We didn't have many drug problems at East Side School in the 1960s, nor school shootings, weapons issues, gang violence or unwanted pregnancies. But we did engage in lawlessness of a sort: We opened each day by reading a small portion of Scripture, sometimes we prayed, and once in a moment of defiance we memorized the whole 23rd Psalm, all six verses of it.
I can't be blamed; I was underage. It was Miss Love's fault. She blithely disregarded the highest court in the land, yet somehow managed to live up to her name. Subversion never had a sweeter smile.
Miss Love taught us many other skills -- I recall words and numbers and arithmetical symbols on the blackboard -- but these simple verses are my best take-aways from second grade. I've pondered them often during the intervening half-century, and I recommend them to you. Here, read them for yourself:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
From the moment it was penned 3000 years ago, Psalm 23 has been the world's best-known and most-loved poem. It's been engraved on the hearts of every generation from antiquity to modernity. It's been quoted across the centuries and through the millennia. Its words have blessed millions of sick rooms and thousands of classrooms. It's been quoted in hospitals, jails, homes, and churches; in open-air rallies and underground meetings; in seasons of peace and in times of war. It's been whispered by the bedsides of sleepy children and spoken as the last words of dying convicts. It's the most memorized and memorialized passage in the Bible. It begins with The Lord, and ends with forever. What could be better than that?
Our society is exalting in the rise of the secular mind. Church attendance is down, religious symbols removed, commandments replaced, ethics eroded. Those who read their Bibles are sometimes viewed with suspicions once afforded old men peeking through dirty magazines. Those who share the ageless Gospel are likened to fanatics.
But be warned: The forfeiture of Psalm 23 and the Bible's other classic passages represents a tragic loss of grasslands. When we plow up green meadows, we squander spiritual nourishment. Relinquishing still waters brings moral drought. Without restored souls, we're destined to despair. By veering off paths of righteousness, we're lost in the thicket. When we abandon the Shepherd, we're sheep going astray. Without Psalm 23, there are no overflowing cups, spacious tablelands, or goodness and mercy following us all the days of life. And as for dwelling in the house of the Lord forever? Well, good luck with that.
On the other hand if you memorize the hundred or so words of Psalm 23, you'll never regret it. No one ever has. From the moment we learn it, our moods improve, our personalities brighten, and our thoughts have sweeter fodder for meditation. From the instant our children learn it, they'll never forget it. It's not just poetry, it's the greatest poem ever penned in the greatest book ever published, divine in origin, powerful in imagery, and soul-calming in effect.
Recently I talked about Psalm 23 at a speaking event for a certain organization. A woman came up to me saying, "I've never liked Psalm 23 until today. My mother died when I was small, and the only thing I remember about the funeral is turning over her obituary and seeing the Twenty-third Psalm printed on the back. From then till today I've associated those verses with my mother's death, and it has depressed me. But your message today changed my mind. Psalm 23 isn't for the dead but for the living; it's for me."
It's for you too, and for our nation and its schoolchildren, for our world and its citizens. It's so universal because it's so individual; and it's so individual because its real power is in the Shepherd it describes. A national campaign to memorize this poem would do more for our land than all the blockbusters, bestsellers, lawmakers, and masterminds put together. Can you imagine how the collective tone of America would improve if we moved from financial cliffs to paths of righteousness, from angry shouts to still waters, from never-ending debt to overflowing cups? The best way to launch a national campaign is with lots of personal ones. Will you sign up? You can easily learn the whole thing in a week or so. So can your children. It's important to them, for Psalm 23 has the power of subverting many a foe in their lives; and subversion never had a sweeter smile.
Just ask Miss Love.