“Shepherds and Psalms”

The First Parish of Watertown

March 4, 2018

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

Opening Words   from A Hidden Wholeness, by Parker Palmer

The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

Reading:  Flock – Billy Collins

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible…required the skins of 300 sheep.
-from an article on printing

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.


Years and years ago, after sitting through many classes and discussions about whether we as Unitarian Universalists need to know the Bible; whether this book matters or is simply a broken shard of history, no longer alive or relevant, a woman who was a couple of years out of seminary and spending a year as a hospital chaplain told me about the time she had to pray over the hospital loudspeaker.  For an introvert who expected to spend her time comforting people one on one, this was scary.  But it was not unbearable, because everyone was supposed to pray along with her.  So she announced that she would lead them in the Lord’s prayer, and then began:  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.   She did not know why the hospital corridors were not resounding as one with her, until she finished, turned off the microphone, and finally, in the awkward silence, someone told her, “You were reciting the 23rd psalm.  That is not the Lord’s Prayer.”

One take away from this story is that, yes, it probably is a good idea for clergy – even UU ones – to know the Bible; to save the debates on the worth of this knowledge for another day.  It really does not matter what your philosophy is – in the moment, it is nice to at least understand the language.  How else can we have any shared experience?  Sermonizing and teaching can only take you so far.   In a great essay called “Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm,” James Parker writes about dancing across London nightclubs, wild on party drugs, when he suddenly has this bizarre realization that makes him stop dancing, and think instead.  It unnerves him to realize that being on drugs reminds him of how he felt long ago reading the psalms; that the way the weirdly direct, intimate language that makes God feel inescapable in the poetry matches the way his mind spreads out when he is high. He was seeing more than he could process; seeing beyond what was in front of him, into the abyss. In that moment, Parker realizes that the psalmist did not exist to teach us anything, or to formulate a belief.  He was just sharing what it felt like for him to be alive. That’s all.  But it is a tremendous amount.  It is much better than being told what to believe in.  In Parker’s case, the realization reached into his mind and heart and turned his feet around.

Reading this essay, I thought of this colleague of mine, in a moment of stress, repeating the 23rd psalm, without even knowing that she knew it.  When do you need a shepherd?  She was nervous and felt alone, on unfamiliar ground, and the words that popped out of her carried her to safety, even if they were not what anyone expected.  Bobby McFerrin dedicated his version of the psalm to his mother; the source of comfort for so many people.

A few years ago, I found a wonderful picture book illustrating this psalm.  The familiar words were a source of encouragement and security for children threading their way through some bleak and frightening streets, where there are dangers and necessary risks.  These were not especially disadvantaged children.  They lived in a warm and loving home, and the pictures show them waking up happy and lively.  They run around the playground with friends.  They have teachers who are attentive and mindful, and the verse paired with that picture reads: He guides me in paths of righteousness.  At home, and a table laden with food, the children are warm and cared for.  Yet the scene remains vaguely threatening.  The journey to school and back, with alleys and shadows and gang members and streets with check cashing businesses and boarded up store fronts, is the valley of the shadow of death.  They live in the light, but darkness is just the other side of the glass, and it is scary even when you do have all that you need.  But when the children are tucked in at night, their bedroom window somehow becomes stained glass; a shepherd floats like a dream above their heads. 

Sometimes it takes a new context to see the value of words that are both too familiar, and somehow foreign.  In this picture book, I suddenly realized that this psalm for me was completely associated with funerals, and that because of this, my understanding was really limited.  I had turned it into a platitude, and didn’t really feel what was being said. Illustrated in this book, the psalm depicts grace as something that develops through a whole community – that in all places, at all times, no matter what the circumstances, there can be kind and loving people nurturing our souls and having an effect that transcends the everyday world; that makes safety apparent even in the midst of present dangers.  And the dangers are in living; in the days to come, not what has already happened.  It is not a psalm about getting comfortable with loss, which is how I was hearing it.  Also, the illustrations make it clear that individual salvation is meaningless.  You can create a perfect home, but you still have to live in the whole world.  We still have to walk the streets, wade through troubles, and nurture the good that we know is there, even when we can’t yet see it.

