This week’s Poetry Passage: Psalm 27
The cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz went searching for courage, and all of us, in anxious and fearful times, scramble to find it. Unlike the lion, though, it’s not always the case that the courage we need is already inside of us, simply awaiting discovery. Often, courage comes only when God generates it within us, putting in our hearts the strength we desperately lack and need.
We need courage when our decisions are unpopular, when our commitments cause us to stand in the minority, and when faithfulness has us cutting against the grain of our culture. Courage energizes us not to give-up when disheartened and not to give-in when we are under pressure.
Ancient Greco-Roman philosophers classed courage among “the cardinal virtues.” While their central image of courage was a soldier on the battlefield, they recognized that ordinary people who intend to live meaningfully need courage to overcome the inward inertia and outward opposition that array themselves against conscientious living.
Novelist and historian Steven Pressfield’s helpful book, The War of Art, describes the challenges that are a part of any creative endeavor and especially details the subtle power of resistance to sabotage anyone who seeks to do something important and worthwhile:
Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify, seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is a process. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It understands nothing but power. Resistance cannot be negotiated with [Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2002), p. 9].
Against such resistance, courage is the settled practice of pressing-through; it is pursuing what is right despite the physical pain or psychological discomfort it may bring. Courageous people don’t allow fear and anxiety to keep them from standing-by their commitments or to hinder their doing what has to be done to preserve their integrity.
During the twentieth-century struggle for civil rights, Baptist minister, Bible scholar and farmer Clarence Jordan, along with his wife Florence and some friends, organized Koinonia Farm near Americus, GA as an experiment in racial reconciliation. Koinonia Farm generated stiff opposition and outright persecution in the form of economic boycotts and violence against property and persons. Jordan and his partners were sustained by courage, which he believed to be a dimension of all authentic faith. He wrote: “Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence, but a life in scorn of the consequences” [Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith and Other Sermons (New York: Association Press, 1972), p.42].
Psalm 27 is the song of a person who both has courage and searches for it. Verses 1-6 sound strong notes of assured confidence, arising from a heart convinced of God’s presence: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (27:1). Verses 7-12, on the other hand, are the shaky prayer of someone who is nearly overtaken by the fear of being forsaken by God and abandoned to his or her enemies: “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! . . . Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing-out violence” (27:9-12).
The contrast between the confidence of verses 1-6 and the fear of verses 7-12 have caused some scholars to speculate that they are the words of two different people, placed together later by the compliers and editors of the Psalter. Others suggest that, if the words do come from the same person, then they must be from vastly different times and circumstances.
While the psalm does begin on the heights (27:1-6), plumbs the depths (27:7-12) and then climbs again (27:13-14), I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude that the contrasting sections come from different people or even from divergent circumstances. In my own experience, courage and fear often coexist or rapidly alternate in my mind and heart. There are times when I am both sure and unsure. There are challenges which have me, with one breath, giving thanks for courage that comes from feeling God’s presence; and, in the next, asking for courage in the face of the fear that God has moved away, fallen silent, or gone into hiding.
Verse 1 sounds the theme of the whole psalm, which is that “nothing we may think of is severe enough to shake confidence in Yahweh who is light, salvation, and stronghold” [Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994), p. 152]. Verses 2-6 unpack that theme, first by naming the forces and circumstances which that make courage crucially necessary: “evildoers,” “adversaries,” “foes,” an encamping “army” and raging “war” (27:2-3). These threats, while filled with danger, do not cause the psalmist to cower in fear, because he or she has centered life on the presence of God, symbolized by the “house,” the “temple,” of God (27:4). It is possible, the psalmist tells us, to find sheltering faith in the “beauty of the Lord” (27:4) and under the “cover of God’s tent” (27:5).
From the place of trust and strength “high on a rock” (27:5), the psalmist plunges into near-despair (27:7-12). Nevertheless, in the closing verses, the psalm returns to faith: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (27:13) and invites others to live confidently and faithfully: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (27:14). “Wait” could be translated “hope,” a rendering that reminds us that courage comes from the hope that, as we actively engage life’s challenges, we will discover that God is engaging them along with us.
Many years ago, I found myself embroiled in controversy over the issue of race. My friendship with an African-American pastor, the late Mack Charles Jones, had made many of the people whom I served as pastor anxious and nervous about what I intended to say and do about relationships among blacks and whites. My actions, in the grand schemes, were quite modest. I did nothing more than make some public statements about God’s love for everyone and participated in a few quiet but visible demonstrations which called for understanding and reconciliation. Those modest acts were enough to generate opposition from some people in the community, and their opposition was enough to cause fear in me. One night, when I felt very unsettled, I got a call, about midnight, from Mack, who said, simply: “Hey, man, just want you to know I’m here. I’m here.” That night, Mack’s voice sounded like God’s to me. “I’m here.” That promise, of God’s presence, is the source of any courage we might muster and of all the courage we will need.
Guy Sayles is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Asheville, NC. A native of West Virginia, Guy grew up in Atlanta where he later attended the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His work is focused on leading the church to discern and pursue its mission. He enjoys playing racquetball and hiking and, from time to time, a handful of malted milk balls and licorice jelly beans. You can read more of Guy’s insights at his blog: From the Intersection.