Valley of the Shadow of Death

Psalm 23

When did you first work out what a valley was? At what age did geography impinge upon you? Those of you born and brought up in the Allen Valleys have always been part of a landscape of valleys and fells. But if you grow up in Norfolk, for instance, valleys are hard to imagine.
How old were you when you first heard Psalm 23? Did you wonder what the writer meant when he spoke about the valley of the shadow of death?
The first valley that I can consciously remember has the city of Winchester built along its floor. Each year for our family holiday, if we had one, we motor-biked down to Swanage, and stayed in my aunt’s caravan. We always broke the journey in Winchester. A huge, green, railing fence on our left as we descended a long, long hill heralded a stop for a drink in the reassuring shadow of the statue of King Alfred. Time to unlock my stiffened hands from around my father’s waist, as I was lifted down, aching and cold, from the pillion seat of his Triumph combination. Driving that road a few years ago, the railings and the hill seemed much, much smaller.
In this country, many dales and valleys are wide, and lush and green. A river will meander along the floor of a valley perhaps; or tumble over rocks. The fields on either side might be dotted with sheep. Here and there a wood or a village; or a town or city, if there is an important river to be crossed. Our valleys have been occupied and tamed and farmed for centuries. They hold few terrors now.
As a child especially, but even as an adult, it is hard to jump from these images to the valley of the shadow of death that we read about in the famous psalm. But the Judean hills are riven, not by wide, green English valleys, but by narrow, winding wadi. Imagine that we stand for a few moments on the bed of such a wadi. this is much deeper, much steeper than Staward Gorge. On either side of us, cliffs soar steeply upwards, so that the sky is a mere ribbon of light, more than a hundred feet above us. Dark rock hems us in on every side. Unless it is midday, we will be standing in deep shadow. Nor can we easily see back the way we have come, nor where the path will lead us, for the wadi twists and bends and bucks, through land-slips, over and around great boulders, wherever water has eroded the weakest way through tortured rock. There is little here that is green: a few plants cling to crevices between the boulders, and sprout from shadowed pools where the last water lingers.
Here lurk many dangers. A wadi is the dry bed of a river; and for most of their existence wadi are waterless and arid. But unknown to us, a storm in the mountains miles away will suddenly give birth to a flash flood; and torrents of water will plunge and foam down this narrow canyon. Hollows gouged into the rock walls, and massive boulders strewn about, hint darkly at the power of such maelstrom. There is no escape: the ancient sandstone walls are unclimbable. If we are caught here after a storm, we will surely die, drowning in the undertow or dashed against the rocks.
Fortunately such storms are rare; but this means that thieves may lurk in caves here, and wild animals may make their dens. Once again, there is no escape if we are ambushed. And yet, sometimes we must travel this difficult and dangerous way, for there is no other route to our destination. We would do well not to travel alone. We need companions, to help carry the burdens of water, food and firewood; to help defend against attack. Most of all we need a guide, to plan the journey for us; to shepherd us along the clearest, safest route, along the narrow ledges and eroded gaps in the path; to choose the securest places for halts and camps.
There are difficulties we face as children: the first day in a new school, making the jerky lines that lurch from our pencils conform to the flowing, shapely letters on the blackboard (or whiteboard, as they are now); a bully in the playground, an illness, the death of a grandparent perhaps. As most of us look back now, the difficulties look a lot smaller than they did at the time. For most of us, most of the time, childhood innocence was a time of wide and cultivated valleys, through which our lives meandered lazily and happily. We romanticise those years; and for the most part remember the good bits more than the hard times.
And compared with most of the people on the planet, our lives here in Northumberland still ramble gently through wide and verdant pastures. We do not face the threat of war, or famine, or natural disaster, like so many of whom we are but dimly aware. We are not refugees, forced to flee our homes, forced to watch the murder of those we love. We are not pressed into service as child soldiers. We are not persecuted for our faith. Our houses will not collapse about our ears as earthquake, hurricane or flood wreak havoc with our communities. Compared with so very many in our world, our way is gentle and free of major obstacles. The way ahead is clear.
And yet.
And yet the wadi we travel as adults are just as deep, and dark, and dangerous as any others, while we are in them. The valley of the shadow of diagnosis. The valley of the shadow of redundancy, the valley of the shadow of debt, the valley of the shadow of loss. Valleys indeed of the shadow of death. And we, and those we love must all negotiate such canyons. We need companions on our journey, just as much as in a real, physical wadi, to sustain us and uphold us and help carry the burden. In part this is what the church is for: not only when the dangers we face are especially spiritual ones, but through all the everyday shadows of ordinary life. We also help carry the burdens of others, offering encouragement, sharing in sadness as well as joy, offering understanding, holding onto hope.
We also need a guide, a shepherd in the biblical sense.
‘I am the good shepherd’, says Jesus in St John’s gospel. Not a hireling, who flees at the first sign of trouble, abandoning us to a watery fate or a mauling or a mugging, as we navigate the valley of the shadow of death. ‘I am connected, I am involved’, says Jesus. ‘I know my sheep, and you know me. I give my very life to show how great is my love for you. Such is the guidance that I offer’.
And the great question that Jesus asks each one of us, as the cliffs and ramparts of each new valley soar above us, is ‘do you accept my offer’? We may have answered that question many times in the past. But each new valley poses new threats though, and unknown dangers lurk.
Yet the hope he offers remains the same; and if you must walk through the valley of the shadow of death today, grasp hold of this hope once again.

© Jon Russell 2019