From Boys To Men

Psalm 23 – the 4th Sunday of Easter – for April 29, 2012

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” (Psalm 23:1)

Four decades ago this coming Memorial Day, my friend Michael dragged me away from college classes for a weekend sojourn into the mountains.

My first backpack.

While we often embellish or compress a first event in the re-telling, they are like a tree’s taproot: deep, essential and nourishing. I wore steel-toed work boots with slick soles (great for not gripping the trail), couldn’t make a fire after going through a mess of matches (Michael got a blaze underway with a single strike) and generally had a rousing time. I’d never hiked, never slept in the woods, never witnessed the Milky Way sprawl across a midnight sky, never had blisters between my tootsies nor splashed water onto my face from a snow-fed stream.

We were men. We were children. We were adventurers. We were college kids.

Early in the evening, we (okay, Michael) built a campfire. As the sun faded, and the surrounding trees seemed to tuck the day’s light behind wide branches, we positioned sticks as long as our arms into the fire. Their tips glowed. Spontaneously, we raised the sticks, probably fallen branches, and began a sword fight. Swoosh. Whoosh. Feint and thrust. Laughter and banter. Two man/boys, pretend Knights of the Round Table, battling at the edge of the forest. As the imagined weapons cut through the darkness, the tips—aglow from the fire—etched spectacular orange-tinged slices and circles against the dark background. Simple and dazzling. Instant fireworks. Special effects in a movie only made in our minds and memories.

A slender piece of wood became an imaginary weapon.

Jesus wore a "hoodie" and had a staff*...

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”

I read this verse from Psalm 23, arguably the Bible’s most familiar passage. Can I discern anything new? Do these ancient words still possess the ability to keep my eyes open to the world around me?

Not likely . . . until I considered the rod and staff. Even more, when I considered that the word “comfort” was linked to these two slender pieces of wood. Why did the psalmist add comfort as a description?

A man/child in the woods, I repeated actions I’d done since first wandering away from my parents. As a little tyke exploring the backyard, I’d grasp a stick and transform it into a weapon. How easy to turn a gnarled branch into a sword, jousting pole, Winchester 73 (“the gun that won the west”) or an RPG launcher. Though I’ve seen girls do it, the stick-to-weapon transformation seems more a part of the male DNA. Is it genetic? Is it primal? Is it cultural? Is gender really a factor?

Psalm 23’s rod and staff were the shepherd’s tools of the trade, equally used for aggression or compassion. One was likely straight; the other had a crooked neck. Either could be swung or jabbed, weapon-like, to ward off an attack on the sheep. And yet the curved end of a shepherd’s staff was perfect for reaching an animal after a tumble into a ravine or creek . . . the slender stick became an extension of the arm, a literal lamb-saver.

I think of the rods and staffs that are part of my daily life.

Crutches once propped me up after a broken leg.

My aging father, who died last February, often refused to use a cane (though he owned several). Was he too proud? Too stubborn? Both? He rejected his staff.

Earlier this week I spotted a blind man, white cane firmly in hand, maneuvering along a sidewalk. Tap, tap, tap. On he strolled, unseeing but appearing confident.

Now with arthritic knees, I typically bring a fancy, telescoping hiking pole when backpacking. I just finished Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild”—based on her 1995 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail—where she found a discarded ski pole. She gratefully used it to help her stride, and sometimes stagger, across granite-bound passes and wide, furious rivers.

Variations of rods and staffs are legion. A neighbor strolls by with a golf club: to fend off aggressive dogs or practice his swing? A young woman twirls a baton before a marching band. A kid down the street, a baseball bat on his shoulder, hurries to a playground.

Who have you seen grasping a “rod” or “staff?”

Every time I’ve turned the page to Psalm 23—at countless formal funerals and brief graveside services—I’m aware how helpful it can be. And, of course, ignored because of familiarity. It could’ve been read a century ago at your great-great-grandpa’s funeral and will just as likely be read at the end of this century for today’s newborn child. It is familiar and comforting. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” We all approach dark valleys, literal or symbolic; places as challenging as a forest path and spaces as frightening as hospital corridors.

