23rd Psalm Message

One Friday at the end of a particularly hard and stressful week, a coworker came to me and wanted to talk.

She said she just felt "blah" for the past several weeks.

"It is very difficult to care about anything anymore," she related. Little did she know that I was somewhere beyond that same point.

Three months prior, our family had lost a close friend named Zella. She was related to both sides of my family in various, too complicated to tell ways, and was like a sparkling extra grandmother to my children. Zella had a wonderful, hearty laugh combined with a glimmer in her eyes.

But I found myself beside her bed in an intensive care unit, holding her hand while her children took a break. A surgery the day before had revealed a huge mass involving most of her abdominal organs. There was nothing to be done.

As she and her family hovered in that no-mans-land between hope and reality, I wanted to impart to her that God cared for her. I asked if she would like a prayer. She nodded yes. I had intended to recite the 23rd Psalm, but realized I could not -- I was totally blank! I was able to stumble through one prayer, The Lords Prayer.

As I sat beside her, a faint sparkle returned to her eyes along with a weak smile. I knew that in normal times Zella and I would be laughing, in a kind way, about my awkwardness at that moment, and how I had botched the prayer. But these were not normal times, and she slipped into unconsciousness the next day and died several days later.

The 23rd Psalm is familiar to those of us from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It begins with "The Lord is my shepherd..." and is perhaps the most recited Biblical verse. I would wager everyone from that background could think of someone they love or loved very much to whom this verse was important. It is common at funerals, and in times of danger and stress.

I made a renewed pledge to memorize it and tried for weeks. I printed it out in a large font and tried to memorize it while driving each day to work. But it just could not stick in my memory.

I became increasingly annoyed and with disgust set the prayer aside. Many extra hours at work, the everyday stress of raising children, helping aged relatives and an overly busy life lead to a slow, darkening spiral that I hardly noticed. Over the weeks I became unfocused, and increasingly felt ineffectual in many aspects of my life.

So there I was, with my coworker -- a woman who needed reassurance, who needed support, who needed motivation. And I was not sure I had any of those things to give. Without great enthusiasm I started one of my standard pep talks.

"You know, JoAnn, it isn't the job that you do that is important, it is how you do your job..." It sounded incredibly trite as I said it.

I encouraged her to care, because with caring comes hope. And where there is hope, there is always a future -- a better day. I threw in an impromptu example of how easy it was not to care.

I said, "If you saw a piece of trash in the hallway, it would be easy not to pick it up, after all, 'it is not my job.' But how much better it is to care. How much more positive it would be to pick up the trash. By thinking positively, you helped a coworker in a small way, and you helped yourself."

I was not sure it was a convincing speech for JoAnn and I was certain it didn't convince me. I felt even more tired, more spent. It was like what little bit of hope, if any, which had been given to JoAnn was drained from me, leaving me with none.

I gathered my coat, and walked head bowed and disheartened down the hall. As I turned down a hallway, I passed a small rectangular piece of paper on the floor.

I just kept walking.

I walked about six paces beyond the paper, and was musing about the irony of the example I had just given my coworker, but I didn't really want to stop, let alone turn, retrace my steps, and pick up the trash. But I did stop, and stood still for a moment -- debating.

Sighing, I turned back to the paper.

It was plain white and about 1-1/2 inches wide and 4 inches long. As I picked it up, I realized it was a bookmark and when I turned it over, in small print this is what was on the other side:

The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil for thou art with me:
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
That was a pivotal point for me.

It broke my mood, and for some odd reason, or perhaps some not so odd reason, I was able to memorize the 23rd Psalm easily after that day.

Every day we are presented with opportunities, some large, some small, to move forward in life's journey. I can tell you many times when opportunity knocks at our door, we don't open it to see what is there. Many times when a gift is placed at our feet, we don't stop and stoop to pick it up.

But I've learned we should.

[ Daniel James (dreust@sjrmc.org) -- from 'Heartwarmers' ]


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