In the Presence
Psalm 23 In the Presence Paul L. Escamilla
Some of us have known the 23rd psalm, what we call the Shepherd’s Psalm, practically from our mother’s arms, and so it is deeply woven into the fabric of our faith. Others have come across it more randomly over the years—at a funeral, or a graveside scene in a movie, or a cross stitch on someone’s kitchen wall.
The psalm, which is attributed to King David, is saturated with a sense that the presence of the divine is the most profoundly important and rewarding experience in all of life. God is present in every verse, and always in an assuring, sustaining, life-giving way.
As a metaphorical shepherd, the Divine appears right away as providing green pastures, still waters, and care of the soul. Further on, in what are more tense and distressing scenes, God the shepherd is present as a source of comfort and strength and courage.
Midway through these six verses, the metaphor shifts. Now God is a host, generous and attentive—even extravagant, lavishing good things upon the guest—a banquet of delights; a beverage that is filled to the brim, and even over; and anointing oil—a sign of hospitality, healing, and even regal affirmation, as with the investiture of a monarch.
Finally comes the dividend from all that came before: an abiding sense of assurance that life—all of life—is held in God’s care. In the psalmist’s words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” John Wesley once wrote in his personal journal five words that I deeply hope will appear at some point in your faith journal, as they surely have in mine: An assurance was given me . . .
It’s Longfellow: Thy presence fills my solitude; thy providence turns all to good. It’s Horatio Spafford: It is well with my soul. It’s Julian of Norwich: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
We’re in the presence of a faith whisperer who is inviting the listener to see God as a Presence in whom there is to be found all that we need for life: sustenance, courage, mercy, joy, a sense, wherever we are, of being home.
It was Judy Davis who introduced me to the idea of Psalm 23 as an affirmation of faith. Judy was a beloved presence in this congregation. She died of cancer in the fall. In her ample and detailed notes regarding her wishes for her memorial service—Scripture readings, hymns, words of reflection, special music, and such, she wrote this: affirmation of faith, 23rd Psalm.
And so last autumn, on the 30th day of October, everyone who gathered in this sanctuary to celebrate Judy and commend her life to God recited the words of a deeply assured psalmist, and of a deeply assured sister in the faith, and as we did so, they became our own words, too; as if in the company of another’s faith our own faith was being engendered. Thank you, Judy.
I often bring this psalm into hospital rooms, nursing homes, hospice settings, memory care units. And as often as not as I begin to recite it my voice is joined with the voice of the person I’m with, who is drawing from memory or from some even deeper place to offer their witness.
Years ago I visited beloved church member named Marge in the memory care unit on a day that one of her three grown daughters was also visiting. I shared greetings from her church family, and her Sunday school class. Her daughter showed her pictures of grandchildren, complimented her on her hair, her blouse; held her hand. Marge didn’t seem to register any of it; simply sat there. Then from out of nowhere she said, “I’m the one who used to mother.”
I pulled out my Bible, and as I so often do, opened it to this psalm. As I began to read, Marge joined in, word for word, as her daughter listened. I couldn’t help but feel Marge was conveying something to her daughter through those words, bearing witness to a love that will not let us go.
It was as though the one who used to mother was mothering once more. Marge was wholly present in that act, that affirmation, as was her daughter, as was I. And it seemed that in that room that afternoon there was another Presence, too.