Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
If you are in church this Sunday, most likely you will hear the most beloved of psalms which begins The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, and a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus likens his ministry to that of a shepherd who knows his sheep by name.
It’s one of those biblical images that clearly stuck, given the myriad ways Jesus is portrayed in church culture as a shepherd, often with a young lamb carried on shoulders. You don’t have to live in a rural, sheep-raising setting to understand why. A shepherd, unlike a thief, is someone who truly cares for the sheep.
How we all need to hear that. God, revealed to us in Jesus, cares.
Think about what it means to be in the presence of someone who cares for you unconditionally and completely, who delights in your accomplishments and is there for you in hard times. Or what it’s like when you are that person, so full of love for another that you would do anything to support, encourage, and affirm them.
Thinking of Jesus as a Good Shepherd resonated was easy for his first disciples because they knew how they felt around him, how he embodied seemingly endless compassion, forgiveness, and justice. Even after his death, Jesus’ disciples felt his presence with them, which empowered them to overcome their fears and love as boldly as he loved them.
The world didn’t change because Jesus was with them, but they changed. They felt his strength; they felt his love and forgiveness. They were not alone.
Knowing something of the love of God and the abiding presence of Christ is the foundational experience of Christian faith. It’s not that you can’t be a Christian without knowing divine love for yourself, but you won’t be a very compelling one, because love–in its many forms–is all that God cares about. Jesus came to show us all what God’s love looks like in human form.
This is a truth to hold on to: when life gets really hard, or even just a little bit hard, Jesus is there for us in ways that surpass human understanding. He speaks our name. He gives us strength. He walks with us, as the psalmist writes, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” We’re not spared the valley, but we don’t go through it alone.
If you’ve not had an experience of God’s love in that way, or if you need it now because in some part of your life you’re standing on the edge of an abyss, don’t be afraid to ask for Jesus’ reassuring presence to be with you. Pray for his strength to sustain you; his light to guide you. As you pray, you may feel divine love surrounding you. Or you may not feel anything–that happens to all of us.
Which is why our connection to one another is so important. For whenever someone reaches out to another with a gesture of kindness, shows up with a concrete expression of help, goes the extra mile for a just cause it can be the very lifeline God uses to assure those walking through the valley that they’re not alone. And when we’re in that valley, the most simple gestures can have tremendous healing power. Through human love and human concern, God can communicate a love far greater than we’ll ever know.
Jesus encouraged us to pray to be spared times of trial and suffering. But mostly we are not spared. The world is surely not spared. In times of trial, we need Jesus to call our name and give us the strength and courage as we walk through the valley, climb up the mountain, or do what feels impossible by our efforts alone.
Jesus is also the one who beckons us to show up where others are in need of care. Like first responders who run toward the danger others flee from, Jesus summons to go where people need to know the love and compassion of God. It may not feel like we are doing much, but in those moments we may help provide the lifeline that assures others that they are not alone.
“Do for one what you wish you could do for many,” is wise counsel from a pastor I admire. It’s helped me on many occasions to reach beyond myself and respond to a particular person in front of me, or a need across the world, that I might otherwise ignore. While we have a responsibility to build just systems and care for many, the personal connection, one to another, is the most transformational for those involved on both the giving and receiving end. God is present in the love and care we share. We are not alone.