Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd March 22, 2020
Someone once told me that it would be a microscopic bug that would do us all in and we all laughed. Well—the joke’s now on us. It’s still a bit surreal to realize that a flu virus is closing down the world. It’s also difficult to accept that social isolation, one of our greatest fears especially among the elderly, is becoming the source of physical healing. The darkness of solitude is the birth place of hope—quite the Lenten theme!
Our lectionary reading for today gives us the 23rd psalm and it helps us dig a little deeper into this message of contradiction. Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shalt not want.” The Hebrew word for “want” is “ehsar” the same word that is used in the 10 Commandments for covet: thou shalt not covet—thy neighbour’s wife or ass or toilet paper! We have traditionally understood “I shalt not want” to mean that God will provide for all our needs. And indeed, that is a solid translation. But Hebrew readers will probably catch this double meaning of “ehsar”—I shall not want for anything and I shall not covet. This verse could therefore mean God will provide for all my needs, especially if I don’t covet what is not mine.
Just as fast as the COVID-19 virus spreads, so does the infection of fear and hoarding. I’m certainly not above anyone else. The only reason I don’t have extra stacks of toilet paper in my house is that I was not fast enough. The clerks at the checkout said that people were wheeling 2 and 3 carts at a time piled high with over $1,000 of items. We don’t have to dig very deeply to touch a base fear, that we all have, of scarcity. We fear that we do not have enough money, enough things, enough talent. As Brené Brown writes, underlying our fear of scarcity is a fear that we are not enough.
But Psalm 23 assures us that we are enough and that we have enough. If we, who have a wee bit more than we need, give some of our abundance to those who have little, then we can say with certainty, that God provides all that the whole world needs. I shalt not want because I shalt not covet.
Let’s now jump down a few verses to: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—the darkest valley, as our New Revised Standard Version reads—I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” This verse is the singular reason why Psalm 23 is read at funerals and at deathbeds. It provides assurance of God’s presence and protection even in death.
While true, this psalm is actually not about death. It’s about the promise of abundance and restoration while living in dark, scary times. The psalmist doesn’t suggest that God will take away these times of challenge. Rather, God will take us through them—through the darkest valley.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark teaches us about the benefits of darkness. The body needs the dark to sleep deeply and allow its cells to be rejuvenated. But she notes that there are different types of darkness. The 16th c mystic St. John of the Cross, who wrote Dark Night of the Soul describes two types of darkness. The first, oscura, means the dark of night, which brings a quiet healing. The second type, tiniebla, is the darkness of a soul caught in depression that can “take people apart without putting them back together again.” This second type of darkness is the one to which the psalmist refers.
Sometimes, we travel though a soul-wrenching darkest valley through which we need God’s wisdom, courage and strength to pull us through. In this journey, we may find that the darkness does not change. Rather, we are the ones who change. It may involve a divestment of what we hold dear. Meister Eckhart wrote, “The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction.” He continues,
Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.
Lent takes us on an inward path that can become narrow and rocky. We do not always have a choice about which path to follow. But we may have a choice about how to follow it. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher on Cape Breton Island, suggests that the problem is not what is out there. Instead, the problem is our resistance to what is there and a reluctance to learn to walk in the dark.
In his book And There Was Light, Jacques Lusseyran describes his ability to see, even though he was blinded in an accident when he was eight years old. He permanently lost complete sight in both his eyes. But a few months later, he gradually became aware of a colourful light that ebbed and flowed whether his eyes were open or closed. It was only those times when he became afraid that the light began to disappear. When he was afraid that he would bump into things, he would. Anger and impatience had the same effect. He realized that when he felt jealous or unfriendly with his playmates, a bandage would seem to fall down over his eyes. But when Jacques was happy and serene, confident in his friendships, his other senses came alive and he could easily negotiate around obstacles. Little Jacques was learning how to tap into his God-given inner light to walk in the darkness.
He grew up with the loving and wise guidance of parents who insisted that he not be segregated, but attend public school and do whatever he could with his classmates. Years passed and as rumours of war began to circulate, he gathered together 600 hundred young men to form an underground resistance unit in France in the 1940s. He was highly valued because of his ability to see through his ears, smell and second sense. He could correctly identify trees by hearing the different songs that each type of tree sang. His hearing was so acute that it developed into a type of radar that steered him around obstacles. He learned German, English, Latin and Greek. Eventually, Jacques and his comrades were betrayed, arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Jacques survived in part because he was able to tap into the inner light of God and assist others. He could see when most of his prison mates were blinded by terror and despair.
Every one of us has this inner light of God nestled deep within. Quakers call this the “inward light” that gives each person a direct awareness of God and God’s will for that person. As Jacques discovered, our fears and anxiety, our sense of inadequacy and being not enough can shade our hearts from this light. When we learn how to reduce our fears and anxiety and tap into that inner light, we learn how to walk through the darkest valley.
We are in a confusing time in which fear and anxiety abound. Out of social responsibility for communal physical health, Westworth has joined other churches and mosques, synagogues and temples in closing its building to the public. Our folks who live in nursing homes and retirement homes are now in forced isolation, at a time when they need social support more than ever. These are dark, scary times for many.
As we feel that fear or anxiety begin to rise, let us pause and breathe in the deep peace of the Spirit. Let us breathe out the tension of our fears. Breathe in with me slowly, deeply and then breathe out. As you breathe in, imagine the Spirit filling you with peace and the assurance of God’s presence. As you continue this breath prayer, you may find that you have more than tension to breathe out. You may be able to breathe out God’s healing to those around you; to those in the world who are losing family members and being quarantined, to the doctors who are having to make difficult decisions in Italy and other places about which life to save because there are not enough resources to save everyone. Let us breathe in the healing peace of the Spirit and breathe out this prayer of healing for others.
When we take this time to pray and centre ourselves in the deep peace of God, we will find the inner light of God’s presence begin to shine a little more brightly. This light will not only soothe our fears, but give us hope and energy to pass it on to others.
Now is the time when our Christian ministry matters more than ever. Call someone whom you know is isolated. Send a card to someone who has dementia so that they can read it over and over and be reminded that they are not alone. Email and text those you know to check-in with them and see how they’re doing. If you’re able to help run errands or deliver goods to those who are house-bound, let us know as we coordinate care for others. If you could help us call our congregants just to check-in with them, let us know as we put together phone lists. If you’d like to be part of a virtual, confidential prayer circle, let us know and I will send you prayer requests. We won’t be collecting food for West Broadway Community Ministry for the time being, but they do have a donation button on their website where you can specify donations for emergency food.
Kitty O’Meara wrote the following:
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
I don’t know what we will each discover as we walk our own valleys. I pray that this time will give us a unique opportunity for healing. When we join each of our little lights of divine healing together, we can create a blaze of hope as we walk through the dark valley. God is with us leading us beside waters that have become quite still these days, restoring our souls and enabling us to reach out our virtual hands to one another and walk—perchance even to dance—in the dark.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014): 146.
 Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light. Originally printed in 1963. (California: New World Library, 2006).