4. 23 and the Judean Wilderness

“Sit here and watch,” said the old Arab Christian.  It was May, 1990 and the sun was setting as we watched from the eastside of a hill overlooking the west-facing Judean Wilderness.  Yesterday, Farah, our 80-something year old guide introduced us to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls – a place where, as a young archaeologist, he had invested years of his life.  He giggled, bounced, and talked like a teenager – but that was yesterday.  Today – he was quiet, wise, reflective, and worshipful.

“Watch,” he said, “and you will see the valley that King David wrote about in Psalm 23.”

We watched in silence as the sun set behind us and the shadows crept into the narrow twisting valley before and below us.  The approaching darkness turned a narrow sunny canyon that was moments before alive with the busyness of the day into a valley filled with the approaching night, the shadows of death.  This was David’s valley.

How quickly the shadows come.  If they’re not here now, we know they’re coming soon.  Valleys always show up.  The cycle of God’s creation follows a rhythm as night is day’s companion.  God spoke it into being and declared it to be good.  With it comes challenges, struggles, disappointment, and approaching shadows of all kinds.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Jesus was pretty clear, “In this world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33)  He didn’t say, might.  He didn’t say, maybe.  He said, “You will.”  Creation’s brokenness and tribulation’s shadows will show up – always.

There is a second half to John 16:33.  Missing it would be like remembering the crucifixion on Good Friday but leaving out the victory of the Resurrection of Easter.  The rest of it says, “Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.”   Ah, yes!  Darkness gives way to light.  Death could not hold Jesus.  The stone of death’s shadowy valley had to yield and must still, because it was overwhelmed by Christ’s victory. “Where, O Death, is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15)  That is why there is no fear in death for the believer. “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.”

Most of what I’ve learned about Psalm 23 over the years have been gifts from “valley-walkers.” A cancer-tired voice declared, “I’m going to be ok, pastor, I’m not afraid.  23 says, ‘Yea, thou I walk through the valley.’  I just need to remember that it says, ‘Through.’  It doesn’t say that my journey stops.  The valley isn’t blocked at the end.  It isn’t a dead end from which I cannot escape.  It says that I walk THROUGH!  It means that, in the moment I take my last breath on this earth, I will take my first in heaven.  I will walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death!”

The Psalmist wrote of “the through” in another place when he spoke of the valley of death and grave:  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.  Psalm 118:20

Valley-walkers know this stuff.  We can learn a lot from them.  Their cups overflow.

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3. The Value of 23

When Kathy and I headed west from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1984 to serve our first congregation, the people of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Huntington Beach, California I was ready with a brand new Revised Standard Version Pocket Bible to use for hospital visitations.  I was young, excited, and ready.

During my seminary years the Psalms I was selecting to read when I visited people in the hospital or homes expanded to include chapters like 46, 91, and 121 (still included in my go-to rotation).  What I soon discovered, however, was that most people wanted me to include Psalm 23 – in the King James Version; usually because it was what they had memorized years ago.  23 in the RSV was close – almost KJV – but close only works in horseshoes and hand grenades and certainly not when it comes to Psalm 23.  I eventually got to the point where I’d look at the words of 23 in my RSV Bible but my lips would speak the King James.  It was crazy.  They were training me well! Why was this such a big deal for people?

There was apparently something about those 6 verses that I wasn’t getting.  I knew they had mattered to my grandmother, but I was innocently amazed that they mattered so much to everyone else.  Often, as part of a hospital visit I’d ask, “Got a request?”  “Psalm 23” – of course.  Planning a funeral service?  Count on it! “23” was usually on the top of the list.  For a while I even tried to boycott 23.  It was sooo traditional and I was trying so hard to be different – after all, I was the new pastor in town.  If everyone wanted to use it so much – I’d use it less.  Hey, people needed to know and learn other parts of Scripture too, right?  Don’t just stay with the familiar – what’s the purpose in that?

I was off track.  I was loved by my church but tolerated in my immaturity.  27 years old, fresh out of school, the “cub pastor.”  I hadn’t walked through many “real” valleys in my life – yet.  23 hadn’t taken root in me. I was still learning its value.

