It’s the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s choral work, Chichester Psalms. A boy soprano (or a countertenor), in the “role” of the shepherd boy, David, sings in Hebrew the opening verses of Psalm 23. He is accompanied–sparingly, fittingly–by the harp. The first several measures are tender but not tentative; filled with sentiment, but without sentimentality (this per Bernstein’s instructions). When the women’s voices take over the text at גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת . . . (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .) there’s an ethereal echo-canon effect. This part of the movement, when executed well, is something sublime.
The first thing that struck me about First Presbyterian Church in Dallas was not the imposing building where one of my longtime heroes, John Anderson, once served as senior pastor. No, the first thing that grabbed my attention that day was the church sign: "Justice is love distributed."
William Sloane Coffin once noted that just as there is ultimately only
one hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," there is also only one psalm,
the 23rd. You might select a different hymn, but the psalm that is on
the hearts and lips of most believers—and even those who reside at the
edges of our communities, emerging only on rare occasions—is the 23rd.
The only sheep and shepherds to be seen in my urban neighborhood are either the subjects of cheerful pastel murals in church school classrooms or the children themselves, decked out as the inhabitants of Bethlehem for the Christmas pageant. So far removed are we from teeming, bleating sheepfolds that both the creatures and those who care for them seem little more than quaint artifacts.