One of the challenges that I present to myself when reading a story, reacting to a social media post, or reacting to the news is to imagine a different context than the one presented. Sometimes the context presented is so engrained in our thinking that we no longer challenge it. One example is the image of renaissance Jesus - who to my mind looks like someone on psychotropic drugs in the '60s and '70s. I am 100% certain that nearly everyone in the United States knows what that "Jesus" looks like and recognizes him. I am also 100% certain that the historical Jesus did not look very much like that image.

Psalm 23 is another example of a context being engrained so much that we can miss some important aspects of the faith that is represented there. In my experience the images associated with Psalm 23 have to do with either beautiful pastoral scenes, "he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me by waters of rest.", or with grief or illness, "Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness . . ." But there is much more here, especially when we consider Psalms that are similar. Psalm 11, for example, is a similar Psalm of trust.

My perception of Psalm 23 changed somewhat several years ago when I was listening to a friend/mentor of mine give a talk at a retreat. He observed that many of us would probably connect our idyllic setting to Psalm 23 and God's presence. He reminded us of the posters and calendar pictures (this was pre-social media) that were usually associated with the Psalm. Then he said we really needed the message of this Psalm when ministering in the city. I especially related to this because of the work a few of us were doing with youth. He said we needed this when we went to Soviet dominated eastern Europe (this was before the Berlin Wall came down).

I thought of the celebration meal I had eaten in a public building in then communist Zagreb, Yugoslavia, with people from several nations and we sang hymns. And surprising to me, the Americans there were asked to sing our national anthem - which brought tears to the eyes of all. I think now of communion in Albania and in Poland while under an "emergency police state." We were not in any real danger as many have been, but that phrase - "you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" had fresh meaning.

This is the season when tens of thousands of young people (and not so young) take time out of their summers to travel to less privileged parts of the world and provide clean water, housing, medicine, food, and clothing to those who have little. Most are not in danger, but some are. Our group was once caught in the middle of a government change that resulted in us being ensconced in a hotel for a few days. Going to the airport (which was temporarily closed) in a city of 2,000,000 people with empty roads is eerie. This gives meaning to the courage it takes to recite the words, "He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." This is not sentimental pablum, it is a call to walk toward the trouble and face it with faith.

In Psalm 11, which is related stylistically and in its subject matter, the call to courageous action is even more clear. The Psalmist answers those who would tell us to, "Flee like a bird to the mountains, the wicked have bent their bows, they have nocked their arrows to shoot those who are just. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Enemies of justice want courageous people to run while they do what they will.

The answer to them is that God is on his throne and he sees and tests everyone. The conclusion is that the Lord is righteous, and he loves righteous (just) deeds. I believe that when people with genuine and good hearts (regardless of their faith) seek justice and equality for all people the world will be a better place.

We may disagree on what justice is and we may argue over what equality means (i.e. equal opportunity or equal outcome), but we can still work together. We can still listen. We can still build houses, dig wells, feed the hungry, and work to eliminate "-isms."

For believers, "The Lord is our shepherd . . ." And with that we can leave the pastoral scenes and classical music with peace and courage to face evil in the world.

Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at

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