Walking through the Valley

March 22, 2020

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC

4th Sunday in Lent – Year A
Psalm 23

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

As a physicist, Marie Curie studied radioactivity and actively promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering. This was unheard of in her time, yet she applied her intellect and imagination toward something unknown so it could be harnessed for therapeutic use.

Today we find ourselves at a time of discovery. Not you and me personally, although the amount of information we consume from our media sources – whether electronic or paper – can make us feel that we know more than we actually do. But I rest in the knowledge that there are countless Curies out there right now using their intellect and imagination. They are doggedly working to gain an understanding of the COVID-19 virus.

As understandable as it is to focus on the frightening progress of this new virus, it’s also inspiring to think that there is already a prototype vaccine being tested for something we didn’t even know existed a few months ago. Even so, we would be foolish not to acknowledge that we have a long valley to walk through first. Perhaps that’s why Psalm 23 resonated with me as I confronted this week’s lectionary texts.

Psalm 23 is arguably the most familiar of the 150 songs bound within the Psalter, perhaps in part because of its prevalence in our lectionary rotation. It’s read each year on the fourth Sunday in Easter alongside the reassuring words from John’s gospel, revealing Jesus as the good shepherd, and we are the sheep that recognize his voice.

Its placement today, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, fits this time of reflection. A time of repentance – turning around, turning back toward God. It can also be comforting and encouraging as we approach the halfway point, or so, of our 40 days in the wilderness.

Yet even with its recurrence during Sunday worship, I suppose the more likely reason for its familiarity is its frequent use at funerals. Not unlike the singing of Amazing Grace, the hearing of Psalm 23 takes us back to a time of grieving the loss of someone we love and see no longer. The comfort of having God as our companion through that valley of the shadow of death is palpable in those days of mourning. Fear will not get the better of us when God is at our side.

It also helps that Psalm 23 is short. Six picturesque verses.

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Words of protection.

Words that calm our anxiety.

Restorative words.

This is what we cling to.

It’s easy to skip over the parts that remind us of our tendency to go astray. Our need to be led down right paths.

We may even overlook the part that conveys the necessity of not only the crook of the staff used to guide us back to the fold, but also the prod of the rod. This is the tool used by the shepherd to motivate us up the hill we think we can’t traverse. And, for the psalmist, both the rod and the staff are a comfort.

There is also a tendency to forget that our enemies are not removed from us in these verses. Even so, the shepherd is beside us, helping us go about our daily life, in spite of the enemies that challenge us.

COVID-19 is our current and most pressing enemy.

From it we need protection.

It is the cause of much understandable anxiety from which we seek relief.

It’s also something we will overcome, yet not without first being led down the right paths of new and unfamiliar behavior, like social distancing. We must be willing to do things we’d rather not do, like stay physically away from those we love and long to be with face to face. We must also be willing to use our intellect and imagination when we’re tempted to go out because we’re stir-crazy. Staying home will shorten the dark valley we are in.

Thanks to the intellect and imagination of many we have the ability to see one another face to face, virtually, even those on the other side of the world. My fear is that those who won’t embrace these things will find themselves the most isolated, and they are also likely the most vulnerable. Perhaps they need a shepherd to guide them into these unfamiliar places. Now is the time for us to find those who can use our help and be their gentle guide.

God has given each of us gifts. God has imparted wisdom. God also gives us the power to choose to act rightly, even when we are afraid. I believe that this valley we are traversing is manageable if we trust and engage our God-given intellect and imagination. Fear can cripple us if we let it, so instead, let’s remember… “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” And God is by our side every step of the way.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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