The psalm chosen for the third week of the Narrative Lectionary series on the Psalms is the most famous of them all: Psalm 23. Popular at funerals, as well as on throw pillows, mugs, and plaques, if a person is going to know, or know of, only one psalm, it would be this one. Familiarity like this can be both a blessing and a curse when using or addressing popular passages of Scripture in any type of faith formation setting.
Familiarity with a passage of Scripture can be a huge blessing and help to people. Especially if the passage like the 23rd Psalm is memorized, then a person can think about it, recite it, or pray it when they need to hear words of comfort, a reminder to trust in God. Even if a person has not memorized it, then when they hear it, they have an emotional reaction, hopefully a positive one, based in previous experience. It is like seeing the face of a friend in a crowd of strangers; it brings about a feeling of relief, even belonging. If a worshipper is not that familiar with the Bible (as a whole or the parts of it being used in worship), then a familiar passage can bring a sense of confidence that would be otherwise lacking when unfamiliar passages are read.
Okay, so perhaps the word “curse” might be an exaggeration, but familiarity with a passage of Scripture can bring challenges in a faith formation setting. When someone is familiar with a passage like Psalm 23 they have probably heard at least one sermon or Sunday school lesson on it. They can then assume that they understand it and don’t need to delve deeper. However, not only can the Holy Spirit show us different aspects of Scripture at different times, but the Bible is deep and wide. British novelist L. P. Hartley is famous for saying, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Well, the world of the Bible is definitely a foreign country to us, in fact a whole set of time periods and cultures much different than our own. This means that reading Scripture without learning about the ancient context will inevitably lead to some type of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or misappropriation. There is always something new to learn about the Bible (which makes it so fun!).
So, what can be done? With Psalm 23, and all of the other familiar passages and stories of Scripture, it’s important to engage faith formation participants (worshippers, students, small groups, etc.) with something new and different. For example, the Christmas story from Luke is so familiar, that too many people have a Christmas card view of it. “Manger” has come to mean “Jesus’ cradle” to many, so call it a feed trough. Bring to mind the dirt, the smell, the sounds of the nativity.
With Psalm 23, here are some suggestions:
- Contextualize– Do a bit of research to learn something new about the status and work of shepherds in the ancient Near East or the different images in the psalm (e.g. what do the rod and staff do?). Share these creatively and concretely with participants.
- Change the Language– In addition to the translation that your participants are familiar with, find a version of the psalm that uses new and unusual language (like this one) or write your own! Fresh language allows people to experience the psalm from a fresh viewpoint.
- Relate– As you learn about the cultural context of the psalm, find ways to relate those images or practices to our modern context. This helps participants to locate themselves in the psalm and apply it to their own lives and faith. Very few will have experience with shepherding, but many have cared for pets and kept them safe.
Embrace the familiarity people have with the 23rd Psalm, but also help them hear and experience it in a fresh new way!
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
This week’s FREE resource is a coloring book from our Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship curriculum. This coloring book is from the PK-2nd lesson on the Bible, giving an overview in words, images, and actions called the “Tour of the Bible.” Feel free to copy and distribute the entire thing to your young disciples, or just use the pages directly related to Psalm 23. Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship is a curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th grade students that explains the meaning of much of the language used in liturgical worship, also covering the meaning of many important church festivals.