Sunday, January 5, 2014

Walking in The Valley of the Shadow of Death

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23

When I was a preschooler, I learned the 23rd Psalm with my grandfather's encouragement.

I don't know why he picked those verses, but I know as a reward I got to go into the nicest department store in town and pick out a dress. They told me I chose the most expensive one in my size and it still hangs in my closet, waiting to be worn by another generation of little girls.

Whatever his reasons for choosing it, that is certainly the only chapter of the Bible I could quote from memory; some of the few verses I could easily identify.

In the last three weeks, those verses have taken a different memory from what I always assumed they meant. Although they haven't changed in that David spoke of God as the one who protected and cared for him in all situations, my view of one of those situations has changed. In verse 4, I'm not sure if David was writing about his mortality which I had always assumed, or his own journey into grief because, like me, he lost a beloved son. I don't know about the history and how it lines up with his songs, but I know that I now read those verses differently than I did a few weeks ago.

To me, the valley of the shadow of death isn't where I go when I die or when my life is endangered, it's where I've been for weeks now.

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.

This verse has repeated in my head countless times since the call informing me that Ethan was dead.

My walk has been on a dark path because of the shadow of death. It isn't my death. It isn't sickness and the threat of my own mortality. The shadow of death is grief and it has changed the light through which I view the world. It's a shadow that adds a bittersweet edge to everything I do, a fear that some other next time won't come, that all my tomorrows will feel like today.

And yet, the Psalm reminds me to fear no evil, for God is with me and I will have comfort.

I've never considered myself a "good Christian," for lack of a better way to put it. God is as real to me as the sun that shines on my face on the hottest day of July, but I have lived a far from perfect life even when I knew better. I never thought I was favored by God, even when I managed to come through some of my dumber stunts unscathed. I never felt I had an inside track, because my prayers seemed to fall on unlistening ears as often as anyone else.

But as I've walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I've found out that God really is listening, it has been I who wasn't hearing. Time after time, when I've needed help just to keep going, the phone has rang, a song has played on the radio, or I've seen in my mind the answer to my prayer or felt just how wrong I was to let my feelings of despair consume me. I do not need to be afraid that everything is not under His control or that there won't be something to ease this grief.

I'm certain that skeptics would say I'm delusional and that the God I believe is caring for me doesn't exist or at the very least doesn't care. But coincidence is a term that I don't place a lot of faith in, and my life since losing Ethan has been too full of sudden answers and gifts of understanding. No, not the total understanding of why that I would wish to have, but an understanding that lets me accept the way my life has suddenly changed and keep on living.

I no longer see myself alone in this valley through which so many of us are walking. I see myself with new friends who travel the path of life under the same dark shadow. I see us all reaching out to one another and guided by the shepherding hand of God.

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