Early Thursday morning I returned from a trip to Los Angeles.  I had never been to California or seen the Pacific Ocean, and so this was a major deal for me.  I was seeing my niece and her fiancé, to do some wedding planning; and also visiting my nephew and his wife.  The five of us went out hiking along these hills and cliffs that looked out on Catalina Island, and on these winding, narrow, dusty paths that Hanna kept calling goat trails –back and forth in steep switchbacks- it was impossible to hear.  The ocean was loud, and the wind was, too; and so periodically I would look up and count.  Are we all still here?  Anyone missing?  I was wondering if the landscape in the Jordan valley was like this – the steep, dry hills right at sea level; the surprising flowers blooming out of nothing; the scrubby olive trees waiting for spring.  I was thinking about how the 23rd psalm starts in this weird way – I shall not want.  It seems like David, the psalmist, is trying to convince himself that everything will be okay.  He knows he doesn’t lack for anything, but he is not fulfilled, either.  Why? 

Why do any of us feel that way?  We have everything we need and we know it – shelter, food, family… On this hike, we had sunshine and beauty and time off from work and a measure of health and strength, too.  And yet we worry.  We are anxious; thinking about problems we cannot solve; events that might happen, or might not; people we love and miss or are confused by; wondering what is the right thing to do, and can I do it? My nephew and his wife both lost their fathers young, and I was thinking about that, and about family.  As we were climbing along, it seemed to me that so often what brings comfort is the opposite of what we expect – it is not to stop, and wait.  It is to work – to keep moving forward; to climb the hills, to make our way; to find little stepping stones to carry us across the divides until we have internalized a sense of peace, and rest.  And then we find that we are not so lost; we no longer need to be led. We have been restored.  A path forward has appeared.

Years and years ago, E. B. White – who wrote so beautifully of life and death on his Maine farm, about the runty pig and the literate spider who spins out saving words  — wrote a New Yorker column about the hundreds of nameless people who die each year in New York City.  “New York’s pauper dead are buried in a sandy hill on the north end of Hart’s Island in Long Island Sound.  They lie in big graves, tier on tier, unclaimed.  Twice a week the boat comes up from Bellevue.  The dead are buried solemnly and without ceremony, 150 to a grave, one white headstone for the lot.  It is a beautiful spot – the sweep of the Sound, the restless clang of the bell buoy at the point.
    The record books list the entries: a baby found in the parcel room at Penn Station, a man picked up in a 5th Avenue sewer, page after page, six thousand a year.  There is a single monument, to honor them – bearing the inscription (from John 10): ‘And He shall call his own sheep by name.”

The shepherd until to the last.

When I was a teenager, at some fairly large family gathering, someone asked my grandmother about the pastor of her church.  And my grandmother spoke in a tone that was so unlike her that is permanently fixed in my mind.  “We do not have a pastor,” she said, quite rudely and as if anyone with any sense would be insulted to think she did.  “We are not sheep, needing to be led.” She practically spit the word “sheep.”  You could hear the estimation of sheep as mindless followers.   “In our church,” she concluded, “we have a minister.”  So, in complicated ways, I got the idea that identifying with sheep was a bad thing, and also that we evolved human beings don’t need a shepherd – that we are sturdy, independent people who can climb the hills and cross the fields without leadership or comfort.  Which, of course, is wrong.  Or maybe it is not wrong so much as it is lonely, and painful, and a little lacking in joy and meaning. It is, in fact, the shepherd that makes a whole out of the flock – that sees the sheep in their entirety.  I loved this little factoid about how counting sheep led to counting stitches in knitting; that twisting and turning and slipping under and over and keeping track of it all is how we knit everything together, and create a garment that keeps us warm.

In ancient days, shepherding was humble work; unskilled labor for the lowliest of boys. It took place way outside of the village life, and so left the shepherd isolated.  It had no status at all.  And yet clearly it was important. Phillip Keller, a minister who for eight years worked as a shepherd, writes, “It is almost impossible for (sheep) to lie down unless (certain) requirements are met.”  Sheep are sensitive, and timid, and can’t handle friction among the flock.  Even things as basic as flies buzzing around can upset them, and flowing water frightens them.  They rely on the shepherd to make them feel less vulnerable by keeping the environment clean, and calm. And sheep will not lie down if they are hungry.  There is no way a shepherd can make sheep rest if they are hungry or in any way upset. 

In an essay called “Out Like a Lamb,” Andre Dubus writes about the year he spent in a very upscale New England farmhouse; free rent in exchange for tending the roses, keeping up the house, and managing the flock of eight heirloom sheep. “They were enclosed by a wire fence in a large section of the meadow. They had a shed there too, where they slept. All we had to do about them was make sure they didn’t get through the fence, which finally meant that when they got through, we had to catch them and put them back in the pasture. This was my first encounter with sheep. When I was a boy, sheep had certain meanings: in the Western movies, sheep herders interfered with the hero’s cattle; or the villain’s ideas about his grazing rights interfered with the hero’s struggle to raise his sheep. And Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep. But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.”

