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The Darkest Valley

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 18th of Seventh Month, 2021

Speaker: Katie Breslin

Scripture: Psalm 23 (NRSV):

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Good morning West Richmond Friends ~

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" Ever since I was a kid and even now, when I get scared this is one of the first phrases that pops into my head. We are talking about scary movies, hospital visits, walking around in a dark wooded area, people telling me that they are terminally ill- my brain recites this line. And I'll be honest- I think it is more out of instinct than belief.

I don't think I've ever taken time to really take in the full passage. The first line has always done a good job of temporarily smoothing my fears, but I am glad this passage was what I could meditate on this week.

I find this passage challenging after the year we just had. I want to be one of those people who thinks "let me give it up to god" but I think I've had enough dark valleys in the two years that I know my instinct is not always to trust God.

I've been reflecting a lot recently about what it means to trust God. My life has been full of many changes this year alone, let alone since moving to Richmond, and I often have felt like I should just rent a cabin in that dark valley place just to have some shelter for the storm ahead. Perhaps that would make me fear evil less if I could name the tools I needed to keep me safe in the darkness.

The first day I moved to Richmond, I was completely alone. I had driven the 5 hours by myself, only stopping once. When I got to my new house, my roommate wasn't home and I was left in a town I didn't know unpacking the boxes of my old life in preparation for my new one. I had move to Richmond because I felt a calling to be here. I came to visit ESR the February prior to consider access classes, but being around other people trying to figure out this God thing made me realize I needed to be closer to God.

But on this first night, I wasn't around those people. I was just sitting in my new room, alone with belongings from my old life. The next day I was determined to make a friend, and I was so excited to find out that there was a meeting of a local pride organization happening the very next day. I went to the meeting where I saw Brian and met a few other people. But I did not leave with another friend - at least not right then. I feel like I was in a valley until I got into my car.

I buckled myself in, and immediately realized that I had nothing to do. I sat in the car for a long time and let the loneliness settle in. Living in DC, it was rare to be truly alone. With roommates and commitments to look forward to, the hustle and bustle of DC meant that there wasn’t time to be lonely in a way that didn’t involve being around people. I looked at my phone and texted a friend while sitting in the parking lot. To my horror, the organizer of the meeting came over and knocked on my window. “Are you lost?” he asked. “No,” I responded, “I am just trying to figure out where to go.”

When the organizer left, I looked in my mirror ashamed and cried in my car, letting it sink in that this would not be the only time I would feel lost and alone. In reading this passage, it made me ask “What does God look like in our darkest valley?”

Thankfully I did make friends. And a whole community of people I get to worship with that I adore. But as I’ve gotten closer to God in my studies, I have found that those periods of loneliness have continued. So in search for the image of God, I looked at what the psalm had to say.

This Psalm has a title “A Psalm of David”, and In my research for this sermon, I found that many bible scholars believe this was meant to be David in his older years reflecting on his experience and love of God.The shepherd imagery is significant here because it is similar to how we got to know David.

There are plenty of Psalms that have a less optimistic view of God, but that certainty I was talking about earlier, the undeniable trust in God that the writer of this Psalm hoped to inspire -- one of caring, a God that you can feel leading you is not always the God I experience.

One of the beautiful pieces of this passage to me is this kinship David felt with God in describing a role that David would have known well. In reflecting on this passage, I tried to imagine what God felt like to David in these moments. God “leads”, “restores”, “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. God shows up with rod and staff to comfort David through the darkest valleys. David describes an active God, a present God.

And I was certainly not feeling that God as I recited those words “I shall not want” in the car that day as I wiped my tears and became angry with God that I had followed this leading into a place where I was alone.

I believe God shows up for us in moments when we are alone, but in these stories where God does, it is often followed by an exclamation from the prophet to the world. Samuel ran to Eli when searching for the origins of the voice of God. Moses’s solo call from God became the exodus from Egypt. For many in the Bible, the experience of God led them to reach out and do amazing feats.

When I think back to times that it actually feels like God is with me, when my cup is overflowing with love, and I am fearless and hanging out next to the still waters of certainty, I realize that my story rarely ends up with me alone.

As Quakers we believe that there is that of God in each person, but until coming to seminary I had never put together the connection between this passage and that truth. Perhaps there is more to this belief than simply recognizing that of God in each person. Why not take it a step further and suggest that God shows up for us through the presence of others? God’s will can be done by relationships with one another. If there's that of God in each person, perhaps we are each other's shepherds. We have the capacity to receive shepherding and be Shepherds of God's will to others. We should not have to sort through our experience of God alone. It is this companionship of others that helps us walk through the darkest valleys.

Don’t worry. I did end up making a friend soon after that meeting. When I came to ESR, there was only one other new residential student starting at the same time. I told Blair yesterday that the first time I met him, I thought “oh no. We are going to kill each other.” While we both cared about social change, I think it is safe to say we came from different realms of the organizing world and therefore often had different ideas about tactics. But in our spiritual friendship hours for FC 101 we realized that we had the same vision of a world free of state violence.

When doing social change work, it often feels like there are so many large problems with no possible way to solve it alone. And that is by design - we are not meant to organize solo. I have found that this carries with me in my faith journey as well. I know that I must be open to the ways God shows up for me through others.

Our first spiritual friendship session, after a very tense class during the first intensive, was to the local thrift store. We were paired together probably because of a combination of being the only two of the class now stuck in Richmond and partly because we were the only two that weren’t annoyed at each other by this point. A classic duo.

It was quite an adventure. While Blair and I talked about our experience of God, we traveled from thrift store to thrift store and spoke with people along the way. For those of you who know Blair, it is hard to leave a store without him finding out all of the backstory of every cashier we interact with. During those sessions I must have lost my wallet at least twice, which Blair helped me find each time. We also heard a legend that if you drink the water from Glenn Miller park you were going to stay in Richmond forever. Perhaps a bold choice, but we drank that water on our first day.

Since then, we have faced significant challenges in our lives. Both of us have moved multiple times. We have been involved in too many conflicts to count. We’ve dealt with breakups, loneliness, Blair hurt his ankle again, I got married. Oh yes, and a global pandemic.

In that first session of FC 101 during our spiritual friendship time, we decided to be a support for one another through all of it, not knowing the challenges that we would face. It’s hard for me to not see the beauty of that commitment to not be connected to God’s grace and love.

Blair and I are preparing for a new adventure of being long distance friends. Of course it is worth noting that while we are close, I have now gained more connections here in Richmond and no longer cry from loneliness in my car after meetings. But today it felt important to recognize the ways God showed up in my friendship with Blair. The still waters that God led us too included watching silly YouTube videos. The green pastures certainly have to be every time we filmed a drink view in a new location - whether it be a farm off a highway or by an old meetinghouse. God granted us the ability to shepherd one another’s growth during this time, and that experience of the divine allowed me to be fearless in my continued pursuit of the kingdom of God on earth. Even if our Richmond-based friendship might be ending, and I feel like I am now drawing the story of how hard we tried to be here, it is undeniable to me to see how God showed up for us both in the form of this spiritual friendship. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Thank you friends.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2021 Katie Breslin. All rights reserved.

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