Psalm 23, one of the most popular psalms of King David has followed me, like a faithful friend, through all my life – in prayer, Church readings, songs and, above all, literature I read as a child.
I remember reading those words first as a 10-year-old in one of the books of Jules Verne, Children of Captain Grant.
Lord Glenarvan and his company, surrounded by a fierce tribe of cannibals up to no good, find comfort and hope in small fragments of a page obviously torn out of a Bible and used in shooting, which reach them along with enemy bullets.
The scraps of paper, crumpled and half-burned, carry the words: "The Lord is my shepherd" printed on one side and "Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side" on the other.
'I myself will gather the remnant of my flock . . . and I will bring them back to their fold.'
Glenarvan – until that moment resigned to sure death and concerned only with his wife's and young Mary Grant's possible fate – is deeply moved and comforted by those messages. His faith is so deep that the instant he deciphers those passages, he knows they will be saved.
The scraps of the Bible come as a sign that God has not forgotten them and is indeed in charge of their destiny, not the howling enemies down the mountain. Sure enough, help comes from the most unexpected quarter and all is well.
To Glenarvan and all men of faith, Psalm 23 is all about God's providence, love and care, the saving grace. What is interesting in this story is that God here is not seen as a wizard or a kindly genie who fixes problems instantly and permanently. He is not expected by Glenarvan to remove them magically to a paradisaical setting where they will be not only free from danger but also tended by angels.
Men still have to solve many problems and make difficult choices; they are still in an enemy country, still dirty, sweaty and tired. Yet they are aware of God's presence in all moments of this difficult "now" and deeply grateful for everything he sends their way. Their faith is mature.
I have read excerpts from the all-famous psalm in literature of rebellion, too. Communists hated this psalm more than any other, save perhaps the account of resurrection, so in their numerous anti-Christian campaigns you found references or travesties of the "Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
One of the Polish women who spent her childhood in Communist Russia told me how the kindergarten kids in her class were told to ask the "God, the shepherd" for candies literally. They had to cry out "God, give us candies" and look up to heaven.
When no candies dropped from the sky, they were told to call out "Soviet, give us candies" and, sure enough, a teacher would come with a basket of sweets to distribute.
If you remember that there were no candies or sweets in the impoverished Russia at that time, you can imagine that the impact of such a lesson of practical atheism was powerful.
The real danger of this brainwashing lay, however, not so much in the inevitable disappointment of the poor kids, as the fact that they were given to understand that God is a kind of a wizard and should give them what they want and when they want it.
True, such a god does not exist. There simply was no one there, in times of anti-religious terror, to tell those children this simple truth.
Despite the freedom and peace we enjoy in Canada, the practical materialism of our age and increasing addiction to instant gratification often make us fall for the same primitive trap of a literal understanding of the great psalm.
We tend to ask the Shepherd for more and more. More of the "green grass," more "softer meadows," thicker "wool on our backs" and "fewer wolves" in the neighbourhood. If he does not provide instantly, we are disappointed or even turn away from him.
Often it takes a deep and painful fall into a rocky precipice or even a broken leg before we begin to understand that we need the Shepherd desperately . . . on his terms, not ours.
It is then that we call – not to ask for better fodder – but simply for the Shepherd to come, come and save us.