Ps. 23: God as Shepherd of All Humanity

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is a faculty member of  The Living School, which is part of the Center for Action and Contemplation, and he co-leads the Common Good Messaging Team, which is part of Vote Common Good. He is also an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he has develope

Q. What is your earliest memory of chanting, singing, or studying Psalm 23?

A: I grew up in a conservative Christian home. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it fundamentalist, although my parents were always at the most open and charitable wing of whatever congregation they were part of. Before I could even read, my parents had me memorizing passages from the Bible. I think the first was from the New Testament, intended to guide me to be nicer to my little brother: “Be ye kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Back in those days, King James was our only translation, so I memorized all the -eths, thee’s, and thou’s. I believe Psalm 23 was the first whole Psalm I ever memorized. I can imagine wrestling with restoreth and anointest.

Why did my parents want me to memorize this psalm? I’m quite certain they wanted me to feel a personal connection to God, to think of God as someone who knew my name and noticed whether I was with the flock or missing. They knew that from earliest childhood, I loved all things connected to nature. So to imagine sheep in green pastures, resting by gentle streams, protected and guided by a caring shepherd … that was a metaphor I could build my life around.

Q. What role has this psalm played in your spiritual journey?

A: I’m glad that this Psalm taught me from a tender age to see God, not as a cosmic policeman about to clobber me, and not as a spiritual scorekeeper counting each time when I was naughty or nice, and not as a distant technician managing the universal mechanism without any emotional attachment, but rather as a caring shepherd whose goal was for me to survive, thrive, and feel fully alive. I suspect that because I loved animals so much as a boy, I found it most meaningful to think of God as caring for literal sheep first, along with the pastures and streams that sustain them. I understood what it was like to love animals, and for me to be one of the animals in God’s flock seemed … perfect.

In my years as a pastor, this was my go-to Psalm for funerals, in part because I knew its relative familiarity brought comfort, but even more because I knew that in the “thin place” of death and mourning, people are unusually sensitive to the closeness and comfort of divine presence. The psalm, of course, is about life, about greenness and life-giving moisture and protection and comfort. But I think that the greater our sense of God’s personal care in this life, the less we fear death. When the universe is our safe pasture and God’s banquet house, how can we be ultimately afraid?

Q. Are there specific words, phrases, or images from this psalm that are particularly meaningful to you?

A: I love the contrasts held together in this psalm. Yes, there are green pastures and quiet waters in life. But there are also steep gulleys and deep, dark valleys. Yes, there are feasts and sumptuous tables, heavy with food and wine. But enemies lurk in the background, ready to pounce or oppress. Yes, there are pursuers, hot on my trail, but God’s bountiful generosity and merciful kindness are even more passionately behind me: they’ve got my back.

That kind of both/and honesty, it seems to me, is what my soul needs. The immature, dualistic, and reactionary part of me wants it all one way or the other: life is all beach or all battlefield. But this Psalm invites me, if I let it, into a deeper, more contemplative space, holding the contraries together, embracing life’s misery and delight in a larger circle of loving Presence. 

I feel the need for that contemplative space as acutely as I ever have in these days. Climate change, demagogues, pandemics, cultic religious nationalists, propaganda, and weaponized fake news … it would be so easy to sink into a swamp of anxious despair. I need to face these realities with wide-open eyes, and then, in the face of them all, to dare to believe that no less real are the comforts of the Shepherd, the rod and staff of guidance and protection, the bountiful provision of the table and safe refuge of the house of the Lord.

Q. How might we read this psalm today, in these difficult days?

A: Like nearly all my peers in my conservative Protestant background back in the 1960s, I was trained to read the Bible personally but never politically, spiritually but never socially or economically, and particularly but never universally. (Of course, even that training was a socio-political act, but we didn't see it.) God’s care applied to me and my individual soul, but not to economics or public policy. It spoke to my destiny in "the sweet bye and bye," but not to racism or economic inequality or environmental destruction in the fierce here and now. Perhaps most tragically, as I now see it, we were taught to read it as a message exclusively for “me and my fellow Christians” but not for anybody else. 

As an adult, I have been converted, so to speak, from reading the text in an exclusively personalistic, individualistic, and escapist way. So now, I find myself stretching to ask, “Could I see God as the shepherd of all of humanity and not just one religion or nation, seeking to guide us all, no exceptions, through pandemics, racial injustice, toxic populism, through ecological overshoot and economic inequality, through hostile polarization and weapons proliferation?” 

As I ponder this question, I remember that the psalm doesn’t say, “The Lord is my puppet-master,” or “The Lord is my dictator,” or “The Lord is my machine operator.” The shepherd seeks to feed, lead, and guide sheep — living creatures with a will of their own. As far as I can tell, sheep are never terribly controllable, and they seem less trainable than a dog or horse. So even as I ponder God’s guiding universal presence, I am reminded of our shared responsibility to be guidable, to maintain a deep inner receptivity to wisdom from beyond our current understanding. 

