Thursday, May 8, 2014

Wanting (Psalm 23)

The Lord is my shepherd;
   I shall not want.
God maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
   God leadeth me besides the still waters.
God restoreth my soul:
   God leadeth me in paths of righteousness for God's name sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
   for you art with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
   You anoint 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.
Psalm 23, KJV adapted


When we encounter Psalm 23 in its King James translation, we encounter what the writer and atheist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. described as the most perfect poem in all the English language. Of course for people of faith we encounter the 23rd Psalm as an evocation of trust in God's abiding care. As sheep trust a shepherd, as soldiers trust their commander so we can trust God to keep us safe, to set a feast for us in the midst of our enemies. 

Rob Voyle of the Clergy Leadership Institute is fond of reminding me that "Trust is the ability to make vulnerable what you value to the actions of others." The sheep make vulnerable to the actions of the shepherd their very wellbeing. Likewise the soldiers place their lives within the commander's hands. Being a person of faith entails, in part, making vulnerable what we value to the actions of God. 

The psalm celebrates God's action as trustworthy. It affirms that all aspects of our lives - the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly - can be entrusted to the action of God to redeem, to honor, to restore. The bedrock of faith is this relationship between Creator and creature, between God and us. The psalmist  reminds us that simple trust - child like trust as Jesus puts it - is at the heart of our relationship with the Sacred. 

Unfortunately for sexually and gender diverse people, we have experienced an almost opposite promise than that of the 23rd Psalm. We encounter in some of those who represent God a flow of hate and contempt that we would never open ourselves up to and be vulnerable to. We would never hand over the things we value to those who promise to stomp them into the ground. We do not trust such people. We do not trust the god whose these people represent. So we encounter this psalm with disdain, for Psalm 23 does not speak to our experience. We have been left wanting.

We could leave the psalm here, dangling in the midst of our mistrust of God. We could, if it wasn't for the phrase "green pastures." This is a phrase that echoes and mirrors the same wording which appears in the opening creation narratives of Genesis. 

Time out for bible-nerds-stuff. We seek to date various passages of the bible in order to better understand the circumstances which give rise to the statements and stories. The Psalms are notoriously hard to date as they typically carry little or no historical narrative. A few do, most do not. We can though, date the opening chapters of Genesis. They date to the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites. So we know that a phrase echoed in Psalm 23 did not exist as a written phrase until Israel, as a community of faith, was faced with the extinction of their relationship with God. 

We cannot throw this psalm back in the author's face, for the author has also lived through the underbelly of faith. From the author rose a cry of trust when all the evidence was saying, "Your God has abandoned you." This is not the voice of a simplistic faith, but rather the earnest statement of one who has been through the grist mill of life and came out saying, "Even in the valley of the shadow of death, God is with me."

Our story is there in the second half of the psalm. While it is the more formal and distant "Lord" who shepherds, it is the more intimate and close "You" who prepares a table for me. Where? In the midst of my enemies. Note the painting by Davis where in the midst of a mountain of skulls and in front of an army Divine Presence is still found. This might be what we queer people need to hear from our ancient ancestor in the faith: trust in God does not take us out of life's vagaries, but rather trust in God helps us to persist in the midsts of life's vagaries.

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