Throughout my life, I’ve gone to a lot of funerals; easily more than 50 before I entered college. Death has been a very present part of how I have navigated this life, and in fact, it is in part, how I initially discerned a call to ministry. I’m very comfortable sitting with death and with those for whom the darkness of death casts a shadow so deep it’s hard to tell what is connected to reality. At each bedside or funeral, however, I was continually confused why Psalm 23 brought such comfort to those grieving.
Until I heard Bobby McFerrin’s setting of Psalm 23.
The ways in which his setting shifts the imagery to the feminine, helped me understand this well-beloved psalm that I could recite (KJV style) in a deeper way than I ever imagined I could.
When we were planning my ordination to the priesthood two years ago, I excitedly looked up the lessons planned for the Confession of St. Peter, and was a bit disappointed when I saw that the Psalm set for the feast day upon which I was to become a priest was one that is used, almost without fail, at funerals.
But then I remembered this setting of the psalm and was overjoyed that it would be a part of the liturgy. And honestly, this psalm tracks with my life and even the discernment of my calling to ministry. The first liturgy I took part in as a priest was a funeral, and it even tracks with the order of the Prayer Book: the burial office is before holy orders. To be a priest is to be very familiar with death.
As I enter into my first holiday season after my father’s death, I have found comfort in Psalm 23, but not in the way I expected. The lines of this psalm seemed so disconnected from the reality of the situation, “I shall not want?,” “my cup overflows?,” “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me?”. Nah. I don’t buy that; that’s not where I’m at, y’all.
It’s not where I’m at in my grief, but I believe it to be true. I find comfort not in the ways in which it connects to my experience or asuages my grief, but rather in the ways in which it forecasts hope. Right now, my cup doesn’t overflow; I still feel quite empty, but I know God’s faithfulness and I know that if I keep showing up, saying my prayers, and asking for grace, one day soon, my cup will overflow again.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.