The dark valley

The journey of these last several months of pandemic has been like a forced march through a dark valley. It is not a place any of us would have chosen to be. We’re not sure where the path is taking us, nor how long it will take to get there.

And yes: the pall of death has cast its long shadow over many of our lives. Indeed, as I write these words, I see a document in front of me that was emailed to me this morning. It is entitled, “Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected / Purchase Agreement.” One more piece of business to take care of after my mother’s death from COVID: an oddly surreal piece of paper that requires my signature.

But we are no strangers to dark valleys. We knew them before the novel coronavirus; we will know them again after the pandemic has passed, God willing. The question is not whether we will have to walk such paths, but when — and in whose company.

. . .

As we saw in the previous post, sheep depend on a caring shepherd to survive. Without the shepherd’s guidance, we would not find the pasture we crave. The psalmist, writing from the perspective of the sheep, says that God, as shepherd, “guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name” (vs. 3b). Here, the Common English Bible reminds us that shepherds have reputations to maintain; if they’re not capable of leading sheep where they need to go, who will hire them?

At the same time, however, we don’t want to lose the sense of the familiar words from the King James: “he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The Psalms are not merely about survival. As we’ve learned from Psalm 1, there is a path of righteousness and a path of wickedness; the one leads to our blessedness, but the other to destruction.

A sheep doesn’t have the kind of self-reflective consciousness needed to feel “blessed”; it just enjoys the simple pleasure of having a good place to graze. But it’s different for humans. To be truly blessed, to know life as it was meant to be, we need more than a burger, fries, and a Coke. Or even chocolate (if you’ll forgive the heresy). God wants us to follow the path of righteousness, not because God is a stickler for the rules, but because this is what human blessedness looks like.

The problem is that, in a broken world, the path to that kind of pasture may lead through some dark places.

. . .

“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” (vs. 4, KJV). “Shadow of death” translates a Hebrew word comprised of two smaller words meaning… well, “shadow” and “death.” The words convey a dark and foreboding path, at which sheep might balk. The shepherd, of course, isn’t lost, and knows what lies on the other end of the valley. But can he get the sheep to cooperate?

The sheep will brave the valley if they trust the shepherd: “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

Shepherds would use both a rod and a staff to guide and protect the sheep. The rod was shorter and heavier. It could be used to prod the sheep in a particular direction; it could also be used as a club to fend off other animals who had a hankering for leg of lamb. The staff had a crook at the end of it, which the shepherd could use to pull a wayward sheep back in line.

It was the shepherd’s role, then, to provide and to guide, to correct and protect. The psalmist experienced this as “comfort.” Is that how we experience God in the dark places?

If not, it might be that we need to accept and trust the shepherd’s guidance to feel his presence as comforting.