Shadows

Epiphanies come at the oddest of times. Sometimes you are deliberately seeking meaning and understanding and the “AHA!” moment happens. Other times your attention is diverted and an epiphany breaks through unexpectedly. These moments of clarity are always welcome, as they deepen our understanding of God and our relationship with him.

A very long time ago I had an epiphany in the middle of a funeral. I was standing in the pulpit reading the 23rd Psalm when a word jumped out at me and the heavens broke open, with the angel choir singing a loud chord of resonant “AHHHHHH!”

The word was shadow. See if you can spot it.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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.

And there it is. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the SHADOW of death…” What a lovely epiphany! If you are grieving the loss of a loved one or fearful for your own death, what is this saying?

When David wrote this timeless classic (which is read at almost every funeral I have officiated) he was expressing the hope and the reality of our relationship with God. He praises God for providing for all of his needs. He paints images of green pastures and still waters as a way of suggesting that being in God’s presence is where we find peace. He reminds us that when we are weary and strung out, God restores us. If we are smart enough to follow God, our path will be one of righteousness.

With God, the valley we travel is only a mere shadow of death, for death has no sting.

This powerful image proclaims that death is not a real or a final destination…it is as fleeting as a cloud passing in front of the sun for a moment. Shadows come and go. Death comes and goes. Eternal life is forever, and it is in the house of eternal life that we will dwell with the Lord all the days of our lives. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death to arrive on the other side, where heaven is found.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

I pray that these words today bring you comfort. When I read them, my cup very much runs over with goodness and mercy.

Christ invites us to come to the table that is prepared before us and feast on peace, hope, comfort, and joy.

Cloud Shadow by Michelle Robertson

Timeless

When you think of something that is timeless, what comes to mind? In art, you might recall pieces like the Mona Lisa or the Statue of David. In music, surely Beethoven’s Fifth and Bizet’s Carmen pop up. In cars it would have to be the Ford Model T or a 1960s era Corvette. In Rock and Roll it would be Stairway to Heaven or anything by Queen. (Argue with me!)

But when it comes to the Psalms there is only ONE. Heads and tails, the 23rd Psalm stands above the rest. Because of its inclusion in most funeral liturgies, it may be the most read aloud scripture of all time. At least in this pastor’s experience it certainly is the one scripture I have read aloud the most and for good reason: it is absolutely beautiful. It teaches us about the nature of God, it includes lyrical phrases, it proclaim’s God’s majesty, and it speaks to the heart of every pilgrim wanderer. It’s timeless!

Psalm 23 (New King James Version)

 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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.

I will always remember having an epiphany during a church matriarch’s funeral. I was preparing to read the 23rd Psalm as a soloist was singing. When my eyes hit the phrase “valley of the SHADOW of death” I realized that God was reminding us that death is just a mere shadow. When the light of Christ hits your life you don’t have to fear what lurks in the shadows any more. His light brings life.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

If you’ve had a rough week, meditate on these words. You will dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER. Surely that balances out the aggravations of inflammatory politics, the constant threat of this pandemic, the uncertainty of our economy, all of our personal struggles, and the upcoming elections. ALL of these things will pass away and God assures us that the days of our lives will be filled with goodness and mercy.

Thanks be to God!

Valley of Shadows by Kathy Schumacher

The Classics

Sometimes in life, you just want the classics. A classic New Jersey hoagie…Italian of course, not tuna and avocado. A pepperoni pizza, not Hawaiian with pineapple. (Who does that??) A ‘63 Mustang convertible, not a Mini Cooper. Beethoven’s Fifth, not the Electric Slide.

If I were to ask you which scripture you think is the most recognized, you would probably default to the classics. John 3:16. Genesis 1:1. Psalm 23. These passages are well known because they are memorable and timeless.

One of the reasons that the 23rd Psalm pops up to the top of the classics chart is our familiarity with it. Many of us memorized it as children. Bible Study writer Dick Murray once said that it was while crouching in a foxhole in the war that he realized that the only available “bible” he could access in that moment was the one he had in his mind, and it was sadly limited to the few passages he had memorized. He was trying to calm himself by reciting scripture, only to discover that the ones he had memorized were few and far between. This motivated him to go back and memorize more when the war was over.

So, what’s in your bible?

The 23rd Psalm is said at every funeral in my denomination. It conveys a timeless message of beauty, hope, assurance, and peace. It is a classic for a reason.