It was during my second sermon at Redeemer when one of our ushers had a heart attack in the narthex.  Sadly, he died later that day.  A glass wall in the back of the sanctuary provided more visuals than I wanted: firetruck, ambulance, rescue workers – all in the days before defibrillators were mounted to church walls.  The people of Redeemer sat there mostly unaware of the events of life and death, the valley, that played out behind them in the entrance to our church. From the pulpit I glanced over at my senior pastor with a wide-eyed look, “What should I do?”  His hand and index finger simply stirred the air – keep going, finish the sermon.  And so I did; distracted and uncertain I pressed on.  Later, at the hospital, while seeking to console a grieving widow for the first time, she told me, “Pastor Mike, thank you for being here.  Steve really enjoyed your sermons.”  Enjoyed?  From my vantage point, it kind of looked like my sermon killed him.  It was a valley.  I was getting closer, but this was her valley, not mine. I was, however, privileged to look – and learn.

Throughout the years, as the people of God enter and exit life’s valleys, I have been honored to walk alongside them. They take me with them into these holy places and, as a result, I developed a deeper understanding of the valleys of life and death.  Along the way I learned that familiar things like 23 are ok – actually, they really matter!  They are important in valleys. They serve as markers of comfort.  23 isn’t just a traditional choice – it is a friend, a companion, God’s tender voice for any moment.

In recent years I had a wonderful experience with a dear saint who was walking through a valley of cancer and slowly approaching eternity.  He was tired, longing for his heavenly home and the healing he knew would come. We were sitting quietly in his room one day, just the two of us, when he turned his eyes slowly to mine and asked, “Will you do something for me?  Will you pray right now that God will take me to heaven right now?  But before you do it, would you please read Psalm 23, it always gives me so much comfort.” I said, “yes” and I did – both.

As I spoke 23 over him and prayed, I did what I often do and kept my eyes open so I could see what God might be doing in the person for whom I am praying.  His eyes?  They were closed – I mean, jammed shut – with an intense concentration on his face as if he was trying to will himself to the other side of the valley.  When I got to the line, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” he nodded his head sharply one time – with certainty – and then his intense countenance became one of peace.  I prayed the prayer he asked and, when I said, “Amen!” his eyes flew wide open.  He had been hoping to see the face of his Savior, not me!  It had to be a major disappointment to him.  It was an amazing blessing to me.  May we all be so ready.  May I be that ready too.

2. Every Day a Bridge, a Valley, and a Mountain

It was the fall of 1960.  Buses were still taking elementary students to school in the Sacramento Unified School District.  Something happened part way through Kindergarten and the buses went away.  I don’t know the reason, budget cuts probably.  But I do remember the day when my parents announced that I was going to walk to school the next Monday.  A big event was planned for the weekend.  We were going to make a trial run all the way to Bowling Green Elementary School and back.  It was a whole mile each way.  (Can’t imagine lining up my kindergartners 30 years later to make the same walk.  But then, it was a different time back then.)  Dad and Mom led the way to school, but it was my job to get us back home.  Success! Mission accomplished. But there was still a nagging worry that I wouldn’t remember what it looked like to walk the other way come Monday morning.

Most of the families who lived at the corner of Planet and Nova Parkways moved in about the same time to this brand new South Sacramento suburb.  Mostly boys with a smattering of girls.  (Grandmas used to say back then when there were more boys than girls around that God was raising up the next army.)  The boys on the street were close friends.  We spent most of our free time playing army with silhouetted rifles cut out of 1x4s, painted black, or playing baseball of the diamond we’d set up on the intersection in front of my house.  This morning, Monday, we gathered for another reason.  There was to be no bus for the first time and we were walking to school.

Lunch boxes were distributed (don’t drop it, you’ll break your thermos), directives were given in quiet tense voices (go straight to school, come straight home, don’t talk to strangers, stay on the sidewalk).  Hugs were applied and kisses planted (and immediately wiped off).  We walked together down the street like soon to be victors heading off for the day’s battle.  Moms and Dads lined up on the sidewalk waving goodbye with hearts full of all kinds of second thoughts.  Down to the end of Planet, hang a left for a short half block on North Parkway, and then right on Sky Parkway to the end.  To the bridge.  The bridge over Morrison Creek and to the field that stretched beyond.

