The psalms are the language that God has given the church to pray, to sing, to speak his language back to him. Each Sunday, we have one psalm as a centerpiece of our worship time together at WIts' End. During this series of reflections on the Lectionary Psalms we will hear from people in our community as they think and pray through the upcoming psalm for that week.
This week's reflection is brought to us by Heather Barnes. Heather is a passionate and wise presence in our community and is currently finishing up her master's in both divinity and counseling. Her reflection is on the 23rd Psalm.
Then, in my early 20’s as memories and flashbacks began returning from a childhood I tried desperately to leave behind, the 23rd returned and would not let me go. I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to ‘take it in’ or ‘work it out.’ I’ve done everything from memorizing it in Hebrew (not advised if you like feeling successful) to deliberately weaving it into a rug, praying each verse like a mantra as I threw the shuttle back and forth for 8 hours to construct my 14 x 16 square of fabric. I know, I’m slow, but I’m beginning to realize I cannot plumb the depths of these 6 verses. My life and this psalm continue to reveal each other, mysterious and paradoxical. As I work through my story, facing more of the fear and shame that’s buried there, the psalm reveals herself a little more and a little more, a deep conversation I never fully grasp but find I long to stay in.
Recent events have shifted things enough in me that when I began with the first 3 verses this time, I was reminded of the games I would play in my mind as a child. The pastoral lilt of those verses feel just like the fantasies I needed. When all around and in my body, heart and spirit raged the violent opposite of comfort and kindness, I would retreat deep inside my mind to the place of fantasy where powerlessness meant green pastures, quiet waters, and a firm foothold. I was cared for and wanted, held and guided. And this dissociation saved me, so many times, from the inconceivable madness that toyed with my child’s vitality and openness to the world…and I can finally bless it’s ability to do that.
Yet now, there is also deep grief as I revisit those fantasies turned memories, because while my mind was ‘saved’, the rest of me, and especially my body, was living in the first line of verse 4. These beginning words of the verse are the only foreboding ones of the whole psalm but they are poignant and powerful, especially as the next line fully admits that evil is right there with you in the valley of death. As a child within this psalm’s rhythm, I attempted to skip over this verse, no wonder I thought it was kitschy as an adolescent and young adult.
I had left much of myself back in the valley and pretended it didn’t exist.
I refused to let these 5 or 6 words mess with my fantasy; the false hope I used to battle my despair.
But verses 4 through 6 are what make this psalm so much more than fantasy or a couch throw from the 80’s. Verse 4 whisks me out of sentimentality, grounds me solidly in my mortality and then launches forward into a determination of protection and blessing.
For the first time, I am beginning to read the subtle boldness of this psalm, its masterful defiance. Verse 5 captures this well for me. It takes time and space to lay a feast…and it is laid in the presence of my enemies. Who else but El Shaddai would dare to lay a feast for his little girl in the midst of a battlefield, my terror and shame? Luxurious hospitality is not snuck to me under the table or the back alley as I eat and run. If you were ever bullied, humiliated or mocked at school, you may feel the full impact of this statement. I imagine the audacity it would have taken for me to sit down in front of Crystal (one of my childhood bullies; the popular girl w/ the latest shoes) and just eat my homemade lunch unperturbed. I spent most of my time finding a place far enough out of her eyesight so as not to ‘catch it’ for merely existing.
This quiet defiance continues all the way to the end as the psalmist makes bigger and bigger claims that she is cared for, wanted, held and guided. She uses words like ‘surely’ and ‘all the days of my life’ and ‘forever’ with all the boldness it takes to stand and stare darkness and death in the face and not back down.
I call the psalmist ‘her’ because this kind of creative determination to stand against evil, is what I have most often experienced and witnessed in feminine energy. Women from all over the world, whether it’s African American women fighting for their sons and daughters against white privilege in the lynching era, immigrant mothers working 3 jobs because the USA will not recognize their medical degree, or 800 women silently humming and davening to the Kol Nidrey, the song of forgiveness, crowded into an Auschwitz barracks. I know that men have this capacity as well; tragically, the men in my early life simply did not. I am oh so grateful, that that story is changing and I am being brought into a new land where this creative defiance is more present in us all.
This quietly brave little psalm deserves a bold and defiant place in our experience of scripture–and of our selves–just as much as it deserves a spot on a cross-stitch pillow. What will you let this psalm reveal to you? I promise, whatever comes out of your conversation with her over the years, it will not be boring and kitschy, unless kitschy is what we bring of ourselves to her.
Bless you in your bold defiance as you settle into your forever place in the House of God.