Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Though I Walk Through the Valley

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I 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 overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

-Psalm 23

For those of us in Washington, DC, the earthquake last week revealed depths of anxiety that we had mostly avoided awareness of. The shock and surprise of the earthquake unveiled - if only for a moment - our denial of mortality. Under normal circumstances, we could go about our daily business; we could pursue our hopes and dreams with little thought for how this all must end. But the jolt of the earthquake - mistaken by so many of us for a terrorist attack - overwhelmed the anesthetic of routine and petty ambition. We were thrust into unknowing. For a brief moment, we were drawn into a story that was bigger than ourselves, a story in which we are not the protagonists, and not immortal.

I have a friend who works at a local market here on Capitol Hill. He describes the place as, "a 7-Eleven for yuppies." It is a convenience store with really good, really expensive food.

On the day of the earthquake, he told me that they were completely sold out. People were coming in and buying forty-dollar bottles of wine, little blocks of very expensive cheese, and other items fit for a celebration. That day, these men and women felt out of control. Forces beyond human jurisdiction were determining whether they survived or perished, whether the city they lived in stood or fell. They sensed that all of their plans, ambitions and money became absurd in the face of these forces - in the face of the reality of death.
It was eye-opening for me to hear my friend's story about the reaction of so many on Capitol Hill to the quake. This event forced us out of our comfort zones and into a very brief - yet very real - existential crisis. The tremors tore away the veil of the ordinary to reveal what we have built our lives on.

Given the reaction of the customers at the corner market that day, for many this revelation was traumatic. When our lives are built on career, consumerism and personal ambition, the encounter with death is a revelation of the absurd. We see the groundlessness of our lives, the lack of ultimate purpose for anything we do. If, in the end, the purpose of our lives is personal fulfillment, the reaction of shoppers on Capitol Hill makes perfect sense. In the face of meaninglessness and absurdity, we double down on our existential wager of hedonism. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."(1)

For some of us, however, the earthquake revealed a different foundation. It is not that human life and the prospect of death made any more sense to us. Human beings are spiritual animals - but animals nonetheless. All things being equal, living creatures fear death and cling to life. Yet, in a moment when we were expecting imminent death, some of us discovered that we had an inward comfort. We turned inward, relying on the presence of God for guidance, and meaning. There was fear, but there was also a solid place where we could stand. There was a real and present Shepherd who was standing with us, even in the face of death.

This assurance - God's presence with us - transformed our response to crisis and the possibility of death. Rather than recoiling in terror from the absurdity of a meaningless life, we were empowered to respond in hope. We discovered that the Lord is indeed walking with us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We sensed that we were a part of a Life bigger than ourselves. We knew that our lives, while precious, were not the end of the story.

Rather than fleeing the terror and absurdity of imminent oblivion, we prepared for transition. Knitted into God's life and power, we were able to experience the prospect of death not as the destruction of life and its meaning, but instead as the transition between one scene and another. The actors change, but the story continues to unfold. And God is in control.

For many years, I tried to make my own meaning without God. The outcome of that path was absurdity and despair. But what I experienced last week was not absurdity. Instead, as I faced what I believed was the real possibility of immediate death, I experienced a sense of purposefulness and quietness of spirit. I knew that God had placed me here for a reason. If I had to die there must be a purpose in that.

If I had made for myself the decision to live in Washington, I might have been angry that my plans had been thwarted and my life cut short. But I had not chosen to come here. I was directed here by God, and I felt a peace in knowing that if I died, I died to the Lord.(2)

I did not feel despair, because I sensed in the depths of my being that my Shepherd was walking with me and was guiding me according to his purposes. If that meant death, well, I would be frightened like any sheep would - but I knew I could trust in God's care. Death is something we all must face, but the Lord gives me purpose and comfort in life and in death. In this, I have experienced the meaning of the psalmist's words, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long."(3)


1. See 1 Corinthians 15:32
2. See Romans 14:7-8
3. Psalm 23:6