Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetic Passage* (Psalm 23) transports me to a pleasant pastoral scene, where I can kick back in the cool grass with family and friends and enjoy the nearby pacific waters lulling me to sleep with their stillness. Nothing’s missing. Serenity. Wait – what’s that lurking in the shadows – the Death Angel? You want me to leave this peaceful spot and take a hike through those shadows? Ok, don’t fear the reaper, if you say so. I’ll take your hand. You’ve got your shepherd’s rod to beat off whatever monsters lie in those shadowy spaces, and you’ve got your staff to keep me on the path. Such is the beginning of the beloved Psalm, memorized and recited by children and preachers and soldiers and eulogists from all walks of life. I love some of the wording in the Spanish translation: the shadows are oscuro, making me think of the word obscurity. The deadly shadows we experience are those things that obscure the abundant life, things that make us feel small and unaccounted for, like we are living our lives in relative obscurity, But we are never obscured from God’s sight and compassionate care.
As we are shepherded through these shadowy, obscure valleys, we are led along the righteous path into a banquet hall, where we are anointed with a surplus of sacred oil. This is the oil of holiness. Here’s the kicker: sitting right there across from us at the banquet table are our enemies, those we deem most unholy. The irony for us lies in how we have come to see holiness as signifying a separation from those others, those alienated ones with whom we share animosity and hostility. We could recite plenty of proof texts to justify this separation, this puritan pride. But this Psalm says just the opposite. The shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness that lead to a feast with foes, where enough holiness is poured out for all of us to share.
It’s a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moment. It’s a moment I have all too rarely experienced. My everyday walk of faith does not ordinarily take me through scary shadows to find the path of righteousness leading me to eat dinner in the home of a person of a different color, or a person of a different faith or no faith, or a person of another socioeconomic status or ideological commitment. We simply don’t tend to cross those imagined barriers. I see from the Psalmist that I am missing out on some serious anointing times by staying within the confines of my own familiarity. Here’s where I need to live into the Jesus story more and more; Jesus sure seemed to find all paths leading him to holy spaces occupied by the least likely folk. His entry into Simon the Leper’s home as he neared his time of death is just one in a long line of examples. His entry into my heart, when I was his enemy, is another. This is why I have found it so important over the past few years to trek through obscurity and see who’s at the table down in Cuba. There’s a lot of holy anointing that goes on down there in the land of capitalism’s ideological enemies. I imagine I’ll find that same anointing in my own community, as the shepherd’s staff directs me to cross lines of enmity here.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.