Commentary on Psalm 27
Psalm 27 invites reflection about the contours of human confidence, theological reflection and discernment, and prayer.
With poetic breathing, each verse exhalation prompts new reflections about the activity of God and where God might be discerned. There is something of a confidence that builds as the Psalm progresses from one verse to the next.
Yet, human experience teaches that there is no shortage of things that can break your confidence. A harsh comment, a piercing critique, a less than stellar performance, and on the list could go. If we have lived any span of time we know the events, people, and places that have shaped us can serve as motivators for us to rethink the direction we were traveling in life and choose another way. Sometimes people can be adept at noticing the places of insecurity we harbor and then exploit them so that personal resolve is broken or shattered.
The beauty of finding out where we lack confidence or what is the cause of our own fear(s) is that we may then discover how to face them or navigate a way through them. Madeleine L’Engle in reflecting on confidence wrote, “It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.”1 So often it seems that rock is more common than sand under our feet. However, a capacity to discern the difference or even courage to place one foot down to sense the stone is overcome by the fear that what we will touch is only sand — or worse quicksand.
The idea of the “imposter syndrome” is an ever-present force with which artists –dancers, musicians, painters, and so on — have to contend daily.2 Was the dance performance good enough? Was the musical composition good enough? Is the work of art good enough? All of which point to a deeper question, “Am I good enough?” I think this phenomenon also has the potential to afflict parish pastors, theological school educators, and anyone who strives to do something well. Something causes feelings of inadequacy to rise like floodwaters from distant tributaries to our personal river of life.
What is the source for our confidence? From what inner wellspring do we drink when times become tough and difficult or when critiques fall on our ears like acid rain? Each of us know too well how the corrosive power of negative comments can cause us to slip and slide in our resolve to stay the course on which we travel. An artist professor of mine would counsel his students prior to the weekly critiques by saying, “Remember it takes 10 good comments to offset one hard critique.”
I have discovered in my own life that where confidence is lacking, there may also be a lack of discernable hope. I have also discerned that sometimes the capacity to gain confidence lies within a reorganization of the objects of your gaze. The life of faith and a renewal of vision for perceiving the activity of God may be found in readjusting horizons by looking to the natural environment.
Seeing the Goodness of the Lord
The Psalmist invites readers to places of self-discovery about the movements of God in the ordinary movements of creation. The land of the living is pregnant with possibilities for seeing the goodness of God. The Psalmist seems to be aware of a truth about the potentiality of the natural environment to unfold pages of God’s goodness and disperse them like scattered leaves about and let them fall where they might. It is really a matter of taking the time and adjusting one’s sight to see them.
For example, I found in youth great joy watching ants meandering along invisible chemical trails. I didn’t know about the chemical trails at the time, but I delighted in seeing their animated dances of life. There was something about a sense of purpose and a zest for life in their segmented bodily movements. I marveled at how fast they could run and how much a spirit of adventure seemed to mark their steps. Maybe it was my own desire to run with speed or spirit of adventure that I was transferring to the ants. Whatever it was, it was there.
When one ant would find a piece of discarded peanut butter and jelly-smeared bread dropped from my soiled fingers, it was almost as if I could hear an audible cry of delight from that ant who then quickly informed his siblings about the find. In moments the day of searching erupted into a dance of delight for the feast to come as they brought the bounty provided by an unnoticed hand back to the hive. I could spend great lengths of time just watching them dismantle the bread and carry it away. How much more must God delight in seeing us discover the items of grace placed before searching hands and busy feet?
Over the span of life I have had scores of conversations with people about prayer and their visceral questions about the purpose of it — What is it? How do you do it well? Why do it at all? What does prayer do for God or for us? When should you pray and where?
The Psalms often articulate the importance of an active prayer life with God. Here Psalm 27 asserts that prayer has positive benefits for those who pray even if the prayer doesn’t eventuate in exactly what one wants the prayer to do. There also doesn’t seem to be any pragmatic correlation between prayer articulation, reception, and divine action. Instead, the activity of prayer enriches a relationship between the one who prays and the one to whom they pray — God. The prayer is individual and communal; it binds petitioners and the one God in an intimate relationship of trust and hope.
Prayer can be poetic and lofty. It can be earthy and mundane. It can be concerned with the bone marrow matters of life that dig deep into the core of human experience and cause people to cry out in tangible pain. The Psalmist knows this first hand and sprinkles words to indicate their own experience.
Seeking God in the middle of confusion could be regarded as the wisest course of action that anyone could take. The Psalmist’s assertion that God will not fail, even if everything else does, can bring hope to one’s spirit and provide strength to go through the day. Bringing to God human thoughts and feelings about anything and everything can bring about confidence for living through the highs and lows of human experience.
The Psalmist claimed that they would, “remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:13-14).
We can join the Psalmist’s declaration that the Lord is our light, our salvation, our stronghold, our confidence, our safety, our shelter, our teacher, and our Savior.
1Chang, Larry, ed. Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millenia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing. Washington, DC: Gnosophia Publishers, 2006. 415.
2For quick thumbnail sketches of the imposter syndrome, please see:Caltech Counseling Center http://www.counseling.caltech.edu/InfoandResources/Impostor and Dr. Paul Rose Clance http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html