Monday, October 17, 2016

Walking through the Valley (Psalm 23.4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 16, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:4

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Blessed be Your Name (Matt and Beth Redman)
Hymn of Praise: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA)
Sermon Song: How Did You Find Me Here? (David Wilcox) - temp. audio link
Hymn of Sending: What a Friend We Have in Jesus (CONVERSE)
Postlude: Linda Jenkins, organ

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

I remember years ago – about 20 years ago now – I worked at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem as a hospital chaplain as part of my seminary training. I was assigned to the 10th floor of Reynolds tower -- the trauma unit. Within one week, I was up on the unit visiting patients. One of the very first patients I met was a lady in her late 70s. The first time I walked into her room, I immediately noticed that her face and neck were completely purple, having been bruised severely. She was barely able to speak in a raspy voice. She told me that she was in the unit for a cardiac contusion -- she had been in an automobile accident. Even more startling to me was the other thing she told me -- that she had been in the hospital for over a week, and none of her family had come to see her. As a matter of fact, she blamed one of her family members for the accident, saying that he had been drinking and driving. Well, this was a lot for me to take in that first week. I found myself wondering just what I should do for this lady. I wonder what you might have done if faced with the task of ministering to her? Or perhaps more to the point -- what do you do when faced with great need or crisis in the life of someone you know? Whether in our own lives, or our family, or our church family, or others around us, there is need and crisis around us much of the time. How can we respond? What is our role as church family? And what do you do if you are one of those experiencing the crisis?

That summer I had a chaplain supervisor who oversaw my training. Knowing I would immediately confront situations of intense crisis and caring, he met with me during the first week and gave me a model for pastoral care. He told me, “Robert, almost everyone you meet in this hospital will be experiencing some kind of crisis. These people are walking through the ‘valley of deep darkness’ that is described in Psalm 23. Your job is to offer a ministry of presence to those in that valley.”

Today, with the description of the “valley of darkness” in Psalm 23 before us, I want to describe more fully a ministry of presence. This is not simply a technique for a chaplain in a hospital; it is our calling as Christians and as a church family as we live and move in a world full of crisis. I want to talk about three situations of going into the valley of deep darkness. The first occurs when we minister to others through a ministry of presence -- by walking alongside people in their times of crisis. The second occurs when you find yourself walking through the valley. The finally, we will look at our model for a ministry of presence -- that is, when God walked through the valley of deep darkness in Jesus Christ.

A Ministry of Presence

First, just how shall we minister to people in times of suffering and crisis? What does it mean to have a ministry of presence? When I was in training I discovered some things to do when I visited a hospital room – pray, ask questions, distract. And sometimes, those were what was needed. Yet I also felt like these things were not meeting the deepest needs of those I visited. When I told my chaplain supervisor about what was happening, he suggested that I was going about ministry in an “emergency rescue” fashion. His image was that I was standing on the hill overlooking the valley of deep darkness. Seeing people walking through the valley, I was tossing supplies and rations in to them, even offering a rope or a momentary distraction -- yet, I was staying on the hilltop.

Looking back on that time, I fully agree with him. There were two things encouraging me to stay on the “hilltop.” One was a drive to Find the solution... fix it... achieve success... fix the problem. A second: I was and am scared to death of the valley of deep darkness. If there was a way to interact and minister to the people in it without actually going there myself, I would find it. I wanted to avoid the valley at all costs.

Bill, my supervisor, challenged me to a different kind of ministry. Rather than practice an “emergency rescue ministry,” he encouraged me to practice a ministry of presence. How does that look different than those other things I had been doing? A ministry of presence is sitting with someone, holding their hand or giving them a hug for support. It is listening rather than talking. When I visited a cancer patient, it meant not theologizing when they asked, “Why is God letting this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me?” Rather than launch into an academic discussion of why bad things happen to good people and try to answer those questions which can only be addressed by God to that individual, a ministry of presence meant sitting and absorbing those questions on God’s behalf. It meant putting a face on God in a time when that patient needed to ask some hard questions to God.

A ministry of presence also means walking alongside of people so that they will not be alone in this valley. Caring for people in crisis means asking yourself, “What is the valley like for them? Is it scary? Is it lonely? Is it dark and full of despair?” Being with someone during these times does do something very significant: it puts skin on God’s love. It makes God’s presence in the crisis very tangible. At a time when a person’s prayers may seem to bounce off the ceiling, holding their hand may allow them to actually feel God’s presence and love. Walking alongside someone during crisis is a very real fulfillment of the great commandment to love God and neighbor.

