The Valley of the Shadow

Going to work with Mama was a special treat.   It was rare to spend time just with her.   At home she was busy with the demands of family, but at work her schedule was more relaxed.  Only there could I have her full attention.  She worked part-time as a secretary at the Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in east Atlanta.   On Fridays, Pastor Obert “visited the Greens.”   All that was pressing was the printing of bulletins.   I still remember the smell of mimeograph ink and the bluish-purple stains on my mother’s hands.  By one o’clock she was done and we were off to Arby’s for Beef-n-Cheddars and then to Mrs. Mowery’s for Mama’s weekly hairdo – and, of course, the jar of butterscotch and toffee.

While my mother finished up at the church, I was explored the curiosities of Pastor Obert’s office, listened to stories of Mama’s childhood, and designed the next generation of spacecraft.    Her office was warm and inviting.  And Pastor Obert’s office was spacious, more library than office.   Mama would also allow me to go up to the sanctuary – a beautiful worship space with large windows, flooded with so much light that it seemed as much like heaven as a ten-year-old could imagine.  

But not all the spaces at Ormewood Park were warm and luminous.   In order to get to the sanctuary from the office, I had to pass through a dark, ancient hallway.   Its musty smell, noisy tile floor and penetrating dark, terrified me.   It seemed sinister and menacing.   Running was the only way to make the passage.   And I knew that whatever I did, whatever I heard, I must never look back.

Darkness is like that.   In the dark, common comforts become sinister uncertainties.   In the dark, we can’t distinguish between what is real and what our fears project.   We were not made for the dark.  Before God did anything else in creation, he turned the lights on.   Almost every dimension of life depends upon light.  Even in the black depths of the deepest sea, creatures use natural luminescence to survive.

We are afraid of the dark because we were created to live and walk in the light.   The Bible notes that heaven is a place with no night – lit eternally by the Eternal God who, himself is its light.   In the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly draws attention to the contrast between light and dark as a metaphor for our emotional and spiritual condition. 

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. John 3:19

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. John 12:46

And Jesus’ disciple, John, would later write.

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:5-7

But walking in the light can be hard to do.   Even believers with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, may experience consuming spiritual and emotional darkness.  Three times the Bible uses the phrase, “shadow of death.”   We usually read this as a metaphor for death.   But in each instance, the Bible refers to the experience of the living, not the dead.   The ancient language literally reads, “the shadow of deepest darkness.”   It is a darkness so black it is palpable, penetrating every nook and cranny of heart and soul.  Grief, doubt, fear, sickness, and adversity easily shadow our lives with deepest darkness.  Little grows well in this darkness except questions.   Where is God?  Why is he silent?  Why has he allowed this?  Will the darkness ever end?  Can I trust him?  Follow him?

Jeremiah was a bold and persistent prophet.   He was set apart before his birth.  God promised to deliver him from all his enemies.  Jeremiah confessed that even if he wanted to forsake his calling, he could not. 

If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
    shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.  Jeremiah 20:9

Jeremiah preached hard words to hard hearts.   For over four decades he did the work of a prophet, yet saw no profit from it in the people’s lives.  No repentance, no returning, no reformation – only the unrelenting judgment of God against his beloved Judah.   He was beaten, imprisoned, ridiculed, despised, outcast by foe, friend and family.   He was kidnapped.  He was denied every earthly relationship that might bring joy.   Little wonder he was the weeping prophet.  He wept for his people, but he also wept for himself.  In Jeremiah 20 we find the prophet in a valley of deepest darkness.   His grief, anger and frustration carry him close to the border of apostasy.  

Yet Jeremiah’s struggles, just like Jeremiah’s preaching, are written for our instruction.  How do we walk in the light when God leads us into the Valley of The Shadow?   We feel should feel the weight of this question every time we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the evil one].”   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 20 and consider how to walk in the light through the valley of deepest darkness.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions.   Or join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.