It was only a residential drainage ditch but it held wonders for us.  It was an imagination’s dream.  What would Morrison Creek bring today? Would there be raccoons still working their way back to dens, jack rabbits running in the field (later during summer days we’d go hunting in the field with our bows and arrows), or maybe even a body floating on the still green water (we could only hope!).  Every day we’d turn sideways to squeeze ourselves between the metal posts that kept motorized vehicles off the bridge and then run to the middle of the bridge, pushing our anxious faces into the chain link, eyes, nose and mouth lined up between the wires, first on one side and then the other.  “What do you see?  Anything?”  We were usually disappointed to find nothing more exciting than tadpoles and minnows swimming in brackish water.  Sooner or later one of the guys would hear his mom’s voice in his head, “go straight to school,” and he’d call us forward to the end of the bridge and down into field and the valley we had to cross every day.

An asphalt path had been laid through the field.  It came down the hill from the bridge with a right hand turn that took us along the north side of the field where other roadways fed more students onto the path.  There were always distractions.  We ritually connected each morning with friends merging onto the journey and, depending upon the time of the year, worked our way around puddles (or to at least make an attempt to ford them with pieces of busted lumber and stones thrown into the water to create a bridge of our own).  The field would eventually hold a new subdivision, but for now it was an obstacle of glorious distractions that had to be crossed.

“One mile uphill, both ways, even in the snow” said parents who tried to wow us with their school walks, as if that was going to give us confidence for our journey.  We knew our journey was the toughest, way more dangerous than that of our parents.  Our valley was undeveloped, dusty, a home for critters, full of unknowns, and glorious!  What we didn’t see we could imagine.  But even after crossing the valley we had a mountain to climb – every day.  It was certainly lost on us how many life lessons were being taught in the valley between Morrison Creek and the walk bridge over Highway 99.  We were being prepared by living and playing with life; every day, every step, crossing bridges, valleys, and mountains – some days easier, some days harder than others – just like when we’d grow up.

There was a creative litany about it all.  The introduction of life’s rhythm to boys and girls who would grow up to live and walk in real valleys.  And so, each morning began with the familiar chorus of parent voices and admonitions, children sojourners doing what they did every day, friends coming and going on the journey, doing life, discovering it together.  All of it before 8:15 in the morning.  It was familiar, good, and holy.

“23”

This was going to require perfection.  Not from me so much.  At 8 years old I was limited in what I could do.  Most of this was on my Mom and Dad.  They had to make sure that I showed up for all the required nights at Our Savior Lutheran Church.  Oh, I did my part:  I reminded, clock-watched, stood at the door, and waited restlessly in the car until the engine started and we backed out of the driveway.  This required perfect Wednesday evening Lenten attendance.  To win the award Bible I had to be at all six Wednesday nights from Ash Wednesday to the Wednesday before Palm Sunday.

On the last Wednesday in Lent, after the service was over, I stood in line with the other perfectionists holding tightly to my attendance card.  My name, written in pencil in the middle of the card in an 8 year old’s script, was surrounded with six perfect attendance boxes signed off with an usher’s initials.  One after another we stood before our robed pastor, gowned in the black and white of cassock and surplus, with a dark purple stole – this was official stuff after all.  I proudly offered the perfect attendance card in exchange for a King James Version Pocket Bible of the New Testament and Psalms.

The first thing I remember doing with my new Bible was to tuck it into my pants pocket when we went to visit my grandparents for Easter.  Mom and Pop, we called them.  They were the best, they were my favorite, and so, I hoped, I was theirs.  The house on Anderson Way in Sacramento was a kid’s wonderland: the massive backyard with trees big enough for climbing, their little female boxer, Kinder, Pop’s workshop, practice-driving their boat “Littl’ Toot” as it sat on the trailer, and the black and white chessboard tile floor in the living room.   Wherever you stood in the room, the lines drew your eyes toward two pieces of furniture:  Pop’s chair and Mom’s rocker.  Almost like thrones for the King and Queen on the chessboard living room floor.

And so, on that day I presented myself before the Queen, to be celebrated for perfection, Bible in hand for inspection.  As I leaned against the throne she opened my Bible with purpose, turning past the books of the New Testament, and only pausing when she got to the Psalms.  Psalm 1, 2, 3 . . . she didn’t stop turning until she got to 23.  With her finger on the page her face turned toward me and said, “This one – 23 – is my favorite.”  And she began to read:

“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, KJV)

That night as I got into bed I turned to 23 and tucked into place my Bible’s little black ribbon.  “23” –  it was now my favorite too.