Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

A word is dead when it is said
Some say
I say it just begins to live
That day

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

Hear an old favorite psalm with just a few fresh words that change its complexion. 

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

You lead me down paths of righteousness,
for that is your way.

And when I walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me,
You spread a table before me
in face of my greatest fears.

You drench my head with oil;
my cup overflows the brim.

Surely goodness and kindness
will accompany me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy
for the length of my days.


The psalms are prayers—startlingly honest emotionally. No feelings are absent from these prayers, even violent ones, the ones that let us know where and how we are hurt and want to hurt back. Yet psalms are also poetry and we chant them. Pamela Greenberg has translated the psalms in creative new ways without allowing them to lose their poetic power and spirituality.

I love familiar words that lull me; I love fresh words to awaken me even more. These latter force me to pay attention, to tune in. That’s how I grow. Even in discomfort, there is soul. Besides, who says scripture must always comfort or edify?  Poetic words soothe and disturb in equal proportion, and psalms are poetry.
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The Rev. Dr. Judith Fentress Williams, Old Testament professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the Massachusetts clergy recently about the Old Testament—its value and its power, its connectedness with the fullness of earthly expression and experience. “Don’t be afraid of it. Preach from it,” she said.
I’ve always loved Old Testament. It was required in seminary, and the very first course I took at Yale Divinity School. The instructor began in solemn tones; “In the beginning, God potentiated……….. 

I wrote that down and tried to still my heart. Potentiated felt more powerful than created. It signaled the spiritual power behind/within everything that lives breathes and has being. It spoke to me of God’s agenda: ongoing potentiation. Whenever you are potentiated, by anything at all, you awaken. You feel suddenly lifted….in a word, resurrected. It’s a scary and a wonderful feeling.

The Spirit of God potentiates Life in the beginning, at the end, and in every second in between.
                                               *  * *  *


What do you notice in Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 23 that is different from what your ears are used to hearing? Say it aloud.

This translation is familiar —and brand new. The first thing I notice is: “God is my shepherd”— not the Lord. God is a name not a noun. God is free of royal role and all its accoutrements.

Then I notice is “there is nothing I lack.” It sounds different from: “I shall not want” or “I shall not be in want.”  “Nothing I lack” means I have everything I need. Do I? Even as I age and feel lacking in many joints, every sag of skin, every short-term memory lapse: what did I have for breakfast today? But with God I lack nothing.

This 23rd psalm hums along, and all of a sudden your mind is jarred. You expect: “You lead me in green pastures” And you hear: “You lead me in lush meadows.” The words mean the same and yet have different tonality, sensuality. Lush!

“You spread a table before me in the face of my (fill in the blank)—enemies, we all say. But we hear: “my greatest fears.”  What is potentiated by these new words? Are your fears like enemies? Do they not make you skulk, cringe, cower and hide? Are they at war with your aspirations? Do they help you sin against goodness? Is this translation as accurate as the idea of having real enfleshed enemies out to get you?

And “I will dwell in the house of (fill in the blank)…the Lord, we shout?  We hear instead: “the Holy.” Lord implies ruler; Holy suggests a quality of Being, a Presence within and without. This Holy Presence  “drenches” our heads with the oil of healing. “Drench” is more literal and stronger than “anoints.”

What do these new words potentiate in you? Maybe contempt or distaste? For me, it’s the knowledge that great words I love do not die when they are altered, but they do acquire a different flavor; they inspire me to think—again and again. As the poet says, these newly spoken and heard words live.

What am I saying? What am I thinking? What am I meaning? What words do I use?

Lastly, the image of the shepherd is softened by these new words. Real shepherds are rough and tumble, not so gentle with sheep. The divine shepherd accompanies yet neither drives not coddles. This shepherd is just be a little more, well, divine.