With a few decades now behind me as a church musician, I have attended, played and/or sung for many funerals and memorial services. Time and time again I have seen people turn to Psalm 23 for comfort in time of loss. Whenever I hear Psalm 23, I am reminded of a very specific time and place.
Have you ever had something happen in a way that there was no doubt in your mind but that it happened exactly the way it was supposed to? Let me tell you about a time a few years ago when it happened to me. I wanted to attend a funeral, but there was a problem. The gentleman who died was Jewish, and the funeral was on a Sunday morning. I was the Director of Music for a Presbyterian church, and could not find a substitute musician on such short notice. As much as I felt I needed be at that funeral, there was no way I could make it happen.
Our Sunday school met before the worship service, and I was teaching the youth class. Just moments before class was dismissed, the electricity went out. Coffee fellowship time came and went with plenty of fellowship, but no coffee or electricity. When it came time for church to begin, we were still without lights, air conditioning, and of particular interest to me, organ and (digital) piano. The leadership decided that the very capable choir director would lead the singing a cappella that morning. Under these very unique circumstances, I asked the pastor if I could be excused to attend the funeral. At first he said no, then later reluctantly agreed. I left before he changed his mind again…but was concerned what his reaction would be if the electricity came back on and I wasn’t there.
The man who had died was well-known and much-loved in the community. There were many faiths represented by the great number of people in attendance. As the rituals unfolded, the officiating rabbi explained them in a way that included everyone, and there was great sense of unity. What happened near the end of the service, however, made the strongest impression on me. Each of us stepped out of our differing beliefs and traditions, and recited Psalm 23 as one voice.
All of us. All of us together….saying the same words, with the same cadence, the same familiarity, the same reverence, each one receiving comfort from God’s word, both individually and as a single body of believers.
Henry Baker, an Anglican minister, wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 23 that has come down to us as The King of Love My Shepherd Is. Baker was well-known for writing, translating and composing hymns. He was Editor-in-Chief of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) which sold over 60 million copies. He included this hymn in the appendix. Evidence of the hymn’s enduring and universal truths, one source says it has appeared in 535 different hymnals. It was sung at the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey. Although the text has been used with different tunes, it is most often associated with the lovely Irish melody ST. COLUMBA.
Tradition says that as Sir Henry Baker lay dying his final words were those of the 3rd stanza: “Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed, but yet in love he sought me; and on his shoulder gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me.”
When the Sunday morning funeral was over, I drove back to the Presbyterian church, a little nervous to find whether or not the electricity was back on, and expecting to find an empty parking lot. A couple of cars were still there. Across the street sat a utility truck. I parked my car, went in, and saw the lights on. Oh, no! I found someone and nervously asked if the lights had come back on during the church service. “No,” he said. “They just came back on a few minutes ago, after church let out. But it’s the craziest thing,” he continued, shaking his head. “No one else in the neighborhood had any outages. It was just a fluke thing. Only this building lost electricity! Can you imagine that?”
I smiled, and I think God did, too.
The King of Love My Shepherd Is
The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever.
Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.