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.