A few weeks ago, my church choir sang a choral arrangement of this hymn. A number of people commented to me afterwards on how beautiful it was, and how meaningful it had been to their worship that Sunday. So it stuck in my head and I thought I would have a think about it this week. The tune is an old American folksong from around 1828 and the words are, of course, Isaac Watts’ 1719 paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm. I suppose it is no surprise that these words are meaningful to many – they are so familiar and offer so much comfort.
My Shepherd will supply my need;
Jehovah is his name.
In pastures fresh you make me feed,
beside the living stream.
He brings my wand’ring spirit back,
when I forsake his ways,
and leads me, for his mercy’s sake,
in paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death
thy presence is my stay.
One word of thy supporting breath
drives all my fears away.
Thy hand in sight of all my foes,
does still my table spread.
My cup with Blessings overflows,
thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days.
Oh, may thy house be mine abode,
and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come,
no more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.
This is a hymn that speaks of great faith. Faith in something that will provide what we need – when we are in good places, bad places, self-inflicted negativity or situations beyond our control… always. But, as much as I suspect many want this kind of faith and the comfort it brings, it is often an enormous task to get to a place where we are wholly confident that all our needs will be met. Because sometimes they are not. Sometimes the pastures are filled with dead, brown grass and the stream is dry. Sometimes we can hardly breathe in the midst of our fear, our tables are bare and our homes cease to exist.
So, once again, I read these words as instructive. We all have different perceptions and understandings of the concept of God; adherence to one of many religious traditions or a preference to none. But I find that so often the ideals we have established about what God is, or what God does, seem to be descriptions of how we should behave. In some ways, it ceases to matter what the specifics of our religious leanings are as we take in the words of thinkers from our collective past. These words guide us if we are willing to consider what they can imply about how we live.
Do we provide food and water for those that cannot find them? Do we carefully lead people back from wrong decisions so they can live out their lives in truth and grace? Do we breathe safety into the spaces where some are facing illness or death? Do our hands hold those in deep fear and share blessings with all who are in need? Are our homes a home for whomever needs one, allowing them to be like a welcome child rather than a stranger or a guest?
These can be simple personal choices that we make, or they can be the greater acts of our communities, our cities, our countries. But we are failing. When I hear that we are more concerned about business success than paying fair wages, I cringe. When I hear that we are more concerned about saving money than ensuring safe drinking water for our Indigenous communities, I cringe. When I hear that we need more jails and crime control rather than programs and education that encourage the prevention of desperation, I cringe. When I hear that we must cut hospital’s nursing budgets rather than supporting this caring work, I cringe. When I hear that refugees are not welcome because they cost too much, I cringe. When I hear that people are not welcome because they are different and therefore perceived as a threat, I cringe. It is a selfish time. A time where good stewardship is limited to spending less in the moment. Period. With little or no consideration to long term costs, to the human or environmental impact. We have no idea what it is to be a shepherd.
As I’ve been thinking about these words, I keep asking myself if I am a shepherd. A shepherd tends to the sheep, guiding and directing their well-being and safety – the safety of the entire flock being the goal. It is a big job. It takes constant vigilance. We live in a time where most of us can barely look after ourselves. But this world needs us to be shepherds – for those that are falling off cliffs now, for those that need catching later. For ourselves, for our neighbours, for our families, for the strangers we have yet to meet – or will never meet. Our value, as part of the flock and as individuals, is both intrinsic and unknowable, as future contributions cannot be predicted. And, I suspect, when we are all safe, the settled rest we find becomes much, much more secure. For if one of us is in danger, all of us share the risks.
These words are personal and speak to what we will receive if we have this kind of faith, and some need it to be so. But if we choose to turn it around and consider what the world receives when we become shepherds, imagine the impact. Not strangers, but carers of this beautiful earth we call home and all its beautiful inhabitants. Each deserving of the love and care a shepherd provides. Each receiving that which makes their lives safe. Each learning to tend a flock that is filled with every possible kind of beauty, emotion and potential. What a joy.