When I was in third grade, my grandfather made me memorize the 23rd Psalm (in the King James version, of course; is there any other way we’d prefer to hear or recite it?). At the time, I was enduring several months of “confirmation” in the Presbyterian Church, and my grandfather was mentoring through the process. From that deeply meaningful experience, one that as an 8-year-old I was unable to fully appreciate, I still remember a number of scripture passages and other theological principles that have proven pivotal for my own discipleship. But the requirement to memorize the 23rd Psalm is a gift I have opened many times over the years for many different reasons in many different contexts. As the presidential election ventured into the early hours of Nov 9th, I decided I had seen enough and decided to go to sleep. But I was restless, anxious over the deep divisions in our nation and the uncertainty shared by so many, whatever their political leanings. And so I began to silently recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 23rd Psalm. And I slept.
But the fear remains, and short platitudes about God being in control seem abstract and insufficient. We worship God-in-flesh, and we long for an encounter, an experience of Immanuel, a tangible sense of assurance that God knows our fears and is making a way, leading the way, and who is the way, alive in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Frederick Buechner offers a remarkable insight into the 23rd Psalm that more adequately situates fear in the context of a God who is personal, immanent, and with us.
“The psalm does not pretend that evil and death do not exist. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as to bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn’t try to explain evil. He doesn’t try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn’t have the power to make him afraid.
And why? Here at the very center of the psalm comes the very center of the psalmist’s faith. Suddenly he stops speaking about God as “he,” because you don’t speak that way when the person is right there with you. Suddenly he speaks to God instead of about him, and he speaks to him as ‘thou.’ ‘I will fear no evil,’ he says, ‘for thou art with me.’ That is the center of faith. Thou. That is where faith comes from.”
Buechner’s reorienting us to God as “thou” immediately reminded me of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s Communio Sanctorum, in which Bonhoeffer drew upon Martin Buber’s concept of “I and Thou.” Amidst the vast technological, demographic, and economic changes that are rapidly reweaving the social fabric, “I and thou” reminds us of a deeper way of relating to others through intimate friendship, vulnerability and transparency, the desire of souls to be knit together, as David and Jonathan once shared. Within this framework, Bonhoeffer constructed his theological vision of encountering “the other,” which he believed to be necessary for our encounter of Jesus Christ. For Bonoeffer the I-Thou relationship between the subject and the divine is analogous to the relationship of the neighbor, the friend, the stranger. He writes, “The other person presents us with the same challenge to our knowing as does God. My real relationship to another person is oriented to my relationship with God” (Ibid). In standing with and for the other person whom Jesus stands beside, one encounters Christ as they see the mystery of the other’s humanity. “To sum up,” Bonhoeffer wrote,
“man’s entire spirituality is interwoven with sociality, and rests upon the basic relation of I and Thou. ‘Man’s whole spirituality becomes evident only along with others: the essence of spirit is that the self is through being in the other.’ The I and the Thou are fitted into one another in infinite nearness, in mutual penetration, forever inseparable, resting on one another, in inmost mutual participation, feeling and experiencing together, and sustaining the general stream of spiritual interaction” (Ibid).
To say in the midst of division that we need each other or that we need to better understand one another will never suffice as a merely pragmatic or utilitarian plea. Jesus calls us into the lives of the other not just because it’s the right thing for his followers to do, but because this is what it means to follow Jesus in the first place.
As we endure what will likely be an increasingly divided public space and an eroding social fabric, fear will surely be a force to be reckoned with. We will be tempted to fight, flee, or disengage altogether. But the God who raised Jesus from the dead calls us to a deeper engagement and conquering of fear by pursuing “thou,” those who seem so radically “other.” The courage to do so is rooted in the cross of Christ, where the one who became “other” by becoming sin (2 Cor 5) calls us to do the same. Oddly, it is precisely in this valley of death, this liminal space of contradiction, cognitive dissonance, dim mirrors, and our inability to see one another as God intends that we can begin to understand David’s words, “for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”