By Pastor Josh Bundy
Psalm 23:4 King James Version
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I’ve done a bit of reflecting recently on the nature of loss. Losing a person can happen in many ways, whether to death, a move, a divorce, to illness or pandemic, or to a change in ideology that breaks a friendship. Each loss is unique. Each has its own story. All losses have some elements in common.
One common trait of loss is a deepening of memories; memories can suddenly become sweeter or turn bitter in a departure. People can idolize the past nostalgically and gloss over reality or they might write off all the good times and become full of regret. Another trait is pain, both personal and communal. The hurt in loss can disable us and leave us feeling as if we have no step to take. Another common trait is a loss of dreams and futures. I’m certain there are many more. Sometimes, food becomes bland. Often, living a full life feels like a betrayal.
In one of the most famous lines of verse in human history, David the shepherd and King of Israel captures an essential trait of loss: it is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
It seems very important that David did not sing that he walked through the “valley of death,” but the valley of the “shadow” of death. David had not yet died when he sang this song. He had walked somewhere under death’s shadow, not yet through its door. Perhaps his was a personal loss of scarring depth and crushing weight. We know he lost dear friends. We know he was separated from his family at a young age. We know he lost children. We know he lost his health. We know he lost his freedom for a time. The stories of David are quite full of loss.
Yet David lived when he wrote this song. Like David, those of us reading this blog are alive. In our lives we have experienced profound loss. I don’t presume to categorize yours, but I know that merely by virtue of having survived until now you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. This is the dark and lonely place that those who are left behind come to. It is the shadow that falls on those betrayed, beat up, misunderstood, ignored, and forgotten…or those who have just lived longer than their relatives and friends.
God has something for you even in the shadow. In the dark of the valley other senses become engaged: tactile senses of the shepherd and his sheep; the rhythmic thunk of staff jabbing ground falls between the footsteps of the shepherd, the touch of his rod alerts a distracted sheep from a sharp rock or high fall.
Yet more senses are engaged in the dullness and darkness of loss. A table is set. The smells and sights of cooked foods, baked breads, lit candles, and opened wine fill the poetry with reminders of life. The person recently led through death’s shadow is loved by God. Anointed by God, a sign of healing. In the New Testament, elders of the church are instructed to pray over the sick with the anointing of oil. (James 5:14) It is a reminder that the fragrance of oil which the earth produces is poured over the person who feels the shadow of death. This ministry first belongs to God. Though the hands of elders may apply the oil, Psalm 23 reminds us that it is God who uses it to anoint the afflicted and to heal.
God urges you to eat. Jesus, the shepherd who himself walked through death’s door and rose again satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. (Psalm 107:9) His mother knew this would be true of him and sang about it like the shepherd King of old. (Luke 1:53)
Here, not far from Covenant Church, we have a beautiful park with a lake and trails called Peace Valley. It is a beautiful place of light, of sky, of birds, of water, and of people talking, walking, biking, running… living. Perhaps some of us need to get out there a little more often. As you walk and contemplate in the midst of God’s living world, may he meet you in your shadow and slowly reengage your senses. May he give you comfort until you have come through the shadow and may he restore to you the joy of living.