Sunday, May 1, 2016

2016.05.01 Psalm 23—Song of Presence

There is something eternal about Psalm 23. Not only is it traditional and the choice for young children to memorize, but it is used most always at funerals or at bedsides—times of dire need, times when the temptation to despair is close at hand.

The psalm is apolitical. Of all the omni- ideas about the nature of God, this song offers only one: omnipresence. There is no circumstance in and around which God is not fully present—as simple comfort. Comfort is not impotent. It imparts love, raises up the spirit. My son John recalls a time when his spirit was beaten by serious illness and the psalm was prayer over him. He describes an inner sense of decisiveness: he wanted to live not die.

Psalm 23 trusts this kind of unbearably unbelievable, insanely bold, irrational assurance, reinforcing it with graphic biblical and sacramental practices, familiar to religious communities, both then and now.

I don’t know any practicing shepherds, but I understand pastoral spirituality as the gift of empathy and accompaniment, even more than guidance. I cringe when I hear clergy speaking about their congregations as “flock.” This does not bespeak mutual ministry. I do, however, know the experiences of lush meadows and calm waters, wise leadership, the shadow of death, and sacramental grace.

The psalms are part of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are prayers arising from common human experience. In addition to providing a bridge between Judaism and Christianity, most psalms transcend religious particularities. They are songs arising from deep within the human breast, which is why they are a liturgical staple, chanted in worship.

Some years ago, I heard Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen To Good People, speak about this psalm. He emphasized the grammatical shift in the psalm/prayer. It occurs just as the pray-er enters the “valley of the shadow of death.” The pronouns shift from "he" to "thou" from God's serving the supplicant in soothing ways to God's becoming suddenly close and familiar through the use of the second person singular familiar address: you or thou.

Kushner’s son suffered from progeria—accelerated aging, even as a child. Not only is it fatal but it is painfully disfiguring and pathologically counter-cultural. With such a diagnosis, one needs a solid theology of Presence. Kushner wrote about his decision to, well, disempower God—a wise and earthed theology. Most of us maintain a very controlling, intervening idea of God, which escalates  when we are in trouble. We want God to make it all better, to intervene in miraculous ways. This seldom happens. What consistently does happen, however, is what the 23rd psalm suggests with its grammatical shift: increased intimacy.

In newer English translations, we lost this awakening sense of divine movement by changing all the pronouns from “he” to “you” immediately after the first couplet. Further, we eliminated all thee/thou/thy language. In most cases I’d favor that, but here the old translation and the old pronoun forms assist the theology: Thou art with me. Lovely, no? It makes me cry.

The Lord is my shepherd;
   I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
   he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul;
   he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
   for thou art with me;
   thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
   thou anoinest my head with oil;
   my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.