(Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14)
The Holy One is like a shepherd to guide us through the wilderness to guide us to the meadows, and lands of milk and honey – the places of delight, the places of abundance in this good earth …
A shepherd to guide us to the still waters – the places of calm, the places of sweet refreshment for our thirst, the quiet places that hold us as we rest so we can become restored.
The Holy One is like a shepherd with us in the wilderness to guide us on the right path, to give us a compass, to serve as our intuition, our conscience, to give us some sound principles to help us know which way to go – to go this way with those folks, or that way with that crowd, or to go it alone … to act now, or to wait,to be bold now, or to bide our time, to go the right way, to do what is right when is right.
And when we’ve misjudged all that or when we get caught up by some false guide or get distracted by some false fantasy or swept up in some unwise impulse and we’ve gone astray, gone down a dead end … When that happens the Holy One is like a shepherd to help us find our way again.
The Holy One is like a shepherd with us in the wilderness to guide us through those dark and uncertain places we come to – the places shrouded in shadow, the valleys of the shadow of death.
We need not fear evil, for You, O Holy One, are with us.
But how easy it is, it seems, when we’re down in those valleys, to forget that we have a guide. When we forget, then we do fear, and we can spook and bolt and end up lost.
Shepherds, you know, lead from behind. The flock goes ahead of them. So it can feel like you’re going it alone. And shadows, you know, have their way of closing in around us and making us feel like we’re very alone, even when we’re not. And when we feel alone and scared, you know, then we’re susceptible to following the ways of the shadows themselves, of being drawn deeper into the maze, rather than through – we can become shadow puppets.
Puppets of the Shadow. Shadow puppets.
When we fear evil, we get drawn into it. We can get tunnel vision, and tumble down deeper into the darkness.
So let’s talk about these shadow places.
The shadow places of our lives and of our lives together, these are the places that we usually pretend aren’t there. We don’t like to think about them.
Death itself is such a shadow place, a realm that can feel like a great unknown and an unknown to be feared. But death is a reality that we must must face. Our journeys will bring us into that valley often enough.
There are also other parts of life and of ourselves that we can push into the shadows:
Traumatic experiences. That can be a big abyss.
Our own sadness, if it feels too painful to feel,or our anger or aggression or feelings of guilt or shame. Things we’ve done that we regret. Harm we’ve caused… Or desire that we feel like we shouldn’t have things we feel judgment about or judged for. Anything like that … anything that we want to keep at bay But pushing these things into the shadows just increased their power over us. What we don’t own ends up owning us. What we keep in the shadows ends up playing us like puppets
So, for instance someone who is always peace & love & harmony all the time can have aggression and anger pushed down that then pops out in strange ways Or on the other hand someone who is always off fighting battles can always seem to find and make enemies who look like the vicious unrighteous parts of themselves that they prefer to not own up to. That make sense? We often fight in others those things we need to admit about ourselves. There’s a lot of shadow boxing going on.
This goes for us as individuals, and it goes for us as larger groups of people. There are enormous forces that can possesses large groups of people without out being fully aware – violence, hatred, fear, guilt… That’s part of the scapegoating process that we explored last week.
What we keep in the shadows ends up playing us like puppets.
But when we accept the Good Shepherd as our guide, when we listen to that gentle and firm voice that follows us and guides (surely goodness and mercy follows me, as the Psalm says) … When we return to the Holy One as the one who leads the way, then we can go through the valleys of the shadow of death, and up and out to the other side.
But we must go through. The Holy One guides us to these shadow parts of life, and the Holy One guides us through.
A good guide helps us to know where we are on the map, and helps us to know that we’re not stuck there, but that the territory we’re in is territory we can pass through. There’s a path out into the light.
So let us hear again Paul’s words in the Letter to the Ephesians, “Although you were once in darkness, now, by your union with the risen Christ, you are in the light.” – With Christ we can descent into the valley of the shadow of death, and with Christ we can rise out of it, born anew, all those shadow parts of ourselves having been brought up and made “clear as light.” So, as Paul would put it, the “spirit of our minds” may be “constantly renewed.”
We own up to our destructive ways, and die to our old selves, and, with Christ in our hearts, we may rise with a new self, growing in our “power to understand – though it surpasses all understanding – the love of the Christ, and so be filled to the full with God”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered April 2, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)