The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
3 he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g]
Psalm 23 like many of the Psalms are written to bring comfort to the listener. And they have performed that role for generations up to this day
Psalm 9:9 – “The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
Psalm 27:1 – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall, I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Psalm 34:17-18 – “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
Psalm 46:1 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Psalm 91:2-4 – “I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.” Surely, He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge…”
Psalm 23:4 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
I have been struck by how many of the hymns of comfort, of God’s love and support there are, and most are inspired by the psalms. You can look at the scripture index of the hymnal and count how many hymns the psalms inspired. And that is not counting the Psalter which is also in the back of the hymnal.
And we need such comfort.
The world doesn’t always make sense. Death is real, tragedy strikes, and we can see that amid the corona virus pandemic.
So, we return again and again to the Psalms, to lean on God’s care, and to trust that God can find a way out of no way.
One issue that comes up with my students at United Campus Ministry often goes by the name theodicy, that is, where is God in the mix of all this? With a pandemic how do we talk of God’s love, God’s care and support in this?
I suppose I could show them the Psalms
I will say that for many of my students this won’t bring comfort, it brings more questions that trouble them.
If God protects, what about Native American missing women? If God rescues those in need, what do we do with the rising threat and casualties due to the coronavirus? If God is with us in our troubles, why do so many struggle with joblessness, lack of access to health care, paid medical leave and of course debt? These verses for them do not bring comfort. They bring questions, even incredulity.
I’m grateful for the students who ask these questions of Christian faith and grateful they believe United Campus Ministry is a place where they can raise them. But what I wanted to do is borrow from the Jewish tradition which has a long history with these questions.
I want to speak of the predicate theology of Mordecai Kaplan, which says of the question, where is God in all of this, answers, God is found in those places where the predicates of God are expressed in the world.
This is to say, where do you find deliverance? That is an encounter with God. Where do you find protection? That an encounter with God. What acts In a way that rescues you? That is God. Where do you find yourself and others honored? That is God.
For a student who is coming out of the closet the first time, an important moment for me was attending a drag show in Missoula. After the show we went to Finnegans with the performers. Somebody ran over our table to scream abuses at us. I was terrified. The manager quickly defused the situation and asked the assailant to leave the restaurant, which he did. I had a lot to process that night.
Where was God in this? In the drag show, where I could feel safe being openly gay. In the quiet confidence of the drag queens facing down homophobic abuse. If they could do this, I could do this too. And in the restaurant owner who stepped in to diffuse the situation. God could be found in whatever inner resources I had to begin the journey of coming out. Whatever asks to bring us to our full humanity, there is an encounter with God.
I have a number of students from hard family lives and to the question, where is God, I start asking, who are the rescuers, where did you find deliverance, comfort, where were you honored, what allowed you to succeed when the odds were against you. Teachers, relatives, friends, an inner resiliency. That is holy, that is what it means to encounter God.
I know a student facing deportation if they couldn’t pay tuition, after losing family support. I know a number of staff who worked overtime to find the financial resources to keep that student in school. Those officials were the arms and legs of God for that student.
In the face of the epidemic where is God found?
The doctors, nurses, health care workers in the front lines against the coronavirus
In the grocery store workers and store clerks that insure we have basic supplies and needs met.
In public employees who working to hold communities together and who seek to make decisions that keep us safe.
In educators who are tying to keep teaching and students who are fighting to still learn in the midst of a pandemic and online.
In the role of science in discovering a vaccine, in researchers working overtime on this problem and in developing effective treatments.
In our congregations that are seeking to establish and maintain community in the midst of a pandemic that asks us to socially isolate.
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” Mr Rogers
When we find God in God’s predicates expressed in the world, then to ask the theodicy question, is to ask a question for ourselves…are we the encounter of God that other people need in their lives? Are we the ones that will prove to be the arms and hands of God in the world?
I believe so.
But if this is the case, we know we have limits. I believe God does too. If we want to burn the planet, it will happen. If a disease will have its way, we know we will hit limits in our fight against it, If we are fighting for affordable education, we have a lot to contend with to make it happen and we’re not there yet. God works with the resources at hands, not to make miracles, but to make a difference.
And the Psalms indicate this in a way that shows God’s presence in our life. We’re not alone in whatever we would contend with. That too is a predicate of God
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Can we be that rod for others? To be present, even if solution is not available, even if online or though a phone call, to be with someone in their struggles? Then we can be that presence of God in the life of another. I can think of no other higher calling then this. Amen
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings