Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

This past Sunday, I made it into church way early, because of my fear of being trapped in the mud on my gravel road (which the constant freezing and thawing here has turned the road to sludge). I figured if I left early enough and got stuck, at least I might get a pull and still make it to church on time.

As I sat there, it came to me that I really don’t listen much to the 23rd Psalm (one of the texts in the RCL for March 2), because I’m turned off by all the “kitchiness” associated with it. Let’s be real, you can find the 23rd Psalm on some piece of kitch almost anywhere—truck stops, dollar stores, estate sales, not to mention all the nauseating array of quasi-religious gifts you can get online or in a gift catalog. People who don’t know doodly-squat about the Bible or about their own spirituality can quote the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is this trite kitchy thing in my mind, which closes me off from the real power within it.

Anyway, in the still of an empty church, I decided to expand on the words in this psalm and make it my own as a little extra Lenten project. Here's what popped out of my brain:

V. 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The image of the sheep and the shepherd is an important one to me. The sheep graze freely—they are not tied up—yet the shepherd keeps the herd from straying into dangerous places or onto the property of others, when necessary. It’s not that some renegade sheep can’t go take off and get into trouble (that’s certainly possible, and I am a bit of a renegade sheep myself at times) but that obviously is not the shepherd’s intent. I can certainly “escape” the confines of the flock if I so choose. But if I do, the shepherd may well go looking for me!

I always also like to think the shepherd has dogs, like border collies or Great Pyrenees dogs. I’m sure the sheep find the dogs are an annoyance but they also keep the sheep safe. Sometimes I wonder if the annoyances in my life also help define my boundaries.

“I shall not want” is a reminder that God will provide what we need. Not everything we THINK we want, but what we need.

Vv. 2,3: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”

I probably understand the “green pastures” better than the “still waters.” I think about those times I have watched the stars at night, lying in a pasture. I think about how the view from my house “greens up” across the hayfields each spring. This verse speaks to those moments when I simply sit and enjoy God’s creation.

These moments are often moments of healing and restoration. They are moments when I can reflect on my day and make sense of it. Out of those moments come clarity and vision at times—the discernment of “paths”. These paths can lead us to a richer, fuller place where we can feel the connection with God inside of us.

V. 4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”

I have to confess I prefer the King James English language of this verse: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s just so more powerful than “the darkest valley”. For me, “the valley of the shadow of death” stirs up images of “the valley of dry bones” in Ezekiel—this tremendously desolate place earmarked for death. You walk through it very much alive, but with images of death everywhere you look and your nostrils filled with the stench of death. For me, I get this image from the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” when he is riding through that spot where the remains of Indians on their elevated funeral platforms are everywhere, rotting in the winter air, and he gets attacked. That is how I feel when I am in those places in my mind that are my valleys of the shadow of death—death all around and fear of being attacked—and it’s very hard to consider the possibility in those moments that “the Lord is with me.”

“Your rod and your staff” surely refers to the rod of Moses, that showed the people so many miracles. I’m assuming the staff is a shepherd’s crook.

When I read a lot of the “Moses stories” in the Bible, I get tickled because in some of the stories, God practically tells Moses, “Oh—and don’t forget your stick.” That’s probably good advice! “Don’t go walkin’ through the valley of the shadow of death without your Moses stick.”

When I have to cross through that desolate place, it’s not the death within it that scares me—it’s the SHADOW of it that is more fearful to me. It’s not what I see, but what I’m afraid will jump out at me and attack me. So in that sense, it’s very handy to remember you have your “Moses stick” that can find water, kill snakes, etc. I should remember that my “Moses stick” carries all of God’s might and power within it, and the use of it is totally at my disposal. I am protected even if I feel I’m not.

The staff is a different form of protection. That crook on the end of it, in a way, “extends God’s reach.” One of the advantages of being a “country kid” is that I have actually USED a “sheep stick” as we call them around here. When you can’t quite reach a sheep, or you want to get a sheep without startling it or the rest of the flock, you just reach out with that crook of your sheep stick and hook an upper rear leg. Then you can either use it to “reel ‘em in”, or to approach closer to the sheep without startling it. It’s a fairly gentle way to catch them, and gives them a little space, so you can approach them slowly.

