Edward Bowen recently did something that drew a lot of attention in western Pennsylvania. Bowen is 41 years old and is the pastor at Bates Memorial Presbyterian Church in Huntington, West Virginia. Before moving to Huntington he was pastor of Crafton United Presbyterian Church in Crafton, Pennsylvania. Before entering the ministry he was a corporate accountant, and he used his accounting skills to make very wise investments.
Edward Bowen also has a form of cancer that gives him only a year or two to live. In considering his mortality he decided he wanted to do something that would, in his words, use the time I have left to do as much good as I can. He has established a fund that will value $1 million dollars and be used for causes that help the kids in his old neighborhood in Crafton, so that his ministry can continue after he is gone.
Edward Bowen is beginning his walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but he understands that not only will his life continue in eternity, the impact of his life can continue in this world as well.
As we continue our series within a series – our series of messages on the psalms, and now several weeks on the 23rd psalm – we come to what are some of the most well-known words in that well-known passage of Scripture – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
As I said a few weeks ago, it’s a bit amazing that the 23rd psalm is so beloved when it is filled with so much difficult language. When we talk about difficulties, what is more difficult that the prospect of our own mortality?
The shadow of death always threatens to cast itself over our lives. Before we walk far down the road of life, we become acquainted with the reality of loss. As we walk further down life’s road, it becomes a more constant companion as we lose friends and loved ones. And as we walk further still, we realize there is more of life’s road behind us than in front of us.
I must hasten to say that my purpose this morning is not to bring a discouraging word to you. My intent is not to make you wish you had stayed home this morning. In fact, my purpose is the opposite. The psalmist affirms, in a moving and powerful way, that we can find hope in the face of life’s greatest challenges and even in death itself.
1. Life is many things, and one of them is challenging.
There is a lot going on in this brief verse. It recognizes not only our mortality, but also the reality of danger, evil, suffering, and so many other threats that fill our world. It is a harsh reminder that we will not escape suffering and difficulty in this life, and we will not escape it because of faith. The promise that we will escape suffering and difficulty does not exist anywhere in the Bible.
Many people assume that the Bible says God will not give us more than we can handle. People often say this, but that verse does not exist in the Bible. But it could. I don’t believe God give us more than we can handle, but life sometimes does.
We could spend all day here trying to come up with an answer as to why life has to be challenging, but I’ll save us the time and just say that it is. Why, I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t, unfortunately, answer the question of why life is challenging, or why good people sometimes suffer while evil people prosper. That doesn’t seem just, does it? Some people are so kind and so nice and so gentle and so loving, and yet their lives are full of heartache and pain. And some people are mean and self-centered and hateful, and they seem to prosper in almost everything they touch. I don’t know why that is, but it just is.
Suffering is not the exception; it is the norm. When you walk out your door in the morning you do not know what might happen to you.
2. The challenges of life can bring strength and even blessing to us.
Isn’t that a strange thing to say?
I played my only year of organized football when I was in 8th grade. I wasn’t very good. I was a last string running back on offense and a slightly used safety on defense. When we were doing our conditioning drills before the season started we did a type of exercises that were at that time a new way of exercising – isometric exercises. Isometric exercises work differently from, for instance, weight lifting. Weight lifting works with repetition in lifting, but isometrics work on the principle of resistance, where you push against an object that offers a great deal of resistance, but it is in the resistance that we build muscle and stamina.
There’s something very theological about that kind of exercise, because we build strength of heart and spirit when we encounter resistance.
This is why, I think, that we shouldn’t always try to remove every problem from the lives of our loved ones, especially our children. You can’t protect yourself or your loved ones from suffering, and you shouldn’t always protect them, because we must learn how to deal with suffering and difficulty. A person who is always protected and sheltered from the realities of life will never be given the opportunity to develop strength of heart, spirit, and faith.
Helen Keller wrote that character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
I love the story of Joseph and his brother in the book of Genesis, even though it’s a tough story to read. Brothers don’t always get along. I have two brothers and we didn’t always get along, but Joseph and his brothers – now there is a dysfunctional family. Joseph was so disliked by his brothers that they decided they would kill him. One of the brothers – Judah – said they shouldn’t kill him, but make a profit off of him by selling him into slavery. I hope you remember the rest of the story, and how Joseph rises to second in command in Egypt to the Pharaoh. When famine comes to his homeland his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, and they find themselves face to face with their brother Joseph – the one they sold into slavery years before. And this is what Joseph says to his brothers – what you meant for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
I don’t believe that God brings suffering and difficulty upon us, but I believe God transforms our suffering and difficulty into something that can bring us strength and, as only God can do, bring blessing to us. It was terrible what Joseph’s brothers did to him, selling him into slavery. It was terrible that they allowed their father to believe for so many years that his son was dead. There’s no way to put a positive spin on those events. But, God is never content to allow suffering and difficulty to exist, so he specializes in bringing strength, hope, blessing – good things out of those difficulties.
3. Don’t fear.
I have witnessed a lot of suffering and tragedy and loss during the course of my ministry. I have witnessed people experience unspeakable tragedy. I have witnessed people, good people, suffer through what they should never have to suffer. I have witnessed people taking their final breath and pass from this life to the next. And through it all I have become more convinced that God is real, that there is more than just this life, that God is good and that he loves us, and that our eternal destiny is secure in his hands. Because all that is true, I can let go of fear.
Now, I have to be honest and say that I still worry a lot, and I often have anxiety about life, but fear is a different matter. Worry and anxiety are emotional reactions to the struggles of life, but fear is a threat that seeks to take away the realization of who God is and what he wants for us.
This verse of the 23rd psalm is a very powerful affirmation – I will fear no evil. Whatever comes my way, whatever happens in life, I will fear no evil. The psalmist said he found comfort in God’s rod and staff. As a shepherd, a staff served several purposes, one of which was defense. A shepherd had to defend his flock against many dangers. And that is the message of this verse. We can walk anywhere in life – even in the shadow of death – and not be afraid, because we are in the hands of God. When we suffer, we remain in the hands of God. When we victimized by the world’s evils, we remain in the hands of God.
I think the most vivid image in this verse is that we walk through the valley. When I picture a valley, I visualize a winding road, because those are the kinds of valleys I knew growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. My dad loved taking the winding road. I did not. Riding in the back seat of a station wagon as we wound along those West Virginia roads was not my idea of a good time. I really disliked the windy road. I still do. For those of you who like to take the back roads to Louisville I say more power to you, but give me the interstate. I want to take the easiest straightest road, not only when I am driving, but also as I live. But it’s not always possible, and it’s not always beneficial.
Yesterday I officiated at the wedding of a young man whose family have been our friends for many years. It was a beautiful wedding, and there was a particular moment that was very moving. During the lighting of the Unity Candle there is a pause after the couple light the candle. From my perspective, on the platform, it’s very interesting to watch the guests. I could see the groom’s grandmother, and I’m sure, as she watched her grandson’s wedding, that she was thinking about her husband, who passed away several years ago. I could see his uncle and his wife, who are facing a tremendously challenging health diagnoses, yet their love and devotion to one another remain stronger than ever. I watched other couples enjoy what, I’m sure, was a moment of reflection upon their own marriages and their years together. I could see my wife, Tanya, and I thought about our almost 30 year marriage, and what a gift it is to our lives. As I watched these members of the congregation, and others, I thought about what a gift of God it is that we do not walk this life alone, especially when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Never forget that you are not alone. God has blessed your life with others who will always walk with you, and he is always with you as well.