God is my shepherd: I have everything I need.
The Most High makes me lie down in green pastures;
leads me to water in places of repose;
God refreshes my soul.
God guides me on the paths of righteousness,
as befits the Holy name.
Though I walk through the valley of deepest gloom,
or stand in the shadow of death,
I am not afraid, for Thou art with me.
Thy rod, Thy staff — they comfort me. - Psalm 23:1-4; adapted from multiple sources
A woman I knew, a Quaker, would occasionally use the second person in its archaic form. I didn't recognize it, at first: her diction just sounded old-fashioned, out of step. "Thank thee," she would say. "Wilt thou come to dinner?" Later I understood. For her, "thee" and "thou" carried a different meaning than "you": she was signaling familiarity, warmth, pleasure in the company of her guests.
These days, "thee" and "thou" don't get much play. But when I meet with families preparing for memorial services, the most frequent request is to hear or say the 23rd Psalm — in the King James version.
Now, I'm devoted inclusive language — that is, language that bows to the expansiveness and mystery of God; language that subverts cultural hierarchies in order to honor God's creation. But too many inclusive versions of Psalm 23 throw out the beautiful shift from third to second person — from "you" to "thou," from awed respect to affectionate closeness. The speaker of the psalm actually changes, from verse 3 to verse 4, and her intimacy with God grows. When it comes to foreboding valleys, it is good to have a powerful protector. It is better still if that One is as close to you as your trembling heart.
God of pleasant fields and frightening valleys, may my language and my longing lead me always deeper into your life-giving embrace. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.