God, our Shepherd

  • May 9, 2017

Psalm 23

I have a friend and colleague named Tom who lives in Sudbury.   He’s a UCC pastor.  His wife Rachel is a lactation consultant. They have three kids and a house full of really great toys. They’re a fantastic family, full of love, not so unusual. Except in one thing. Their second child was born biologically female, and now lives his life as a boy.

Max has always thought of himself as a boy. When he was 2, he asked a face painter turn him into The Incredible Hulk.  During his early years, he asked his parents for a short haircut again, and again and again – he estimates 245 times. When kids at school wondered if he was a boy or a girl, he didn’t know what to say. Finally he asked his Dad – is it ok to say that I’m a boy?

Tom and Rachel used a family trip to let Max experiment with a different haircut and different clothes, just to see how it felt. After going to the barbershop, Max says, “My life changed, because I felt good in my skin.” Soon, Max and his family were ready to enroll him in school as a boy, with his new name.  They noticed a difference in him right away. Tom says, “He just seemed more alive.”

Going through this process has been easier for Max and his family than it would have been for many people. His parents were receptive and supportive. So were their family, their friends, and their congregation. Max lives here, in greater Boston, where attitudes are relatively accepting.

Still, it hasn’t been simple. Tom and Rachel check in with Max often to see how he’s feeling about his choice. They want him to be completely sure that it doesn’t matter to them if he changes his mind.  They have some anxiety about the medical choices that will come as Max approaches puberty, and about Max’s safety and health in a country that is struggling to acknowledge and protect people like Max. And there’s grief: grief to lose the daughter that Max used to be.  But mostly, there is love: love, and out of that love, a fierce determination to protect Max against anything that could harm him as he lives out the life that God has created him for, the life that God has called him to.

People tell Tom and Rachel that they are brave and courageous. But they don’t really feel like they had any other choice. They want Max to be happy. They want him to be safe. And the best way to make that happen is to support him in how he understands himself.

Now, not only are Tom and Rachel supporting Max in his choices, but they have become active in sharing their story with others and defending the rights of all transgender people. One recent protest poster went viral. On it is a picture of Max, an adorable 8 year old boy. It says:  Not a threat to: you, your kid, your school. Only a threat to: Pizza, mud puddles, video game bad guys.

Our psalm for today is the most beloved ones out there. Maybe you can remember a line from it without looking in the bulletin. Maybe you could say it all by heart, perhaps the King James version. Psalm 23 is beautiful, and comforting, and so we keep reading it, and setting it to music, and teaching it to our children.  This psalm reminds us of so many important things that God offers us: rest, guidance, protection, companionship, nourishment, blessing, abundance, mercy, shelter.

Sometimes, though, words like this from scripture may ring hollow. Something happens, and we face great uncertainty, or suffering, or loss. We can no longer be sure that we or our loved ones will be safe in body, mind, or spirit.

This psalm may seem like cold comfort in moments like these. It’s worth remembering, though, that this psalm comes right after the psalm we read on Good Friday, the psalm that says: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our scriptures are much more honest than we usually are about how hard life can be. Psalm 23 comes, then,  not as a denial of pain and suffering, but as an answer to it. It reassures us that when we find ourselves in suffering or in trouble, God has not forsaken us.

Psalm 23 reminds us of who God is, and what God does, even in a world in which there are other forces at work.  If you’re looking for God, God’s the one doing the caring, and the comforting; the walking-alongside-us-in-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death; the protecting of the innocent and the vulnerable; the making of the feast, the giving of the blessing.  God’s doing all of that, all around us. That is happening, also.

Our work is to notice this. To give thanks for it. And also, as a church, to be a part of it: empowered by God’s Spirit to make a way out of no way, alongside all of God’s beloved children: children like Max, and like you, and like me.

God, my shepherd! You keep giving me what I need the most:
A lush meadow to rest in, Quiet pools to drink from, Rest for my soul.
Your guidance sends me in good directions.
Even when my way goes through valleys of death, I am not afraid.
You travel with me. Your shepherd’s crook makes me feel safe.
You provide an abundant meal that nourishes me as my enemy sits across the table.
You bless me as one of your own and fill my cup to overflowing.
Your goodness and mercy chase after me every day of my life;
So I return to you, again and again, and call your heart my home. Amen.