Ever since I can remember, I’ve had this dream of being a pig or a sheep farmer. And despite the fact that I now have literally the most white-collar profession there is, it’s still a dream that persists. Something about the romantic and peaceful image I painted for myself just won’t go away.
So a couple of years ago I ordered a book called the “The Shephard’s Life”, by James Rebanks. It’s a sort of memoir, about his life as a shepherd in the northern Lake District of England where he raises a heritage breed of sheep in a place that looks like the set of Lord of the Rings. Just beautiful, an absolute dream. I ordered this beautiful book thinking, who knows, maybe it’ll push my dream over the edge and into reality. Or at least I’ll have a pretty book to put out on the coffee table, maybe it’ll help me cultivate my desired image of being someone who can say, yea I’m pretty into sheep farming, no big deal. I’m basically Virginia’s Wendell Berry.
So the book finally arrived in the mail, through the mail slot in our front door, and of course my crazy dog Jack was there to receive it. Apparently he’s not a sheepdog, or doesn’t like sheep, and things don’t always turn out as you’d plan. Thankfully I could still actually read it and when you read this book you’ll see, it’s a fantastic book that does a great job reminding you that even the most beautiful, seemingly ideal lives are lives full of blood, sweat and tears. Even the Lake District of England can feel like a valley of death.
These valleys of death, of anxiety and fear and suffering, they’re everywhere. This present coronavirus moment certainly feels like a valley of death for many of us. But the words of Psalm 23, and its place as one of the most widely known passages throughout all of scripture, reminds us that we are not passing through our first valley of death, and sadly, this won’t be our last. But, but what we’re reminded of and shown and given in this Psalm is the promise, or the many promises, that all of this suffering is not something that we do alone, and that this isn’t a valley so dark that light and mercy and even joy cannot shine.
Sigmund Freud has a fantastic psychological critique of religion that goes something like this: Freud said that the faith of Moses rests on a God who’s always asking more than Israel can give. So, there’s a perpetual cycle of demand and failure and guilt and sacrifice and demand and failure and guilt and sacrifice. That sounds dark, but it also sounds about right. But the key word here is “sacrifice”. Who’s doing the sacrifice and what is it? If all we have is the demand of the Ten Commandments, if that’s what our religion is based on, then at the end of the day we’re left to clean up our own failure and guilt all by ourselves, with our own sacrifices. And we do this, we say we’re going to give this up and not do that again. We’re going to make the sacrifice of changing ourselves, our habits, you name it, so that never again will we make that mistake again.
Maybe you thought you were going to spend your time in quarantine sacrificing those extra calories so you could make up for past failures and meet the demands of the mirror? You may have thought that, but if you’re like many of us, stress comes and it brings its friends ice cream and bourbon, and instead of losing weight you’ve put on the Corona 15, the freshmen 15’s cruel cousin.
These self-improvement plans aren’t actually sacrifices if you think about it, they’re just more demands. What we need is a true sacrifice, because without one, the valley of death feels like it’s going to topple in on top of us.
God gives us the Ten Commandments because God wants to show us ten good ways to live. But that’s not all God gives us, God doesn’t stop after handing us a to-do list or some ambitious plan of self-improvement. God also gives us Himself. And through the sacrifice of the Cross God gives us the gift of hope and joy and mercy to accompany us along life’s way, to shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death.
In Psalm 23 God gives us Ten Joys. Ten gifts of the Gospel:
1- He makes me lie down in green pastures
2- he leads me beside still waters
3- He revives my soul
4- He guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake
5- Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me
6- your rod and your staff—they comfort me
7- you spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me
8- you anoint my head with oil
9- my cup is running over
10- surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
Demand, failure, guilt. This is life. But thank God we have been given His true sacrifice. Thank God that our need is met, not with more demand, but with grace upon grace. Thank God that while we feel like we’re being cradled by the valley of the shadow of death itself, the truth is that we are being held, that the valley we’re in itself is being held and within it all of our failure, guilt and fear, everything is being held in the hands of our Good Shepherd. He gives us faith and hope and joy, so that we may say;
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. And my shepherd has lied down his life for me, so that I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen