8:18

The valley of the shades of death

The valley of the shades of death

You know we had to walk this trail.

I am meeting my friend today at a state park roughly halfway between us.  Tom and I have been pals for ages, but we haven’t seen each other during the pandemic and we just needed something to do together.  So, meeting bright and early in the park office parking lot, we pick out a trail to hike.

Of course, when a trail is named Shades of Death, it virtually begs you to see what the fuss is about.  We’re eager to try it out.

And just to set the tone, vultures are already gathering.

For the record, I know they’re wild turkeys.  But I need something to beef up the anticipation of danger – the ominocity, to coin a word.  Because, the trail turns out to be a disappointingly pleasant path along a stream with no real threat except, perhaps, to be bored to death while waiting for entire clans coming the other direction to pass.  Even at that hour, there are so many people out hiking, it makes me reimagine Jesus’s words: the path is narrow and many are those who walk upon it.

My mind turns to Psalm 23.  I begin to wonder if the valley of the shadow of death also had a stream in it

The better translation, I have come to believe, is the valley of the deepest darkness.  In scripture, deep darkness often refers a place outside of the presence of God.  Perhaps David, in the psalm, is stating in faith that even when he enters a time when he feels abandoned, God is with him.

For those who belong to Jesus, streams of mercy flow even in the darkest valleys.

There is another place in the park more deserving of the name Shades of Death.  Instead, it is unimaginatively called The Boulder Field.  Earlier, when Tom and I stood at the edge of it, he said, “Think of it: nothing has been able to grow here since the rocks appeared.”  This is a lifeless place.

For the believer, this will never be our spiritual landscape.  For wherever we walk with Jesus, he brings life with him.

At one point on the trail, Tom and I climb up a narrow staircase, cut into the rock.  I suggest we share times we’ve narrowly escaped death.  Two out of three of his examples involve cars.  Mine are foolish things from my childhood.  We each have had a scary episode with sickness.

“What do these teach us?” I ask.

We decide it’s all about God’s mercy.  We didn’t get through those tight squeezes because of our goodness and certainly not because of our innate intelligence.  We survived because the Lord, in his mercy, let us live another day.

It reminds me of the lines of the hymn, “Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”

Praise for his protection.  And for his presence in troubled times.

And for a friend with whom to share the stories along the way.

Father, thank you that because Jesus saw all the shades of death and returned, we never need to fear being separated from you again.

Reader: Do you have an experience you passed through that made you very aware of God’s mercy?

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.