In The Valley Of The Shadow

This week has been hard. No, no. Hard doesn’t even begin to touch it. Heavy. Exhausting. Constricting. Those are all words that come closer to the sense of my week. There has been no relief. No moment where I thought that was enough breath so that I can swim the rest of the way across this in my own strength.

It’s not only what I’ve been walking through, the path cut back and forth across the mountain, with a valley on either side. More than just my own travels, it is that there are traveling next to me voyager after voyager making the same journey, bags packed with grief and anxiety, weighing down the back of our cars. That weight at times can feel like the only thing holding us down to the road, keeping us in touch with the ground beneath us, pushing us forward to places we don’t want to go. In other moments, it is that weight that though we bear down pedal to the metal makes us wonder if we can make it up again.

The valley was full of fog when I set off both times this week and traveling through those conditions felt very apropos as I walked through my week not sure I could see five feet in front of my situation. I had a hard time talking to God about it. Not because I don’t think He is listening or don’t think He cares. I just couldn’t find the words. There were times I said “Please” and cried. There were times I just cried and couldn’t speak.

At some point out of the mist came something I could put into words, old familiar words from Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. They rod and thy staff will comfort me.” The valley of the shadow of death. I have so many friends and loved ones in that valley this week. I’ve seen the posts on Facebook. I’ve had conversations with friends. This has been a hard week for a lot of people, while others are marching proud with voices raised, many more have been shuffling through the fog in that valley of the shadow.

I’ve gone over and over that verse in the past week, not having the easy kind of conversation that I generally experience in my own prayer life, just repeating that verse, trying to remember that the rod will defend and the staff will guide and I am not alone. Where am I? I know where. Who is with me? I know who. What will He do for me? I know what. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Tonight I went to class and people gathered around me to pray, to pray for me and for those I love, for peace and comfort and healing. We said “Amen,” all in agreement. Amen. I agree. I believe. Amen.

My friend to the left pointed to a verse he’d pulled up on his computer screen. Psalm 91:1-2  “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.”

I could almost hear it. If I stop and listen, there it is. Look up. This is no shadow of death. See you are in my shadow. Rest. Take refuge. You are only passing through a valley, but you dwell in my shelter.

It has rained nearly all week, cold, damp, muddy misery falling into a mess all around me. Tonight as I walked out of class I looked up. The sky was still shrouded in darkness, but falling all around me was snow. Face upturned, the shadow above me was in that moment the wings of refuge sheltering me beneath His feathers.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I have a rod and a staff, a refuge and fortress, a shelter and a shadow, and those are all I need to cross the valleys.

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Grief, Suffering and Christmastime

Last week a child I never knew, but have prayed for since he was a toddler, slipped away from this life into the next. In those final weeks, people covered that child and that family in prayer, pleading for miracles, for hope, for immediate and entire healing, and knowing what we knew of the family, the God would continued to be glorified through them in this.

There is thought to the idea that during the season while we think of God sending His son to us, it is difficult not to think of those we’ve sent to Him. When we try to conceptualize a God who understands our hearts and our hurts, there must be some lesson in this. God sent His son to us, knowing that He would be delivered back to Him in such a cruel manner. But not just that He gave the person, who would adore Him more than any other, the same perspective. Mary was told she’d bear a son, but she was also told she’d lose a son, and lived mothering a child who she knew that she’d outlive. It is a journey many of us know.

If you are sitting in the penetrating blackness of loss, you know this. If you are walking in the fading light of day with someone, you know this.

I can’t tell anyone what to do with this. I do not feel qualified at all to say, this will make it better or that will put you in the holiday mood. But I would feel honored to share what God’s been sharing with me in this season.

God gave us a gift at Christmas, Jesus, and let Earth receive her king, God with us.

And in turn, we see rich gifts being handed to Him. The wise men come bearing gifts for the baby. We are familiar with the song.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

    The magi brings gold, to honor this baby as an earthly king, director of our daily lives, our physical bodies, our rules, to give over sovereignty from ourselves to Him.

They bring frankincense to worship this baby as High Priest, as heavenly, as director of our spiritual destiny and our immortal souls, to give over adoration from ourselves to Him.

They bring myrrh. The third offering is so beautiful to me this season. In our imaginings, in our portrayal of Christianity, sometimes we can depict faith as this happy, everything is going to be fine, and if you give over control of your earthly lives and your eternal lives to God, it will be all joy. If that is the case however, it’s more likely the wise men would have shown up with gold, frankincense and birthday cake. 

When God sent Jesus to us, from the very beginning, from the first Christmas, Man responded by handing over his ownership, his adoration, and his grief, identifying that Jesus would know all these things intimately and that Jesus longs to receive these gifts from us still.

Still, I do not want to present the idea that Jesus looked at his gifts, leaned out of the manager, patted their heads and bestowed joy immediately upon the givers. Absolutely, joy does come. Absolutely, He has the ability to give joy. But after the magi give these gifts, Matthew tells us that God warns them not to return to Herod, and so they return to their country without passing through the shadow of death. God sends Joseph and Mary to Egypt, to protect Jesus because Herod wanted to kill him, and there they stayed until Herod died.

The gifts are given and then God delivers those involved from death. God gives a gift, that is Jesus. Humanity gives back ownership, adoration and grief, and then God turns around and gives security, protection, salvation. I can only imagine that the loss of a child, the pains that feel magnified and distorted under the Christmas lights, would feel like death chasing you down. What else can that magnitude of grief be?

I think I can safely say, joy will come. Joy, that expectation we hold for Christmas will find us. But maybe for a time God just helps us narrowly escape the shadow of death and hides us far from everything we know to be home, to slip away in the night of our circumstances and hide us until we can safely walk back into our own country, our own home, our own lives, without the darkness of death hounding your steps.

I think, maybe, in the story of the magi and what followed is this. Christmas is not just about the light of the star, brilliant and bright, guiding and light, showy and impressive. It is also about admitting that grief is attached to our experience, particularly our Christmas experience, gathering up tiny God With Us, and allowing Him to hide us from the shadow of death by covering us in the shadow of His wing. I think maybe that Christmas isn’t just about the light of the world, but that Jesus dimmed his glory, glory so much brighter than that star, came to us, and traveled into darkest dark to receive the gift of ownership, adoration, and grief.

If all you can offer this Christmas is admittance, be it joyful or sorrowful, confession that He is in control, a voice that can’t sing with the carols, but a body that allows the music to pass through you, and grief, so deep that the Spirit must speak for you in groans to Him, then offer it, and find yourself next to the Christ child, tiny, fragile, God With You.