An Open Table where Love knows no borders

A personal response to Psalm 23

A response to Psalm 23, by Alison Sampson

I suspect that for many of you, like me, Psalm 23 is a favourite. It is probably the best-known Psalm, the one we learned first in Sunday School and the one that inspires the worst kitsch imagery of fluffy lambs gambolling about. Yet despite the kitsch, it is well-known for a reason: the imagery resonates deeply with us. Who wouldn’t want to lie down in cool grass beside a gentle stream? Who doesn’t yearn for an assurance of God’s presence in times of darkness? Who wouldn’t want God to prepare a rich feast and anoint them with oil, especially in the sight of their enemies? Well, me for starters.

Now, before you all start getting twitchy, don’t worry. I am not about to demolish this way of understanding the Psalm! Instead, I want to offer a personal response.

Seven weeks ago tonight, we celebrated the arrival of our beautiful baby, Olivia. I had braced myself to deal with sleepless nights, endless crying, sore boobs, an aching recovering body, and a stroppy two-year old. I could have coped with all that. But instead, I have found myself having to face other demons – and they have been brought out by my response to God’s love.

Psalm 23 celebrates God’s loving care, but how is this usually experienced? For most of us, most of the time, it is mediated through God’s people. In our situation, Bec asked if she could arrange some meals to help once the baby came. ‘Sure’, I said, thinking that having a few soups in the fridge might be handy. But to my surprise, we found ourselves recipients of an enormous bounty – six weeks of meals delivered to our door; offers to sweep, do dishes and take Ellen for a walk; and various people hanging out and taking in my laundry (which, as they know, I received with very bad grace).

You may think – and you would be right – that I should be deeply grateful for this outpouring of help. And don’t get me wrong, I am. But lots of other emotions are swirling around, too.

For while I feel incredibly privileged to have this royal treatment, this time around I don’t ‘need’ it in the same way that I did with our first child. Yes, I am tired, and there is a constant stream of tasks to do. Yes, I lacked time and energy for cooking and was indescribably glad to be able to heat something up and eat each night. Yes, the floor is pretty grotty and the dishes mount up.

Yet I also feel a fraud. Who am I to receive this incredible help? I’m no frazzled single mum stretched beyond the limit. Instead, my husband is spending lots of time at home while we all settle in, and we can afford to get takeaway whenever we don’t want to cook. If I was worried about the floor we would have hired a cleaner. I haven’t had to rush back to work and juggle childcare arrangements for a newborn and a toddler. I’m not writing a thesis or saving the world in my spare time.

Instead, I’m just hanging around feeding, changing nappies, and taking my girls to the park. I certainly don’t deserve this help. I know we could manage without it! I’ve found myself discouraging people from making a meal, suggesting that they take a night off and emphasizing that our freezer is full of meals already. But I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel guilty about this.

After all, here are my friends offering simple and practical gifts that have made the experience of having a newborn much easier this time around. What is it that stops me from wanting to accept a frozen casserole or a tub of soup?

I’ve given it some thought, and I reckon that I am scared of accepting them because they are signs of love. These gifts show me that these people love us. For what else has this experience been but an incredible outpouring of love? And realising this has been incredibly difficult.

I am not a refugee, widow, invalid or prisoner, one of those people for whom we have a special charge to care. So, deep down, I feel like I don’t deserve help or love; somehow, I feel exempt. And even if I did deserve it, I am not sure I want it, because of what it stands for. My friends and my church do not love me in isolation. They love me because God loved them first, and they love me because God loves me through them.

And if God’s love for me is mediated through God’s people, then I have to admit that God is the source of the gifts. So I find it difficult to accept these gifts precisely because the gifts are manifestations of God’s love. And this is terrifying.

I don’t really want a watchful shepherd looking out for me. I don’t really want to be loved by God. I find it hard enough to accept my husband’s love. How on earth can I accept the indescribable vastness of God’s love?

This love is too big and scary for me to accept. And this is why I have found it so difficult to accept my friends’ help. If I can ignore or reject the love of God’s people manifested in small and practical ways, then I can avoid the enormousness of God’s love in its raw and terrifying power and unfathomable depth.

Psalm 23 brought this home. The shepherd watched over me, and in doing so, told me I am worthy of such care. The shepherd made sure I did not want. The shepherd walked with me through the dark valley of childbirth and soothed my fear. The shepherd prepared a table of meals cooked by other people, and gave me another beautiful daughter to overwhelm me with love. Goodness and mercy are with me now – and I have to learn to accept them.

I have no idea how I’m going to do that! This testimony is not complete. But in telling this story, I take a step towards accepting the love that is so freely offered, and which I am so afraid to take. And in sharing this story, I ask you, as God’s people and fellow sheep, to help me.


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