Yesterday I officiated a funeral. When I met with the wife of the deceased a few days ago to discuss the service, she told me that her husband insisted that Psalm 23 be read at his funeral. When his mother had died, the minister leading the service apparently did not read it — whether out of simple choice or disregard of the family’s wishes I don’t know — and he never forgot that. It was the one Scripture he was expecting, hoping to hear for comfort that day. And so he wanted to make sure that his dear wife and family didn’t have the same disappointing experience. He demanded inclusion of the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
So I told her I would most certainly read it, and in fact, would design the entire service around it. And I did. In my opening greeting, I read Jesus’ words from John 10 about the Good Shepherd. I based my message of comfort to the family on a simple exposition of Psalm 23. For the prayer of commendation, I used the following petition:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, _________. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
At the graveside, I reminded those gathered of the following: (1) Throughout the Bible, God has promised to be our Shepherd; (2) David said, “The Lord IS my shepherd” — present tense and available to each of us right now; (3) Jacob looked back over his life and said, “God has been my shepherd all my days” — he will be with us in every season and circumstance of life; and (4) Even after death, in God’s presence we will still have a divine Shepherd, for Revelation 7:17 says, “the Lamb in the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and will guide [us] to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.”
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Robert J. Morgan bemoans our culture’s relative unfamiliarity with great, simple poems like Psalm 23:
The forfeiture of Psalm 23 and the Bible’s other classic passages represents a tragic loss of grasslands. When we plow up green meadows, we squander spiritual nourishment. Relinquishing still waters brings moral drought. Without restored souls, we’re destined to despair. By veering off paths of righteousness, we’re lost in the thicket. When we abandon the Shepherd, we’re sheep going astray. Without Psalm 23, there are no overflowing cups, spacious tablelands, or goodness and mercy following us all the days of life. And as for dwelling in the house of the Lord forever? Well, good luck with that.
On the other hand if you memorize the hundred or so words of Psalm 23, you’ll never regret it. No one ever has. From the moment we learn it, our moods improve, our personalities brighten, and our thoughts have sweeter fodder for meditation. From the instant our children learn it, they’ll never forget it. It’s not just poetry, it’s the greatest poem ever penned in the greatest book ever published, divine in origin, powerful in imagery, and soul-calming in effect.
One of the reasons I am coming to appreciate a liturgical tradition more and more is its constant repetition of fundamental, central statements of faith like Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. In addition, the use of carefully crafted prayers and liturgical rubrics that were written out of meditation on such texts and have been repeated for generations help me feel that I stand on firm and level ground in the shifting circumstances of life.
After the service, later in the day, I visited a lady who has been growing more and more confused as her health is declining. She has also had several incidents where she has felt a sense of panic, believing she was about to die. As we talked, we discussed how hard it can be, knowing that dying is not something we get to practice first. Though we have wonderful assurances in Scripture about the blessedness of those who die in the faith, we’ve still never experienced it, and the prospect of actually going through it can cause us deep anxiety.
One of the questions she had was about whether she would get to see her loved ones who had gone before her. She hoped so, but was worried death might somehow bring an even greater separation. This woman has worshiped in traditional, liturgical churches her entire life, so I asked her if she remembered the Creed, especially the lines that say:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.
She remembered, and as I began to quote them, she joined in and said them with me. We talked about “the communion of saints,” and how we can’t even imagine how much more wonderful our relationships with our loved ones will be in the ages to come. I encouraged her to remember that she’s been saying these words for decades, confessing her faith in Christ and the blessings he brings us. I urged her to keep repeating them.
The older I get, and the more I talk with people about the real issues of life and death and faith, hope, and love that we all face, the more I come back to the simple texts that seem to say it all. They serve as summaries and affirmations of what is most central to the faith and to what we hold most dear.
They truly form us. They help us focus on Jesus and what is most important.