23rd Psalm - Disorientation

“A good song takes on more meaning as the years pass by.” - Bruce Springsteen

Since the inception of their writing, the Book of Psalms have been the historical backing track of our faith journey. This broad spectrum of poetic rendition seeks to express the conundrums and collaboration of the human-divine interaction. They do not censure or deny the deepness of our own pilgrimage, covering off the full range of emotion that rages deep within the human condition.

The psalms are not tidy and comfortable, but complex and contradictory reminding us that life is challenging at the best and worst of times.

The psalms are an ancient collection of poems that reflect the seasons of life that human beings regularly find themselves in. Walter Brueggemann calls those seasons the place of  orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Reading and praying the psalms can be a contemplative act of reflection and resonance.

The place of orientation, in which everything makes sense in our lives and we are generally at peace with our surroundings;  the place of disorientation, life is a bit dark and we feel we have sunk into the pit and the brown stuff is hitting the whirly thing; the place of new orientation, when we realise that God has lifted us out of the pit and we are in a new place full of gratitude and excitement about what lies ahead.

Psalm 23 is the supreme example of how these three seasons unfold before our eyes in 3 beautiful stanzas. 

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
3 He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley*
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Verses 1-3 are the place of orientation, where life is overshadowed by divine favour and peace. In verse 4 the plot thickens and the dark shadow descends where the writer find himself in a place of consternation. Verse 5-6 begins to move us into a new place of reality where the real world is now the new paradigm for my life.

Psalm 97:2 – “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;”

The nature of darkness and shadow space that we all inevitably get to wander into is central to the understanding of what the divine allows for our maturation and evolution. The nature of anguish, uncertainty, mystery, lament, dark night of the soul and despair is all a critical part of our experience if we are to follow the trajectory of providence. In order to move through to new orientation we must all experience disorientation. There is no fast track to the new, in fact Brueggemann says that despair is where hope lives. In other words we all need to experience the darkness in order to find the God who hides in the shadows. Maybe Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a metaphor for how hope brings life out of death.

Eckhart Tolle - “The dark night of the soul is a term that goes back a long time.  It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.”  When St John of the Cross coined the phrase ‘dark night of the soul’ he was reminding us that the art of trust is best learnt when you are not in control or able to manipulate the outcomes. Life takes on new meaning when you have to grope in the dark while listening for the reassuring voice of courage.

The two big ideas that emerge in verse 4 of Psalm 23 is that of Companionship and Comfort. When we are struggling to make sense of the world we all want to know ‘who is with us’? and ‘what difference will that make to our situation’?

Companionship is the reassurance that we are not alone on this journey through liminal space. C.S.Lewis describes this beautifully in The Horse and his Boy:

“And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he [Shasta] felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.  What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the thing (or person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls…. …The thing (unless it was a person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope that he had only imagined it….

…So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him.”

I dont just need to know that someone is beside me, I need to feel the consolation and caress of physical and emotional  interaction. There are a number of pertinent stories that have reassured me of impending Comfort, especially in the light of their bizarre nature. In 1 Samuel 16, King Saul is swallowed up by a mysterious darkness that is suggested to be a divine disfavour of sorts. The powers that be need a happy king lest the kingdom be destabilised so they find a musician to play and relieve his discomfort. Music has a long history of lowering anxiety, calming our demons and changing our mood. When did you last feel the warm healing balm of a song that played over your life like a divine envoy coming to your aid. I spend dedicated time most weeks listening to new artists and the emerging sounds that arrive on the scene to bring me some kind of comfort. The transcendence of music is not fussy about who it comforts, it’s a great navigation tool through darkness.

"When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom, let it be, 

And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, Speaking words of wisdom, let it be, 

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, Whisper words of wisdom, let it be…”

 - Paul McCartney

When I first heard the story of how Paul McCartney wrote ‘Let it be’ I was amazed  how comfort can come from beyond the grave to assist us in life. When mother Mary (his actual mother) comes to him in a dream and reassures him that letting go of the Beatles future as a band is ok, I experienced a sense of relief over my own personal issues of ‘letting go’. We so often think that success in the eyes of others is the most important thing.

In 2 Corinthians 7:6-7 (msg) Paul is describing the experience he had with a surprise visitor, ‘…then the God who lifts up the downcast lifted our heads and our hearts with the arrival of Titus. We were glad just to see him, but the true reassurance came in what he told us about you: how much you cared, how much you grieved, how concerned you were for me. I went from worry to tranquility in no time!”

The greatest expression of comfort comes from those who come to us with the unexpected realisations that our lives mean more than we previously thought. The comfort of a friend is powerful but comfort from a stranger is profound. The unexpected arrival of comfort lifts our spirits and elevates our expectations. We have no idea what is really going on outside of our immediate surroundings, maybe the Universe really is conspiring on our behalf as the great comforting companion she really is?


Greg Burson

23rd PsalmClint Gibson