This was the topic I found myself writing about when preparing for a retreat several years ago. In looking for some Scripture to use, I went straight for the Psalms which contain dozens and dozens of references to this kind of loving and protective God. I was immediately drawn to Psalm 23. You know this one:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me…
After considering it for a moment, I quickly rejected it for the purposes of my talk. For most people, this Psalm is too closely associated with funerals, death, and dying. I can still remember the scene from the movie Titanic when a priest recites these lines to a group of terrified passengers as the ship sinks further and further into the ocean. As beautiful as it was, I wanted to talk about life… I didn’t need a Psalm for the dying.
The very next day, I got a call from my younger sister. She was telling me about a Church service she attended at her parish—a Congregational Church north of Boston. There was a seminarian preaching that day; a young woman who had battled and survived breast cancer. The topic of her sermon was Psalm 23. She described it using these exact words… a “Psalm for the living.” A daily reminder that she could turn to God for protection, comfort, rest, and reassurance. Anytime she was feeling anxious or hopeless, she would recite this Psalm. It had a wonderful calming effect on her during her treatment and recovery.
For this young seminarian, the “valley of the shadow of death” was all too real of a possibility. For the author of Psalm 23, the phrase may have referred to the many real dangers that faced the people of that time…perhaps even the actual landscape. The “valley” can mean anything for us today. A worry, a difficult situation, a broken relationship. What this Psalm is telling us is that during these times, when we are lost in the valley… God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God during these dark times. We do not need to be overcome by our fear.
From now on, when you hear the words of Psalm 23, I urge you to think of it as a “Psalm for the living.” Daily proof that you are not alone. That your life is blessed with God’s mercy and goodness. That the Good Shepherd is leading you home.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul;
He leads 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 You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint 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.