Can the 23rd Psalm speak to us in the present moment?

In a message given a generation ago at Bay View, Michigan, the Quaker philosopher Douglas Steere of Haverford College saw in the 23rd Psalm an image for our renewal.

He makes me to lie down.
He restores my soul.

When we are made to lie down, we come to the end of our own strength. This could be a crisis. It could be the limitation of our own knowledge. And it could be grief, loss, or death. In our being made to lie down, our perceived strength is revealed to be weakness.

And then, Steere notes,

“When I am made to lie down in life’s unfolding, I am being given another chance, if I only know it. For when I am made to lie down, when my public image is shattered, when my assurance of health and strength and companionship from those I love most is cut off, when I may even have lost the very image of my destiny in my falling and my failure, I may be given a peek into the very womb of God where a rebirth is possible, where a fresh regrouping of all that my life has been suddenly comes into focus.

“This does not mean that I shall be restored to where I was...but the Inward Restorer gives me again a peek into what my life is really meant to be both in this life and the life beyond. I may have long since lost or blurred this image and now I find that the restorer, the Shepherd has kept it and has returned it to me, all radiant with its luminous beckoning power in the abyss of my despair. He restore the my soul.” *

In reading Steere’s words, I have reflected on the state of United Methodism in this season. What if this is a word for our church? We are prone to read texts personally and individually, but what if there is a corporate meaning? What if we are being made to lie down? What if we are at the end of our own strength? Does this not name our present reality, from congregations that have lost vitality to denominational unity that is contested to a mission that is not a source of healing amidst great harm.

For many our public image is shattered. For many, companionship (connection?) from those we love most is cut off. For many, a future destiny with the status quo of our church is questioned.

And yet what if we are beginning to peer into the very womb of God? What if rebirth is possible? What if we are being prepared for something really essential: the renewal of our collective soul?

In these two phrases — “he makes me to lie down” and “he restores my soul” — Steere discovered a dialectic for renewal. Dialectical thinking is able to weave together seemingly opposing experiences — in this moment, that we are both reaching the end of our human wisdom and strength and power, and at the same time that God might be in the process of renewing us.

I hear this being voiced in almost every group and gathering of which I am a part. Something is dying. And something is being birthed.

I give thanks for the Shepherd, who knows us and loves us, who leads us and guides us, who makes us to lie down in the despair of our limitations, and yet whose great promise is to restore and give life to our soul.

In this we have a sure trust and confidence: the best of all is that God is with us. Perhaps the 23rd Psalm, more than any other passage of Scripture, reminds us of this reality.

Ken Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church and president of the Council of Bishops.

*Douglas Steere, "The Twenty Third Psalm and the Dialectic of Renewal," in Gleanings (Nashville: Upper Room, 1986, pp. 138-139).

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