A Meditation on Psalm 23
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The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint me head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)
Has anyone told you? The cost is great. The pain, the tears, the inner turmoil, the death. The death of dreams. The torture of what-ifs. The sacrifice of what you thought could be.
“Will you follow me?” is the question every Christ follower must answer. But not just follow me anywhere, “Will you follow me here?” Down this road, that leads to this alley, that leads to this turnaround, that leads to this dark valley?
This is the place where it hurts the most. And this is the place where sometimes God leads. This is the place where we confront our deepest fear without any of our protective armor.
This is the place of surprise. Not the “wake up on Christmas morning and you’ve got a new bike” kind of surprise. But the “run right into a brick wall because you were looking behind you” kind of surprise. The impact is felt on every inch of your face. Head-on collision surprise. And it’s this abrupt because you never anticipated coming face-to-face with the darkness of the valley. And yet there it is, before you, dwelling in all of its hideous glory.
And it is to this place that God sometimes calls. Will you follow me here?
My answer has recently been no. Shaking my head over and over again, trying not to hear the question being asked. Like a reckless and naïve child, I have believed that if I hide my eyes and cover my ears the request will somehow go away.
It is too much of you to ask, God. It is too close to home.
I am great with green pastures and quiet waters. But the valley of the shadow of death? I’ll take an indefinite raincheck on that appointment. Don’t call me. I’ll call you, God. Something came up. I will give whatever excuse I can find to avoid following God to the valley of the shadow of death.
Eleanor Stump writes these words in her book Wandering in Darkness: “If one did not care more about what one gained in the benefit than about what one lost in the suffering, how could the benefit defeat one’s suffering?”
Stump’s argument throughout her work is that the benefit does defeat the suffering.
So what is the benefit of the valley of the shadow of death? What is gained in the darkness?
It is the closeness of the Shepherd. The valley brings the Shepherd and the sheep closer than they have ever been before.
Come with me today to Cairo, Egypt, and observe a shepherding Bedouin tribe. The flock is being led by the shepherd through the wadi, a deep valley in the midst of the desert. It is a narrow, rocky path that is framed by steep hills on each side. They are literally trapped by the rocky terrain. There seems to be only one way in and one way out. The only surviving chance the sheep have is to follow the voice and promptings of the shepherd. Come dusk, the shepherd plants himself or herself right in the middle of the flock. And now it is time to rest.
The shepherd and the sheep are side by side. Skin on skin. Breath on breath. Face to face. In the midst of all the mess and all the smell and the chaos the Shepherd is there.
This is the benefit that Stump speaks of. This is the benefit that defeats suffering. Surely nothing short of this would compel us to say yes to following God into such a dark valley.
God is like the shepherd in the midst of the sheep when it’s dark. God is like the parent running to the child who cries out in the night, staying to sing and rock and hold tight until the child falls back to sleep. God is the baby born in the barn crying out in the night. God is here. God is here. God is here.
So today I will say yes instead of no to what is gained in darkness. I will take my hands off my ears and stop closing my eyes to the invitation to intimacy that is found uniquely in darkness. I will count the cost, for it is great. But I will trust that what is gained in the benefit is greater than what is lost.