On Monday afternoon I was sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table, reading all the news I could find about the Boston marathon bombings. I was shocked, horrified, trying to figure out what had happened. Every new detail coming in was devastating beyond measure.
Then Matthew, who lately has been really into his Tomie dePaola picture book of Bible stories, came over and sat down in the chair next to me. I angled the computer screen so he couldn’t see.
The picture book was open to Psalm 23, which had a colorful illustration of a lamb and a shepherd. “Mom, there are songs in here!” he said. And he proceeded to read the psalm aloud to me.
At first I was distracted, my mind still on the horrifying news from Boston. But as he read, haltingly but earnestly, I had that moment of awareness sinking into my bones. Stop looking at the screen. Pay attention to your boy. This is what you need to hear. I listened to him read. I helped him decipher the words “presence” and “anoint.” And I wanted to cry, for a moment, at the holiness of it all.
About seven years ago that I realized something about Psalm 23. This realization came to me in my living room, on a Tuesday night, as I worried about my upcoming thirteen-week-ultrasound. I could not find much peace in my mind that night; it was my third pregnancy, and the only one that had progressed that far. (The first one was an ectopic, a horrible experience; the second was a miscarriage, which was not caught until we went in for an ultrasound.) All I wanted was to lie on that table in the doctor’s office and look at that grainy screen and see life, not death. All I had known so far, though, was death.
So I sat in the armchair and listened to this musical setting of Psalm 23 and breathed deeply. I prayed. I tried hard to find faith. And something leaped out at me, something in those words I have heard so many many times.
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.
It struck me that this psalm doesn’t say “your rod and your staff protect me.” They say “they comfort me.” Is this a mistake? I wondered. Maybe something got changed in translation.
Or could it be that this psalm, which I’d always thought was just about protection, was also about being comforted?
I would like to think that belief in God is a magic talisman that keeps us safe from harm. I’d like to believe it, but obviously, it doesn’t work that way. One only needs to look at the lives lost in Boston or the awful massacre at Newtown to realize that. I find myself haunted by these tragedies. The thought of Newtown can still bring me to tears. The face of the sweet eight-year-old boy who died Monday in Boston does, too.
After Newtown, I remember praying almost incessantly for the families of the victims. I just kept thinking, Please, God help them to find some comfort somewhere, anywhere. That felt like a long shot. I don’t know how any parent finds comfort after the loss of a child, at all. It felt like asking for the moon. But perhaps those prayers did help, in some way. Perhaps the collective outpouring of support and love and grief and teddy bears and flowers and candles and prayers and advocacy for change does offer some sliver of comfort in a time like this. And maybe, in these moments when people around us have lost something precious, we are like the shepherd with the rod and the staff. “Christ has no hands on earth but yours,” is a saying we hear often in church. During a time like this, we’re all called to be the one who comforts …whatever that comfort looks like.
You’ve probably already guessed this, but that very scary ultrasound seven years ago showed a beautifully healthy baby. He’s now a kindergartener, and he can sit at the table next to me and read to me about how the Lord is his shepherd. Every day I am so deeply grateful for him, and for his little brother.
But those first two pregnancy losses taught me so much. I learned that there is so much power in the love and prayer and hugs of those who care. So many people comforted me during those first two losses. I remember it all, and I am still grateful. And though it was painful to lose a child at ten weeks’ gestation, it must be an exponentially worse pain when you lose a child who is six, or eight, or twenty-nine.
So I pray for solace for these families. I pray that they will find any little speck of it that they can. May they find some peace in the fact that countless moms and dads and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers are holding them in their hearts, willing them comfort.