• Coming Christmas 2019

Overcoming Bad Days, Psalm 23: Part 7

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4

Experiencing the valley of the shadow of death is common to all of us and not just physical death. There are many types of death in our lives.

The death of a lost relationship.

The death of losing a job.

The death of losing our mental faculties.

The death of financial security.

The death of success.

The death of a dream.

Each one of these types of losses can leave us exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And that exhaustion leads to a vicious cycle of worry, doubt and fear. And these lead to poor choices and shortsighted decisions which leads to hanging out in the never-ending valley of death much longer than we ever dreamed possible.

And then we wonder, “How did it ever come to this?”

David had his share of “valley of death” experiences. Some were his own fault (think Bathsheba). Some were the jealousies of others (think King Saul.) Some were family problems (think Absalom). Some were career related (think Philistines). And some were lost relationships (think Jonathan). And when he reflected on all these valleys he could say, “I will fear no evil.” and the reason for this was because “You are with me.”

When we need comfort or we want to comfort someone else and reach for this Psalm, I think we stop reading or reciting right there, at Psalm 23:4a. We are very glad to know that through whatever valley being experienced, fear does not have to be part of that experience. And we comfort each other with reminders of God being in the valley experience. That’s great! Right?

Yes, of course, right! No fear and all God! That’s what we need! But do we take all of the One True God? Or do we really want the god we’ve made up in our heads? You know the one!

The one that gives us big hugs and says, “That’s okay. You can keep on doing this sin and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” We want the god that gives us everything we ask for; even to bless our plans for disobedience. We want the god that we can bargain with; “You know, god, if you do this and get me out of this jam, I won’t go near a frat party for a whole month.”

We want the god that will just hurry up and show up and change our circumstances and get us out of this horrible wretched valley. We want the god that wouldn’t let us get in this valley in the first place and it doesn’t matter that it is my fault that I am stuck there. We even want the god who will zap the “enemies” who put us in this valley: the mean mother-in-law, the overbearing boss, the bully at school, the drunk driver, the thief. They don’t need any kind of god’s mercy. It is not deserved.

Being human, I would imagine that sometimes even David wanted a god like that.

But, when he looked at the history of his life and could see it as the True God ordained it, David came to the conclusion that it was The Shepherd’s rod and staff that brought the greatest comfort and peace in the valley AND provided the only way out of the valley. Seems quite the paradox, doesn’t it? A shepherd with rod and staff in hand bringing the most comfort and surety to his stubborn and wayward sheep. How can that be?

The LORD Shepherd has a rod and staff. They are called the Holy Spirit and the Bible. But here’s the thing. We have to take all of the Holy Spirit; His comfort, His peace, His joy…and His conviction and correction. We have to take the whole Bible, not just the parts that make us feel good or that we fully understand (who can even do that and claim we know the full mind of God!).

We don’t like the rod and staff of The Shepherd because we think it hinders our fun in life. We think it keeps us from obtaining our idea of success and having the American dream. And we would be right on those points!  God is so much greater than just having fun though He is no spoil sport. And His ways are not our ways which is a very good thing. And the American dream has absolutely nothing to do with having a life that is full and rich and meaningful.

The Shepherd uses His rod and staff to keep us close to Him. He uses them to keep us from wondering back into the valley of the shadow of death when He is trying to get us out of there. He lovingly uses His Word and give us The Comforter (Holy Spirit) to help us see as He sees; to give us hope and increase our faith when all seems lost. But even The Shepherd can’t do all of this if we reject the Holy Spirit’s guidance, if we pick and choose what we want to believe in the Bible and what we want to obey. The One True God will not force us out of our valleys, nor will He deny His deity and supremacy over all creation, which includes each of us.

The Shepherd is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! It is He who has made us and not we ourselves. (Psalm 100) It is He who laid the very foundations of the universe and gives us breath and life. (Psalm 103) And it is He who sent His only begotten Son to save us! (John 3:16) Did Jesus go to the cross and suffer the death we deserved just so we could keep on living in the mire of our willful ways and in our sin? God Forbid! (Romans 6-8)

When we forget all these things and try to manipulate our own way in life whether on a mountain top or in the valley, we think we know better than God. That keeps us far from the reality and wonder of Psalm 23.

Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes. Isaiah 40:11

 

 

 

 

Overcoming Bad Days-Psalm 23: Part 6

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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”!

 

 

Overcoming Bad Days-Psalm 23: Part 5

“He guides in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3b

Funny how no one has to train even a young toddler on the fine art of disobedience! No matter what modern pundits would have us believe, sin and the propensity to commit sin is part of our very nature. And any honest parent can see this very early on in their precious baby’s life.

“Please do not hit Rover with that, Amelia.”

Amelia lowers her arm and sits up from her crawl, plastic hammer in hand. She glances sweetly at Mother and then glances back at the dog sleeping quietly next to the cozy fireplace unaware of the danger inching toward him. Amelia returns to her crawling position and with careless ease crawls the few feet to close in on Rover. She’s mastered the ability to crawl and still carry her “weapon” in one hand. She is focused and determined. Rover is funny when wakened from his sleep.

“Amelia.” Mother’s voice is low but firm. “I said, No!”

Amelia thinks for just a moment about that word, “No.” She’s heard it many times already in her short life of just 11 months. It all started when she mastered the art of crawling. That word, “No” has really been a nuisance to her new found freedom , though, and she’s learned she can ignore it for a little while before there are any real consequences. She  realizes that Mother will be displeased if she continues on this short path to their dog. But, Rover is so funny!

There is no pause now. There is no glance back at Mother this time. There is only the innate desire to watch Rover jump up and run around the living room once bonked on the head. Rover is a big fury thing and the hammer is so small in comparison. He won’t be really hurt. No harm will really be done.

In a flash and before Mother can reach her, Amelia comes to her wobbly stance and her arm is raised. The hammer is lowered with all her toddler strength right on Rover’s nose!

You know how the rest of this story ends. Rover indeed jumps up and runs all over the living room. For an instant Amelia is entertained, but just for an instant. Her disobedience has a quick consequence of being knocked over by Rover and an unceremonious tumble to her backside. She is not hurt but cries out from the sheer force of Rover’s weight forcing her to the floor.

Mother finally arrives (Amelia cannot believe how slow parents can be sometimes) and scoops her up in soft yet strong arms. Amelia hears the familiar assurances from Mother that she will be alright, but she does not expect the admonitions of “Never do that again!” and “Why don’t you listen to Mommy” mingled in with the words of comfort. This toddler is confused.  Mommy says it is wrong to hurt others. But Rover is such an easy target and can be so hilarious. She didn’t like the tumble, but that instant of fun…well…maybe it was worth it.

And this is why we all need King Jesus! This is why David, the shepherd king said, “He guides in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

We do not naturally stay on the path of righteousness. Goodness! Sometimes we cannot even find the path let alone stay on it! We want our way and we want it now and any and all means of getting our way are acceptable. Usually when we get this way a righteous path is the farthest thing from our mind, just like our toddler, Amelia.

David knew this about himself and humbly acknowledges that it is only by The Shepherd guiding him that he can find the path of righteousness and then stay on it. And David also acknowledges that God does all this for His own name’s sake.

Does it help us when God guides us on the righteous path? Yes, of course! Does it often keep us out of trouble? Indeed, it does! Is God showing His love to us as He walks with us on the righteous path? Absolutely!

But, The Shepherd guides His sheep in righteousness for HIs own glory and honor. It is Who He Is to guide His children in righteousness; not forced; not robots, but loving guidance. This brings God glory. There is no glory for a robot to do what it is programed to do. There is much glory when a stubborn, willful and stupid sheep willingly stays with The Shepherd on the path of righteousness.

We cannot do this on our own and it is an affront to the Creator when we try and take credit for any righteousness we may exhibit or keep in our minds and hearts once in awhile. And if we think it about, it is quite silly to harbor any pride in this. But we do! And so did David. That is why he wrote down the reminder that the truest restoration of our souls is when God leads us back to the path of righteousness.

We shouldn’t struggle against God’s guidance and keep inching toward sin and trouble. Stay on The Path with The Shepherd!

Psalm 16:11 “You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.”