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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Why I Don’t Believe Psalm 23

"Baa humbug, that I shall not be in want."

The nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Sören Kierkegaard recognized that every individual must wrestle with the implications of God’s Word for herself.  The “collective,” or, in this case, churches and religious institutions, do violence to this necessarily subjective, deeply personal relationship between an individual and her God when they impose a particular, general and “objective” reading or interpretation.

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In a work titled “Judge for Yourselves” from among the twenty volumes of his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard writes: “When each individual does as I have done when I write, shuts his door, reads for himself, fully conscious that I have not- and this indeed is true- in the remotest way wanted to take liberties with him, or speak to others about him, since I have thought only about myself- then truly I need not fear that he will be angry with me for what I say.”

All of this is to say, that I, too, won’t be afraid that you will be angry with me for what I am about to write, because it comes from this same place of having prayerfully and personally grappled this morning with the words of a familiar psalm.

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Funny thing is I’ve heard this psalm so many times before that it has become little more than an anodyne Hallmark card greeting.  As a hospice chaplain, I would often read Psalm 23 at people’s bedsides.  I remember one night in particular.  In the middle of the night, from her lonely watch in an intensive care unit, one woman awaiting surgery had paged the on-call chaplain for a Bible.  Even the sleeping pills hadn’t helped her insomnia.

When I came, she asked me to read Psalm 23, the fear so clearly etched across her face. The words of the psalm were a comfort.  “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.”

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“Thank you,” the woman had said meaningfully.  I, in turn, had felt like I had just dispensed some magic potion.

This morning I read those words again- and these: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  And, “surely, goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”  And when I read these words, I am struck by how little I believe the claims they make- today at least.  (Maybe tomorrow will be different.)  It’s not that I don’t want to believe these things.  I do.  It’s just that I don’t really believe them much of the time.

That God “makes me lie down in green pastures”?  Maybe.  When I couldn’t lie down for myself, it is true that You, O God, made me do so; but when I lay down, forced to recuperate from a debilitating depression, the “green pastures” looked for a long time a whole lot more like wilderness.  On some days they still do.  Dry, uninviting wasteland.

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And truth is I’m not sure I want “a table spread before me in the presence of my enemies.”  Those enemies are there, to be sure, even if I can count them on one hand.  But to have to sit across from those who, if they don’t wish me harm, have utter contempt for me, makes a root canal sound like fun.

Still, when I am forced to stare my disbelief in the face, when I am obliged to look at all the ways that I am unable to praise those things that God Himself finds praiseworthy- things like a banquet feast with my enemies, or love and goodness that follow me all around like the nine-week lab puppy we just adopted- I, like Peter, can only say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Because there really is nowhere else I want to be than in those green pastures and near those quiet waters next to a Good Shepherd who is guiding this headstrong, often foolish sheep.

So I am left this morning with a simple prayer: Lord, I really don’t believe.  Help me to.

Got a memory, association or reflection to share regarding Psalm 23? Leave it below, and I’ll republish it.

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