The essay goes on to tell the story of what happens to the sheep without a real shepherd; with a lord of the manor instead of a humble, lowly boy.  It is not a pretty picture, and it makes evident how easily we can become cruel; how violence can become our master even when we are people who despise it.  Dubus was perpetually annoyed by the sheep; angry with them; unable to keep them secure and frustrated at the sheep’s refusal to stay behind the fence, in the meadow.  He begins enlisting family members to help tackle the sheep; to literally throw them back into the pen when they stray; to beat them into submission.  And finally, when one animal begins to eat the roses, Dubus shoots it.  Although his intent is to scare the animal away from the flowers, the birdshot kills the animal.  She bleeds to death in the killer’s arms.  And then Dubus knows who the brute is.  Out like a lamb.

Dean McLaughlin, a former member here, once told me that New England had five seasons; that in between winter and spring there is a shoulder season called “unlocking” – an image I love, with the mixture of ice slipping and clicking into place until the surface of the world tumbles away and a new one breaks through.  The frozen earths unlocks, and becomes muddy and misshapen; I think of Hades releasing Persephone from her imprisoned life underground for one season in the light, and how that decayed layer of earth – dead vegetation that nourishes the plants underground has the exact same word origin as humility.  The experiences and events that we find humiliating, embarrassing, that leave us feeling exposed as dirty somehow – these are the same moments that create a fertile soil for new growth.  We become as clay; reshaped slowly as we muck in, and prepare for spring.

Dubus’ frustration with the sheep – what he calls their stupidity and brutishness; their inclination to self-destruction – is clearly a frustration with himself; with the fact that he has to confront his sense of being far more damaged than he ever wanted to believe.  He hates how humiliated he is by his inability to keep the sheep fenced in; he does not have the patience to watch constantly.  He thought he could live in this nice house and be himself, go about his business; and that the sheep would live in their pen, going about their lives.  He was not prepared for the constant interaction; the demands made on his attention.  And the question becomes about how to lead with love.  How to provide safety and comfort on this earth.  How to not be someone who tackles and punches the animal that wanders into the roses. 

This made me think more about the illustrated version of the 23rd psalm; how it made a comforting patient presence so real in the everyday lives of children living in the world today.  How can we remake ourselves to be more like that presence; to let people walk past the fences without being hurt?   Since it was the visual representation that allowed those words to speak to me,  I looked up the artist.  Tim Ladwig said that he had begun to paint as a child, after an operation in which he had one eye replaced with an artificial one.  Losing an eye left him with a profound gratitude for the gift of sight, but, as he said, “As an eight-year-old I did not think, “Wow, I’m glad I didn’t lose both eyes; it would be terrible not to be able to see at all.  Yet there was some kind of understanding that sight was to be used to the fullest. Almost as soon as I came home from the hospital, I began to draw and paint. It was both something I enjoyed doing and something that bubbled out from inside.”

He continued, reflecting on how the operation influenced him as an artist in another way: “Because the artificial eye did not move as well as a natural eye, I had to explain to the other kids how I had accidentally cut my eye with a knife and that the eye that didn’t move very well was made of plastic. This, of course, fascinated the other children but made me very aware that I was not quite the same as other kids who had two good eyes. I began to identify with people who were different and often made fun of.  At some point it occurred me that these “different ones” had feelings. They felt bad when others made fun of things that made them different. Being aware of shared feelings was a great help in becoming an artist. This allowed me to express feelings I had experienced and, to my wonder, found that others recognized “my feelings” as their own.”

This illustrator is showing us what happens when we are concerned with the marginalized, the misunderstood, and the forgotten.  Ladwig’s experience of suffering; of being damaged and different, brought him into communion with a flock of similarly lost sheep; people who had wandered past some comfortable norm.  From this place past the edges of everyday life, he began a walk towards a bigger world; towards an unearthing of new life; an unlocking of the holiness waiting to be born again in us.

So may it be.

Closing Words  from Anne Sexton, “God Loafs around Heaven”

God loafs around heaven,
without a shape…

God owns heaven
but He craves the earth,
the earth with its little sleepy caves,
its bird resting at the kitchen window,
…even its hucksters selling their animals
for gold,
even its babies sniffing for their music,
the farm house, white as a bone,
sitting in the lap of its corn,
but most of all He envies the bodies,
He who has no body.

The eyes, opening and shutting like keyholes
and never forgetting, recording by thousands,
the skull with its brains like eels-
…the bones and joints that build and break for any trick,
and the heart, of course,
that swallows the tides
and spits them out cleansed.

He does not envy the soul so much.
He is all soul
but He would like to house it in a body
and come down
and give it a bath
now and then.