Act out and explore Psalm 23

Whole schoolRE, Collective Worship, Classroom Reflection
This activity might provide a useful addition to school-based activities relating to World War I, by taking a 'military-style' kinaesthetic approach to learning Psalm 23.

Introduction

'The Lord is my Shepherd' is probably one of the most famous passages of Christian and Jewish scripture in the world. Research for the anniversary of World War I has revealed a rather striking fact - namely, that many soldiers in their diaries and letters home said they valued the words of the Bible. One officer thought David's psalms were especially appropriate:

In this strange world, the psalms can be a very present help in time of trouble; particularly as they were written by a fighter who knew what it was to be scared stiff. It's really amusing to find how some of them literally apply to life in the Ypres salient in 1917:

'I stick fast in the mire where no ground is' (Psalm 69)
'The earth trembled and quaked: the very foundation of the hills shook' (Psalm 18)
'The clouds poured out water, the air thundered: and the arrows went abroad' (Psalm 77)
'Thou shalt not be afraid of any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day...' (Psalm 91)

but David was obviously whistling to keep his courage up. Well, there are moments when it's something to be able to whistle at all. But this is surely to regard God as your lucky mascot: and that won't do nowadays.

Second Lieutenant Huntley Gordon, Royal Field Artillery

For additional ideas about turning the psalm into a vocal performance, see Unit 1 of this free download from Barnabas in Schools - Opening up the King James Bible.

Preparation

Explain to the pupils that many of the soldiers who fought in World War I were Christians, and used to say certain prayers and poems by heart. This could be a great comfort when life on the battlefield was frightening, difficult or disturbing. One of the most famous poems they used was Psalm 23 written by David - a shepherd boy who later became a king 3000 years ago. (The film Warhorse references the poem as a British soldier steps out into No Man's Land to rescue the horse.)

Soldiers are used to working as a team. We're going to work as a team to learn Psalm 23 and act it out. Just as soldiers use certain gestures to remind themselves who they are and what they are fighting for (marching, standing to attention, saluting superior officers), we're going to use certain gestures to help us understand and learn one of the most famous poems in the world. (There are many Bible translations available, so pick one that suits the average reading age of your class.)

Development

Ask the pupils to stand in several lines, spaced out, like a squad of soldiers on parade. Teach the poem in short sections, line by line, pausing to revise the words and gestures learned so far, adapting it to suit the needs and abilities of your class. You might want to add a drumbeat to help marching in step.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need...
Mime - putting on uniform, pack (a rucksack), steel helmet and rifle either over the shoulder or at 'present arms'; march on the spot for a few steps, looking tired; halt!

He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters...
Rest - sitting down, relaxing; possibly splash some water on your face, wiping it

He restores my soul...
Stay in position - sigh with a loud 'Ahhhh' as if you're enjoying the rest

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his namesake...
Stand up again, marching on the spot

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...
Still marching, but more quietly and slowly, looking afraid and terrorised on every side

I fear no evil; Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me...
Halt; get your courage back; salute your superior officer!

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies...
Put the rifle down, remove the helmet; mime touching the top of a table covered in good food and drink, looking surprised, wondering where this has come from; taste a bit... it's good!

You anoint my head with oil and my cup overflows...
Bow head, raise a cup to be filled, looking pleased

Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life...
Nod to the people on your left and right, then carry on marching together, no rifle

And I shall live in the House of the Lord forever...
Look around you; take off your pack, then uniform jacket; nod to your friends, looking pleased that it's all over, and sit down

Afterwards, consider posing some of the following questions:

  • Did you enjoy acting out the gestures for our version of the poem? Why? (Did you secretly have a better idea for acting out a line than the one we used? What was it?) How might adding a movement to words help people to learn and understand them? Can you think of any other situations in which people use actions or gestures to emphasise what they say? (Careful now...! For example, handshakes for greetings, waving to say goodbye for partings.)
  • Can you think of any ways in which members of other world faiths use gestures to symbolise what they mean when they pray or worship? (For example, the Hindu practice of Puja, the Shinto practice of clapping hands to awaken the spirits before praying at a family shrine.)
  • Are there things that you have learned off by heart? Why? Why might learning a poem off by heart be an important part of life for many Christians?
  • What do you think are the key messages of this poem? If you wanted to illustrate them as symbols or cartoons, what would they be?
  • In the context of World War I, how might a poem like this help mentally to prepare someone who was about to do something really dangerous? Which lines might be the most significant for that person?
  • Why, when we came to the 'table', did we put down our weapons?
  • Does saying a poem like this mean that it is then alright to go off and fight?
  • If evil has to be resisted in the cause of protecting other people, does a poem like this encourage someone to fight 'better' for a 'just cause'?
  • This psalm is often used at the graveside as part of the funeral service for soldiers. Why do you think that might be? Are there any lines in the poem that might be a comfort for those left behind, who have lost a friend?
  • Many Christian hymns and songs are based on this poem. (Can you think of any?) Of all David's poems, why might this one be the most famous, 3000 years later? What does it 'do' for people?

Acknowledgements

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash