When the World Consorts – God Answers: Reflections from the Valley of Death

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The Twenty-third Psalm is one of the most familiar passages from the entire Bible.  It speaks of David’s reliance on the care and protection from God, no matter what the circumstances.  It reads:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 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 overflows.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

It has been a comfort to countless Jews, Christians, and yes indeed others since it was first written.  I remember it as a regular reading in my Boy Scout days as part of morning  devotions.  It is just so full of promise for a coming day.

My wife Dianne held on to this Psalm as well.  The following is one of her posts from just a couple of months before her passing:

“This week has been hard and tiring. Over the weekend i developed an allergic reaction to a new steroid i was trying for pain. I became hyperglaecemic and borderline dehydrated even though i couldnt stop drinking. With blood sugar over 18 points, dizzyness and loss of bowel control things looked to be setting themselves up for a hospital admission. However, we attended an emergency gp appointment at 8.30am and the young locum was a blessing, he reassured us and gave clear guidance so we could monitor from home. After a total of 72 hours awake and feeling agitated and ill, i finally slept. I took the rest of the week to recover slowly, but today i was able to go out for a cup of tea for the first time in about 10 weeks. That made me feel very blessed.  Even in our greatest trials, God is there to aid and bless throughout. ‘Though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me.'”

She had planned of reflecting on this Psalm in her final days, but as the trials and “valleys” worked out she fell into a coma.  I therefore recited and sang it to her (using Kieth Green’s arrangement) as I sat by her bedside.  It was in a very real sense “the valley of death.”  But – The Lord was with her, and with me.  Surely goodness and mercy will continue to follow me all of the days of the rest of my life – for he has been a comfort for me every day so far!

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Sanctuary

Audience, Concert, Music, Entertainment

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Psalm 32:7-8 You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Have you ever felt the need to hide away?  This isn’t the same thing as running away, it is rather a taking of shelter while we recuperate, regroup, and refresh.   The psalmist said God is one (The One) of those refuges.   Whether it is as I have recently discussed, David using “hiding place” as a metaphor for God’s physical protection (like David found at En Gedi); or as a more general acknowledgement of God’s all loving concern for us when we are in more emotional or spiritual distress – the fact remains clear that we can shelter in him.

No matter what our trouble – the Psalm continues – God will protect us.  “If God is for us, who can stand against us?”  But this isn’t a shadowy cave, or being in bed with the sheets puller over our heads.  It is a refuge in which we are emboldened in!

I really like this image of being surrounded with “songs” of deliverance.  Music is powerful.  It stirs our emotions.  It empowers and uplifts.  Have you ever noticed that a tune can restore you when you are down?  I have had the experience of worship songs that are so mighty in both their lyrics and beat that I felt that same power radiating through me.  This passage says that in our times of need, God will envelope us with music that assures us of our deliverance.  Wow – just wow!

Dianne kept our home filled with music, whether she was making it herself, or whether it was just being played from a device.  This flow of melody gave our house a constant feel of safety and contentment.  This too comes to my mind when I read this passage.

This sanctuary of God’s presence and the idea of being surrounded by the musical promises of deliverance were dear to Dianne.  This passage appears in her blog and her notes as an important point of focus.  And I am happy I had the opportunity to focus on it today.

God has truly been a hiding place for me in the grief I have suffered.  He has provided me with friends and family that have lifted me up.  Yesterday, I had a visit from two dear sisters in Christ, who were very personifications of “songs of deliverance,” as they were tangible reminders that I am not alone, and that I am loved.  Later today, a brother from church is planning to visit as well, to be a support and help in the planning of Dianne’s memorial service (a task too close to home for me to do efficiently despite the fact that I have experience in planning the funerals and memorials of others).  It makes me smile as I write this that this brother is the worship leader at our assembly.  Now what better metaphorical image can I have for the coming of “songs of deliverance?”

See the Psalmist captured this all so well!

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A Garden Enclosed

 

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The Hebrew word gan means enclosure or garden. Eden was described as such, a place set apart from the wild and untamed: a paradise. Ever since the fall and the expulsion from Eden, people have tried to return. There is something about tamed nature that is relaxing and reassuring. The wild and chaotic frighten us, but there is a security in enclosure.

Notice that shortly after the flood account, Noah plants a vineyard. We like our enclosures, and being “men of the soil” (within reason). There are those of us today who would be totally lost in the world of agriculture, but in our gardens and lawns we find the taste of Eden, as Noah sought to do.

The idea of a cultivated enclosure has a place in the Christian story as well. Jesus uses the imagery of a sheep pen to describe His relationship with the church.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers (John 10:1-5).”

Jesus’ sheep have haven in the enclosure, it is only in His presence do they go out into the wild.  This is an interesting reflection, as Jesus said that we were to “go into all the world . . . .” But remember He also said, . . .  make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).” He is with us, leading us outwards.

This metaphor of the church being a “garden enclosed,” a special place of nurture has a long history.  It was particularly popular with Puritan writers such as Milton, and Paul Hobson, where the special fruit of God (His people) will grow and flourish.

We seek a return to the “Paradise Lost,” and we find brief snippets of it in our gans.  But, let us seek it as well, and more actively in His enclosure, the church.  Where will you find your secure nurture this week?

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He is a Fortress

 

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The Ramparts of Jerusalem

The pressures of life can be a bit much at times.  It is precisely at those moments when it is beginning to overwhelm, that we can take a step back and put it all into perspective.

The Psalmist did this in the opening verses of Psalm 91.  It is a reminder that it is God that is in control, and that He preserves His people.

Psalm 91

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday (verses 1-6).”

While the passage has some great metaphors, the message is clear.  God will, and does help. Whether it is in the face of those who seek to entrap or deceive you (the fowler’s  or hunter’s snare), or the pestilence of disease, corruption, or accident, God will protect. Like a mother hen wrapping its wings (“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”) around its chicks, He is vigilant. His love for us, and the steadfastness of His promises are both a shield (a personal defense) and a rampart (a wall that protects many).  God is good.

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Beside Still Waters

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The Psalm of David (Psalm 23) often noted for its opening line “The Lord is my shepherd,” is one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.  It is used at funerals, and in times of trial, and it reassures us of God’s loving kindness. It reads,

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even 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 overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Life is not always easy. We face trials and dangers.  The imagery of the psalm draws upon David’s own experience as a shepherd, caring for the flocks of his father, Jesse. He had himself had to take up the rod and the staff to defend the sheep. In fact, 1 Samuel 17:36 tells us he killed a lion and a bear in his role as shepherd.

Yet here he trusts not in his own power or skill, but places himself in the role of sheep.  Totally defenseless, and dependent of the care of his keep and preserver. But not just protection in times of trial are alluded to. David acknowledges that his Shepherd provides all good things to those He cares for.  Note green pastures and still waters are there.

David then strays (as sheep do) from the metaphor to note anointing and tables prepared even in the midst of enemies. In fact that goodness and love are there for us, no matter what the surrounding circumstances might suggest. And better still, there is a promise for a place for us in the Lord and Shepherd’s house forever.

How encouraging is that?

The Gospels pick up David’s theme when Jesus said,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (John 10: 11-18).”

Jesus the Good Shepherd offers all of the comforts of Psalm 23.  He was willing to, and did lay down His life for the sheep. And when He had done this, He as in the Psalm, went to prepare a place in the house of the Lord forever,

“My Father’s house has many rooms. If that were not true, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again. Then I will bring you into my presence so that you will be where I am (John 14: 2-3).” Beside still waters, and so much more!

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A Hebrew version:

 

A wonderful English version: