Still Waters and Skyscrapers


I guess none of us can now look at a skyscraper without some consideration of 9/11, however faintly it may register in our consciousness. We received a psychic whack when the twin towers collapsed. The world could never be quite the same again. The skyscraper, symbol of social and economic strength and prosperity was transformed in a moment into an emblem of exposure and vulnerability. We live in a scary world. 9/11 was not the first event to convince us of this, yet the vision of those two mighty edifices falling to the ground in a heap of rubble rammed the message home with inexorable might.

Against the backdrop of such a terrifying event, and indeed, against the backdrop of untold scary developments in our world, Psalm 23 appears, on the face of things, archaic and irrelevant. Yet despite the quaintness of their speech and imagery, these fifteen lines of ancient Hebrew literature remain for millions of people the essential language of hope and trust in times of crisis, pain or loss. I am still haunted and moved by the thought of Todd Beamer, Oracle software executive and passenger on United’s high-jacked flight 93, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with GTC switchboard operator Lisa Jefferson on his cell phone shortly before he perished with his fellow passengers and the terrorists.

So what is it about the pastoral imagery of a shepherd caring for his sheep that still inspires urbanites in New York, Los Angeles, London, Moscow and Paris? Why should people turn to this antiquated text for support and comfort in a world of concrete buildings, rush hour madness and international air travel? I suspect that Massachusetts Rabbi, Harold Kushner, goes to the heart of the issue when he says that the twenty-third psalm is the answer to the question: ‘How do we live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’

Whether the crisis is a threat to national security or the devastating bereavement of a loved one, whether one faces the onset of illness or the loss of a job, whether one attends church regularly or hardly ever darken its doors, reciting the familiar lines of Psalm 23 seems to act as a tranquilizer. For centuries, its ancient healing wisdom has guided people through dark and difficult circumstances.

Yet, ironically, Psalm 23 offers no easy answers to hard questions, no shortcuts around life’s nasty bits, no magic formula for solving life’s problems. The writer is no starry-eyed religious romantic who imagines that life can be a breeze, a gentle saunter through lush meadows by babbling brooks. Yet still we find the psalm comforting and reassuring.

The twenty-third psalm offers what the Mennonite theologian Mary Schertz calls a ‘double consciousness’ – a belief in the shepherd-God’s providence, but a belief that in no way blinds the reader to the dark valleys that inevitably lie ahead. The psalm evokes radical trust, not blind faith. The writer isn’t offering some spiritual potion that can magic away heartache, pain or loss; rather he is communicating what it means to trust in the midst of terror, grief, disappointment and frustration. He is telling us that there is meaning in situations where all our senses say that there is no meaning.

In London on the 7th July 2005 four suicide bombers carried out coordinated bombings that led to the death of fifty-two people and injuring about 700 others. One of those killed was Jenny Nicholson, whose mother Julie is an Anglican priest. The agony of losing her lovely, vivacious 24 year-old daughter has led Julie to step aside from parish ministry. She feels she cannot forgive Jenny’s killers, and cannot reconcile her role in presiding at the Eucharist with her unforgiveness. Julie Nicholson is passing through a very dark valley of grief. She still trusts in God, and she continues to exercise her priesthood in different ways. But she cannot pretend that all is well. The darkness is taking its toll.

I can’t dare to speak for Julie, but I take heart from her integrity. She is grappling with the ambiguities of radical trust in the shepherd-God and honest acknowledgement of what she is experiencing on the inside.

Rabbi Kushner says that all his books – including the massive bestseller, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People – have been inspired by the death of his 14 year old son who was born with an incurable illness. Reflecting on Psalm 23, he concludes that the psalmist is not saying, ‘I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.’ He is saying, ‘This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me confidence.’

I shared Rabbi Kushner’s thoughts with a woman in her mid-thirties who was raped last year. She has found it deeply healing to reframe her nightmare experience in the context of a shepherd-God who is on her side. Her memory of the event is being healed by the realization that she was not alone on that fateful night, even though she felt alone. She recites the twenty-third psalm regularly. She is finding her still waters. The world is still scary. But not so scary as it once was.

(From the introduction to Still Waters and Skyscrapers: the Twenty-First Psalm for the Twenty-First Century – published in the UK under the title I Shall not Want: Spiritual Wisdom from the Twenty-Third Psalm).

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