Courageous Traveling

Psalm 23

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me.”

Or in the words of today’s text:
“I may walk through valleys
as bleak as death,
but I won’t be afraid.”

I have been meditating on these words this week.
What do they mean?

What do you think it is like
to walk through bleak valleys?
Or navigate low places hidden in shadow?

Today’s testimony captures the truth that:
We know what it is to find ourselves on the path:
lost, muddied and searching.

At times in our life,
we have each navigated
unknown paths with twists and turns,
ducking and weaving through brush,
painful prickers
and unexpected brambles.

Just like the psalmist:
Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil …

This psalmist knows what it is
to travel through the valley of the shadow of death
… and survive.

Wow.

Suddenly,
I can see that
this tenacious traveler
is telling us the tale
of daring to venture forth
under tenuous circumstances.

This traveler has walked, has quested,
has journeyed on even when
in a dim, dismal valley.

I want to know:
How did they find the stamina
to continue in critical moments?
How do we?
How do we face the day
when we crash,
with an empty tank
and dire circumstances?
How do we keep the faith
when we can’t find our way?

Considering those questions,
I find myself contemplating the movie, Moana.
In this movie,
a young girl, Moana, lives on a Polynesian island
and has to voyage across the sea
on a special expedition
to save her people.
On the way,
Moana meets a friend, Maui,
who joins her, guides her and
literally teaches her the ropes
as they sail together.
Eventually,
they get in a disagreement and
Maui goes off on his own.
Moana remains
sailing on a stormy sea,
sad, empty and afraid.

She doesn’t know what to do.

How will she find the stamina to voyage on?
How will she keep the faith
even though she can’t find her way?

Should she continue?
Should she turn back?

As she deliberates,
a vision of her late grandmother comes her.
Her grandmother sees her struggle
and asks, “Why do you hesitate?”

Moana replies, achingly,
“I don’t know.”

In response,
her grandmother begins to sing.
First,
she reminds Moana who she is
and what she cares about:
the sea and her people.
She continues, vocalizing,
“Sometimes the world seems against you,
the journey can leave a scar,
but scars can heal and reveal
just where you are.
The people who love will change you.
The things you have learned will guide you.
And nothing on earth can silence
the quiet voice inside of you.”

She is telling Moana,
that even though she sails
through the bleakest
crests and troughs,
tempest-tossed
and sometimes lost,
there is something within her,
that cannot be moved or shaken.

As the words slowly sink in,
Moana sings out,
“[I am] descended from voyagers …
I have delivered us to where we are.
I have journeyed farther.
I am everything I have learned and more …
Come what may I know the way …”

The lyrics resound:
I have delivered us to where we are.
I have journeyed farther …

This lines,
I suddenly see,
testify to the truth of how far
Moana has made it
even as she floats on the waves
of a turbulent sea.

She has journeyed farther.

Like the psalmist,
who found their way through
the most wild, blustery ravine.

Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,

Suddenly
the psalm fills me with awe
as I think of the truth of these words:
They have journeyed farther.

You have journeyed farther.

Do you see how far you have come?

I ask this question
as I consider the 23rd psalm.
I love this psalm for many reasons,
but one is because it comforts me.
As a young child,
I can remember sitting in the basement
of my house,
at our computer desk,
booting up our old computer.
Right next to this slow-running machine,
lay a bright orange pocket bible,
King James Version.
Each time
I switched on the computer
and waited for it to load,
I would run my fingers over the rough, orange cover,
open it up and try, again,
to memorize the words of the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
He maketh me lie down in green pasture,
He leadeth me beside still waters.
God restoreth my soul.

God restoreth my soul.
Even now,
I have a wooden sign
painted with those words
hanging in my house.
It reminds me
that, yes, I have walked through
great deserts and vacant valleys.
Yet, I have also encountered
oases, pastures and
companionship on the way.

It reminds me that
I have journeyed farther.

This week,
as I switched on my computer,
I found myself running my fingers
over a place in my soul,
where an estranged friendship
had been –
I could feel the rough, painful edges,
as the smoothed places
of splendor and beauty.
I remember how
one my closest friends,
one day,
six or seven years ago,
decided to stop talking to me
because of the choices
they were making
in their own life.
I loved them so much,
but there I was alone,
like the psalmist,
like Moana.
What to do? What to do?

I couldn’t control the choice
of someone else.
All I could do was pray
and send them a note
every once in a while,
writing, you matter to me;
writing, I wish good things for you.

