Of all the musical settings of Psalm 23 that I enjoy, the tune and text that resonate most deeply for me is “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (No. 589 in Hymnal: A Worship Book). The text, set to an early American folk melody, is by Isaac Watts, known as “the father of English hymnody.”
The first stanza retells the psalm’s narrative, characterizing God as a nurturing Shepherd who cares for a flock of sheep. In the second and third stanzas, the agrarian imagery recedes, and what remains is a portrait of intimacy between two who dwell together in perfect harmony:
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come.
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.
Long ago in my early 30s, while in the midst of a faith crisis, I listened to a soprano sing this amazing hymn, unaccompanied. In those moments, caught in the wonder and delight of the music, I found my doubt and resistance fading away. I felt compelled by divine love to return home — not as a guest or penitent but as one who belongs and is welcomed forever.
Inviting Sunday school class participants to tell about times when this psalm has sustained or renewed their faith could open fresh layers of meaning.
Perhaps almost as well-known as Psalm 23, the text from John 3 is also beloved by many. John 3:16 is the first “long” Bible verse many children memorize.
“Born again” language is common among evangelical Christians. Derived from Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, it is an image describing the utterly new life that begins when we open our hearts and lives to the presence of the living Christ. What many readers miss, however, is that this birthing language is a distinctly feminine image Jesus uses to describe his work of redemption (an image repeated in 1 Peter 1:3).
Just as a human mother endures the travail of labor to give birth to her infant child, so our Mother Jesus bears us — through water and the Spirit — into our new life as members of Christ’s beloved community. Drawing upon Julian of Norwich’s magnificent explication of this image in her 14th-century book, Showings, poet Jean Janzen captures its significance in the text of a treasured hymn, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth” (No. 482 in Hymnal: A Worship Book):
Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of ev’ry breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.
Like Julian, Janzen goes on to explore the image further, recognizing the startling similarity between Jesus’ body feeding us in communion rituals (“This is my body, which is given for you”) and a breast-feeding mother nourishing her child with milk:
Mothering Christ, you took my form,
offering me your food of light,
grain of life and grape of love,
your very body for my peace.
Julian of Norwich and Jean Janzen have good theological company in their insight regarding Jesus as the incarnation of God’s maternal love, birthing the new creation on the cross. Writing of “the milk of the Eucharist,” Clement of Alexandria and other early church fathers also employ feminine images of God.
For very familiar texts, such as Psalm 23 and John 3 or the Easter story in John 20, the images of poetry and song can enrich and inspire deeper reflection on the mystery of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ. What songs have expanded your understanding and experience of the miracle of God’s love?
Marlene Kropf is retired from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA. She is the author of Faith Travels: Trusting God in Life’s Transitions (MennoMedia, 2016). In retirement she leads retreats, offers spiritual direction and enjoys hosting guests with her husband, Stanley, at their home in Port Townsend, Wash.