Psalms

My Favorite Story about the 23rd

(Lent 4A    Psalm 23)

I was a new pastor with one funeral under my belt. Sitting at a church meeting on Thursday night I heard that N's uncle had died, a very old man who had been disconnected from his family before moving back to Portland and quickly going into the hospital. Then someone notified his sisters, both over 90, and by the time they got word, he was on the point of death and no one got there in time.

This was all sad enough: a lifetime of broken relationships and alcoholism, trying to come home but falling ill too soon to make contact, a death alone in a hospital room. But even worse, Uncle J was indigent, and he would have only a pauper's burial, "courtesy" of the city. These burials are contracted out to funeral homes and are meant to take the least amount of time possible, although the family is allowed to come to the graveside.

"N," I said, "Would you like me to come tomorrow morning and say a prayer?"

"Oh, Reverend Songbird, would you?"

Of course I would. It was already after 9 pm when we parted, and the burial was scheduled for 9 am the next day. I raced home and looked over the one funeral service in my computer files. Warned that there would not be much time at the grave, and knowing very little about the deceased, I tried to decide what was really necessary in order to bid Uncle J a proper good-bye.

The next morning I arrived early at the cemetery, wondering who would turn up for the brief service. N was there some relatives in her age group (60ish). In a car parked near the grave there were two very old ladies, both over 90, Aunt M and Aunt Princess. (That was her real name.) At 9, exactly, the two ladies emerged from the also elderly sedan and approached the grave, tearfully.

It was just then that other cars began to arrive, the younger members of the aunts' extended families, and suddenly this was a multi-generational family event, from the 90-plus in their old lady spring coats to the 30-somethings in their leather jackets.

"Hear the words of Jesus Christ," I began. "'I am the Resurrection and the Life…'"

I wondered if this meant anything to them, their faces blank with grief. Who was this Uncle J? Where had he been all those years? What had he meant to M and to Princess and to their parents and grandparents already gone on before him?

After the first prayer, I read the 23rd Psalm. This was only my second funeral, and it is the reason why I now always use it in that place. Because when I began to say the words, Aunt Princess joined me, and the tears began to trickle down her lined, soft cheeks.

"I shall not want," she said, as if the reading were responsive, and in the truest sense, it was.

(Cross-posted at Set Free.)

1 thought on “My Favorite Story about the 23rd”

  1. Psalm 23 is probably the most recognized chapter in the Bible and most often referenced. I post it here for those maybe not familiar with it’s comforting words.
    Psalm 23
    A psalm of David.
    1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
    2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
    he leads me beside quiet waters,
    3 he restores my soul.
    He guides me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.
    4 Even though I walk
    through the valley of the shadow of death, [a]
    I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
    5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
    You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
    6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
    and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
    forever.

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