Psalm 23 (New King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

My challenge for you today is to spend time memorizing this beautiful piece. Take it apart, study it line by line, make picture-memories of it, walk around your house saying it out loud, and add it to your mind. This one will never let you down. We need it now more than ever.

Like you, it‘s a classic!

Still Waters at Sunset by Bonnie Bennett

Changing “Forever”

It is kind of hard to write about anything being ”forever“ right now. My concept of forever has changed in the last two weeks. Here are some things I just assumed would always be available forever:

Unfettered air travel.

Disney World open whenever I wanted to go.

Lovely, perfumed ladies hugging me in church every Sunday.

Tuesday morning staff meetings with my peeps, laughing, drinking coffee, and dreaming God’s dreams.

Attending my college’s Alumni Association Council meetings on our beautiful campus.

Going out to any restaurant on any given night.

Kissing my husband.

That last one might seem strange, but we have enacted a quarantine protocol in my house. My husband is a commercial airline pilot, and so he is considered essential personnel. Even with the drastic cut-back of flights, planes are still flying, delivering medical personnel and equipment to where they are needed, ferrying essential cargo, and returning families to their homes from far away places.

When he returns from a trip, he comes directly into the house and we begin a quarantine for 14 days. He sleeps in a separate room, uses a separate bathroom, and does not enter the kitchen. (This part may grieve me the most!! He is a great cook.) We don’t touch the same door knobs or light switches, and I sanitize everything. He doesn’t even pet the dog, and we maintain a 6-foot separation at all times. For 14 days. When he gets called out to fly again, the 14-day protocol will start all over again.

Like all of you, my concept of forever has changed.

So what is really forever?


Psalm 23 (New King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

Dwelling in the house of the Lord is the one FOREVER we can count on. God’s mercy is forever. God’s love is forever. God’s salvation is forever. And thank God, his forgiveness is forever.

So when things get back to normal and I can kiss the cook again, I know I will be forever grateful for the true and unchangeable forevers that we all can claim.

And guess what? We are one day closer to the end of this thing.

Yea, Though I Walk Through the Valley by Faye Gardner

Still Waters

You’ve probably noticed that for the most part, I default to The Message when selecting a Bible translation for my devotionals. I read several translations before I select one, looking for the one that is the most readable and easiest to understand. That often brings me to The Message. Eugene Peterson spent years with his ear pressed to the dialect of today as he transcribed the ancient words of yesterday. It always seems to speak directly into a situation. I was sad when I learned of his passing just over a year ago. I resonate with his lifelong desire to make the scriptures accessible to everyone. On a daily basis.

As much as I adore The Message, the one place where I steer away from it is the Psalms. Call me old school, but there is nothing that satisfies my need for rhythmic poetry better than the King James Version or the New King James Version. With the New King James Version, the fluidity is maintained while all the eths are dropped and the thees and thines are changed to you and yours. Thus “He leadeth me beside still waters” becomes “he leads me beside still waters,” and “For thou art with me” becomes “for you are with me.” Same rhythm, updated words.

Hey, imagine if there was a New King James New Jersey Version! The thees and thines would be youze and youze guyz. But I digress.

I took a run in my neighborhood a few weeks ago and ended up at the marina that overlooks the sound. It was one of those mornings where the water was impossibly still. I could see the reflection of the sun mirrored perfectly in the glassy surface. Naturally, I thought of Psalm 23.

Psalm 23 (New King James)

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

Psalm 23 is a song about God’s steadfast protection in our lives. It sings about God’s promise to lead us in righteous paths. It reminds us that he accompanies us on every journey…even into death. We learn that he sits beside us when we face our enemies.

And he leads us to the still waters.

I think this is a reminder today that if you find yourself in turbulent waters, God did not bring you there. Thankfully, he is IN the storm with you, but he doesn’t lead you into tsunamis. No, we do a pretty good job of finding our way into rough seas all by ourselves. God’s desire is to lead you out of your mess and into the still waters, where peace is found.

Ask yourself this: in the chaos of your situation, in the disruption of your circumstance, were you following God, or did you get there on your own? Is he trying to lead you out of a destructive habit, a dangerous lifestyle, or a demoralizing relationship into a better place?

Look around. God will lead you out. Have faith and be courageous. If you follow where he leads, he will restore your soul in green pastures, beside the still waters. You just have to get up and walk.

Still Waters in Colington Harbour