Breath, Mothers, and a Psalm
Some of the images from the last ten days won’t go away: the faces of the attorneys at the trial; the video played again and again, never any easier to watch; Derek Chauvin’s face as the verdict was announced; the brief joy following as the reality of the work ahead sank in; Queen Elizabeth sitting alone at the funeral of her husband of 73 years; five years ago this week since the Purple Reign of Prince ended.
Haunting images, paradox, unanswered questions pervade our religious tradition as well as our secular lives. Yet there are those times when a Scriptural event can be set next to some current reality and both are illuminated as a result. I offer you this pairing of past and present I’ve been thinking about this week:
- Testimony of a medical expert during the trial: “George Floyd’s knuckles were pressed against the tire of the squad car while Chauvin’s knees were on his neck and back. …This tells you that Floyd is now literally trying to breathe using his fingers and his knuckles to try and crank up the right side of his chest as it was the only way left to try and get air into his lung.
“I can’t breathe. “
“Mama, I’m through.”
- A commentary on Roman Crucifixion: Crucifixion was designed to interfere with a person’s ability to breathe, due to the weight of the body pulling down on the arms. As the thigh muscles give out, all of the pressure is on the hands as the victim attempts to raise himself up to get a breath.
“Mother, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.”
Both men killed by suffocation. Both cry out to their mothers as death approaches.
These words connect to another important day last Thursday: Earth Day when we remember how much the the planet itself is suffocating from our abuse, threatening the very air we breathe. A professor from Florida observes, “The assault … extends outward to the planet whose ancient and still-telling name is Mother Earth …The time is now for a collective call to the mother. Mama. Call her. Act in her name.” (1)
For some reason these images, these words won’t leave me: no breath, a cry to a mother, and the crisis of Mother earth, even as I started to work on this sermon on — of all things– the 23rd Psalm. The 4th Sun after Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday so there was no escape for me. Eventually I saw a connection among these three things — breath and mothers and the earth–and I’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
The 23rd Psalm, that gentle, pastoral song about still waters and a cup running over with goodness is certainly a contrast to the past ten days! I hadn’t realized that this psalm had been referenced in so much of the popular culture, from a jazz arrangement by Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson, to rock’s U2, to Jay-Z and Kanye West, with numerous film references such as in “Titanic”.
Psalm 23 is nearly everyone’s favorite and is the most-widely-recognized section of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Within it are memories of dozens of funerals and loved ones we miss. It is not a psalm we usually consult when we are happy.
Sheep and lambs are a common reference in Scripture, mentioned almost 500 times, although we may only see these creatures from a distance in a field or at a petting zoo. The cuteness we now associate with sheep and lambs can defeat the seriousness of the psalm if we’re not careful.
Although many cared about their flocks a great deal, shepherds didn’t raise sheep out of love. The sheep were not pets, like “Mary had a little lamb.” Sheep were raised because they were useful; their wool and their flesh representing the shepherd’s livelihood.
In the middle of the psalm is a change, going from speaking of God in the third person “He leads me beside still waters; to the more personal you – “You are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” The first half of the psalm is talking about God; the second part is about an encounter with God. From “The Lord is my Shepherd…” to “You will always be with me.”
We humans are the only species we know of that live with the knowledge that we must eventually die, and sometimes that fear can assume tremendous force in our lives. But the psalm says that we walk through the valley of the shadow – through. Pandemic, epic loneliness, desperate loss — even though it may not seem like it, we don’t have to stay in those places forever. That is the promise.
In ancient times, a shepherd would put oil on a lamb’s head, both to repel insects and to accelerate healing. This reverberates within our own tradition as we are anointed with oil at our baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever or when a priest anoints us for healing or to prepare us for death, as Jesus was anointed before his death by the unnamed woman with the expensive perfume.
This psalm is not only a description of a relationship between God and God’s children, it can also be a format to question that relationship. In Clint Eastwood’s movie western “A Pale Rider,” there is a feud between ranchers and a mining company. A girl’s beloved dog is shot and she goes to the woods to bury it where she proceeds to have a dialogue with God: (posted on E and E Friday)
After burying the dog, she says:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
But I do want.
