Hand--in-hand through the Wilderness

Psalm 23 (NRSV)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley . . .
A boy and his father are at a street corner in downtown Newberg.  The boy is six-or-so and he looks at his dad with an ear-to-ear smile—happy to be with his hero, I imagine.  The pedestrian light is about to turn green and the boy, who’s been taught to cross the street holding hands, reaches for his dad’s hand.  He knows the street is dangerous.  He knows that he’s not up to crossing it by himself.  Perhaps he’s heard of the pedestrian tragedies in our town.  Maybe he’s known someone who knew someone who died in a pedestrian-car incursion.  He has a healthy fear of the road for a boy his age.  He takes heart, however, because he’s with his dad—his image of strength and protection, his hope for safety and stability.  But his dad is on the phone and turns away from him, just as the boy reaches out.  The boy reaches, but the dad is oblivious to this sacred and tender moment—distracted by whatever the cellphone is pouring into his ear.  The boy reaches, but the man does not reach back. And so the boy walks out into the frightful street alone, even though his dad is right next to him—the boy’s head hangs in fear and rejection—into known danger without the hand of his hero.[1]

This was my view as I sat in my car at the same red-light.  It made me think of the Exodus.[2] The people of Israel are delivered from the hands of slavery, only to find themselves in a wilderness full of dark valleys and scorched earth.  I don’t know the occasion for which the 23rd Psalm was written, but it seems to echo a similar motion: God leads, often to green pastures and still waters, but eventually to the wilderness.  The people of Israel knew the wilderness was harsh.  Moses, especially, knew the treachery of hopeless land. How the dark shadows of coming canyons must have stirred fear in their hearts.  In fact, at one point they beg to go back; back to oppression that was at least stable; back to cruelty that still promised food and warmth. When you peer into a dark valley, it is both the known and the unknown that scare you: You know it’s dangerous, but you have no idea what kind of terror might greet you. 

An actual shadow, in an actual valley in Israel's wilderness (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author: Jean and Nathalie).

It is all too easy to equate the feeling of fear and the threat of danger to the absence of God.  Perhaps we do that because when we were afraid our parents did not grab our hands.  Perhaps we faced the canyons and streets alone.  Perhaps we feel isolated in the very place we stand now.  Even Israel, close as God was, felt overwhelmed by their fear, the shadow so pervasive that it became all they could see.[3]

And yet :
    . . . I 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.

I have walked many canyons and crossed many terrifying roads, but of this I am utterly convinced:[4] Jesus is not a dad distracted by a phone call, but a real presence in the darkest of hours.[5]  He does not make the darkness of shadows disappear or abolish the threat of the unknown wildernesses. But still he walks with me, and so far, there has been a bit of a banquet on the other side of each scary road.[6]

[1] Now it’s perilous to equate this fleeting moment to the total character of this dad.  Perhaps he usually lives up to his son’s hopes and this was just an unusual moment. 
[2] I know, I’m weird.
[3] It seems to me that the example of Thomas is appropriate at this point.  Have you wondered why Jesus let Thomas touch his wounds?  Why not just cast him out of his presence?  After all, that’s what the Church has grown accustomed to doing with any who vary from the prototypical path.  But what if Thomas came from a past of being let down, constantly reaching out, only to come up alone? What if the death of Jesus was a bit of a final straw for Thomas, an inglorious reiteration that no one would ever come through for him?  Now I know I’m reading into Thomas an awful lot, but is it a stretch to say that Thomas’ reaction must have been rooted in his human experience?  Whatever the case, Jesus gives Thomas just what he needs: a real hand to touch.  We are bound to come across folks for whom the spiritual truth of God’s presence is incomprehensible; in fact, we know people who are so beat up by life that spirituality makes them cringe.  Perhaps we too should offer them a physical hand that testifies to Christ’s spiritual presence; a hand that says, you may not yet be able to believe that God is with you, but take hold of this hand and know that we, his body, are with you now.
[4] And my, how I am inspired by the way he has walked with many of you through much darker valleys!
[5] So too is the encouragement of Christ’s people, though sometimes even they fail.
[6] I quake a bit to say this, not because it isn’t true, but because I know folks for whom the banquet hasn’t come.  I acknowledge that sometimes the road is very long to cross and sometimes the banquet is but a fleeting respite.  Still, he holds our outstretched hands and if there be not a banquet in this life, let us trust that he is preparing a splendid and restful one for the next life.


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