May 3, 2020
A psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
These past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about water. I’ve noticed the silence that comes just before a rainstorm, and then the cacophony of birdsong I hear right afterwards. I’ve heard the rush of water over the dam near our house and watched as it pours over the wall and into tanks from which we’ll receive our drinking water. And I’ve seen the pictures we all have online, of Venice’s waterways clear enough to see the fish swimming through them.
At the same time that I’ve been more in tune with the ways that nature has begun to catch her breath and renew herself because of the significant drop in human interference, I’ve been noticing that there is an alarming increase in interference in my own head. Between homeschooling our four kids, trying to strategize when we’ll go to the store and if we have the right PPE to do so, learning a whole new vocabulary like “social distance” and “flatten the curve”, there’s an underlying current of anxiety and restlessness that has been hard for me to shake. My ideas and words come out jumbled sometimes, like my brain is moving so quickly my tongue can’t catch up. Or, at other times, it feels like I’m moving in slow motion and not able to process anything very complex, like what day it happens to be.
I’m finding myself in need of the Psalms in ways I haven’t before- these simple, lyrical, honest poems that speak to the whole range of human emotion. Ancient words that somehow ring as true today as they did thousands of years ago. With all of the information we are thrown, and all of the demands to make some profound meaning out of a completely new reality, I need some grounding, some way to move through my days with hope, and above all the reassurance that I am not alone.
One grounding exercise that our family has continued throughout this time is hiking in our woods. I know I talk about our woods a lot, but that’s simply because I am continually amazed and delighted about how God speaks to me there. We live in Loch Raven reservoir and all of our hiking trails eventually lead to the water. Sam has been biking the trails a lot, and this week I asked him to bring me back some stream water in a jar. He’s used to my strange requests by now, so he obliged and here it is…
I wanted a jar of stream water because this is how I feel most days. My brain and my body are swirling, my thoughts are spinning, and I’m simply trying to hold on. Things feel murky, and while I can identify some of the bigger issues and questions that vie for my attention, as soon as they arrive, they spin past before I can take a breath long enough to answer them.
What I noticed about this jar, though, is what happened when I put it on my shelf. I’m going to set it down and we’ll come back to it in a few minutes.
Our scripture reading this morning is from my favorite Psalm, one that I’m sure most of you have heard a lot. It is attributed to David and probably written while he was king. In it, though, David hearkens back to his days as a shepherd, the youngest of his brothers, bound to this very humble and lowly occupation in the family. David has risen through the ranks and proven to be a great and powerful leader. He, despite many weaknesses and moral failings, has been called a “man after God’s own heart.” David begins the Psalm by calling God a shepherd. God as shepherd would have been a familiar metaphor to these ancient people, one who watched over them and kept them safe. David, however, doesn’t call God “THE shepherd, A shepherd, or YOUR shepherd. He calls God “my” shepherd. This intimate, personal connection he felt to the God of the universe. This declaration is not for the powerful, the self-sufficient, the ones who have made it to the top of the ladder. This is for those who know what it means to need comfort, to feel scared and scattered, to need peace.
It can be tempting when we feel anxious and afraid to seek information. To take our cues from the latest headline, to sync our anxiety with the rise and fall of charts and graphs. We are so lucky to live in a time when we can get all of the information we want at our fingertips, but I wonder what all this head knowledge is doing to our hearts. In our scripture from a few weeks ago, after Jesus reveals himself as the disciples’ walking companion, they say to each other “weren’t our hearts burning within us?” All of the time they were walking with Jesus, talking and learning all about the fulfillment of prophecy and turning over the scriptures using all of their intellect, it was only when they became aware of the burning in their hearts that they recognized Christ with them.
David’s psalm describes a different kind of being with God. A kind of stillness, peace, and calm, even within the valley of the shadow of death. This stillness is a practice. It’s not easy. When we make time to be still or are forced to in a way like we are now, to quiet the bustle of our lives, an interesting thing begins to happen. When I left this jar alone on the table, the water began to clear. Just like the canals of Venice, when the sediment stops being stirred up, we can see some layers forming. What is heavy and of weight sinks to the bottom, and what is lighter than the water floats to the top. And so it is with us. When we are stilled, and become aware of the burning in our hearts, we can filter through the murk into what really matters.
For me, the weighty things that remain are things like gratitude for those who work while we sleep to keep this new world moving. Love for my family and the knowledge that we can face challenges together and be honest when we are in pain. The call to work for justice in the systems that are hurting my neighbors. And even the pain of losing those that are close to me, and mourning members of our church family that have passed during this time. I’m able to feel those things settle in my spirit like these river rocks. And, for me, what floats to the top are the things that clutter my head and heart. My desire to over-produce, over-function, and over-extend to feel significant. The temptation to give into my anger and frustration and lash out at those I love. The judgement I pour out on others who are reacting differently to this crisis. All of these things, when I sit still enough, reveal themselves for what they are and offer an invitation to let them go.
Stillness is hard to come by in my house these days. Our home seems to be in constant motion, and it is definitely hard to do any spiritual practice at all. I’ve found that an afternoon walk helps me to reset, to examine all the rocks in the jar of my soul and ask God to help me release what needs to be released. Maybe you are in a different reality. The constant stillness of your home is becoming deafening, and you find yourself longing for the company of others. Perhaps this practice of being still might look like speaking out loud the things in your heart, singing or shouting them. I think I’m going to keep this jar around for a while, as a reminder of the invitation our shepherd offers us. God knows where still waters lie and invites us to walk with her until we find them.
This week, may we seek out a place of stillness and ask God to accompany us as we name our swirling thoughts. May we have the courage to confront those things we need to let go of, in order to hold fast to what is true.
To seek out places of peace in the midst of the chaos of our lives. To take time to filter through the muck so we can see more clearly the next right step in front of us. And so, like David, find that our souls are restored.