My first church job upon moving to Dallas was at First United Methodist Church of Red Oak , Texas. You may know of Red Oak -- it's a small town about 30 minutes south of Dallas, just north of Waxahachie. It is an amazing community of folks, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the experience of serving there and being in the fold of such warm people. Many of the church's members worked in Dallas or other nearby large cities, but made the commute to Red Oak so as to allow their families to experience a home-town, rural, in-the-country feel of living. As for me, having grown up visiting my grandparents' farm often, I appreciated the feel of the community and the values of country-living that were important to many of Red Oak's citizens.
One Sunday during my time there -- just a regular Sunday, not a high-holy day or anything -- the service was progressing nicely. We had sung our opening songs, stated an affirmation of faith, prayed with the pastor, and now it was time to read today's scripture. Now usually, the pastor would open her bible and read the scripture from the pulpit from which she preached. This time, however, she did something different. She set down her bible and reached over to grab a shepherd's cane that she had placed next to the communion table. It was a large, wooden cane, very authentic to what an actual shepherd in Jesus' time would have had. With the cane in-hand, she stepped from behind the pulpit and proceeded to the front of the chancel, getting about as close to the congregation as she could get. And then she began, speaking from memory, as though the words were coming to her just then -- like she was sharing them with a beloved friend:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Upon hearing these familiar words, a collective smile swept over the congregation. A discernible warm feeling overtook the room as this age-old scripture was recited once again.
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.
As the pastor got further into the scripture, the mood of the congregation began to change. What started out with a comfortable smile turned into deep emotion as people's memories brought them somewhere else -- perhaps to the funeral of a loved one where this scripture was read, or maybe to a time sitting in church, hearing or singing this scripture, with a loved one who was now long gone.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
By the time she got to the end, there were more than a few tears -- healing tears of love and remembrance, I believe, but tears nonetheless. Deep emotion, deep love, deep faith -- all seemed to be interwoven into a simple reading of the Psalm.
I've reflected on this worship service several times in the years since I experienced it. It reminds me how meaningful the words and phrases of scripture can be, and how powerful they and the memories we associate with them are, Psalm 23 in particular.
This has been a tough week in the life of our church in many ways. On Sunday, we heard about the tragic loss of a young man in his 20's, the grandson of devoted, long-time members of our church. On Monday, we learned of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, and on Wednesday, we woke up to the news of the devastating explosion affecting our neighbors in West. And all this comes on the heels of two recent mass shootings.
Senior Pastor Bill La Barr said last week that when asked how he is able to cope with situations of tragedy (which happens far more often for pastors than the average citizen), he said you don't cope. You call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to intervene because the situation is bigger than any one person or even group of people. Often a congregation will look to ministers and church staff during times like these for guidance as to what response is appropriate. As for this church staff member, I'm at a bit of a loss. The purposeful killing and injury of completely innocent people, particularly children, is completely outside my comprehension. But what I believe to be true is that good is more powerful than evil, and that those who choose to do good outnumber those who would choose to harm. I believe that by being part of a church community, we nourish the light of Christ that has the potential to reside in each of us, and by taking that light out into our community and the world, we spread that light, of which no darkness cannot overcome. What sustains us during times of grief is our faith -- the belief that God is with us even in our darkest valleys, restoring our soul, and filling us with overflowing goodness and mercy every day of our lives. We need not fear evil, for God is with us. I pray that as we read Psalm 23 as the call to worship last Sunday, you were reminded of these things, too.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
See you Sunday,