"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . ."
I learned the words to the 23rd Psalm when I was a child. I still prefer the poetry of the King James Version and its Elizabethan English. Today, I recite it most often at funerals, at which I'm grateful still most people know the words to recite along with me. I've been known to preach on it, because it is worth living by every day and not just at funerals. After visiting Israel, I think of it in a whole new way.
The picture above is of a place called Wadi Qelt. A wadi is a canyon carved by centuries of sporadic heavy rain. Wadi Qelt is the traditional place David had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23. (It is also said to be the place where the prophet Elijah hid from the forces of Queen Jezebel and was fed by ravens.) Of course, there is no way to know if this is the place David really had in mind any more than there is a way to know for sure that it was David who wrote Psalm 23, but it was powerful to visit it just the same.
I had always envisioned the "valley of the shadow of death" as well, more shadowed rather than baked by the sun. The vegetation you see in the picture exists because an ancient aqueduct still carries water along its steep cliff side and leaks at places. The aqueduct was built long after David's time, so if he was thinking of Wadi Qelt it wasn't with any greenery. It's much more bleak than I imagined. The day we visited the temperature was in the 90's (don't ask me about Celsius) and it felt like we were being baked in an oven.
I had also imagined the "valley of the shadow of death" to have more life to it. I guess I was taking the phrase literally which says, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters." Now I know the writer of the Psalm, if he or she had Wadi Qelt or a place like it in mind was drawing a contrast between his or her lived reality and what he or she trusted God would provide. There are no green pastures nor still waters in Wadi Qelt. The only water comes rarely and dangerously rushing through the canyon.
When we look at the parched landscape with its steep cliff sides that allow only a narrow trail along them, we can realize just how much faith it took for the Psalm writer to trust God would provide "green pastures," "still waters," "a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," and a cup that "runneth over." This is the substance of faith in God--that in our desperate moments when we are most in need that God remains with us to provide for us.
Wadi Qelt speaks to our lived reality. In moments of tragedy and grief, pain and loss, it may take more imagination than we can muster to believe existence is more than a parched and desolate place lacking in comfort. When we have no answers for why the innocent suffer, the young die or relationships are broken, Wadi Qelt awaits.
The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." There are times when we have no assurances nor convictions. Yet, Psalm 23 declares that when we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" God is with us. This is faith--daring to believe God walks with us even when we cannot feel God's presence.
Wadi Qelt reminds us not to speak of faith in a trite manner nor to speak words to one who grieves merely to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable in their presence. It reminds us that faith in such circumstances is truly a miraculous event that if it occurs, does so on a different timetable for each person.
Faith is believing that even in such a bleak landscape, God is still present with us. Faith is trusting that the Psalm's words are true: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." I hold no guarantees, but I pray you find faith when your life's journey takes you to Wadi Qelt. May your "shepherd" guide you.
Grace and Peace,