Always, Always: A Reading for Those in Fear of Losing Their Position
When I am afraid, there are at least two voices in my head. The quiet one is usually God. The loud one is usually whatever influence-of-the-moment might be worming its way into my soul. Here's how they might read Psalm 23, about the Good Shepherd:
Quiet: You, Lord, are my shepherd.
Loud: But I still need to be able to protect myself. I've got it all under control here, J-man.
Quiet: I will never be in need.
Loud: I always have the future in mind. It's a future full of uncertainty, God. I feel that acutely and act accordingly.
Quiet: You let me rest in fields of green grass.
Loud: And I'll take advantage of that invitation to rest just as soon as I'm done with my to-do list.
Quiet: You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.
Loud: It's a little too quiet here. I'm starting to hear something that challenges me, makes me wonder if I've really been walking the walk, or if I've, in the words of Brennan Manning, acknowledged Jesus with my lips, walked out the door, and denied him with my life.
Quiet: You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.
Loud: I admit, I'm afraid of where you're going to lead me, Jesus. Look at the example you set for us: You went into uncomfortable places. You touched the diseased. You risked rejection by your entire community. You stood against the powerful and they killed you.
Quiet: I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid.
Loud: I have surrounded myself with things to make sure I don't ever feel afraid. What if I let those things go?
You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe.
You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.
Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, Lord.
My son had a hard time falling asleep last night. He was worried about the "drill" they had done at school earlier in the day. The one where the teachers turn off the lights, lower the shades, lock the door, and twenty-six 7- and 8-year-old children huddle in the middle of the room on a carpet. He was obsessed about the possibility of someone coming into the school and hurting his friends or his teacher or him.
"I can't stop thinking about it, Mommy," he said to me on our way up the stairs at bedtime. "I can't stop thinking about it, Mommy," he said as he put on his pajamas. "I can't stop thinking about it, Mommy," as he brushed his teeth. I told him I knew just what would take his mind off of the macabre, then
waited for the Holy Spirit to come tried desperately to think of what I had to offer that was more powerful than fear.
The Holy Spirit showed up—as she usually does, in the form of a song, pulled from the recesses of my own childhood.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I'll walk with God always. The Lord is my shepherd, I'll walk with God always. Always. Always. I'll walk with God always. Always. Always, I'll walk with God always."
We sang it together, again and again as we lay side-by-side in bed. "Do you know why I picked that song?" I asked. No, of course not; abstract thinking isn't quite developed in second-graders. But he understood that in times of fear or uncertainty, it would help to remember that God was with him. God will be with him when he grieves, when he worries, when he is in pain. God will always be with him.
This morning, I woke up thinking of the children whose parents are trying to sing them to sleep as drone-dropped bombs or the waves of unsafe refugee ships crash around them. I think of the children whose parents are unable to provide succor in times of uncertainty, because they've been locked away in a prison system that systematically targets the already marginalized. I think of the children who are huddled in closets and on carpets in elementary schools across the US because we would rather preserve our right to own killing machines than preserve their childhoods.
And I confess that I have often allowed fear to rule me. I have imagined that those who are different from me are my enemy. I have chosen false security over the Shepherd's safety. I have sought comfort in a banquet of isolation, anger, revenge, and the might of being right. When I first realized that I was deeply racist, harboring implicit biases about people of a different skin color, I was mortified and afraid. I didn't know how to deal with the guilt; I didn't know how much of my own privilege I was willing to give up. I didn't want to admit that I'd been wrong, about so much. I was afraid of being seen for who I really was.
Then I started to judge "those people" who I perceived as less-enlightened than I.
We are very good at constructing an enemy out of the other.
As I lamented this morning, the song led me to the Psalm, and for the first time, I read the line "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" and saw that word "presence."
Presence. We are invited to feast at the Lord's table in the presence, amidst, with our enemies. Chew on that, Sarah. God's provision is right in the middle of where you don't want to be.
Consider listening to this song while you pray with me: Good Shepherd, let us feast at your table only, a table you have prepared not only for us, but for those whom we have viewed with fear. Help us to rest fully in the deep water of your mercy. Restore us, oh God, to you, to one another, and to the rest of creation. Show us the way.
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They're Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology. (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).