I remember the first time I memorized Psalm 23. I was in kindergarten with Mrs. Shields, the female equivalent of Mr. Rogers if you can imagine it. Our school room was excessively colorful. Blues and yellows filled the walls. A large green poster sat behind the teacher. Reds and oranges hung from the ceiling.
Every week we would have a memory verse. If we recited it in front of the class correctly, we would get a gold star on the green poster behind our teacher. Those little gold stars were the first things I ever truly, deeply wanted.
The time came for us to recite the verses. It was 6 whole verses, so the stakes were high. When my name was called my little body headed to the front of the class, stood beside the teacher, and recited words I did not yet understand.
The words begin innocently. Because God is shepherding us, I have everything I need. I have rest from and in my work. Rest from and in my anxieties. And direction, a constant guide who protects me because He is good.
But then the verses zoom out. The rest and provision and peace become a stark contrast against everything else in the perimeter. The pastures and waters and paths are found not in a land of gleaming promise, but in a dark and dangerous valley. A valley characterized by this thing called “the shadow of death.”
Over the last 4 months, I believe I have come to understand that term a little better. And as I have, the passage has come alive because the shadow represents the setting, the context, for everything happening in these 6 verses. Without the shadow, everything else means so much less.
In November I began to experience abdominal pains. They were a nuisance, but gradually became worse until they began interrupting my entire life: work, church commitments, even eating meals became painful. Doctors offered short term fixes, but nothing helped. The breaking point came 2 months later in January. I had already lost 10% of my body weight and was growing weaker by the day, but now it was at a point where I could barely get out of bed.
For next 6 weeks I virtually lived in hospitals. Procedure after procedure, test after test – and everything continued to come back negative. I watched the doctors scramble in confusion as they watched my body deteriorate. I prayed every hour of every day for God to step in. For Him to stop this pain, heal my body, and end my suffering. Every day I prayed, yet the pain continued.
As of writing this, I’ve finally begun to grow stronger. I’ve experienced small wins – maintaining weight rather than losing more, being able to walk for more than a few seconds at a time, and feeling that I might actually reach “normal” again.
But one thing that has not completely healed is the fear that crept into my spirit. I still don’t have an answer for what was happening to me. I don’t know why it happened or how I could prevent it in the future. Because of that, I feel fear. I feel fear because, for a moment, I really thought I might not get better. In that moment I understood Psalm 23. I was not face to face with death. Instead, I was face to face with its shadow.
The shadow of death is not the same thing as death. It’s a distortion of death’s reality. A shadow tends to be larger than the object casting it. The angle and power of the light source stretches its shape. A shadow cannot be destroyed or damaged. It sits there, a constant crawling reminder of the actual thing.
Fear of death is worse than death itself. – Gosho Aoyama
Whereas death takes everything away in one fell swoop, the fear of death robs you slowly. Over these past 4 months I lost numerous small battles. The shadow first stole my energy, then my confidence, then my body. The shadow stole parts of my soul each day, convincing me that it was winning. It wanted me to be so afraid of the dark that I would forget the power of the light.
My counselor once told me that depression acts the same way. Its like a fog that falls down low and convinces you that all the colors are gone. It wants you to believe that everything is dark and gray and that’s how it will always be. The trick isn’t to fight the fog, or pretend like things aren’t dark. Instead, it’s to find a way to peak your head above it. If you can just catch a glimpse of the horizon each day, it’ll remind you that there is light. The light might not be here yet, but its coming. The light always comes.
In Psalm 23 we do not get any remedies. God does not fly David out of the shadow. He sits with him in it. God doesn’t defeat the enemies that want to kill David. Instead, God makes him a meal in full view of them, and whispers a word of encouragement.
Even the image of God we get is non-aggressive. He’s a shepherd. He doesn’t use a sword or shield to protect us. He uses a staff to lead the way. He uses His body to hide the shadow.
I don’t know how much further through the valley of the shadow we have to go. But what I do know is that I do not travel alone. And in this journey I will have what I need. Although the threat may be constant, and at times the fear suffocating, my Shepherd will show me goodness. I will have rest even in my pain. I will have provision even in my lack. And I will have comfort even in my fear.
God always gets the last word. The light always comes. Though we may be walking through the valley of the shadow now, we will undoubtedly end up in His house.