Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 23) transports me ten years back to the little village of Piedrecitas, smack dab in the middle of rice farm country on the island of Cuba. My wife Kim was there, leading a delegation from Mars Hill Baptist, to celebrate the ordination of Rosalva Perez, the founding pastor of the Clara Rodés Memorial Baptist Church. It was a high and holy day, and a hot one, as ordination sermons and congregational singing led to the culmination of the service, the laying on of hands. The tradition of the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba was to open this time of blessing up to everyone in the church, not only those who were ordained. Rosalva knelt in the front of the makeshift sanctuary, and the people, young and old, lined up to come forward and lay hands on her head and whisper a word of blessing and encouragement. Kim recalls one youngster, a three-year old girl named Marislei, standing back and observing, taking it all in, finally taking her place in line. She came up to Rosalva, stood on tip-toes and reached up so she could lay hands on her head, and put her mouth up to Rosalva’s ear. Everyone heard Marislei’s blessing. It went something like, psssst, psssst, pastora, pssssst, psssst, pastora. Obviously, all the little girl had been able to hear in the blessings that preceded were undecipherable whispers and the word pastora, the Spanish word for pastor, in the feminine form. In the years since, Rosalva certainly has been a model pastora. I’m blown away by the strong faith community she has been able to form there in that little dirt road neighborhood, and the ministry that has grown from her shepherding of the flock.
Psalm 23, that most beloved passage of scripture, begins with the famous confession of faith, the Lord is my shepherd. One of my favorite versions of the psalm is the one sung by Bobby McFerrin, which he arranged as a tribute to his mother and the care he received from her. God is portrayed in the feminine throughout his richly harmonized a cappella chant. While the singer took some flack for his translation, he was certainly not the first to experience God in this way. The biblical writers themselves sprinkled many images of God as a feminine figure among the more traditional masculine images. God is a woman in travail, giving birth to Israel, comforting the covenant community at her bosom, the ancient Sophia calling us to the wise life. And along with all these and other metaphors throughout the Bible, there’s the very name of God found in the Torah, El Shaddai, literally, God With Breasts, usually named so in conjunction with the mandate to be fruitful and multiply. While we know full well that God transcends all human definitions, and cannot be confined to anthropomorphic descriptions, these metaphors and images are useful in deepening our praise and worship. They help us form deeper connections with the Divine One, especially when we claim the truth that we are created in the image of God, male and female.
In Spanish, Psalm 23 begins El Señor es mi pastor. Given young Marislei’s experience of growing under Rosalva’s pastoral care, and given the range of imagery for God found throughout the Bible, it would be in keeping with the text to translate it La Señora es mi pastora. It’s the kind of devotional reading that can truly restore our souls, souls that have been disconnected and diminished by an exclusively patriarchal image for God. And it can lead us to paths of righteousness, as women and men work together to provide pastoral leadership for a world in dire need of direction. And it will inevitably lead to a table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies. When it comes time to bless those enemies, and we find ourselves at a loss for words, I think we can take a cue from Marislei. Maybe all we need to do is lay gentle hands on them and whisper in their ears, psssst, pssssst. After all, don’t you know, talking about a revolution, it sounds like a whisper.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.