Monday, April 19, 2021

Why Psalms 23 and 26 are particularly difficult and challenging psalms to pray.

Many people, including non-Christians, are familiar with Psalm 23. It is also known as the Shepherd’s Psalm.  It begins with “The Lord is my Shepherd”.  Very often the psalm of choice for a funeral Mass or service, it is evocative of how a soul, like a tender, weak and even injured lost sheep, is cared for and guided by a very loving and nurturing shepherd.  It is guided through rough and dangerous terrain to verdant pastures.  One doesn’t need to have been a scripture scholar to see how a recitation of this psalm brings comfort to those who gather to send off a loved one after their time on this earth ends.  As a presider at many a funeral, I have seen those who have lost loved ones become emotional as they let the consoling words of the psalmist touch their hearts.


But there is a very challenging verse that forms a part of the response to this psalm that everybody in the congregation repeats and this is when we say “there is nothing I shall want”.  It is challenging because if we really mean it, it has the power to alter our reality and challenge our ultimate values.


What does it really mean to say “there is nothing I shall want”? At its core, it is the idea that when we are convinced that the Lord, who is God, is indeed the shepherd of our souls, nothing else matters.  He and he alone gets to be placed at the top shelf of our life’s needs, and it is a very bold statement to not just say it, but mean it as well – that there is NOTHING else that I need or NOTHING else that I want, and NOBODY ELSE’S approval or support that I need to give me a sense of well-being.  Not riches, not health, not family, not a job, not friends, not popularity, not success, not glory, zilch. 


I suspect that many who pray or say this prayer don’t go far enough with this response to realise that the words are really an invitation to have that much radical faith, trust and total reliance on God.  Whenever I come across this psalm, I am prompted to make a quick examination of conscience to see if I mean what I am saying.


Another less familiar psalm is found a few chapters down from the 23rd, and it is in Psalm 26 (or 27 depending on the version of the bible you are using).  The response that the congregation is often invited to repeat is the 4th verse which has us say “There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord.”


ONLY one thing!  That’s a very challenging thing to say, let alone to truly mean.  This statement is loaded. And it prompts one to activate one’s faith in a very conscious way.  One is really saying that out of the many things and needs that we may have in life which we seek God to provide us with, only one is truly needed, and this is that we live forever with God in his eternal dwelling.  But is this true and something that we are willing to stand by?


For most of us, we have MANY things that we ask of the Lord.  If we are truly honest, there is never ONLY one thing we ask of the Lord in prayer.  We are often asking a ton of other things, some of which could even be harmful for us.  But this psalm, just like Psalm 23, is inviting us to constantly reflect on how central and essential it is that we seek God as our highest end.


I am quite sure that those of us who are blessed to be conscious until the last moments of our lives on this earth will have many thoughts flitting through our minds about how we have lived our lives as we lay on our deathbeds.  And at that liminal point in our life, one thought that stands out would be if we are ready to face our maker, judge and redeemer.  


What does readiness at that point consist it?  Among the many things, one of the most important would be how deep, loving and effortful was the relationship that we had with God.  Relationships in this life with any human persons are deep and loving when we communicate often, when we make effort to contact the person, and when he or she isn’t far from our daily thoughts.  Deep relationship with God isn’t all that different.  The only difference is that with God, we give him worship and devote everything that we have to him (or we should), and we give him our ultimate deference.


Reciting meaningfully psalms like 23 and 26 are, I believe, good and necessary reminders for us to recalibrate our priorities if God isn’t the receiver of our greatest devotion as yet.  

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