Q. Is there anything you might alter in this psalm if you were to rewrite it today?

A: In the years since I memorized this Psalm as a little boy, I have become more aware of how God, the Bible, and religion, in general, are often enlisted in unholy causes. Often, a first step on the path to religious malpractice occurs when we take metaphors used to describe the Mystery and treat them as if they are objective descriptions of God. Next to nobody takes the metaphor of shepherd literally, of course, but few realize that the word “Lord” (in English) is itself a metaphor. 

Meanwhile, too few of my fellow Christians understand the deep Jewish reverence associated with the unspeakable divine name to which the word LORD (all capitals in English) points. Instead, the word Lord comes to mean a supreme authority figure who has more in common with an ancient emperor, medieval autocrat, or contemporary dictator than a shepherd. The problem is intensified when the English pronoun “he” is used interchangeably with Lord/LORD. Presto: God is rendered as an alpha male Supreme Being, a divine macho demagogue, an unaccountable omnipotent autocrat, inviting arrogant humans to posture themselves in that inflated image. Add whiteness to the mix, and you have a dangerous cocktail indeed.

I like what my Jesuit friend John Dear has been doing to try to remedy this distortion of God-talk. He substitutes the God of peace for the Lord and for each male pronoun in the Psalms. As I savor Psalm 23 with that simple substitution, I notice how the flavor of the word “you” changes when I address the divine mystery directly: God of peace, my shepherd … you. Amen.

 

Read more about PsalmSeason here and subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Members of Black communities across the U.S. have disproportionately fallen sick or died from the virus, so some church leaders are using their influence and trusted reputations to fight back by preaching from the pulpit.
Dr. Eboo Patel, Founder, and President of IFYC offered this comment as we remember Juneteenth this year: “Slavery and racism are amongst America’s original sins. Juneteenth marks an important step towards redemption, and so we observe it as a sacred day of remembrance and reflection.” 
Truly, how long must we wait till we achieve our full and complete freedom? And when I say “freedom” I do not mean the theoretical kind, or the type where million-dollar corporations drape their logos with the colors of the rainbow to express a monetary tolerance.
On Thursday, June 10, 2021, Krista Tippett and Eboo Patel discussed the value of courageous pluralism and deep listening at a pivotal moment of our nation's collective formation. How can we equip young people to best address the needs of our time and beyond—truly cultivating the understanding that we belong to one another?
Interfaith coalitions have long taken up racial justice causes, most famously in the civil rights movements of the '60s, Yet, interfaith organizations themselves have often not taken racial equity work seriously.
The conversation among participants focused on past, present and future possibilities of interfaith collaboration at HBCUs and among Black and African American students on other college campuses.
These women are influencing so many in their community by being beacons of the values they hold dear, and that is an incredible way to guide a community. 
While pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies, Han decided to focus her thesis on documenting the nuances of Asian American Buddhists, a community that seemed almost nonexistent, she wrote.
He sees potential for future science-informed partnerships between the government and faith communities to tackle the pandemic.
What has happened in our institution provides a template for similar institutions who may be going through some challenges in establishing an interfaith program. It shows that being true to one’s faith and being inclusive are not opposites.
I hear my sisters and brothers calling out in cacophony, “Aint I a Human?” When Sojourner Truth considered the ways in which white women were revered and protected; when she witnessed the ways their gentility and femininity were affirmed and nurtured; when she experienced the contrast in how she was treated relative to those who shared her gender but not her color, she was compelled to ask, “Aint I a Woman?”
The following interview features Imam Makram El-Amin, who has led the Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of Light) in Minneapolis for 25 years and serves as executive director of Al-Maa’uun, the mosque’s community outreach organization.
The following interview features Anthony Cruz Pantojas, co-chair of the Latinx Humanist Alliance, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association.
The following interview features Micah Fries, director of programs at the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and director of engagement at GlocalNet.
The church first started offering vaccine doses in January in an effort to boost the vaccination rates in New York City’s Black and Hispanic communities.
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. 
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, talks about the Catholic response to the pandemic.
Fred Davie joins Alia Bilal, Anthea Butler, Adam Russell Taylor and Eric Lewis Williams in a conversation that gets to the heart of how interfaith cooperation can be a part of accountability, justice, and reconciliation in America’s next chapter.
Two thousand volunteers of diverse faiths will engage people through their religious communities.
"Over the years, people have asked if I was 'called' to be a rabbi, and the truth is I don't know, but what I do know is I did listen to an inner voice which I now believe was a holy voice. That holy voice led me to listen even when I doubted..."
The USS Olympia is home to the Difficult Journey Home exhibit that opens May 28, and a historical marker will be unveiled during the Museum’s Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, May 31. Independence Seaport Museum

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.