The shepherd goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow.
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death
I fear no evil.
Usually when we pray “The Lord is my shepherd” we have in mind that God provides for us and protects us. When we pray about the valley of the shadow of death we mean an unfortunate place we've unwillingly found ourselves. But what if the Loving Shepherd leads us intentionally into the dark valley? What if Psalm 23 is not only about comfort, but courage? What if it is not meant to direct our attention toward ourselves, but toward God and God's will?
Imagine that the “paths of righteousness” include the arduous road of working and even sacrificing for justice and compassion. That the shepherd restores our soul because we've poured it out. That the table prepared for us is not in our safe sanctum but among our enemies. That Jesus is leading us to be with those who dwell in the shadow of death, not from a distance, but there in the valley with them. That Jesus is leading us to do justice despite persecution, to enter into the world's wounds, to be in solidarity with those who suffer. Is that not what it means to take up our cross and follow him, to follow him into the shadow of death?
“It's just consequences to suffer for our bad choices,” says 1 Peter 2.20, “but it opens us to God's grace to suffer for doing good.” The one prize we hold most dear is to be near the Beloved. So we don't beg for the easy path, the still waters and green pastures. We pray for the grace to listen, draw near and follow, even if the shepherd is marching into the valley of shadows. We pray for more than our own comfort. We pray for the healing of the world. So we pray to follow the Beloved, even into dark places, knowing that even there we are led, we are blessed, we are renewed.
Breath prayer: Following you … I fear not
―May 5, 2017