Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Psalm 23:4a
Valleys! Beautiful and majestic. So much fun to explore and hike through and maybe even camp in to get away from it all. Unless, of course, you are lost in the vastness of Denali National Park! Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, but when it does it costs many man hours and resources to rescue the lost individuals. What’s interesting, is that not just anyone is allowed to hike overnight in Denali. You must register with park services and show them that you are an experienced hiker and have all you need (plenty of water and food) and they want to know exactly where you plan to go and days camping, etc… Even then a good chunk of the park is off limits even to the most experienced hiker. Why? Because once you get into certain valleys of the park, you may never find your way out and rescuers may never find you; the valleys are that complex.
I have not hiked/camped in Denali because I do not fit the above criteria. I did, however, have a once-in-a-lifetime experience to participate in a sea/land tour of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon in the summer of 2018. To say that these beautiful lands of our world are “big” is ridiculous! They are HUGE! We were on a two week trip and only covered a small fraction of their vastness. Enormous! Gorgeous! Majestic! Wild! Mere words really, especially when talking about The Denali National Park. Not even with the most modern video technology can one truly grasp all that is Denali National Park. You have to see it in person! And yet, even in person you can only see a small piece of it. They say of the half-million people who visit this park every year, only 30% actually get to see the giant of Denali itself! We were in the other 70% and so disappointed that this highest point in the United States would not come out and greet us while we were there. Even so, it was all just simply…breathtaking!
Since none of our group had any real hiking experience, we opted for the all day bus tour. Smart move on our part! In and out of valleys we drove on dirt and gravel roads, the bus craning to go up and too quick (in my opinion at least) to go down on the other side. Frankly, after a few hours of this, one valley started looking pretty much like another. Beautiful, of course, but so similar in types of trees and rivers flowing through it and rock formations, and so on. I often thought about how easy it would be to get lost in one of those valleys so I was sure to be obedient when the bus driver/guide insisted we get back on the bus when asked. I did not want to get left behind.
And I often thought of Psalm 23…
Isn’t it interesting that in our language the idea of “valley” is used as a metaphor for a bad season of a person’s life, because most valleys that I have seen, like the ones in Denali, are quite breathtaking. If I stand on top of a hill or hike on a mountain pass and look out, the valleys below are beautiful whether they are lush green or desert. The sure vastness of the scene is enough to take my breath away. I stand very still and am quiet. I want to hear the river rushing on its course below me. I want to imagine the wildlife hanging out in the valley and wonder what their day is like. I scan the sky for the eagles and hawks soaring high above the valley looking for their next meal. I simply want to take the whole valley in. In short, I am in awe of what lays out before me.
So why the negative in equating valleys with all things bad in our human experience?
- A valley is a valley because hills and mountains surround it. Beautiful and majestic at first, these massive boundaries can become haunting like sentries of a prison as time goes by. The valley may be massive, but the claustrophobic feel of said “prison” is very real when there seems to be no way out day after grueling day.
- If you are in a valley, especially one you are not familiar with, there may not be, and probably there is not, an easy way out. Even the most lush valley will become tiresome if there is no obvious way of escape. The valley may seem like a fine place to hang out at first and even be pleasant, but as time passes, an exit to somewhere else is important to one’s sanity. If there is no exit or the exit is not easily found or seems too hard to access, despair will ensue.
- Traveling in a valley can be tedious and exhausting. If the valley is lush, you may have to cross rivers and clear your way through forests and thick undergrowth or climb through rock caverns within the valley. If the valley is barren, the lack of food and water would be of great concern. A great deal of time will be used to find these life giving necessities.
- In the valley you cannot see beyond the formidable mountains. You cannot see the whole picture of what is really around you and the truth of reality becomes blurred. All you know is the valley. There may be civilization just on the other side of the mountains, but you cannot see it. You may even know it is there, but like a dream, you cannot quite fathom your life there because you are “stuck” in the valley. The valley consumes you and consumes every minute of your day.
- You can actually be in one of these massive valleys and not realize that there is anyone else there; that there is anyone looking for you or trying to help you. Often in rescue stories you read of hundreds of rescuers being sent out, even planes and helicopters being used and yet the lost parties believe they are all alone and have no one looking out for them, no one to bring them home.
These reasons and more are why our shepherd king, David, uses a valley to describe the shadow of death.
We all have experienced this shadow of death. If you are reading this you obviously have not died yourself. But the shadow of death has been your experience. Death of a parent or grandparent or a child. Death of a friend or even a coworker we barely know will bring death’s shadow to the door of our soul. We cannot escape it. We cannot put it off. And we have no say in it.
Death is the one thing we humans cannot control.
Some of us have experienced our own shadow of death; the confirmation of cancer or heart disease brings the shadow swiftly into our path. Even the prospect of these diagnoses and the ensuing tests bring us body and soul deep within this valley of the shadow of death.
And even in this, David boldly proclaims, that we do not have to fear!
“…for You are with me”!