My father had a curate in South Africa who once mentioned, “If anyone sings The Lord is My Shepherd at my funeral, I’m not coming . . .”
Now I am not too sure exactly what his problem with the 23rd psalm was. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it seemed to be the hymn of choice for just about every funeral. It may also have something to do with the overly Polly-Anna view of perfect fields, sheep and crystal clear water. As with many people, we get captured by the imagery, quaint green fields and pastures that the 23rd psalm creates for us. Everything is green and lush, vibrant and full of life. It is a perfect picture of peace and serenity if ever there was one. We immediately feel drawn to that field where we can escape the pressures and demands of our everyday life.
As picture perfect as this image is, we can easily overlook the other message in the psalm. We miss or lightly skirt over the “shadow of death” that the psalmist writes. But it is there. Very much there, nestled between quiet waters where our soul is restored and where we fear no evil for God’s rod and staff comfort us. Even in this context death seems sweet and pleasant.
But there is no escaping death. Even in a picture perfect scene. There is no escaping death because death is a part of life. We know this in that we never go from one moment of perfection and joy to the next. Life has valleys, shadows and death. These too, we must pass through.
We have to walk through the shadows of death that come our way because life is always moving us forward; forward toward a better tomorrow, the next pasture where we find our joy and lush green pastures once more. When we move through the valleys and shadows of death we will find our new life and where we will find God. Herein lies the key for us.
When I was in seminary, my Homiletics Professor forever changed my understanding and has given me a new appreciation of the 23rd psalm. He mentioned that the most important word in this psalm is the word, “through.” Behind all the green fields, past the shadows, beyond any still waters, rods or staff, the most important word is: “through.” This is the most important word because it reminds us of one of the great truths we have that God is always leading us through death into life. Death is not the final destination or impenetrable wall. Quite the contrary, God always leads us through death into new life. A new life where we find God already there ready to lead us in the next adventure.
Life is full of joy, wonder and awe alongside the shadow sides of life. As we walk from one moment to the next, moving through death into life, we gain a deeper learning of who we are in God as we live more fully the person God will have us be.
The great truth in this psalm echos the great truth of the Resurrection that death is not an end, but rather a passage we pass through to becoming more fully alive in God.