On February 9, 2012, fifteen speakers at the second annual TEDxManitoba conference, including two from Mennonite Brethren churches, animated the day with their “ideas worth spreading.” Technology Education Design is a secular, nonprofit project that believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and ultimately the world. Their online site www.ted.com/talks attracts a global audience in the millions.
After the conference was over, I stepped back to look for unplanned common themes that connected the diverse presentations. It was fascinating to note how frequently the concept of “non-polarized” or “non-dual” thinking appeared in the various talks.
One of the secular speakers, TJ Dawe, referenced the teachings of Christian writer Richard Rohr to explain how humans usually think in diads, or opposites. “Are you with me or against me? Are you right or are you wrong?” Dawe made the point that this kind of dualistic thinking usually leads to lose-lose situations.
In her talk, Wilma Derksen – an MB – outlined her journey to forgiveness after the murder of daughter Candace 27 years ago. For her, the pathway to forgiveness meant breaking the polarity between love and justice.
Ancient biblical wisdom
It seems that many of us – Christian and secular alike – are rediscovering an ancient truth sung about in Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Song. At the heart of the psalm, in verse 5, we find two phrases that appear to oppose each other.
The first, “You prepare a table before me,” signals the world is good. In Palestine, when the heat of summer comes, it’s time to take the sheep on a long trek into the high country to find cooler weather and grass to eat. Author W. Phillip Keller, a modern shepherd, describes how every spring he took his children up to the summer meadows, where they would spend days combing over the grass, plucking out the white cammas flowers. If the lambs even nibbled a few of these poisonous leaves, they would stiffen up and die. For us, when the Good Shepherd prepares the table, the world is good.
The second phrase of verse five, “in the presence of my enemies,” signals the world is dangerous. On the high meadows in summer, there are cougars and coyotes and wolves. These carnivores aren’t inherently evil, but to survive, predators must eat meat. For the sheep, the presence of enemies means death is the natural, inevitable outcome. In the presence of enemies, evil is real.
Psalm 23:5 seems to hold out a choice of two different postures for facing the world. On one hand, if we believe the Good Shepherd prepares a table for us and the world is good, we “sheep” can maintain a posture of trust, grazing and lying down in safety. On the other hand, if we believe that enemies are present and evil is real, we must adopt a posture of fear, agitated huddling, and panicked stampeding.
But Psalm 23 embraces non-dualistic thinking. Both halves of the verse are true. Both understandings of the world are real.
At the beginning of the psalm, near the stability of home range, the psalmist says: the Lord is my shepherd; he makes me lie down; he leads me; he refreshes my soul. At the end, the sheep return again to the safety of the fold, where they “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The language at the beginning and end reads like a detached account, talking about the Good Shepherd in third-person language.
But at the heart of the psalm, when the sheep come face to face with danger, evil, and death, the psalmist sets aside third-person language, shifting to second person – the language of relationship.
“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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Our close relationship with the Good Shepherd helps us hold in tension two opposite truths.
The Easter message of our faith is that the Good Shepherd knows, by experience, the reality of betrayal, abandonment, and death. And the Good Shepherd knows, by experience, the stronger truth of God’s goodness and resurrection life.
Yes, evil is real, and yes, the table is prepared before us. In this tension, we can choose a posture of trust.