WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG?
A Reflection on Psalm 23
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University
It was about forty years ago when the meaning of Christian faith started to dawn on me, when, as St. Paul would have said, “it pleased the Lord to reveal his son to me.” Not that I had a sudden flash of insight or heard voices or talked to Jesus as a kind of best buddy. My experience wasn’t like being knocked off a horse, as it was for St. Paul. Nor did Christian faith catch me because of any specific thing I studied in seminary or did research on in graduate school. In fact at the time, I wasn’t even aware that anything had happened.
The occasion was a quiet conversation I had with one of my teachers under an escalator in a New Orleans hotel lobby during a national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. My theology professor at the Claremont School of Theology, John Cobb, had just published a book entitled Christ in a Pluralistic Age. One chapter in this book called for dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. It was a wonderfully cutting edge piece of theological reflection, but I didn’t agree with some of his interpretations of Buddhism. So I wrote a critical review essay and sent it to him in advance of submitting it for publication in order to give him a chance to tell me if I had misinterpreted or misunderstood his methodology or conclusions. Our first chance to talk was in New Orleans sitting on the floor under an escalator in the main lobby of the conference hotel.
I was surprised and gratified that he liked what I had written—and the fact that I had written it—even though he thought some of my critique had missed several points he was trying to make. Our conversation was intense and serious, which is always John’s way of dealing with people he trusts.
What I remember most about our conversation was my defensiveness about Christian tradition in general. Once, when I interviewed for my position at Pacific Lutheran University in 1975, the Department Chair asked me if I considered myself a Christian. I took a deep breath and said, “My problem with that question is that most people who publically identify themselves as Christians are so obnoxious about it.” There was a great silence. “Especially now,” I continued, “when the Christian right tries to ram their version of Christian faith down our throats.” I also said that I wondered if being a Christian was something we should claim for ourselves; I still agree with Kathleen Norris: if “being a Christian” means incarnating the love of Christ in my own life, it would be best to let others tell me how well, or how badly, I’m doing.
Besides, I wasn’t sure I could wear the label “Christian” and still practice the craft of history of religions—an academic discipline that bills itself as a non-theological, non-normative, collection of descriptive methods for investigating religious traditions other than one’s own. Anyone in my academic trade sees too much in the world’s religious traditions that are creative and wonderful to make exclusivist claims about the superiority of one religious tradition over another. I still cannot support religious imperialism of this sort. But historians of religions also see much in all religious traditions that seem self-destructive, irrational, exploitive, and irrelevant to contemporary life. So I wasn’t sure I could be a Christian and an historian of religions simultaneously. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear any religious label because I thought it would hinder the objectivity of my scholarship.
John had heard me say all this before—during my student days and in writing in some of my earlier publications, and in papers I had read at conferences about the proper methodology for studying religious “phenomena,” meaning what religious people say, believe, and practice. Finally, under an escalator in a New Orleans hotel, he had enough of it and ended our conversation by gently saying, “You know, Paul, you’re a Christian. Get over it. Christian faith is about trusting the truth in whatever dress it wears and following it no matter where it takes you.”
To this day, I wonder why it took so long. I find myself, shaped by a life in religious studies, the influence of Buddhism, a renewed commitment to life in Christ (understood Kathleen Norris style), and filled with a sense that somehow grace, however understood, flows more freely than we ever imagine.
So, in thinking back over the past forty years about how the journey of faith began for me, I thought I was going write about how the historical Jesus or St. Francis of Assisi began their journeys when they were in their thirties. But as I thought about this, it seemed pretentious. I’m sure there are plenty of biblical characters and Christian people who screwed up, devised a new heresy, or gave up the ghost in their thirties. So what? Instead, I decided to take some clues from the Twenty-third Psalm. Faith as a cup overflowing with grace is a much more compelling topic, and more to the point.
When Jews bless the cup of wine on the Sabbath, they often fill the cup and let it overflow, spilling a little on the table. This is to recall the Psalmist’s declaration that his cup is overflowing with the abundance and mercy of God. Knowing that my cup is always overflowing, no matter how it appears to my senses, has sustained me for over forty years.
The last time I heard the Twenty-third Psalm publically read was in 1999 at my father’s funeral. The person who read the psalm read it badly, but still, it was the first time I really heard it. Why, I remember thinking, is this Psalm mostly read at funerals? Or mostly during times of anxiety, fear, or danger? Psalm Twenty-three should be read every day.
This was the opinion of Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaw. He said that all of the Psalms should “be interpreted about oneself with regard to the war against the inclination towards evil, and its cohorts.” Or in more Christian language, the Psalms in general, and the Twenty-third Psalm in particular, are the prayers of Christ in us, and the enemies are all internal. So after studying the Hebrew meanings and the rabbinical commentaries, Psalm Twenty- three has for me taken the form of a Christian targum, meaning a “paraphrased and expanded version” that captures what I believe is its meaning.
The Twenty-third Psalm isn’t a passive recitation or a mantra meant to help us get through a period of grief over someone’s death. In the history of Christian spirituality, it is a method for practicing the “presence of Christ” all the time by reminding us of what’s real and what’s not. Trusting this presence is called “faith.”
So in the struggle against my mind and emotions, which are daily telling me things should be different, faith says simply, “It is finished.” When my thoughts are filled with plans, schedules, projects, meetings, obligations, concern for the future, or worry about the next step in my academic agenda, faith says, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”
When I find myself manipulating people and circumstances to my advantage, or adjusting my words slightly to protect my self from scrutiny, faith says, “Take no thought for your life.”
When guilt leads me to try to change myself in a sincere effort to finally “get it right” or to gain more wisdom or understanding, faith says, “By one offering you have been perfected forever.”
In other words, the Twenty-third Psalm is about “transcendence.” Something is transcendent if it goes beyond ourselves, demands something of us, or lures us on to new levels of understanding and seeing that remind us that the universe is on God’s shoulders, not ours. God is the shepherd, not us. The call of Christian faith—and faith as understood in non-Christian religious Ways—is to abandon our propensity to think that any moment should be different than it is.
We shall not lack. Our cup overflows. Right now. Forever. With no strings attached. And if we can trust the lessons of this Psalm we had better hang on and brace ourselves. Grace in the form of goodness and mercy should be overtaking us any minute now.
The Lord is my shepherd, and by his grace, I never lack anything, no matter how it appears to my mind.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters—everything that sheep require, although my senses never see it that way.
He restores my soul by causing me to repent,
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, not because I deserve it or would ever walk the path even if I could find it myself.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are continually with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me by keeping me from straying and by beating back the wolves in my mind that would devour me.
You prepare a table before me—laden with everything I need—in the presence of my enemies, whose voices are tempting me to desire more than I have.
You anoint my head with oil, thereby stilling those voices as I realize my true identity in Christ, the anointed one.
My cup overflows with your poured out grace, freeing me to pour out myself for others.
Surely goodness and mercy are pursuing me every day, and I will remain in the house of the Lord, the Kingdom of God, and never leave that place which is beyond time and space.