking that the psalm invites us to sense God’s blessing with such simple, commonplace images. In declaring how special God is, the psalm doesn’t say, as a sign of God’s power, “You make me CEO of Apple; you make me as rich as Jeff Bezos; you make me as successful as Taylor Swift.” No, the signs of God’s presence come not from any marks of human accomplishment. They come in the most common, most everyday of natural settings, marks of divine presence that have nothing to do with any success or failure of ours, but only—only—with beauty and loveliness. When we see those things and take them in, we can be reminded that God is near, and that all shall be well.
So the invitation comes to us to take in the language of God’s love as it shows up in the trees and grass and meadows and brooks and mountains of this earth. To take it in, to savor it, to relish it. And, maybe most important of all, to remember who it is those beauties point to.
In a book of Madeleine L’Engle’s called The Love Letters, she tells the story of a nun in a convent named Sister Joaquina, who “has become increasingly incensed by Sister Mariana’s open appreciation for life: ‘I don’t mean to criticize, Mother, but there’s something wrong with it.’
“‘With what, child?’
“‘The way Sister Mariana looks out the window at the flowers, and the way she enjoys that orange.’
“‘She enjoys it too much.’
“Mariana’s mouth was full of juicy pulp. ‘Aren’t we supposed to?’
(The Christian Century, April 22, 2020, p. 22).
We are meant to enjoy this world too much. Savoring the simple things of life, and recalling gratefully, again and again, that these are all signs of grace. Remember that indelible line from Alice Walker’s luminous novel: “I think it [ticks] God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it” (from The Color Purple). Our job is to notice. And it’s to remember—to remember the holy grace that is chasing after us. The Lord is indeed our shepherd, and there is nothing we lack. Rest. Drink it in. Be at peace.