Psalm 23:4 (NIV)
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.
[Though this story isn't directly from my experience, I'd ask for you to indulge me in the re-telling in the first person perspective. In light of our walk through Psalm 23, and my preaching on verse 4 (see above) last night, I thought that this might help us to see just what it means that God leads us through such valleys in life. - Matt]
He told us that he would take us to where we needed to go. This wizened old shepherd, with ragged clothes on his back and what I suppose you could once have called boots on his feet. His steps fell with a confidence that echoed through the hills, though the mosses and lichen made the actual footfalls silent as night. There were two loyal dogs that hovered loyally around him – their tails un-wagging and their eyes searching his; keenly aware that this was a hike for business, and not pleasure – and they awaited his word of command.
We’d wandered far over the course of the day, our party following a map that had been adequate for the area’s many hikers for centuries. But somehow, amidst our wonderment and sidetracks for photography, we’d found ourselves lost and at the bottom of the world – with no discernable way back to the safety and visibility of the high ridges surrounding us.
It was a lush land, and apart from the cooling temperatures and our emptying stomachs there was little concern for our long-term safety. Still, the afternoon was long past and our little group couldn’t even offer a decent argument for a locale.
In a day when our youthful exuberance thought it highly unnecessary to go through the expense of a GPS unit, and our new hiking poles made us feel far more confident than we should have allowed for… our last resort had finally realized itself, and we had disturbed ‘our’ shepherd – the only human we’d seen for hours – and he’d consented to lead us out of the lowlands and back onto our map.
As we began to ascend an unworn and un-grazed hillside, our feet slipping from underneath us in surprising contrast to his steady cadence, we looked one to another in questioning glances; “Where were we going?” “Who were we following?” And “How could this be the way?”
Occasionally we took a moment to look away from the treacherous footings of what was now becoming a rocky slope and we observed nothing but a wall of ancient stone pockmarked by rebellious tufts of greenery grasping to fissures and ledges with the skill of a true climber. There was no visible outlet, and our fears began to realize themselves.
Nearing the wall, one of the dogs ran ahead to disappear behind a corner that we’d not been able to see – His steady pace never changed, and the shepherd led us through what must have been this familiar route in his memory. This simple corner opened up to an expanse – a narrow ‘V’ in the landscape – equal parts of rock and plant aiming us straightway toward the heavens.
“Thank you so much!” I said, breaking what had been nearly forty minutes of silence, “If you need to get back to your sheep, we can probably figure it out from here.”
‘Our’ shepherd paused for only the amount of time for us to take the five steps to come even to his progress, and he simply said, “We’re not there yet. I’ll see you to the top.” And He continued up the way.
As the walk drew itself out much longer than we’d anticipated, the sun continued its course – and the last of its rays were only touching the tip of what we realized was the Eastern half of our ravine. The dogs lagged back now, dutifully keeping their charges on the best path as laid out by their master – and we, the ‘sheep’ tried not to stumble as the rocks grew larger. As odd as it seemed to us, we realized the shepherd’s commitment to us only in its fullness when we looked down to realize that we were barely finding our way and we were as of yet only halfway up the valley.
And what an odd valley it was! Without the shepherd in our sights it seemed as a yawning mouth, wanting nothing more than to swallow us down to its belly. Looking back, it was almost hypnotic for its terrible nature.
A sharp sound of wood rapping on a rock woke us from our moment of weary delirium, “Well, shall we finish the journey?” the old man asked.
Cresting the hill at the top had taken us nearly to darkness, the last flecks of the honest part of sunlight were disappearing over the Western rim of the hills. Looking back one last time, the chasm appeared as little more than blackness.
“What you just walked up,” said our noble guide, “is on your map, though you didn’t know it. Its on the very bottom edge, well away from any main trail – and that’s for a reason. We locals call it ‘The Valley of Fear’. I do apologize, because its not the easiest way out of the lowlands, but it is the fastest – and for you, it leads directly to where you needed to go.”
He gestured vaguely over his shoulder to lights that were turning on, not two-hundred yards away at the very place we’d planned to spend the night.
“I’ll ask you not to come back here exploring on your own tomorrow – there have been some bad things down here for those without a guide …or a dog” he added, his hand on the head of the older of his two canine servants.
After the few words of thanks that he allowed us to give him, he and his two helpers turned their faces back down to the valley and instantly were lost from our sight as they descended into the shadow.
We turned ourselves toward the welcoming lights that He had led us to – each one of us silently wondering how often he’d led the lost safely through the Valley of Fear.
And how much more, does our God lead us through the valleys in our lives? David knew of great stresses, anxieties, dangers and despair - and yet he knew that God, the Divine Shepherd, would not leave us on our passage through such low points.
The valleys of our lives are NOT the destination that the Shepherd leads us to. Instead, His goal is to take us to the safe places; whether those consist of safety for the time being, or the pleasant revival of eternal rest in heaven. ...and sometimes we don't even realize what we've come through until we look back over our shoulder at what He's led us safely past.
Thanks be to God for His guidance through what would otherwise be a lonely and terrorizing journey - but with Him, is just another hike for a weary traveler!