(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on May 13, 2016)
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, KJV).
Perhaps there is no more familiar passage of scripture than the 23rd Psalm. You have likely heard it before. Many people learned it line by line from a grandmother or a Sunday School teacher. If you have ever been to a funeral that is even slightly religious, you might have heard it before. And for good reason. This psalm is a source of great comfort and peace, particularly for those going through a difficult time.
The Psalm uses the metaphor of shepherd to address God. Just as a shepherd provides for and guides sheep, so God provides our every need and will never lead us astray. In the fourth verse, the writer, traditionally understood to be King David of the ancient kingdom of Israel, speaks about “the valley of the shadow of death.” That sounds terrifying! Where in the world can that be? Mourning the loss of a loved one can certainly seem like a dark valley. Facing ones own mortality because of age or illness can be a valley. Loneliness and depression, addiction or living with someone who is addicted is the valley. Uncertainty, conflict, betrayal, pain, isolation all carve out the valleys in our lives. When I stand in front of a congregation of family and friends for the deceased of a funeral I am officiating, I see people in the valley of the shadow of death. If you are a human being, you have likely been there. You may know the contours of valley all too well.
Because the valleys of our lives can be so difficult, frightening and painful, it can be tempting to run through them, trying to get to the other side as quickly as possible. All to often, I hear from people who are trying to rush their grief, asking me for advise about how to get past something immediately. Or conversely, some of us can become so despondent and defeated that we get stuck. We don’t want to move at all. Depression settles in, illness takes hold, a life circumstance such as the loss of a job arises and we throw in the towel, raise the white flag, have a seat and give up. And of course, there are those of us who avoid reality. We deny that we are in a valley. Valley? What valley? Life is great. They are always too distracted with mindless entertainment, workaholism, and the accumulation of things to be willing to admit that life goes through the valley. They live in an unsatisfying state of denial because they are terrified of the reality that life involves suffering and death.
But notice what wise and faithful King David says, “Yea though I walk…” Did you catch that? He walks. He doesn’t run. He doesn’t rush. He doesn’t try to get through to the other side, because he trusts that God leads him and protects him in the meantime. To walk and take our time means that we can invest ourselves in connecting to others during seasons of crisis. If you are rushing through the death of a loved one, you are missing the blessing of walking along side others who are suffering and the blessing of having them walk alongside you. We never have to get through anything alone. God made 7 billion other people on this planet for a reason, lean on a few of them. But you have to take the time to be present.
David says, “Yea though I walk through…” Did you see that word? Through. Notice David doesn’t say that he camps out and pitches a tent in the valley. He’s not making pain a permanent residence. We are supposed to take our time to allow grief to work itself out, to walk beside one another together, but we are going through. The valley is not a destination. And notice how David says, “Yea though I walk through the valley…” in other words, he’s not living in denial. He acknowledges right where he is. Life contains valleys, and we shouldn’t spend our time in the fantasyland of avoidance. It might not be pleasant to be in the valley, but there is no way to walk through it unless you admit that that is where you are. And it shows tremendous faith and maturity to say that you trust God to lead you through. Which leads us to the last part of this verse.
David writes that the reason he can walk through the valley of the shadow of death is because he has the presence of God. He says, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Do you know what a rod and a staff are? The rod was the literal club that a shepherd used to beat back predators. The staff was an instrument of guidance and authority. The sheep would stay close to the staff because they knew it meant the shepherd was there. The followed it. And when they inadvertently drifted off course, the hook at the end of the staff could be used to grab the sheep and pull him back to the herd. The only reason that we can walk through the valley is not because we are so strong or so foolish, but because we do not walk through it alone. We have the protection, authority and guidance of God with us. And because God is a good shepherd, we can trust that he will never leave us and never lead us astray.