Canes and crutches provide support. The odd truth is all of them, a literal rod or symbolic staff, can become a weapon. What will we choose?

I believe Psalm 23 is subversive. Though difficult, I pray for it be read and lived out like a first event every time. It is a taproot for our faith. A kid who might’ve scampered a stone’s throw from the Bible’s King David probably found a stick and pretended it was a sword. A kid today, plugged into his (or her) iPod, does the same. Psalm 23 challenges our upbringing, our genetics and our cultural expectations. As boys become men, as girls become women, instead of wielding weapons against others, we are called to bring comfort in the name of The Comforter, in the way of following the Good Shepherd.


*I first borrowed this drawing through my friend Dan Paul’s Facebook page. Okay, it’s a silly old Sunday School in the 1950s style drawing. But I liked it as a statement about wearing a “hoodie” because of the terrible death of Trayvon Martin…even Jesus wore a hoodie. And he also has that shepherd’s crook…

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  1. I enjoyed your post, Larry. Because I’m so familiar with the 23rd Psalm, I also find myself not really absorbing it. As I read through it on your blog, I felt such a peace and I was unmistakeably comforted. Thanks for helping me stop and think.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Psalm 23 is one of those scriptures (John 3:16, Ten Commandments, the Christmas accounts, etc.) that I, and I’m sure others, have to work hard to “hear” and “feel” them. How can we “discover” something in the 100th or even 1,000th reading? Thanks for your comments!

  2. Reminds me of my very first Boy Scouts overnight hike on the Appalachian Trail. Bought “hiking boots” at the local Army Navy store. The problem was, that far back, people reallydidn’t KNOW what real hiking boots were all about. Like you, I seem to remember the souls were pretty smooth, and they laced up practically to mid-calf. Very kinky by today’s standards. My parents and I didn’t know about deep, heavy treads and thick padding on the shins. I had half-dollar sized blisters on both heels at the end of the day. And back then, a half-dollar was worth something. Sometime in the first morning, or maybe it was that evening, my father got this walking stick which looks like it was wrenched from a sapling by hand. One long strip of wood was exposed under the bark. He told me to use that, and, later, to see how long I could keep it. He had a similar very small piece of wood into which he noted the date he picked it up. I still have that. I still have my Appalachian walking stick, dutifully engraved with my Boy Scout wood burning iron.

    Speaking of shepherds, I just got a 5 foot long real wood shepherd’s crook from Amazon. Good God, those people have everything! I plan to use it in a very brief tableau to introduce my thesis to an audience in a few weeks. I will recount Nietzsche’s story of the madman from The Gay Science, Para. 126 who announces God is Dead. But no one believes him. Still waiting on UPS for my spiffy lamp to complete the picture.

    But I was speaking of shepherds. I have never spent much time with sheep…or even goats for that matter. But I have spend lots of time with dogs. When I imagine saying the Lord is my shepherd, I imagine looking the same way to him that my border collie looks at me. Trusting…and waiting for dinner and a walk.

    1. I am so looking forward to hearing about your Nietzsche presentation. At the very least, you can use the shepherd’s crook to draw your audience a little closer! Love your memories about the boots. I suspect all boy scouts, girl scouts, accomplished hikers, etc. have “horror” stories about their first boots. When I’m hiking, I think: these books are my best friends. Our feet hurt, all of us hurts! Thanks for your comments…

  3. A lovely bit of inspiration as I prepare (first time in over two months) to preach again this coming Sunday.

    1. Thanks so much, Kathy. Don’t over-prepare your upcoming sermon. Don’t take it too casually. Pray more. Think less. Ignore advice on the Internet!! I look forward to hearing how your preaching goes…

  4. Larry, thanks for the post. Would love to hear more on your sentence: “I believe Psalm 23 is subversive.”

    1. Hey, thanks David! However, before I give you “more” from me about Psalm 23 being subversive, what’s your reaction? What do you think? I’ll (wink and smile) use this as a “teaching moment” . . . but I truly would be interested in your reaction . . .

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