Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sermon: Through The Valley

Psalm 23

One of the most powerful phrases in the well-known 23rd Psalm is “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Let’s talk about that valley of the shadow of death.

Kristin Cooper King tells a powerful story about how her husband was killed by a distracted driver.

“In December 2009, my husband, Chris Cooper, and I were in a car accident that took his life. Through the grace of God, I survived the accident, but am having to learn to live my life without Chris. This blog is about my journey - as a young widow, a single mother to a beautiful 2 year old girl, and a true believer that God's hand is directing my days.”[1]

In her blog posts she reflects on that first year and its struggles. She talks about the heartbreak and struggle of that time and how hard it is to put into words, how at times it is hard to believe that he is no longer with them. What she feels at one week from his death, one month, one year. At one month she also talks about God’s presence in that valley time.

Let me warn you, I cried as I read it the first time, so no promises here as I share this with you: “On Sunday, my parents took Colleen to run errands and left me here to rest. I ended up not sleeping, but here in the office - his room. I took that time to do something that I had been putting off. I spent almost 2 hours reading all of the Facebook messages that people have sent me over the last month. I went to Chris’ fan page, read all of the entries, and re-watched the video from the memorial service for the first time. I logged into his old hotmail account, and read a folder of emails that he had saved from when we were first dating – over 6 years ago. And I let myself weep. I wept for myself, for Colleen, for our families. I wept for his friends, who loved him like a brother. I wept for the life that we could have had.”

“As I wept, I was listening to a song that someone had reminded me of right after the accident. It’s a song that I have heard before, but have never really had the context to understand. The song is a prayer, and as I listened I prayed her words. I prayed that God would lead me through this valley, this fire, to the life that he has promised. I prayed and asked for strength, the strength to not to have to understand, but just to know that God’s heart is full of love, and that he will never leave me. As I write this now, I can’t help but cry – but I don’t feel alone.”[2]

I’m not done yet, because where I first heard about Kristin was through her Poem “Through the Valley”. It is deeply powerful, and expresses just how hard it is to walk through that valley of the shadow of death, and yet just how much hope God’s light brings us in those darkest times.

I’ve walked through the valley. I’ve seen the shadow
the death.
I’ve had my life ripped apart at the seams. Stolen from
me in an instant.

I’ve lived through the days when I could only take
one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. One
minute. One second. Without being able to think farther

I’ve walked through the valley. It’s an ugly place. It’s
dark and cold. The mountains are high on each side.
Tall and forbidding. Too high to climb.

The path is windy ahead. It curves where I can’t see.
Each day I make it a little farther. I sleep alone. I’m

But there’s a tiny flame inside my heart. A first it is the
tiniest flicker. From the first moment I can feel it. As
cold and scared and dark as it is I can feel the burn in
my heart.

The flame brings peace. Comfort. Light.

The flame leads me. Shows me the way to the green
pastures of my home and the still waters of my family.
The flame anoints me with the warmth of love.

I cling to the flame. I seek it. Tend it. And it grows.

It can’t carry me out of the valley. That job is mine. But
it lights my path. Guides my feet. Stays with me. Protects
me from my fears. And day by day, step by step,
it leads me.

Outside of the valley there is a life waiting for me. A
life overflowing with goodness. A life full of mercy and
love. It’s my job to take the steps. But I’ll never be alone.[3]

Kristin learned: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

But let’s keep looking “Through the Valley” is also the title of a memoir by William Reeder Jr. He was a senior captain on his second tour of Vietnam, flying OV-1 Mohawks on secret missions. While providing support to forces, his chopper went down and he was captured and held as a POW. What he faced was unimaginable. His accounts are not for the squeamish. And yet, if you look at the title of his book, Through the Valley, it is meant to be a reference to the valley of death in the 23rd Psalm. You see, at one point he finds himself mentally reciting what he can remember from the psalm, and it is primarily this one line that comes to him.[4] It helps him so that through it all he never lost hope, his faith would not die. It reminded him that the darkest valleys still have light. His book is not primarily a book about faith, and yet he talks about this moment of faith inspires him, and that inspires his title. It is what reminds him that the shadows do not win.

When we walk through the valley’s, when our hearts are broken, God is there to walk with us and light the way. They valleys need not defeat us, the troubles of life need not overcome us.

No! Rather, as the psalmist says, “I will fear no evil”. It echoes what Paul says to us in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God: not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. (Romans 8:38-39)

Yes, the valleys are real, they are dark. There is very real evil in them, and very real danger. Our lives have these valleys, they are often unavoidable.

But they need not defeat us, for God’s love is stronger than the valley’s. God is not just God when things are going well, not just when we are on the mountaintop and we have joy and peace, but God is also God in the valleys, and God’s presence is just as real in the low points of life. And just in case we do not believe it, all we have to do is look at Christ. Even though he walks through the valley of death, not the shadow of death, but actually through death itself; God walks with him. God loves him, and that love is so strong that Christ’s death is not the end. There will be resurrection.

Likewise when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whether because someone near to us has died, or because we are near death, or even when it feels like all of our dreams have died and hope is gone, or we feel like we are walking alone through a dark time in life – remember this psalm which begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At the very least remember this one line, like William Reeder Jr. did -- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

God is indeed with you. Always. Even through the valleys.

[3] By Kristin, Cooper King, Seasons of the Spirit, 2018
[4] p. 66 chapter 7.

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