by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Among the most familiar words of scripture, Psalm 23 wakes us up to God’s shepherding presence and provision in our lives. Our shepherd sets us down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, restores our soul, sets our feet on a path that leads to life, walks with us even in valley of the shadow of death. The shepherd makes space for us at a table, a place of feasting and sharing, abundance and joy, even when we are surrounded by our enemies. And when we get up from the table, what it is that follows us is God’s goodness and mercy.
But, perhaps we live in a swirl of worries and anxieties. Perhaps we feel threatened at every turn by our enemies, literally particular people or enemies like jealousy, greed, poverty, or illness. Perhaps we fear trusting the shepherd who has our back, following us with goodness and mercy.
Perhaps this psalm makes no sense to us today. If God our shepherd cares for us in times of need, why am I in this situation, we might wonder. Those green pastures and still waters, maybe we haven’t seen those places in years. The joy and abundance of a feast with an overflowing cup? Try poverty and broken relationships, we might say. Try stress and regrets. The difficulties in our lives are no joke. The tangled threads of grief and trauma in each of our lives and the brokenness of the world at large challenge our faith and strain our ability to function at times. How do we find our way to those green pastures and still waters, the restoration of soul and the path of righteousness?
At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned the last few months as I’ve walked the path of health and healing in my own life. In getting more sleep, exercising on a daily basis, meditating, changing my diet, tending to my emotional health, I’ve struggled most to give up the things that weren’t working. It’s funny. The judgmental self-talk, the activities that made me tired and cranky, the food and beverages that kept me from sleeping and feeling my best, I didn’t want to give them up. I think because those unhealthy practices had shaped my life for so long, I couldn’t imagine how to do life without them. I couldn’t imagine simply falling into grace, no longer telling myself cruel things I would never say to anyone else, no longer relying on things that seem to comfort but really lead to dis-ease.
As we try to find our way to green pastures and still waters, we might be surprised to find them right in front of us, within us, around us. God created humanity with capacity for joy and created the world with capacity for abundance. The peace and stillness God promises and the goodness and mercy of God poured out for us are available—if we want them. But we won’t find still waters until we literally sit still. We won’t experience restoration until we allow ourselves to rest. We won’t know joy until we let go of what leads to dis-ease.
So much of the drama and stress in our lives, we create it, me included. So many of us blame other people for our struggles. We wring our hands and say: I don’t know what to do. But most of us do know what we need to do, and we always have a choice about how we will respond to other people. Until we are willing to do the things that allow for rest and stillness, restoration and health, asking for the help we need as we go, we will continue in stress and regret.
Though there is no magic spiritual fix, spiritual practices provide space and time and intention to cultivate exactly what Psalm 23 describes. Whether prayer or scripture reading, meditation or weekly worship, whether listening to or creating music or other art, hiking or journaling or working for justice as an expression of spirituality, these practices help us, more than anything, to be present in the moment, to see clearly what is going on with us, and to hopefully hear the good news of God’s love for us. In some practices, we share with God and perhaps with another person how we are feeling. In other practices, we spend time in silence. In worship, we share the peace with one another. We ritually confess our sins and taste God’s forgiveness in bread and wine. We slow down for 20 minutes a day or an hour a week. We read God’s word for us. We listen for God to speak to us. We shift our attention to forgiveness and grace, love and justice. God heals us through these spiritual practices.
The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. For God provides all we need, and God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.