Still,
God came to me,
in the form of others,
like a shepherdess
gently taking me to her favorite fields.
I remember those who
prayed for me,
remained with me,
walked with me in that valley,
and did not leave me alone.

Years, and years later,
my friend eventually found her way
and our relationship was reconciled,
but what I will always remember is:
the way God restored my soul
when a great emptiness lived there.

God restores my soul
not only in places of estranged relationships,
but places of grief, disappointment,
anger at injustice,
heartache at the world.

God does not leave me alone.
God does not leave us alone.
God gives us community, prayer,
communion, song, story, Scripture,
each other, hope, love, beauty
and the reminder of our own
brave and courageous voyages.

Do you see how far you have come?

You have traveled further.

I see now
that the psalmist’s line
about walking through tough valleys
is telling the tale of
resilience and resurrection.

The psalmist walked through these
lowlands and was not overcome.

I’ve heard is said
that we can’t walk a mile
in someone else’s shoes.
Very often,
I think,
we couldn’t walk 10 feet
in another person’s shoes,
if we really knew their story.

I was reminded of that,
just this week,
as I read the memoir
My Exquisite Purple Life
by Aideen Finnola.
Finnola tells the story
of growing up in an oppressive cult out west,
and then entering into
an emotional abusive
marriage in early twenties.

At a low-point in her life,
Finnola describes filling herself with
cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and junk food.
A talented interior designer,
Finnola still experienced days where
she was so depressed
she could not even make it out of bed.
At first,
she would respond
by playing over and over again
the criticisms lobbed at herself,
first by her parents, then by her husband.
However, at a turning point in her life,
Finolla began to see how far she had traveled,
and how much she had journeyed through.
She had travel not only through shadowed valleys,
but also up and over Everest-sized mountains,
and she had survived.
She start to develop compassion for herself.

She began to celebrate her victories,
no matter how small they were,
Did she get out of bed? Awesome.
Maybe the next day she could get out of bed
and brush her teeth.
Then, get out of bed, brush her teeth
and put make-up on.
She could see what a glorious feat
each task was.
Like an endurance athlete,
she had voyaged far.
Like the psalmist,
Finolla stopped to take stock
and even there in the wildlands,
she remembered who she was:
a tenacious traveler.
an ardent adventurer.

I could not walk 10 feet in her shoes.
She is a thousand times more courageous
than I will ever be,
whether she gets out of bed or not.
She has been through so much
and she shows me what strength is.
And by taking it small task by small task,
she found her way home.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

The psalm this morning
refreshes my soul;
it reminds me of what is possible,
it reminds me that God
doesn’t give up on us,
even when we give up on ourselves.

Instead,
she celebrates our journeys
and meets us when
we are most weary.

JOY_2962I think of that now when I look at
this icon that I painted
of the 23rd Psalm.
It was super hard.
I am not an artist.
I made a lot of mistakes.
I had to ask for a lot of help.
I prayed a lot.
One of the prayers,
when you make an icon,
is that God will forgive your enemies,
but another prayer,
I think,
is that you will forgive yourself,
in the ways that you come up short.

When I made this icon in a class,
we gathered around a table,
when we had finished,
showing our icons to other,
and awaiting the final sealing,
with oil.

As we looked at each others’,
I could literally pick out
each mistake and artistic shortcoming
mine had.
But what others said truthfully,
from their own heart was this:
Joy, it is so beautiful.

Their words, they touched me.
Their words, I believed them.

And when we were done,
bearing witness to each icon
and iconographer,
our teacher took thick warm oil
and poured it over our written word.
She did this slowly,
one by one,
so like the board soaking up the oil,
we too could soak in this blessing
like a thirsty sponge.
Finally,
my turn came and
the golden oil flowed like thick honey
on my icon.
I pressed my hand into it,
as the hot liquid oozed over my fingers.
I began to smooth it over each part,
methodically clearing the excess off
with my palm.

When I finished,
I looked at my palm,
dripping with oil.

The words come to me:
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

Faith, like life,
is a mystery
that I do not always
understand or comprehend.

And yet,
I see this: More will be revealed.
More will be revealed,
about us, about God,
about our companions on the way.

More will spill out like grape juice
overflowing a cup,
like oil flooding over a painting,
like courage finding us
in our valleys,
like grace inundating us
where we are empty indeed.

More will be revealed,
my fellow tenacious travelers,
for we do not journey alone.

Come what may, you know the Way.
And surely,
goodness and mercy shall follow you
all the days of your life and
you shall dwell, at home,
in the house of Love,
forever and ever.
Amen.

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Categories: Sermons

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