In my opinion, David really nailed it when he wrote Psalm 23. It's pretty much the best selling poem/lyric/song of all time, and no matter where you're at in life or what kind of road you are walking, it hits you between the eyes and drizzles down over your soul like warm oil spreading right to your toes. If the Psalm is true, it's the best truth any of us can hope to live with and is one we should hang our lives on every day.
Over the past several years, I've continually come back to Psalm 23 as an exercise, walking through it with a series of photographs or transforming it into a modern day poem. Often, it is just a prayer that leads me through my thoughts of lament and hope before God for myself or my family or someone I know. This week, at the lake with my family, the words were there again.
You lead me beside still waters, You restore my soul.
I would look out at the surface of the lake, reflecting deep blues and greens as the sun set behind the line of hardwoods and pine, and marvel at how the peace and calm of the beauty in the world around us can be like balm to our spiritual selves, so that it's not cliche to use physical terms to talk about inward realities. They are somehow intricately connected. You were right, David. God leads us to the still waters, and somehow restores our soul.
But that's not to say that most of life won't challenge the living daylights out of Psalm 23. All I have to do is think of my family reunion, our job situation, or my friend who lost her husband and the world seems nothing short of entirely messed up.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
Even as the Spirit and the still waters do their restoring, there is tumult underneath the surface. Things are not as they should be. There are broken relationships, misunderstandings, pride soaring high on assured wings. It's family and work and church and life after all. A pile of people thrown together with a lifetime of issues to work through.
This summer, one of the books I read was The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. As I read his brief overview of the history of the church as it related to culture, Dreher mentioned something about the medieval period that gave me pause. So often when we think of the medieval period, especially in regards to the church, we think repressed, dark and unhealthy, people weighed down by a clergy that had grown distant from any spiritual life and Lord they were supposedly serving. And these are probably accurate critiques. But Dreher also talks about the overarching view of God during that time that saw Him as immanent in a way that many people in our modern day thinking are alien to. He quotes the philosopher Charles Taylor, who described the Middle Ages as an "enchanted" world, where medievals experienced the divine as far more present in their daily lives. Dreher writes that "in the mind of medieval Christendom, the spirit world and the material world penetrated each other. The division between them was thin and porous. Another way to put it is that the medievals experienced everything in the world sacramentally."
I think today most of us today would write that kind of theology off as superstitious. It's Psalm 23 on overdrive. We think they were probably too mystical, not scientific enough, and just a lot more ignorant than we are today. But as I thought about my own view of God's immanence-- his sacramental presence in the world, and of how I can so easily feel discouraged when things go wrong, how quickly my thoughts go to "where is God in this?" it made me start wondering, how strong is my own sense of living before a God who is both transcendent and immanent. Maybe I could use a heavy dose of sacramentalism in my view of the world.
Another article I read this summer challenged me a little further down this path. Christina Cleveland is a professor at Duke Divinity School. I first heard her on a podcast talking about reconciliation and forgiveness (after the 2016 election). She was so humble, so different in her approach, so uniquely liturgical and tied to historical practices of the church as she talked about confession and forgiveness. I was immediately drawn in and now I read her blog and articles whenever they come up. She's a bit more edgy theologically than I am, so her thoughts are challenging to my paradigms. But I think that's what a good discussion ought to be like, so I put up with it.
In this particular article, Dr. Cleveland wrote about the mysterious way Christians in America from a predominantly privileged class (she cites an artist from New Orleans) seemed to be reacting to the Trump election with a decidedly more hopeless and despairing outlook than Christians from traditionally oppressed classes. Her observations led her to explore the idea that throughout history, oppressed people have learned and displayed a more robust theology that withstands a strong view of an immanent and loving God in spite of suffering and hard realities. In contrast, privileged people are often immune to many of these hardships and yet when life does get difficult, their theology goes south with their circumstances.
This gave me pause again. It's probably more true than I care to admit... that my place as a person of privilege, as a member of the privileged class, can and does make me tend to view God as mostly transcendent over, instead of sacramentally present in the broken world. I'm right there with the New Orlean's artist, wondering where God is in all this when anything goes wrong. And things go wrong... a lot.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His Name's sake.
Back to Psalm 23, gazing at the waters of the lake and thinking how still they are, then within minutes seeing the storm roll in, and the mirror-like serenity turn choppy as the wind sails over the surface. I don't panic at actual storms, but there is a sort of discomfort that starts to rise up inside as things blow and creak, and the rain pelts the windows while lightning slashes through the distant horizon. It's foreboding and scary on some natural level.
I may not panic, but I do sense that same rising feeling as life gets dark. And in that rising I think I have something to learn from my medieval and oppressed friends... something of seeing God as more present, more active, more hopeful than I often do. That far from being cliche, these words from David are the way to live humbly but boldly for the Kingdom...
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.