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.
Our church has an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need. Whenever our members know of a need in the church, they call me. “Is there any money in the benevolence fund? You know Johnny got cut back on his hours, and his kids need help with school supplies.” The answer is always yes. We’ve yet to encounter a need we couldn’t fill.
My grandfather was a retired navy officer when he died, so we held his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. We were greeted at the gates by armed guards. Taps played while my grandfather’s ashes were put into a horse-drawn casket. An American flag was folded and presented to my grandmother. At the funeral we saw how the military gives meaning even to death, shape even to destruction, and an idealistic aura to aggression.
The 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is wise to remember the nature of the Jews’ history with God.