ELM Lenten Blog: Alex Sheppard-Witt

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A couple of weeks ago, I preached at one of our ecumenical Lenten services, and I talked about the power of hymnody. We sang “Just as I Am” together, raising our voices together for the first time since the pandemic began. With nearly one hundred people in a small sanctuary singing together, I felt it in my bones. And I felt my emotions rising along with my voice. 

Music has this way of holding the breadth of human emotion and experience. And tapping into it, when we struggle to find the words to hold it ourselves.

I tend to find myself turning to the Psalms in the tough times (and the good as well). Like music and hymnody, the Psalms contain and preserve the breadth of human emotion and the range of the human experience of the divine. The Psalms challenge. The Psalms comfort. The Psalms inspire. The Psalms engage. They encourage wrestling with God and with the realities of real lived life. The Psalms both utter feelings of God’s forsakenness and trust that those feelings can never turn God away.

This Sunday, Psalm 23 is the appointed Psalm. My favorite translation of the Psalm comes from Robert Alter. He has this way of being accurate with his translations while keeping the feel of the Hebrew – no easy task. I can feel this one in my bones, at the core of me. 
The Lord is my shepherd,
                        I shall not want. 
            In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
                        by quiet waters guides me.
            My life He brings back. 
            He leads me on pathways of justice 
                        For his name’s sake. 
            Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
                        I fear no harm,
                                    For You are with me.
            Your rod and your staff – 
                        It is they that console me. 
            You set out a table before me
                        In the face of my foes. 
            You moisten my head with oil.
                        My cup overflows.
            Let goodness and kindness pursue me 
                        all the days of my life.
            And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
                        for many long days.
[Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 78-80.]

In this text, I find a God who has this stubborn will for life. In God, we find life where death surrounds and closes in. God desires for goodness and kindness that pursue us all the days of our lives.

As Christians, we believe that God doubles down on that will for abundant life for us and all of creation. In becoming human, in living, in dying, in rising, in the person of Jesus, God takes a stand. 

We stand in the shadow of the cross trusting that because in Jesus, God has been there, because in Jesus, God uttered the words “my God my God, why have you forsaken me” we are not alone. We have the promise that God is with us as God godself experiences the vale of death’s shadow on the cross.

Living on this side of Easter, we also stand at the empty tomb. In the resurrection, we have the promise that the worst thing isn’t the last thing. We have the promise with the God made known in Jesus that not even the vale of death’s shadow will have the final word.

Isaac Villegas, in a Christian Century article, puts it this way: “That’s what the gospel is all about: that God makes room for eternal life to grow, for divine love to multiply even in the worst conditions, even in the valley of the shadow of death. The hope of Easter is that not even crucifixion can put an end to God’s work of making space for life in the world. God turns a grave into a place for new birth. God is stubborn for hope, stubborn for life.” [Isaac S. Villegas, “April 26, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Psalm 23,” The Christian Century, April 14, 2015. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-03/april-26-fourth-sunday-easter]

As a recently “out” queer pastor, I have to trust in God’s hope for life, despite the world that tries to bring about death for us. 

Pulpits that were open to me last year in that ministerium group are now closed to me. In the ELCA, I know my next call process will be even more difficult than the one for my current one was. I have to be conscious of where I hold my wife’s hand in public. I don’t always know where I will hit those moments when the world tells me that I shouldn’t exist – at least as my full authentic self. I must lean into the promise, “you are with me.” 

As the world targets drag queens, queer youth, trans & non-binary folks – all too often with the real threat of death – I must lean into the promise, “my life [my God] brings back.” This is not what God hopes or dreams for, and I have to believe that God’s stubborn hope for life will make a way out of death’s shadow. 

My prayer is that the divine love will multiply and that God will continue to make space for life, that the pathways of justice will be made known. For us. Now. My prayer is that we’ll see the death-dealing ways of the world – racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. – make way for the restoration of life abundant. 

Pastor Alex Sheppard-Witt (she/her/hers) is serving as pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Norge, VA. Pastor Alex has a love for wrestling with the biblical text, looking for a blessing. Recently married, she has made a home with her wife, Caitlin, and her pup, Ginger. 

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