I Will Fear No Evil

dylan-2-350Some years back, I felt lost. Maybe like Dante, I had come to a turn in my life and felt as though I had entered a dark wood and was not sure of the way out. There was nothing major that had happened, as I remember, no great trauma or drama, just a sense of being lost.

I would imagine that we have all experienced that sometime in our life – sometime when things just are not quite as we wish them to be, when we feel ill at ease often, not sure of direction or purpose or meaning. It probably happens now and then. Maybe this has never happened to you. If not, it will.

It is part of being human, I think. This disquiet. There is some good in times like this – it urged me to think about my life, whether there were changes good to make, whether things were actually just fine. But it persisted for a while – longer than I wished for, long enough that I was tired of it and figured something had to be done.

We have our ways – we go to therapy, take up yoga or golf, go on a diet or join a gym. It used to be that travel was thought to be the cure. I am not talking about clinical depression or being in a state where you can’t do things. No, this feels more existential than clinical.

So, I went on retreat, and decided to spend a week at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia, on a beautiful piece of land just above the Shenandoah River.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I went and I signed up for a five-day retreat. I understood that it was mostly silent, that there would be communal meals eaten in silence [well, sort of silent – during the meal, a monk read to those eating. It so happened that when I was there the monk read from a new book about Sherman’s March during the Civil War!], that we could see and talk with a spiritual guide – I did and found it enormously gratifying, and attend as one wanted the singing of the hours. These are between four to eight worship services consisting mostly of chant, and the Psalms form the heart of the chanting.

The abbot in Berryville led the service; he had a beautiful voice, and the 20 or so monks joined in singing the Psalms. It was wonderful – as in full of wonder. I remember especially Vigils, sung very late at night, walking to the chapel under a cathedral of stars. It was a moonless night, the stars just bright enough to illuminate the way.

John Haynes Holmes was a Unitarian minister in the first part of the 20th century and was known for his work in social justice. He was a pacifist during World War I and was essentially kicked out of the American Unitarian Association because of his views. He helped found both the ACLU and the NAACP.

He said this: “When I say ‘God’, it is poetry, not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God — whoever or whatever that may be — has at one time or another reached my soul. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”

Poetry, not theology.

The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known poem in the English language. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . ‘

The Psalms are a collection of poems used in ancient Jewish liturgy, written over a period of 500-700 years. None of them, in all likelihood, was written by King David, even though that is the tradition. Scholars are in consensus on this. The 23rd is a Psalm of comfort – ‘thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ It is a Psalm of thanks ‘thou annointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life . . .’ What could be better?

After I spent the five days at Berryville, I felt refreshed and much of my unease was gone. It wasn’t so much that I had found clarity or some new direction; it wasn’t that I had come across some new goal to strive for – it wasn’t that kind of thing at all.

I think, in a way, what I discovered was the importance of being present, present to the moment, alive to what was going on around me. I think I experienced the meaningfulness of being rather than the excitement of doing. It wasn’t that I lost any ambition; it was more that something was added to that. Maybe it was a loss of anxiety, a gain of perspective, a realization that things could stay the same and be OK, that I could slow down and listen to the chanting of the Psalms, in a style centuries old, on a dark Virginia night, and be at peace. It was like being beside still waters, like lying down in a green pasture.

I went home and began an almost two-year practice of sitting in the morning with the Psalms. I would read one, then sit for about 20 minutes and let the words roll around in me. Sometimes there was nothing that grabbed me; sometimes a phrase would stay with me all day. I got through the Psalms twice, and the 23rd was one that would stay with me for days.

It took me a while to break clear of my upbringing to appreciate this Psalm – the theistic nature does not fit me; the idea that I am a sheep to some shepherd is not an image I like. [You know that ministers are often called Pastors – in fact this term is taking over. 20+ years ago, pastors were mostly evangelical ministers; now, even NPR refers to mainline, liberal ministers as pastors. Some people even call me Pastor Jim – I don’t like it. It reminds me too much of my childhood - Pastor Hudne, Pastor Johnson – and we were indeed the flock. Not exactly UU stuff – more than a shepherd, a better term might be zookeeper. Anyway – back to the subject]

But this psalm does speak to comfort and comfort is something we can all use. And I also learned to turn the psalm around; that this is something I can do for others.

I can lead others to still waters and green pastures; I can walk with others through the valley of the shadow of death; I can offer courage to those who face their enemies, both the enemies within and those without. That I can give to others so they feel anointed and their cup is full.

I learned to ask myself: when do I feel threatened by an enemy, whether that enemy is within me or outside of me, and where do I find strength and courage to confront that? When do I need to rest, to lie down, to find stillness and where or with whom can I find that? When do I feel as though I live in the valley of the shadow of death – with real death or the death of the spirit, of hope, or maybe of love and how can I overcome the fear that paralyzes?

This Psalm reminds me of the reading from Wendell Berry we often hear:

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Or the beautiful poem by W B Yeats:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Or even Thoreau: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .

Or Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem Heaven – Haven:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens.

So I ask you, what do you do when trouble looms, when your enemies are massed before you, when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death: What do you do? Do you turn to someone; do you turn to God; do you turn to drugs or alcohol or any kind of obsessive behavior?

When you fear evil, who is with you to comfort you and give you courage? Who, what? Ask yourself? Who, what leads you beside still waters, feeds you even when enemies abound? Remember the Bob Dylan song It Ain’t Me Babe?

Go ’way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe
Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe
Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

As much as I suggested earlier that it is the poets and not the theologians that I turn to, I find myself often turning back to the theologian Paul Tillich and his suggestion that courage is the essential virtue in our life, and that courage has two parts, the courage to be one’s own self, your authentic self, and the courage to be a part of something larger than yourself.

The Psalmist is right but only half right. We cannot do it on our own; we need others. We come here, to this community in order to find strength and courage, in the company of others, and then take that strength and courage back into our other lives – our lives at home and work and play and community. We need the courage to be a part of something larger.

But it is not just others; it is your own self. It is what you do with what you get. The Lord might prepare a table for you in the presence of your enemies, but you have to sit down, unfold your napkin, take up your knife and fork and eat. You need to have the courage to be one self. We talk a lot in the religion business about empowering people. But empowering to do what?

jim-nelson-200It is, first of all, to be who you are, to be honest about yourself, to find the sources of your own strength. But then to do something with that – to take what you find in religion community and take it with you into your daily life – to empower yourself to live a life closer to your ideals and hopes.

I still read the Psalms from time to time, but nothing like I did those years back. They helped me through a period of unease; they were a way to sit beside still waters, to lie in green pastures, to find courage and comfort.

May it be for all of you as well.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church

Monday, 26 November 2013

About Jim Nelson

Reverend Doctor Jim Nelson is the senior minister at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, California.

Comments

  1. Rev Jim,
    It was a delight to see a UU writing on this website. Thank you for the moment of peace I received from reading your words. As a UU Seminarian just before finals begin, it was a welcome respite. Peace to you and one of these days I hope I get to your church.

  2. Rev. Annette Saint John Lawrence says:

    I loved your writing. It reads like poetry – indeed like still waters. What a sensitive soul you are. I’ve had my times when I seemingly wondered in the desert. Yet there was one who took me to the well to drink, brushed the sand from my garments, refreshed me. Nothing that I could physically see, was taken from me but I was somehow left in a state of profound gratitude for the courage to go on. One way in which I interpret walking
    through the valley of the shadow of death is there is a death of the illusions in my world. It does take courage to see the face of God for it is all things. There is an
    energetic of peace in your writing that is palpable.

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