Thursday, January 26, 2006

The [non-offensive] 23d Psalm

I enjoyed reading the Brooklyn Quaker's talk on Quakerism for a Catholic audience. I encourage you to read it as well.

I was struck, though, at the long disclaimer Rich felt compelled to make before he was able to launch into the meat of his talk -- to make clear that he wasn't speaking for all Friends, that Friends worship in different modes, etc. I understand completely why he did it -- I've done it myself on this blog and elsewhere-- and fortunately the wait for Rich's real message was worthwhile.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking about our habit of qualifying (nearly) everything we say about Quakerism, Truth, God, or anything else important, the following emerged. (You may want a mop if sarcasm comes dripping off your screen):

Friends, I'm moved to share with you this morning Psalm 23, one of my favorites that has always meant a lot to me. A lot of you probably know it by heart.

The Lord -- which I understand is a political term that some may consider sexist as well as outdated and feudal, and if you do, substitute your own image of a loving caregiver -- is my shepherd , if that metaphor makes sense to you. And I hope you don't see this as exclusionary -- the fact that he or she's my shepherd doesn't mean he or she can't be your shepherd, too, or that you can't have a different shepherd, or that you may not feel like a sheep in need of a shepherd at all.

I shall not want. Which isn't to say that it's wrong for oppressed peoples to demand their fair share of the world's wealth, only that I have found a place of enoughness.

He -- or she: again, the metaphorical Shepherd is without gender but I hope we can let the old texts speak in their own tongue without imposing modern values on them -- maketh me to lie down in green pastures (of which there won't be many left if we don't get a new administration).

He leadeth me beside the still waters, not that rivers can't be comforting, too, or that the mighty ocean isn't just as good a way of thinking about what some call "heaven".

He restoreth my soul. Which is not to say that you have to believe that anyone's soul really needs to be restored, or even that there is such a thing as a "soul". Think of this more as a realization that my "soul" [substitute your own concept] has been there all the time but I just forgot about it.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, -- I hope this isn't too negative for some of you -- I will fear no evil, understanding that for a lot of Friends "evil" is not a useful concept. Maybe you can translate it into your own truth such as "un-goodness".

For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (I hope that any of you who were victims of childhood violence understand that the rod and staff can be used to gently guide the sheep, not necessarily to beat them, and that this won't raise unpleasant memories for you.)

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, understanding, of course, that many Friends feel that the very concept of "enemy" may be inconsistent with the Peace Testimony and should be avoided or reconceptualized, perhaps as "in the presence of friends I haven't met yet."

Thou anointest my head with oil (not petroleum, of course); my cup runneth over, which I hope you can accept as a statement more of gratitude than of celebration of excessive material possessions, which would not be consistent with Friends' testimony of simplicity, as I understand it.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, though no one should feel that if goodness and mercy doesn't follow you for the rest of your life that it's your fault.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever, even though the concept of an afterlife is not one upon which Friends agree, I hope this is a helpful image.

12 comments:

Dave Carl said...

That's not sarcasm, its a sermon --and not a bad one at that!

Liz Opp said...

Might you consider submitting this to the monthly meeting's newsletter? or to Friends Journal? Nice job!

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

Judy Tretheway said...

Powerful, Im circulating it around those who will understand in our Meeting...perhaps even those it might push a bit...

Lorcan said...

Very good, I've been writing about the symbols which divide us, and part of this all, is when we take our symbols too seriously. We should remember that symbols can divide and hurt, mostly when we don't listen to each other, or then concentrate on the symbols used to explain the hurt, rather than being gentle with each other. Humor helps. By the by, I just added thee to my links.
Thine in the light

(15th St. Meeting NYC, and http://plaininthecity.blogspot.com/
lor

Zach A said...

Friend, if I may tell you a little concern in good faith, I am not sure how to interpret this, which is probably largely due to the fact that I don't know you well (I think this is the first time I've come accross your blog).

I think the source of my unease is that I'm not sure whether you mean to satirize the way we often try not to step on people's toes so fastidiously that we obscure whatever we're actually trying to say (as the psalm got obscured), or mean to question whether these are legitimate concerns or not. I for one think the feudalistic aspects of the Bible, or the bias in favor of the masculine, are real concerns (which is not to say we should avoid it). Perhaps you agree; I'm just saying I can't tell from the post.

Thine, if I may steal Lor's closing,
Zach.

Jeanne said...

Oh my goodness, Paul, this is hilarious. It spoke to me because we are all so afraid of stepping on each other's toes. We don't give each other the opportunity to dialogue about our faith, an opportunity to practice love and forgiveness and, above all, an opportunity to practice non-violence. Especially with those with whom we do not agree.

For if we cannot do these things with people within our faith, how can we witness to the world?