He revives my soul …
But they killed my dog.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
But I am afraid.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
But we need a miracle.
Your loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.
If you exist.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
But I’d like to get more of this life first. (2)
All good points, all good questions. It is our duty to question, to engage with what we don’t understand. Jesus himself died with a question on his lips.
According to Jesus, the bad guys in the psalm are the “hired hands” who aren’t really concerned with the sheep. Maybe today they are the multitude of voices that cry out for our attention –or our money. Commercials, products to make us happy with an Amazon delivery appearing the very next day at our doorsteps. People telling us what behaviors to adopt (to mask or not to mask, to vaccinate or not), what values to compromise (A Sunday Sabbath — are you kidding me? When else can I get all this stuff done?)
Here’s one of the connections I between this psalm, mothers and breath: Many of the good shepherd’s actions mirror traditional ideas of mothering (which of course can be done by anyone, regardless of gender): finding food, protecting the lambs from harm, tending to wounds, setting the table. And God, mothering, and breath are all connected in this take on the creation by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson:
“This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.” (3)
God as a mammy, a mother, creating life by giving breath.
Last Thursday, on Earth Day we paid tribute to Mother Earth, Mother Nature, and remembered all she provides, including the air we breathe.
The author of a book called Braiding Sweetgrass writes “Earth, that first among good mothers, gives us the gift that we cannot provide ourselves. I hadn’t realized that I had come to the lake and said, ‘feed me’ but (sitting there) my empty heart was fed…. I wonder if she gets tired, old mother Earth, or if she too is fed by the giving. ‘Thanks,’ I whispered, for all of this… and for the privilege of breath.”(4)
So there are the tenuous connections I offer today: Between breath, mothering, the Good shepherd of Psalm 23, and Mother Earth, all attached in some way to the primal outcry we heard this again this week and which echoes through Christianity as well: “I can’t breathe.. Mama. I’m through.”
Finally, I hope you hear some these themes in this as well:
A mild early June night on West Curtice Street where I grew up in what’s called the Forty Acres — a rectangular area that sticks up out of St. Paul but is actually West St Paul, legend has it as the result of a poker game back in the day.
My brother and I are playing with other neighborhood kids during that time before puberty made everything more complicated. Red Rover, Simon Says, Tag, a few kids on bikes riding around. We are a block or two from the yellow bungalow that was home. Our neighbor Mr. Thatcher — still in his business suit — is outside watering the lawn with a garden hose. The sweet perfume of the lilacs means school had just let out for the summer.
As darkness falls, words come through the balmy night air: “Gordy, Barbara, time to come in now.” She would be standing there outside the front door in a circle of porchlight, next to the bed of red, white and pink tulips she had planted that returned so reliably each spring.
We knew her voice, and she knew us better than anyone: Our fears about moving up in the fall to second grade and fourth grade, our childish dreams to be an astronaut or a fashion model, our favorite ice cream. She bandaged our wounds (“Barbara, if you just slowed down you wouldn’t keep skinning your knees”), and then anointed us with a kiss on the forehead. She chased away the bad dreams in the middle of the night and banished the bogeyman from the bedroom. She set the table twice a day and packed our metal lunch boxes. She promised me I would get better as the measles raged — even when they put me in Children’s Hospital for two weeks. She came to see me every day, while my father never came. He said he couldn’t stand to see me laying in a hospital bed.
When Grandma died, she told us she had gone to heaven and that when it thundered outside it was the sound of the angels moving their furniture. She understood how much I wanted a dog and when that didn’t happen, allowed me to feed pieces of hot dogs to the frequent visitor from next-door, a sweet, scraggly canine mess ironically named “Queenie.”
She was there at our first breath, and now this spring evening, as the twilight gives way to night, is there again, calling us home. She would be there all night and she would be there when we woke up in the morning.
1. Jane Kaputi, “We look to mothers….” June 23, 2020, internet source.
2. “A Pale Rider,” produced and directed by Clin Eastwood, 1985.
3. James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation.” In his Collected Works.
4. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013, Milkweed Editions, pp.103 and 384
Note: literary types may recognize a nod to “Knoxville, Summer 1915” (watering the lawn) and To Kill a Mockingbird (the last phrase).