When my Dad was little he grew up for a time in a house on the old California State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento (now long gone) where Pop was the fairground’s labor foreman. One of his favorite memories was watching the Barnum and Bailey Circus Train pull into town and offload in preparation for the performance. Elephants, lions, tigers, horses, clowns, jugglers – they all poured off the train and into line and whether in cages or on foot, they paraded through town to promote the circus. At the end of the parade was a group ignored by most, but critical to the effort. They were the ones pulling garbage cans, pushing brooms, and sliding shovels to clean up after the parade.
Life and valleys are messy. Since the day a verdant garden transformed into the valley of the shadow of death, debris follows our actions, words, and thoughts. All of us are guilty. Our brokenness leaves a parade of disappointment and piles of failure in its wake. Being human makes you part of the club. Bodies wear out, relationships crumble, poverty crushes, addictions destroy, and emotional illness grabs us. No one is exempt. Death is the ultimate expression of sin’s brokenness. In time it gets us all. That’s why things like “23” are so important.
The Creator, before time, had shaped a plan to redeem all this. He had loved the crown of His creation, humankind, longer than anyone had loved another – more than even 69 years of married bliss. He never deviated from the plan. He was always on track toward complete fulfillment. He has always wanted people to know that there is a way through valleys. Promises, prophets, rebellion, and redemption all pointed the way through countless valleys to wayward people who sometimes paid attention. But it was on an night when the angels sang in the sky and shepherds gathered around an unremarkable little family that mission fulfillment went into high gear. An infant Shepherd was placed into our world, to grow up like us, to walk in valleys with us, and to experience the shadow of death for us – doing the work to ensure that goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives.
His shepherd’s rod and staff was not the usual crook of guidance and prodding rod of protection. It was a cross. He took on all of creation’s brokenness and paid punishment’s price because we live in the valleys. Because of his obedience, His goodness and mercy follows all our parades, in all our valleys, cleaning up behind us, forgiving us, restoring our souls, and leading us in paths of righteousness – for His sake. All so we could dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Look over your shoulder. He’s always there. His goodness and mercy follows you!
Some Chapter Closing Thoughts
I have now walked in more than a few valleys in 60+ years of life and I’m even beginning to understand pastoral ministry a bit. Many of the valleys I’ve walked are personal and painful. Most have been as a companion with others.
In some cases we’ve walked into and through valleys, just like we’re supposed to. Other times we’ve wondered why it seems to take so long to see the other side. And, on occasion, the valleys even seem to backup, to pile up on one another, and obscure the green pastures and quiet waters that we know are really there. That’s the stuff of life in a broken world and why God’s promises speak louder than our feelings.
But, whatever the valley, I have learned to always be sure of the Lord, my Shepherd. He is with me. Always. He follows me with goodness and mercy – personally. He grows me – all of us, actually – for life and ministry. Everyday. God never wastes an experience: a field upon which to play, a lesson to learn, a mountain to climb, and another chapter of life to write. Lots of the experiences are brand new but some of them old and familiar – even painful. It is a rhythm of light and dark, life and death, just the way the Creator designed it. There is always the offer of a heart full of hope. He never disappoints.
(The next post begins a new chapter: Miao)