The texts for the fourth Sunday of Easter include Psalm 23, which brings many of us feelings of nostalgia and comfort. It’s tempting to focus only on the desirable images from this psalm—green pastures, still waters, soul restoration, goodness and mercy. But we also must mind the valley.
The psalmist didn’t say that he walked around the valley of the shadow of death, or that the valley disappeared, or that he turned and went the other way. The psalmist said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (verse 4, King James Version).
The Lord has promised to be with us in the valley. This isn’t a promise to let us circumvent, erase or ignore our problems. It’s a promise that when we go through challenges in our lives, God will be with us.
I preached on this psalm in 2013, the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombings. The neighborhood I served, known as Dorchester, was home to the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old who died in the bombings, and his 5-year-old sister, Jane, who lost her leg. Their home was blocks from our church, and several congregants’ children had played with them.
For a full day, Boston sat eerily still while the authorities worked to find the bombers. Then, on Sunday, we went to church.
On the Monday after the bombings, we grappled with the numerous, senseless deaths and injuries. On Friday, we awakened to a “shelter in place” order. For a full day, the city sat eerily still while the authorities worked to find the bombers. Then, on Sunday, we went to church.
Psalm 23 is made for a week like that one. This is a psalm of comfort, trust and confidence. It’s a song of hope and strength in times of doubt, death and fear. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the troubles of this world and the presence of God. Yet, we have to remember God never promised us a world without trouble.
God did promise that we would not walk this world alone. The Lord is our shepherd who makes, keeps, leads, stills and protects. We know God provides for us and gives us strength and refuge in times of trouble. Strengthened by this knowledge, we keep walking through life’s valleys.
At an interfaith service following the bombings, I noticed a girl in the Boston Children’s Chorus who cried the entire time she sang. Sometimes we have to sing through our tears, knowing the Shepherd is with us. Perhaps the psalmist wept while singing this psalm too.
We all have experiences when we simultaneously grieve and give thanks, when we cry and sing. I hope that, in those times, we will remember the celebration at the end of Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (verse 6, New Revised Standard Version).
The word translated here as “follow” is radaph in the original Hebrew, which means “pursue.” The goodness and mercy of the Lord pursues you. No matter the destination, you can’t escape God. So, while you’re singing and maybe even crying, remember, your Shepherd is with you—in green pastures, in still waters and, yes, through the valley.