Back when I was doing a summer as a hospital chaplain intern, I took on psalm 23 and the image of Jesus as the good shepherd as my personal icon. Hospital chaplaincy is difficult work, in part because you never really know what’s waiting for you. I was also chaplain to the inpatient cancer treatment unit which was a place filled with both joy and sadness. I loved working there. One of the things I realized in that work is that I desperately needed to make certain that my own prayer life was intact. I don’t know about you, but when I get really busy, it’s easy for me to put aside my daily prayers in order to make more time for other things. Here’s a secret; that’s a really, really, bad idea. I don’t do well when I don’t pray regularly. I need time to both talk to Jesus and to listen to Jesus. If you’re like me, you might be better at the talking part than the listening part. The good news is that God is willing to wait for me to stop talking.

One of the reasons that the image of the Good Shepherd became important to me during that summer is because the chapel in the hospital had a beautiful window of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders. I used to go and sit by that window and pray each day before I went to see patients. I also found myself by that window after attending to a death or some other difficult situation. That window, and more importantly, what that window represented became a lifeline to me during a difficult but fulfilling summer.

We all need to take that time to allow ourselves to be cared for by Jesus the shepherd. We cannot be good disciples without allowing ourselves to sit at his feet and allow him to teach us and care for us. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the business of the work we do and forget that we too need to be restored, to be refreshed. We owe it to ourselves and to those we minister with to do that; and we need to do it in a variety of ways; we need the common prayer of the community, we need the time to pray alone, and we need to allow for the silence and the patience for God to speak.

There is a wonderful book called “The Lord is my Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty Third Psalm”, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, where he takes each verse of psalm 23, and talks about the richness of each verse, and how God interacts with us through prayer. I would like to read a portion of his reflection on the verse, “he restores (or revives in our translation) my soul”. That verse by itself is an affirmation of God’s work in our life; it is an affirmation of Jesus being the refreshment that each of our souls need in prayer. It is an affirmation of our own desire for God’s Holy Spirit to come and help us to live our lives as disciples of Jesus who sometimes lose our way, and who get caught up in our suffering and the suffering of the world around us, sometimes losing sight of the God who loves us and gave himself for us, the God who meets us in the darkness. Rabbi Kushner writes this from the perspective of a person who is well aware of the darkness; he lost his young son to a rare genetic disorder. Caring for his son and living through his death changed him and his family, as only grief can. He says:

“We had come to the conclusion that God was not responsible (for our son’s) death; genetics had caused it. God’s role was not to send the tragedy into our lives for the reasons that surpassed human understanding. God’s role was to send us the spiritual resources to go on living in an unfair and often painful world. How else does one manage to keep running and not grow weary, unless … God is there to renew our strength? We realized that we had walked the same path as the author of the Twenty third psalm, starting in the valley of the shadow of death and slowly, step after step, finding our way through the valley until we found the waiting world of sunlight…. When events challenge our faith so that we find it hard to believe that this world is God’s world, that is when we need God to re-sort our souls, to reinforce our ability to believe in ourselves and in our ability to do good things. Even as a faithful gives his flock the food and water they need to be sheep, God our faithful shepherd, gives us the strength of soul we need to be human.”

Beloved, being human is hard work. Even Jesus took the first disciples off to a quiet place to pray; sometimes they didn’t get the rest and time alone that they needed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. People around Jesus were desperate for healing, for love, and for wholeness. Things haven’t changed much since then. In this “advanced” world of technology, the world can still be a very dark place for many of us. Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, will reach toward us even when we don’t want to reach toward him. In him is our rest, in him we can be restored, even in the shadow of death. My prayer for myself and well as for each of us is that we remember who it is who restores us, and that we make the time to let ourselves be restored.

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.