I like to think that is how God “catches” me when I’m trying to bolt from a situation and separate myself in the pit of my own despair. He doesn’t rush up and gang-tackle me. He just catches my leg gently in the crook of his staff and lets me stand there, panting and tachycardic, letting me calm down before he eases up and pets me.

V. 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

I don’t really have “enemies” per se, in the personal adversarial sense, but I sure have a lot of psychological “enemies”--fear, anger, doubt, despair, uncertainty—and I do not relish the prospect of sitting down to the dinner table with them! There is something incredibly daunting about being told to sustain yourself—eat—right in plain view of all of them, when your stomach is doing flip-flops and your afraid you’re going to puke.

Yet God promises to anoint my head and seal me as one of his own, fill my glass to the brim, right in front of all my personal demons? Whoa! I always think of being “anointed” as being sealed in a bond that extraordinarily special. It’s like God is saying, “Hey, forget your personal demons over there—in my book, YOU ROCK! This is not about them, this is about you.”

That, I believe, is part of the incredibly binding attachment I have for the Eucharist—that no matter what “enemies” have crawled up out of the shadows, no matter what vandals happen to be at my mental gates at the moment every week, I can have that one moment that is 110% “Me ‘n God ‘n everyone else”, where I kneel at Christ’s table and be that uniquely special “interlocking puzzle piece” that holds the Eucharist together. The entire Body of Christ hangs on my presence in a way that is unique and entirely mine. What’s wild is each and every person participating in the Eucharist, if he or she so chooses, can have the exact same sense of uniqueness and value!

V. 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”

I think the psalmist is speaking to the notion that God’s assurance is binding and eternal. God doesn’t write our names in “the book” in pencil; they are written in blood—Christ’s blood and the blood of Moses and the prophets, and of all the saints and martyrs. Oh yeah—and in MY blood, too. When we seal ourselves to God in sacraments, whether it is baptism, confirmation, communion, whatever, it is the same as slitting my own finger and writing my name in “the book” in my own hand, with my own blood.

God has always operated under the concept of having an oath to us, but I also think there are moments in our lives where we recognize our half of the contract better than others. There are moments when we feel we are more “at home” in the house of the Lord than others. I think about how, over the years, I had to be led to understand that “the house of the Lord” was sitting at the dinner table, enjoying the communion of saints, rather than being taken to the woodshed. It took me a long time to learn to accept that a spot at the “table of the Lord” is part of my birthright and something where my presence is welcomed every time, rather than a position that had to be earned, or ran the risk of being kicked out of the room if I didn’t dot all my “I’s” or cross all my “T’s”. That is what “mercy” is all about. It has nothing to do with what we deserve but has everything to do with what God gives freely.

Summary:

Although this was not part of my original “Lenten game plan”, reconstructing this psalm just felt right. I have hidden from this psalm for many years because of my knee-jerk aversion to it’s “kitchiness” in popular culture. It was like “I just don’t care about this psalm because every Tom, Dick, and Harry quotes this one and doesn’t understand what the fuss is about it. They just parrot it, without hearing it, or acting upon it.” That became incredibly annoying to me.

But, I think this weekend I came to a spot in my own broken heart where I needed to listen to what it had to give to me. What I’ve come to realize is that although it’s an incredibly short psalm, it is one long in promise and hope. It carries a promise that I will not be abandoned, even when I close myself off from God. Those are promises that are so incredibly beyond the kitch.

2 comments:

A very nice post, Kirkepiscatoid. My parish is close to a cemetery, so I get a lot of funerals, and I hear the 23rd psalm a lot. Thank you for your reflection.


Oh, by the way, you is taggified.

Good post, Kirkepiscatoid. This is something I had to do as an adult with the Our Father -- having attended school in Canada in the '60's and '70's when we all had to say it together each morning. And the poem "In Flanders Fields", which we memorized every November from about the age of 9 on up. But I haven't done it with this Psalm.

I think it's a very bad thing to make children memorize, parrot, literature that's intended for adults. It becomes memory work, wallpaper, in our lives. Then it takes incredibly hard work as adults to grasp meaning in it.

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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