God spoke to us as Fred read the most familiar poem in English, Psalm 23. Most know it by heart. Young and old have been drawn to these words and they have proven to provide comfort and strength in the face of the most difficult trials in life, like the death of a dear loved one like Winona.
But how is it that these words have been so sustaining? why so powerful? so life-giving? How can it be that a three-thousand-year-old song of a ruddy shepherd boy singing on his crude stringed instrument still stirs human heart strings today?
The answer to the question cannot be simply its obvious artistic excellence, as delightful as that is. By God's grace the world is full of beautiful poems and stirring songs. There must be a more compelling explanation.
The power of these words is not the poem but the Person whom the poem celebrates. The LORD is my Shepherd. The Living God, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever; the God who has no beginning and no end, the God who is the only uncreated, self-sustaining, supreme being in all the vast, immeasurable expanse of the created universe is a tender, caring, and loving Shepherd.
But that fact alone does not captivate the human heart. What does is that this Lord is MY Shepherd.
Were you to ask me if I know what flowers are I would look at you in a strange way. Of course I do. I see flowers all the time. I've grown up with flowers. There are flowers all around me. I recognize their beauty wherever I go. I even have flowers at my house. I have pictures of flowers on my wall and bouquets of flowers on my table.
But I really do not know flowers. Not like Winona Schurle. She grew them. She knew their unique characteristics. She could identify them, cultivate them, and display them with beauty and passion. She delighted in them.
When some of the family members were trying to decide what to put on the front of the memorial folder that you're holding now, they debated whether to put her picture or a picture of flowers. You'll see that the top she's wearing in the picture from her 90th birthday has flowers on it. Winona knew flowers.
So it is with the difference between being familiar with the words of Psalm 23 and intimately knowing the Shepherd of Psalm 23. It is one thing to say God is there. It is quite different to say to God "You are with me" and mean it.
It would be the greatest blessing for Winona to know that no one at her memorial service was merely familiar with this psalm, but that all could say from the heart, “Lord Jesus, You are with me.”
How would that be? How does one move from merely being familiar with these poetic words into a personal experience of life with the Shepherd? Isn't that an automatic thing?
Most definitely it is not automatic. This psalm speaks about enemies. Some are not with the Shepherd. Jesus, who is the Shepherd of Psalm 23, spoke of people who honor him with their lips but their heart is far from him. Were Jesus speaking right now He might apply that principle by reminding us that it is possible to quote Psalm 23 and not be living its truth.
So how does one come to live the life of this Psalm? The clues are peppered throughout the poem.
To say the Lord is my Shepherd requires that I see myself as a sheep -- helpless, lost, unable to defend or sustain my own life; dependent in every way on my Great Shepherd.
To say that I shall not want requires that I see my Shepherd as all that I need. With him I have everything. Without him, nothing that I have has value.
To say that he makes me lie down requires that I see myself on my own as weak and without strength. I see My Shepherd as my sustaining power.
To say that he leads me beside quiet waters requires that I admit that I am thirsty and restless and troubled and cannot find peace without My Shepherd. Without him I find no rest from my desperate attempts to find satisfaction.
To say that he restores my soul requires that I acknowledge that at the deepest level of my being I am fallen and condemned. I am alienated from the source of eternal life and joy. I admit that I have dishonored God and destroyed my own happiness and that of others through my sin. I need to be restored.
To say that he leads me in the paths of righteousness requires that I concede that without his leading I would wander in unrighteousness. My self-chosen paths would take me into evil or empty pursuits.
The valley of the shadow of death describes not only the end of life in this world but all of life in this world. It is difficult. There is pain and trouble despite all the advances we make to improve our condition. We watch others die and each of us is dying slowly throughout life.
So to say that My Shepherd walks with me through this life requires me to trust Him rather than complain and grit my teeth in bitterness. Faith replaces fear.
To say that his rod and staff comfort me requires that I submit to his correction. I acknowledge that He is wise and I am lost without his discipline. I trust Him and refuse to trust myself.
To say that He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies requires me to acknowledge that he and I have enemies. Satan, the world, even my own sin attempt to stand in the way of intimate fellowship with Him. But He puts a table between us.
The Lord's table (what Christians celebrate as Communion) is the place where the Shepherd reminds us that he died for his people. He shed his blood and he offered his body so that we might have fellowship with God. In the cross, Jesus promises a certain and eternal victory over all the enemies of our soul.
To say that He anoints my head with oil requires that I bow before His authority. He determines how I will serve Him. When David was anointed king, God set him apart for special service. That service meant great honor as well as vast responsibility. The oil was the ointment for obedience.
To say that my cup runs over requires me to see My Shepherd as being infinitely more gracious than my small heart can contain. I embrace his goodness even in times of difficulty like the death of a dear loved one. And I realize that in fact his goodness embraces me.
To say that goodness and mercy will follow me requires me to admit that apart from God's grace supporting me I would fall back into the sin and darkness of life without the shepherd.
The people who live with this kind of heart are the ones who can say Lord, You are My Shepherd. You are with Me. They are the ones who can joyfully declare, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever."
Many admirers of this poem have noticed that there is a major shift in the middle of it. The opening lines speak about God in the third person. He makes me lie down. He leads me. He restores.
But in the middle, he changes to the second person. You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me. You prepare a table. You anoint.
The most likely explanation is that David slipped into a deeper intimacy as he contemplated his Shepherd. What began as a more detached portrait of his God became an intimate enjoyment of his Shepherd. He went from arm's length to loving embrace.
You are here today because you knew Winona. But do you know her Jesus? Do not walk away from Him again and wander in your sin and darkness.
If you will become as a little lamb and turn from sin to receive the blessings of life in Christ, He will save you. Faith will replace fear. Instead of the terror of God against me, you will say with assurance, "Lord, Shepherd, You are with me."