Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
As I wrote last night about the idea of starting this series of daily reflections, I looked ahead in the daily lectionary to find Psalm 23 assigned for today and called it “the perfect place to begin.” I’m not great at memorizing Scripture, but these are words that I could instantly summon from the deepest wells of my memory, words that I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known the God who is “with me.”
But precisely because Psalm 23 is so familiar, it can also be a difficult place to begin. It takes me back to childhood, and there’s much to commend child-like faith. But I’ve put away many childish things, and have concerns that five-year old Chris never could have imagined as he first began to pray on his own. Does God comfort me now in the same way he comforted my childhood self?
Then there’s the unfamiliarity of a shepherd’s psalm. “How does one comment on this most famous of Psalms?”, asked Howard Macy, the Quaker minister and scholar tasked with commenting on that and other psalms in the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible (since reissued as The Life with God Bible). “Countless songs have been composed, pictures painted, and sermons prepared on the shepherd image, but most of us in urban settings today cannot imagine the Lord watching over us as a shepherd watches over his sheep.” I have some sense of the steadfast faithfulness required for a job whose name comes from its object of care. But as I pray this psalm, my suburban imagination does struggle to paint in the details, to see green pastures and still waters as, well, sheep would see them.
So this morning I tried to follow Macy’s suggestion and imagine a different metaphor, “a good substitute for the shepherd image” that would help the psalm better “reflect contemporary urban life.” It didn’t take long.
Even if my dad weren’t a pediatrician, my mom a nurse, my wife an occupational therapist, and my sister a respiratory therapist, praying this psalm in the middle of a pandemic might have turned the shepherd into a healthcare worker. I’m not sure how many Facebook friends I’ve seen quote this psalm in the last week or two; few valleys are darker than a world in which we fight an invisible threat by accepting loneliness.
Now, I’m not that kind of doctor, but because I come from a family of healthcare workers — and because so many of my students are going into health sciences, or because I’ve made my share of visits to family and friends in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes — I found it easy to recast the shepherd and sheep as healer and patient. I thought of public health officials leading us “in right paths.” In my mind’s eye the comforting rod and staff of the shepherd morphed into my dad’s black doctor’s bag, always sitting in the kitchen near his shoes, ever ready for early morning rounds or a late night emergency.
Above all, I thought of nurses like my mom, like the nurse who has been there for all ten of our twins’ annual check-ups, like the nurse I saw tending a dying friend who entered hospice care before COVID halted such visits. What do nurses do but meet their patients’ wants? They help them to lie down and rest peacefully; they lift cups of still water to thirsting lips. Surely their goodness and mercy follow their patients.
In a series that’s all about me seeking to spend time with God, I’m struck that — for all their scientific and technical training — what most distinguishes nurses for me is the relationships they form with patients: professional, but present; clinical, but constant and compassionate.
It’s not just nurses, of course. This morning I finally read that long Atlantic interview with Francis Collins, the Christian physician and geneticist who heads the National Institutes of Health. It’s mostly a chance for him to talk about the coronavirus, but interviewer Peter Wehner also asked about Collins’ personal and professional journey. He started as a scientist who “loved the experience of working in quantum mechanics and wrestling with second-order differential equations,” but he became a doctor because research alone was “lonely… It did not have the kind of human connection that I was beginning to long for.”
There is something restorative to the soul about having that kind of relationship in the midst of fear and suffering — with a nurse or doctor, and surely all the more so with God, whose Son was first made known in acts of healing. And so I’m not only grateful for my own time with God, but I pray that those working in healthcare are finding time for their own spiritual restoration.
The problem with what I’ve been doing in this post is that it tempts me to a gauzy view of medicine. If my younger self thought of shepherds apart from the dirtiness, doldrums, and danger inherent in herding sheep, I don’t want this morning’s metaphor to leave me blind to the challenges facing healthcare workers — especially in the midst of a crisis that will be at its worst if and when it finds those nurses, doctors, therapists, EMTs, technicians, etc. overwhelmed, exhausted, and likely ill themselves.
Here and now, those healers might be as helpful a metaphor as shepherds for some aspects of God, but they are as human as everyone else walking through life’s darkest valleys.
And so I was also struck that Francis Collins, asked how his faith is different in his late 60s than in his late 20s (when he converted from atheism to Christianity), replied this way:
I think I’ve also arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life’s struggles. It took me awhile, I think—that sense that God is sufficient and that I don’t have to be strong in every circumstance.
May we all — but especially our nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers — know the sufficient presence, strength, and comfort of this God.