Competitive Sheep Counting and a Prayer of Pause

Competitive kid? That was me. If the contest was digging a 10-foot hole in the Texas heat, hand my that shovel.

In the second grade my Sunday school class memorized Psalm 23. I was the first to be able to recite it. I still know it by heart. I remember our teacher telling us it was something we would want to remember so if we were scared we could say it to ourselves. I remember giving it a try one night when I could not sleep, and it worked! A biblical counting of sheep if you will.

I can’t say I completely understood the passage at that age, but there is something to be said for rhythm and familiarity that can bring comfort beyond actual content. For some you sing “Gloria Patri,” “Hear Our Prayer,” “Doxology,” all songs you will sing each week with comforting  familiarity even when you are not thinking much about what those songs mean.

Maybe in your church you have certain songs for certain times during the service that mean certain things are happening like communion, offertory, an invitation, or the end of a service. I would say Psalm 23 has a similar usage in the church. It gets read often at funerals, particularly graveside services, it is a passage, one of just a handful, that even those outside the church are familiar with.

A study done a few years ago by Luther Seminary found that 15% of people surveyed looked to the 23rd Psalm for comfort and another 10% said the Psalms in general. If you know anything about the decline of biblical literacy in America you know this is a significant number. But what’s so special about the 23rd Psalm?

Psalm 23 is an excellent prayer for daily living.  There are times when our own words fail us , and we need the rhythm of these words, embedded in us at another time, to be our prayer. It is best that we let the confession of this prayer be free from too much tampering and simply be our belief. At the end of the day we trust these words are true, that God cares for us, even in the lowest of times… or we don’t. 

There is an ancient monastic practice known as lectio divina, Latin for “divine reading.” It is a spiritual practice of listening to God. It brings us away from the analytical reading we are often accustomed to that searches for specific meaning and background information. It invites us to sit in the presence of God. It helps us let a poem as beautiful as the 23rd Psalm remain just that, a poem, one that doesn’t need our dissecting but instead can become our prayer of confession and trust. Even if it’s a “fake-it-til-you-make-it” kind of confession. We need that too sometimes.

In the hectic whirlwind of August — for so many with a new school year — the angst and anger of a world where ordinary life has become so dangerous, when gun violence continues to be a national narrative, and when a natural disaster such as Hurricane Dorian gives us reason to pause and remember our fragility, a pause might be what your soul is longing for.

Here’s how this works:

The First Read Through (an audio version is another great option)         
You will sit quietly and reflect on the words you have read. Don’t rush. If it helps, set a 2-5 minute timer for your first time and gradually work your way up to longer periods of time as you practice lectio divina more frequently. 

The Second Read Through
This time as you read through let a word or phrase jump out at you for reflection. During your silent reflection, meditation on that word or phrase.

The Last Read Through
Now ask: What is God calling me to do? What is God calling me to be? How is God inviting me to change?

Psalm 23
GOD, you are like as shepherd to me.
I don’t need a thing because you take care of me.
You help me sleep in comfort like a sheep that has lots of grass to lay down
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
4 Even when the path goes through
scary places,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.
5 You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
6 Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of GOD
for the rest of my life.