“Psalm 23 & Me,” a video interpretation by Samantha Beach for Austin New Church, music by Caleb Murphy, on YouTube at https://youtu.be/doh379tdawQ
I am tempted to let our psalm and the video interpretation of it we have just watched speak for themselves.
And yet, as with anything written or spoken or acted out, our reactions to what we have just seen probably run the gamut. And yet, in these days when so much of our lives is about distancing and how inconvenient and difficult and isolating it is, there is at least one thing most of us have distanced ourselves from for a long, long time: and that is our feelings.
Oh, we may have an intellectual reaction to something, but that’s not at all the same as knowing how we feel about it.
Granted, sometimes we don’t want to know how we feel—because feelings can be difficult and discouraging and unsettling. Feelings ask something of us—acknowledgment or expression or action or, sometimes, all of the above. And that can be scary. So it’s no wonder that we do all manner of things to escape our feelings: we eat them or we drink them; we try to shop them away or numb them with screen time or work or other distractions.
The thing about feelings, though, is that there’s really no getting around them. If we don’t deal with them directly, they’re likely to leak out one way or another: in lashing out at whoever’s closest to us, in self-sabotage, in misbehavior, or general anxiety. They’re just trying to get our attention.
What a gift, then, to have a whole book of the Bible that’s all about feelings. What a gift to have the Psalms to help us get in touch with our feelings and to let us know that there is absolutely no feeling—joy, despair, fear, confidence, gratitude, self-pity, love, hatred, rage, you name it—that we can’t take to God. What a gift to have Samantha Beach’s interpretation of the beloved 23rd Psalm in these disturbing and discomforting times.
I hope that watching her authentic responses to the seemingly faithful, comforting, and confident statements of the 23rd Psalm made you feel something. It sure brought up lots of feelings for me, and that’s why I wanted to share it with you.
Because, I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m feeling discombobulated and uncertain and maybe even scared, one of my go-to coping mechanisms is to just keep keeping on. Apparently, I’m not the only one; there’s a whole line of British-inspired T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers that encourage us to “Be Calm and Carry on.” Be cool and carry on. Be whatever you want to be but, by God, carry on.
And then along comes the 23rd Psalm, saying: Not so fast. Enough with all the carrying on. There is another way to live—a more authentic way to live, a less stressful way to live, a more faithful and ultimately more hopeful and life-giving way to live.
And that is—to oversimplify, perhaps—to make like a sheep. To let ourselves be led by the Good Shepherd. To let ourselves stop striving and worrying, managing and trying to control things long enough to lie down in green pastures, to let still waters calm the storm raging in our hearts, to follow someone else’s lead at least long enough to allow our sweet souls to be restored. To trust that, even though the valley is deep and long and dark, we need not fear. To let ourselves have a good cry if that’s what we need.
Because the Good Shepherd is with you and will not leave you. Because even in the presence of your enemies—doubt and fear and grief and suffering—God has prepared a feast for you. Because even when you feel like a failure, even when you don’t know what you have to offer, even when you’re isolated and alone, God anoints your head with love and your cup overflows with blessing.
Now, it may seem that I have jumped right over all the difficult feelings raised by the video interpretation. But not so much. I just wanted to give you and your feelings a little breathing room. I just want to remind you that God is with you and that, wherever God is, is a safe place to explore your feelings, to express your feelings, and to consider what they mean.
Just as faith is not a denial of doubt, so the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm do not change the fact that we sometimes feel very uncomfortable. Just as Jesus is forever telling us to “be not afraid” precisely because we’re so fearful, we look for comfort when there is trouble in our lives, despair in our hearts, and restlessness in our souls.
Sometimes things are so bad or scary or unsettling that we actually resist the comfort that’s offered to us; we refuse the feast that’s been prepared for us; and there is no way we’re going to lie down when the very world seems to be spinning.
And that’s okay. When we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s only natural to want to get out of there as fast as we can. And maybe rage at the darkness on our way out.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want? What? Are you kidding me? I need safety, I need my job back, I need things to get back to normal, and if I’m going to have to work from home, I need child care. I need the touch of a human hand. I need toilet paper!
I will fear no evil? How about sickness and death and losing someone I love? How about not being able to pay my bills? How about not being able to do all those things I had planned? How about things never getting back to normal?
The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says most of the psalms fall into one of three categories that describe three recurring phases of our lives: There are psalms of orientation, dripping with praise and glory and all the confidence and trust we feel when everything is going just as we think it should. Then there are psalms of disorientation, the laments of rage and fear and despair we feel when the world or our lives have been turned upside-down, when we’re broken and suffering, when our dreams have been shattered and we don’t know who or what to trust anymore. Finally, there are psalms of re-orientation, expressions of the gratitude, trust, and hope we feel when we have been through the worst and, by God’s grace have come out the other side changed, restored, made new.
Samantha Beach’s interpretation of the 23rd Psalm reveals the natural tension that sometimes exists between what is true in this moment—whatever thoughts and feelings we’re having right now—and what is always and forever true.
Which is to say: We can feel scared about what life will be like after this pandemic or afraid that it will never end, and, at the same time choose to trust that our cup runneth over and that, surely, goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives because God will always be with us.
Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Even if we don’t know how this is going to work out.
Even though we’re trying not to think about it. Even though we can’t stop thinking about it. Even though we’re grieving all that’s been lost.
Even if we’re scared. Even if we’re tired. Even if we know that this crisis presents us with opportunities to remake the world into something that comes a little closer to justice and peace and climate healing, but all we really want is for our lives to be the way they were.
Even though there is so much to do, the Shepherd gives us permission to lie down. Even though we don’t know where we’re going, we can find comfort in familiar structures. Even if we feel lost right now, we can know that the goodness and faithfulness of God never ends and never gives up on us—or on this broken world that God so loves.
Even though we may be tired of dwelling in our own houses, we can rejoice in the promise that we will live in the house of God’s heart forever and ever.