January 9, 2011

Psalm 23

“Psalms of Trust: Learning to Live Without Fear”

I watched a transformation taking place on Thursday evening. If anyone else watched the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” this week, then you also got to witness the transformation from fear to trust, from despair to hope, and from giving up to determination to work for the good of those who are suffering. Of course, the show is only fiction. But it’s fiction that in many ways mirrors reality, and that reflects on the struggles of real people in the world today.

First of all, you need to know the background. Last season, the Seattle hospital and its employees experienced a traumatic event. A grief-stricken man entered the hospital with a gun and terrorized the staff and patients, injuring many people and killing several as well. And many of the characters of the show have not been the same since. One surgeon has been too scared to operate. Another continues to struggle with feelings of powerlessness when she is unable to save a patient. Still others are crippled by fear and the memories of that awful day.

Not everyone has experienced that kind of trauma in life, but most of us have seen it on TV. And not just on dramatic television programs… We’ve seen it on the news… from shootings in schools and churches to bombings in the streets or on the subways, from beheadings on buses to planes crashing into towers.

I had finished writing my sermon yesterday before I turned on the evening news to hear about another example of a horrific shooting, this time in Tuscon, Arizona. And so there is no doubt… These are things that really do happen in our world and even in our country. And even if we know that the chances of our being directly affected by something like this is very low, we are affected because we now live in a culture that is deeply shaped by fear. (Perhaps not as strongly as in the US, but fear still has a huge impact on us.)

Beth LaNeel Tanner, in her book “The Psalms For Today” wonders when the US became a society based on fear. She writes, “It is easy to answer that 9/11 changed everything,” but she argues that we were being sold fear long before that fateful day.

“What happened to Roosevelt’s brave answer in his 1933 Inaugural Address, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’? We have become a society where fear sells everything from the latest weather forecast to new cars. Much of our economy is fuelled by tapping into our fears. If we own the right things, we can protect ourselves and our family from harm and that will make us happy.”

Though it may seem like there has been an increase in terrorism and fear over the last 10-20 years, Tanner points out that people have struggled with fear throughout history. She explains that “in ancient days the people not only believed in other gods, they also believed in magic and the ability of enemies to curse an opponent. This practice seems odd and superstitious to a modern reader. [But] to the ancient, an amulet was a powerful talisman against evil and the curse of another. A selected psalm or verses from several psalms were written and placed inside an amulet. They believed these amulets protected and surrounded the person with a constant prayer and acted as a shield from the evil in the world.”

Tanner does not suggest that we should write out psalms and wear them around our necks, but she suggests that reading, and reflecting on, and praying the psalms of trust may actually act as mental amulets against the negative messages of the society in which we live.

The ancient times, when these psalms were written and used, were also fearful times. Life was not easy. Starvation was a constant threat. Wars ravaged the nations again and again. Women and children had a very high mortality rate, and forty was considered old. The people who prayed these prayers may not have had twenty-four-hour news channels, but they knew life could be scary and violent.

In response to all the fears that surrounded them, they prayed and sang psalms that centre on trusting God instead of giving in to fear and violence. Psalm 27 is one of those powerful psalms. Listen to a few verses from Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –

my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear,
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

More than any other psalm, and perhaps more than any other text from the scriptures, Psalm 23 has provided comfort and encouragement, help and hope for people of faith throughout the centuries. It’s not that the psalm magically erases our problems or frees us from the difficulties of life. It can’t do that. But it proclaims God’s loving, caring, guiding presence through all the circumstances of our lives, and it gives us words in which to express our hope and trust in that God.

If you read Psalm 23 carefully, you will notice three distinct scenes in the psalm. First, there is a field or meadow. It’s an open space with green grass and a quiet lake nearby. The shepherd God has led you to this place, and provided for your basic needs. Life is good. You can imagine the warmth of the sun, the taste of the cool, clean water, and the rest on the luscious grass.

But just as our lives are rarely all sunshine and roses, in the next scene of the psalm you find yourself in a dark valley. I imagine it something like that dark forest in the movie “The Princess Bride.” There are dangers lurking around every corner ready to attack. It’s frightening and awful, and you emerge from it with scars. But there’s no avoiding it either, if you’re going to get home.

But the point of the psalm is that the shepherd God is right there with you. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

I said that I witnessed a transformation on the show “Grey’s Anatomy” this week. When their hospital was attacked by a crazed man with a gun, many of the characters were paralyzed by fear. In the midst of that traumatic event, they felt alone, powerless, and vulnerable. It was like they were crawling through Death Valley, each one struggling alone through the darkness.

But on this week’s episode (months later in the lives of the characters) another trauma takes place. A young man rages around his Seattle college campus shooting students until he is taken down by a police officer. Once again, the hospital staff are overwhelmed by victims of a horrific attack, and many of them seem on the edge of breaking down from the pressure and the memory of the earlier attack.

Of course, no one stops to read Psalm 23, and there’s only a passing reference to the presence of God. But there is a moment, in the middle of the crisis and chaos of tending to so many severely injured students. A few medical staff and a few family members of the patients stand on a walkway at the hospital and look out the large windows at a crowd gathered outside. The people are gathered in a massive vigil of support. They have candles in their hands, and they are singing the college’s song.

And the point is that the staff and families are not alone. They are not abandoned. They may be walking through Death Valley, but there is a rod and a staff to comfort them, and they will make it through. And they do.

The final scene in the psalm is in a house, in a dining room. I see it in my mind’s eye kind of like the dining room in the Harry Potter movies… with long wooden tables overflowing with platters of delicious food and jugs of wonderful drinks.

The host at the meal is that same shepherd God, and the Lord has given you a special invitation to the feast. Maybe it’s the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the next life. Maybe it’s a hope and a promise for the future when God’s kingdom is finally complete. But I can’t help but notice the final line of the psalm: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”

I don’t think it’s an experience reserved for heaven. And it’s certainly not a special privilege meant for only a few special people. Even your enemies are there with you at the table, because God has the power to bring us all together.

Psalm 23 and the other Psalms of Trust do not carry the magical power to remove us from danger or protect us against negative events. But they can help us to know and to trust and to believe that God is with us through all the circumstances of our lives.

We can give thanks to God for the green pastures and still waters. We can lean on God through the dark and dangerous valleys. And we can respond to the invitation of God to come to the table… to worship, to be fed, and to be a part of the family of God.

As we reflect on the Psalms of Trust this week, may the faith, hope, and trust of the psalmist seep into our hearts and souls. Amen.