“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.” from the Message translation of Psalm 23: 4 & 5
I keep finding myself drawn to these verse of Psalm 23 this week. I think I’m drawn to these verses because they speak a truth to us, especially as we were reminded once again this week in Orlando (and dare I say even as we as a nation continue to argue passionately over what is the best way to reduce gun violence in our nation) that evil is alive and well in our world.
Yet, the promise of scripture is NOT that evil will magically go away, in fact, the Psalmist says that God will set up a table for us in the presence of our enemies (which, by the way, doesn’t mean that we should do nothing in the face of evil); nor is the promise that God will eliminate our walking through the valley of death or darkness (depending on your translation). Rather the promise IS that God walks with us through the valley—God stands with us in the presence of our enemies.
And for me, this is a much more comforting image than the one that often gets portrayed—that somehow following God is going to mean the removal of all things difficult or evil from my life—or that I will magically be removed from such things when they do happen—because, let’s be honest, we know that’s a lie. We have seen and experienced enough darkness and evil and death to know that it’s not going away any time soon—even though I believe with all my heart and soul and mind in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
But a God who walks with us—who stands with me, in the face of evil—who guides me through the dark times—even death itself—a God who promises to strengthen me—to help me lift my head up—who blesses me with his presence now and forever—that’s a God I can believe and trust in!
Pastor Jim Derkits in the April 21st devotion for ‘Forward Day by Day’ (the Episcopal daily devotion similar to our Christ in Our Homes) reflecting on these words from 1 Thessalonians 2:20 “Yes, you are our glory and joy.” recounts the following story.
“My son was playing in and around a small kiddie pool on a summer day with a friend. They had already made up a couple of games involving toy dinosaurs and helicopters and were struggling to work out some rules for the next game. That’s when my son hopped up and announced, “Let’s just joy out!” Then they both ran and jumped in the pool, letting go of all the rules and games and simply enjoying the sunny day. It was such a delight for his mother and me to witness them looking so free, so joyful in their play. We took our learning that day, and it’s become a family phrase. When things seem complicated, we remember to ‘joy out.’ It is the reset button and reality check to which we can return again and again. When we do, I imagine that God delights in witnessing that and perhaps thinks, ‘Finally! They remembered to joy out!’”
“Joy out!” I love this idea. So often we can turn what God meant for good, including the 10 commandments, into something that becomes less than life-giving. The Christian life is not meant to be drudgery. It’s meant to be filled with joy. How often is it that we impose all sorts of rules upon ourselves and others and drain the joy out of our relationships and life itself.
Derkit’s story reminds me of playing a game with my 5 year old granddaughter. She creates these games with all these rules and then gets quite demanding when I don’t do something according to the rules. I even find myself from time to time deliberately breaking one of her rules, just out of orneriness. But after a while to be honest the rules-even a 5 year old’s rules-begin to see seem kind of draining.
But at other times, what joy, when she just plays. She sings and chatters and dances and invites us into her joy. I imagine that just as I find joy in her in these moments, so too, does God find joy in us, when we remember, that a life in Christ is not about the rules—as if we somehow still have to earn our salvation by keeping the rules—rather, it’s about a relationship with Jesus—it’s about learning to live in God’s presence—and finding joy in all that God has done and provided for us.