Praying Psalm 23 Over Our Children

I remember memorizing the 23rd Psalm.

I had a small hardback book, illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I remember staring at each page, diving into the world the paintings and words created together. One day, I found the words were in my head, memorized. Ever since, I have called on them when I need them.

The Psalm speaks with a voice of assurance, “God is these things. God gives me these things. God protects me in these ways.” 

The Psalm names these things as fact, yet we also recite these things as prayer—walking down a dark street, I whisper, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” When I’m in a difficult meeting, “Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies” (but only if it’s a really bad meeting). 

We pray the words of this Psalm not in saccharin gratitude but as a plea, that they may come to pass. We pray this Psalm as an intercessory prayer.

Intercessory prayer is prayer that we pray for ourselves, our loved ones, our enemies, and our world, asking God to intercede—to affect the situation in some way. When we pray the words of Psalm 23, we are praying that our community will become more and more like the picture the Psalm paints of God’s presence, provision, and love.

Last May, my congregation walked through the halls of our building at Chicago Community Mennonite Church, praying the words of this Psalm over our church and our children. We prayed these words as fact, but also as hope—declaring God’s presence and action, and also entreating God to keep our children safe, to provide us with all we need to see and act and protect our young ones.

We wrote the names of our children and hung them on the wall. We accepted anointing with fragrant oil. We poured water into a chalice until it overflowed with abundance. And all the while, we prayed the words of this Psalm.

We did this as part of reexamining our twelve-year-old Safety Covenant, updating and strengthening protections in our church. But we started not with the (very necessary) legalese but with prayer—with a Psalm of provision and protection.

Because when we pray we are not asking God to do something God hasn’t already thought of. We are aligning ourselves, body and soul, with the freedom and possibility that God offers. We are not changing God’s mind, but we are changing ourselves—our minds and congregational culture—to be in alignment with God’s longing for us to thrive.

And we remember that, although we may not see what we expect or hear the answers we want, God’s self, God’s incarnated presence in Jesus who laughed and cried as a human being, is right here among us.

Alison Brookins is a pastor and playwright who is still figuring out what the difference is. As pastor of Chicago Community Mennonite Church she strives to live into a theology of justice, joy, and humor, dreaming of holy spaces where people can tell the truth and engage as their full selves. She received her master of divinity from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in 2017.