Just Passing Through
Sermon on Psalm 23 by Rev. Steven McClelland Focus: How the valleys in life bring us to God.
I’ve heard this psalm all my life. I’ve heard it used at most every funeral I’ve attended or officiated at. Next to the Lord’s Prayer it’s probably the most memorized piece of scripture in the Bible. I think there is good reason for it. In its brevity is covers every aspect of life.
The need we have for material sustenance. The need we have for rest. The fact that we all will go through the valley of the shadows and the hope that we all have that goodness and mercy will truly follow us throughout our lives.
It’s also a psalm that rings true for me, but not because somebody taught it to me as something true. It’s true for me and for others because throughout time human beings have experienced it as true. So the only way I can talk to you about this psalm is to share the insights that have come to me from having lived long enough and having gone through enough to know it on an experiential basis.
I am non-the-less indebted to those early Sunday school teachers who taught me to memorize it even though I didn’t understand it at the time, because later in my life it often sprang to mind, as I need it the most.
If as the scholars suggest, this psalm was written when Israel was in exile and written, as was the book of Job, with individual people, rather than a nation in mind, then it’s truth is likely to be experienced when your life has suddenly been turned upside down. Whether you have gone through a divorce, experienced a loved one’s death, or in any way been pounded with the reality that life happens in spite of your best laid plans you will recognize the truth of this psalm.
I believe it’s the way God brings us closer to God’s self. And for that reason I think its better to begin our look at this psalm with the part that says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or as Woody Allen says, ‘No make it: I shall run through the valley of the shadow, that way I shall get through it quicker’ for thou art with me; they rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
For me, anyway, the experience of the 23rd psalm didn’t begin with the affirmation that the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; or that he makes lie down in green pastures or leads me beside still waters. An allusion akin to something called naptime that no three-year-old full appreciates and every parent dreams of. But that is not how it really goes. For most people the 23rd psalm really begins with the valley. Only after you’ve made it through the valley do you experience the calm waters of rest and the restoration of your soul.
In my case, the decent was a slow journey into the valley of depression, something that a lot of people suffer with. But your valley’s name may be death of a loved one or loss of a job or apartment or whatever, but the feeling is pretty much the same and its name is – loss.
Now as you descend off of the rim of the canyon where all is open, light and flat you notice that you can’t see as far ahead with all of the switchbacks. You notice that the light doesn’t make its way down into the canyon as easily or for as long as it does up on the rim. The shadows get longer, the edges get steeper, and the nights get longer. And after awhile there is nothing that is familiar to you. There is, as William Styron’s book so realistically declares only: Darkness Visible.
Now the first reaction is one of panic or terror because you are not in control anymore and what is happening to you feels alien. It’s like a child’s nightmare, but you realize you are wide-awake, so the old paradigms of living and of moving ahead are no longer helpful. But if you can hang in there, through the long night; morning’s light will eventually come, reminding you that the light does come and shine in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it, though it will give the light a run for its money.
And while this repetitive cycle of darkness and tiny rays of light continue for a very long time you begin to see that the fear of evil, better translated fear of total and complete abandonment: “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me” does not totally consume the soul though it may overwhelm the senses.
It is at this point that you begin to notice for the first time: “That thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Unexpected phone calls and cards, all the little tiny things that we think are no big deal is really the stuff of miracles. They are the Lord’s rod and staff, they are the Lord’s presence; and they did comfort me.
And then there is the table. Prepared in the presence of my enemies. For the longest time I took this literally. I thought about all of those who had ever slighted me or who had done me wrong. I thought they were the enemies whom I was going to have to sit at table with. Maybe some day I still will, but I really think these “enemies” are the many facets of our personality that we encounter in the valley that have remained hidden. Stress, fear and loneliness bring out all kinds of inner aspects that you might not even be aware of.
One thing is for sure, anyone who has ever made a searching fearless moral inventory of themselves knows how difficult it is to look at all of the aspects within yourself that you would prefer stay hidden from yourself has come to dine with one’s internal enemies. It’s not easy to see your dark side. It’s not easy to sit at a table where the dinner guests are reminding you of the hurts you’ve caused or the guilt you’ve carried or in the living you’ve lost trying to make yourself acceptable to others.
But when dinner is over and all of the parts of you begin to assemble in the kitchen to clean up and you get ready for tomorrow, what used to be a hope is now an experienced reality. And you know it has always been God who has watched over and brought you through the valleys in life to places of goodness and mercy.
And what’s amazing, as you gaze back at where you’ve been and where you are now, is the awareness that nothing can take the experience of this psalm from you. You are the Lord’s. Amen