Jeanne said...

Oh my goodness, Paul, this is hilarious. It spoke to me because we are all so afraid of stepping on each other's toes. We don't give each other the opportunity to dialogue about our faith, an opportunity to practice love and forgiveness and, above all, an opportunity to practice non-violence. Especially with those with whom we do not agree.

For if we cannot do these things with people within our faith, how can we witness to the world?

Paul L said...

Zach: My primary intention was the former, though you may have detected a bit of my impatience with the critical literary analysis of sacred texts that is so predominate today. Nevertheless, I think it's perfectly legitimate for individuals today to wonder whether linguistic and poetic conventions of the past may obscure or pervert -- rather than illuminate -- the meaning of the text and to offer constructive alternatives.

And, Jeanne, you're right about how our internal disarray weakens our witness to the world. There's a nice piece by Doug Gwyn over at the Quaker Universalist Fellowship http://www.universalistfriends.org/gwyn.html called The Quaker Dynamic: Personal Faith and Corporate Witness that to me speaks to this very clearly and meaningfully.

James Riemermann said...

I share Paul's disdain for this sort of literary backpedaling, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

My own sense is, if we're going to criticize the ancients texts for poisonous ideas they occasionally contain (and they do, and we should!), we should do so forthrightly, fearlessly, and not slop the texts over with P.C. paint until we can't recognize the poison.

I'm not saying the 23rd Psalm is poison--far from it. Among other things, it is a beautiful, lyrical expression of longing for a sort of peace and unity that is quite unlike human life. It is whistling past the graveyard, which human beings like to do, and is therefore genuine. I would turn to it for comfort, or for an understanding of the human need for comforting untruths, but not for existential truth. For that sort of truth, I would turn to Job, or the story of Abraham and Isaac, or Ecclesiastes.

In those places where the Bible seems to embrace practices or attitudes that strike us as ugly and wrong, we should say so. And if those same passages hold hard and important truths, we should acknowledge that some good medicine is laced with poison. It is often expressed that when it comes to the Bible, we cannot pick and choose. On the contrary: if we aren't willing to pick and choose, we're not going to learn a thing.

Paul L said...

James -- "In those places where the Bible seems to embrace practices or attitudes that strike us as ugly and wrong, we should say so."

I agree, but only after we've given it (and other time-tested wisdom) a full hearing, with a presumption that it has something beautiful and right to say to us. We only have the right to reject if after we've struggled with it; the attitude I was satirizing was one of the shallowness of people who seem to think that the world began the day they were born.

Tangentially, I usually read the 23d Psalm differently, not as a lyrical longing for peace and unity but as David's declaration of commitment, of taking sides, a pledge of allegience. I read it as:

The LORD (i.e., Yehweh, his own self, not some false idol such as Baal. Or human reason) is my shepherd. . . Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil because THOU art with me, THY rod & staff comfort me, etc.

Read this way, the question for each of us may be, whose your daddy?

James Riemermann said...

"Read this way, the question for each of us may be, whose your daddy?"

I dunno. But Daddy did tell me I've gotta go to bed in thirty or forty years. Maybe ten or twenty years. Forever.

Reason certainly isn't my shepherd--it leaves me high and dry time and time again. It is what I use to think.

earthfreak said...

Wow, my Daddy's name is Rich. he's a reasonably nice guy.

I don't into faith like that at all. I don't see God as in competition with other gods (idols, maybe, but it's quite the metaphor, not in any real sense a guy named Yahweh - but that's just me.)

"PC"-ifying traditional hymns, prayers, etc., usually bugs me, primarily cause it's rarely done WELL - the result is rarely poetic (and often sort of nauseating), and often none of the issues is actually addressed they are simply whitewashed with trendy language.

There is poetry, and it was written by the people it was written by. There is an old hymn that I sang as a child (in quaker school) that is all about killing off all your enemies because God likes you best so you always win. The words are terrible, but it's a pretty song. It's in our quaker hymnal, with PC words, and it just sounds dumb and sad to me sung that way.

At the same time a lot of the Bible is really really terrible, and I think it's worth talking about how it conflicts with our experience of spirit (which I hope is usually much more loving than much of the Old Testament, for example)

I myself have big problems with "shepherd" imagery, not because shepherds are men (Jesus is theoretically an historical figure and was actually male) but because shepherds aren't taking care of sheep for the sheeps' sake, but for economic benefit which, in the end, involves the exploitation (and most likely the intentional destruction) of the sheep. It's not really an image I can relax into, being shepherded....


In any case, I understand the spirit of the thing, and the point of listening deeper, rather than trying to justify every word up front. At the same time, straight white male christians don't necessarily feel opressed by much in christianity, and a sensitivity to those who have been oppressed is in order, I believe.

peace!
Pam