A Franciscan Monk, Richard Rohr taught a lesson titled, “The Path of Decent.” The basic premise is that the only way Jesus could be resurrected was for him to first be crucified. This highlights the idea that you have to go down in order to go up. In order for something new to begin, something old has to die.
The idea of death and resurrection, plays itself out in our regular life over and over again. Something has to come to an end for something new to begin. You can’t go to high school unless you stop going to middle school. You can’t move to take a new exciting job unless you first leave the security of being where you have been. You can’t enter into retirement unless you first stop working. The path of descent goes way beyond changes in life stages.
There are lines in Psalm 23 that highlight our struggle, and offer hope. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me by still waters. . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy Rod and thy Staff, they comfort me.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I LOVE the green pastures and the sill waters (I also love a good trout stream). I love those times of bliss, and peace, when all is right with my world. I am not, however, terribly fond of the valley of the shadow of death. But here is what I have learned.
I have never heard anyone say, “This is so terrible, but I’m excited because something awesome is going to come out of this!” The valley of the shadow of death feels terrible. Maybe this is a moment when you have lost a job, a friendship has broken, a marriage has failed, a loved one has died, health or money issues have become overwhelming. Take your pick, insert your own life situation that seems like the valley of the shadow of death.
I have learned my most cherished lessons in the middle of my valleys. Years after first listening to Richard Rohr I found myself in my worst valley. My marriage ended. Soon after, I was on a trip in Italy with my oldest daughter and visited Assisi, where St. Francis of Assisi started the Franciscan Monastic Community. I bought a little Tau Cross. The Tau (Greek letter T) cross is the cross Franciscan Monks use. A few months later when depression was really sinking in, I googled the Tau Cross to see if it had any particular meaning. According to the Franciscans, “the Tau cross is symbolic of reflection and contemplation – and of acceptance of things that have passed and being ready to move on to new life… A new beginning. A new start.”
In the middle of my valley God showed up to help me accept my past and to realize that he did have something new and wonderful for me in the future. I had gone through a death, but new life was coming.
The empty cross reminds us that Jesus’ end was not the crucifixion, but led to His resurrection. The empty cross is always there to remind us that while death may come, resurrection, new life is just around the corner. We don’t need to dwell on what was, but can instead follow Jesus into the new life that will be.
The valley of the shadow stinks. BUT if we pay attention, sometimes the best things happen in the valley because the Lord, our shepherd, is present with us. I cannot express enough the depths of joy, hope or peace that can come when the Holy Spirit shows up in our moments of death. The joy that comes through God acting as a mother hen, bringing us under its wings… the joy that comes when the Spirit brings healing… the joy that comes when the Spirit continues to speak of the promises He has for us… the day after day encounters where God lets us know he’s not done with us… this isn’t our end. Above all things, there is immense joy that comes from knowing the creator and sustainer of all things, our Heavenly Father, is present and cares, and is willing to walk with us through death and bring us to new life.
Our life is full of valleys and pastures… but best of all, it is full of the presence of God, who will never leave us or forsake us, who will redeem us and restore us, who will continue to bring about his plans for our lives… our lives as individuals, and our lives as a community as we share the love of Christ with one another. We live with a God that is present with us in the valley, no matter how we got there, and he calls us to follow him down a path through the valley into the green pastures of new life.