Well, this may all sound real good, but what does this talk of a valley of darkness do for me when I am the one suffering? What is there to say to you if you are even now walking through the deep darkness?

When You are in the Valley

I can tell you that my first impulse when I realize that I am facing crisis is to run the other way. I try to do everything in my power to find a short cut around or a quick escape. I also am quick to deny that I am even in a “valley.” “Things are just fine with me,” I say. Or I try to distract myself from what is really going on -- I’ve already told you a little about my gift for distraction.

John Bunyon, in his famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the story of young Christian travelling the road of his life. It is fraught with allegorized pitfalls and distractions like the sloughs of despond and the pit of despair. Time and again Christian must choose between two paths: the one that looks true, but looks terribly difficult; and the one that looks easy but seems somehow false. Those times when he takes the easy road, he inevitably encounters a dead end or some greater danger, and he must return to take the true road anyway. He discovers that the hardships of life are simply reality and we must not find the quick way out, but the real way through.

So also for us, the valley of deep darkness is a part of life. If you haven’t been there before, you will find yourself there at some point. What can you do? One is to realize, as Christian did in Pilgrim’s Progress, that it simply must be faced. Secondly though, if there is anything to learn from my tales of chaplaincy and my words about a ministry of presence, it is that we need not face the valley alone. Christianity is not a “lone ranger” religion, it is the good news of God loving us and desiring relationship with us. Our example is not of solitude, but of being in relationship. Jesus ministered, not alone, but with twelve disciples. He established his Church to be the gathered together family of God. God, who created us in His own image exists in relationship as a Trinity -- one being, three persons.

It is important then, that we have some kind of support group in place -- ready to stand by us when we inevitably find ourselves walking through the valley. That support might be an AA group, a women’s Bible study, youth advisors, your family, or close friends you know you can lean on. Again, the importance of a support group is that in crisis, they put skin on God’s love. They make God’s presence tangible.

When God Walked the Valley

And that is what the church is for as well. We are a family. We are an extended support group. We are the “body of Christ.” The third point today is that our ministry of presence, our example for ministry, comes from God’s own example in Jesus Christ. When we were separated from God, alone in sin, God provided a way to healing and restoration of relationship. In Christ, God became a human being and walked the steps of our life and death with us. Jesus was born and lived among us, and was tempted as we are. He sat and walked with the sick, and healed them. He forgave sins, he developed relationships with the disciples, Mary and Martha, and many others. And he suffered agony on the cross and died for us.

The cross that hangs in our sanctuary is a symbol that should remind us that we are never alone in the valley of deep darkness. Christ experienced pain, suffering, shame, separation from God, and even death so that we need never be alone again. And not only should the cross remind us of Christ’s presence with us in the valley; the empty cross should remind us that God was faithful to his promises, and raised Christ from the dead even as he will raise us to be with him. The empty cross reminds us of God’s promise, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” And it reminds us that God is faithful to keep his promises. Not only has Christ walked the valley before us, he walks it with us even now. And on a deeper level, he has walked the valley of death and separation from God so we might not have to. That valley he has walked for us.

As the church, we are the body of Christ. And just as Christ gave his body on the cross for our sakes, we are to give ourselves for others’ sakes. We are to the walk alongside each other as part of Christ’s own body. In doing this, we put skin on God’s love -- we remind each other of God’s promises and of God’s faithfulness. This is ministry as the body of Christ.

In conclusion, I’d like to sing a song for you. It is written by David Wilcox and describes a man who is surprised to discover that God is present even in the moment of his deepest despair. He thought he once knew God, but found himself alone at the water’s edge of his hopelessness. Yet, even as he was about to drown in his despair, he discovered God to be present. He realized the truth of God’s promise to his children in scripture, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” It is not necessary to come to the water’s edge alone, however. Having a support group in place means that there will be someone there in the darkness to remind you of and put skin on God’s promises.

“How Did You Find Me Here?” (audio)
by David Wilcox, 1988

The night I fell in sorrow,
I knew I was alone
A dozen good-time friendships,
But my heart is still unknown
I thought I was your footsteps
In the sand along the shore
And I mumbled empty phrases
That sang so well before

Now inches from the water, about to disappear
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?

I couldn’t reach for rescue; I hid myself from you
I couldn’t stand to see me from your point of view
‘Cause I knew I’d disappoint you if I showed to you this child
Who was crying out inside me, lost in the wild

Now inches from the water, about to disappear
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?
I feel you behind me...

Laughing in the water, wash away the tears
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?