In our lives we can often find that there seems to be one poem or a prayer which has been most helpful, most meaningful to us. For me this has been the 23rd Psalm: The Lord Is My Shepherd.
In times of strong negative emotion, the words though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil are the only ones which have the strength to meet the greatest spiritual and psychological challenges.
It was held in the gracious surroundings of Hampton Manor in Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire. The theme was Following the Good Shepherd in 2014.
Anne is one of the most inspirational speakers I have ever listened to. During the course of the day she opened up for us the reality of life as a shepherd in Israel, which the psalmist based his poem upon: nothing at all like our concept of sheep and shepherd in the enclosed fields of green fertile England.
The shepherd in Israel, I learned, is responsible for his sheep all the time, in a harsh, challenging environment, on brown, rocky, barren hillsides; he will build stones around caves to act as a sheep-fold; he will drive the sheep to fresh new pasture, going ahead to club the snakes and scatter salt to provide extra nutrients for the sheep. The voice of the shepherd is the one voice the sheep will respond to; ringing out over a great distance, to call in the sheep even from the furthest point to which they have wandered.
Additionally, the oil which the psalm uses as a metaphor, would be a concoction of olive oil, sulphur and spices, which would be daubed on the heads of the sheep to banish flies, gnats and parasites. Sheep, too, I learned, have a “butting order”; this disappears when the shepherd is present. The hills of the Judaean terrain might be bright and sunny and scorching; the valleys fearful and cold; as you go under the overhang, the darkness can be overwhelming.
Several of these details of the shepherding life in Israel were previously unknown to me. Anne used each element as a metaphor for different stages of our life journeys. Now I know what inspired the psalmist to use the images he did, the meaning of the psalm is enriched enormously – as well as its application for my life.
Try having another look at the psalm here and forget about green velvety meadows, a romantic-looking figure with long flowing golden brown hair, and white fluffy sheep. Think instead of rocky hillsides, dark overhangs and snakes, and you’ll be getting closer to what the writer had in mind when he wrote those words.