Texts: two paraphrases of the 23rd Psalm by James Taylor
On Mother’s Day we focus on family. We give thanks for our mothers and remember with gratitude the ancestors who made our lives possible. But today is a Mother’s Day like no other. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cannot physically gather with their mothers or other family members.
On the other hand, Alberta has begun lifting regulations around physical distance; and as it does so, we may feel torn between anticipation of being with family and friends again and fear that the coronavirus will resume its spread.
I pray that lifting social isolation will be accompanied by measures like continued hand washing, the use of masks, quarantine for those who develop symptoms, and the tracing and isolation of contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19. May this allow social and economic life to resume without a renewed spread of illness.
A community of faith like Mill Woods United is a kind of chosen family; and as in our families of origin, we have been dealing with physical distancing for several months. While I am heartened by the electronic contacts between our members and my own conversations with you, this period without in-person gatherings has been difficult for a lot of us.
As an example, on every Mother’s Day weekend since 2013, Mill Woods United has hosted a Spring Craft Market. But because of the pandemic, there was no craft fair yesterday. Not only does this mean a loss of revenue for the church. It means we didn’t get to enjoy this annual tradition.
Many traditions will be broken this weekend, which might engender sadness even as we continue to be grateful for what our mothers — and our families of faith — have given to us.
I chose to focus on the 23rd Psalm this Mother’s Day for two reasons. First, it was the assigned Psalm for last Sunday. And while I didn’t choose to read it last week, when I was considering it, I looked up James Taylor’s versions of this Psalm from his 1994 book “Everyday Psalms: The Power of the Psalms in Language and Images for Today.” Taylor provides three paraphrases of it.
The first one leapt off the page for me because it changes the metaphor of the original — of God as a shepherd — into God as a mother-figure. What better day to hear this re-imagining of this beloved Psalm than on Mother’s Day, I thought?
The metaphor of God as a shepherd can challenge the translator. The Bible has been translated into every language on earth; and some of them don’t have a word for sheep. One such set of languages is found on the Asian island of Borneo. When European missionaries first reached this Island, its various peoples had no domesticated animals whatsoever.
The lack of sheep on Borneo meant that translating the Hebrew and Greek words for lamb, sheep, and shepherd, which occur many times in the books of the Bible, posed a choice. The translators could teach the people of Borneo about sheep, or they could use different metaphors. At the time of translation, colonists had introduced domesticated pigs into Borneo. So, some translators substituted the Bornean words for piglet for lamb and pig for sheep. John’s metaphor for Jesus that is usually translated into English as “the Lamb of God” became “the Piglet of God,” and the translation of the 23rd Psalm phrase usually rendered into English as “The Lord is my shepherd” became “The Lord is my swine-herder!”
I don’t completely love Taylor’s use of the metaphor of mother in place of shepherd, which is why I also had Barb read the second of his three paraphrases of Psalm 23. In this one, he imagines the Psalm as though it were written by an old person looking back on a long and fulfilling life.
The second reason why I chose Psalm 23 for Mother’s Day is a memory from 2002. In that year, my family gathered with my parents for their 50th wedding anniversary; and at the celebration, my eldest niece and nephew sang a musical setting of the 23rd Psalm. It was a lovely moment, and remembering it brings back a flood of other memories about my mother.
Not all memories about our mothers will be cherished ones, of course. Everyone has an ambivalent relationship with their parents. Like all of us, parents struggle with the twin challenges of the human condition and of the conflicted society in which we are fated to live. Because of these challenges, no family is without at least some dysfunction and no parent can be considered “perfect.”
Nevertheless, we celebrate Mother’s Day every year, even in the unusual conditions of spring 2020.
As we honour mothers today, my prayer is that it will be with compassion so that any sadness we feel in this year’s challenging circumstances, and any afflictive emotions we feel because of the inevitable wounds of family life, will be accompanied by endless gratitude for the life and love given to us by our mothers, by our fathers, and by all of our blessed ancestors.
May it be so. Amen.