You are with me

Scripture: Psalm 23- v. 4

When I walk through the valley of the dark, I will fear no evil for you are with me. 

             When we were reviewing the evaluations from our church’s Lenten mental health series last week, a question has stayed with me.  “What do you do with the dark?”  I gave a sigh as I read it, feeling a little overwhelmed.   What do you do with that question?  There could be whole counseling programs or seminary classes devoted to exploring the implications of that question.  What do you do with devastating mental illness, or suffering, or trauma from childhood, or hurt, or death?  We tried to touch on some of the dark in the recent series, but we all agreed, that without the person’s name for follow-up, we couldn’t handle or address all of that question. We turned the evaluation face down and moved on.

Psalm 23 and the Dark

            Yet, the psalmist of the song denoted number 23 doesn’t hesitate to deal with the dark.  The psalmist writes “when I walk through the darkest valley.” We’re used to the King James Version that translates it as the “valley of the shadow of death.” The word in Hebrew actually is “dark”—as in all the dark shadows cast when you are in a valley. Of course, the valley is also a metaphor for life—to be in the darkness of things like depression, or illness, or grief. . . or _______(fill in the blank).  The psalmist connects right to a person’s depth of struggle, to the experience of darkness in life.

John of the Cross and The Dark     

Throughout our Christian tradition there are people who have been unafraid to address the reality of darkness in life.  One was named John of the Cross.  He lived in 16thcentury Spain and grew up poor; his gentleness, patience and caregiving spirit led him to work as a nurse as a teenager in a nearby hospital; the hospital administrator encouraged him to enter the priesthood and serve as a chaplain to the hospital; he chose to become a monk of the Carmelite order and devoted himself to study and contemplative prayer. He became close friends with the mystic Teresa of Avila, working as a spiritual director with her nuns, teaching poor children, and initiating reforms in religious life.  For this, and the threat it posed to the powers that be in the Catholic church, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured.  For nine months he lived in darkness, in a tiny room six feet wide by ten feet long, with little to eat and not even a change in clothing. He escaped by tying bedsheets together and lowering himself out of the window. He knew suffering.  John of the Cross knew darkness.

Out of poetry he was able to write while in prison, John of the Cross composed the prose treatises Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.  The mystical theology displayed in these works details a person’s journey to God—a journey which necessarily included suffering.  John thought that darkness was a necessary part of our spiritual (and otherwise) life.  The dark valley is a given.  For John of the Cross, the dark night is when a soul feels God’s absence.  It is a time of purgification of our attachments, of life as we know it.[1]Sight is lost, God feels gone.

Psalm 23 and You are with me

            What John of the Cross, and the psalmist affirm, is that even in the deepest, darkest valley, we are not alone. After describing the darkest valley the psalmist moves onto affirm, “I fear no danger because you are with me.” You are with me.

The phrase, this “You” to refer to God, comes smack dab in the middle of the 26-word psalm. It comes in verse four, and is bookended by the use of Yahweh in verse one, and Yahweh in verse six, translated in English as Lord.  Significantly, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, this is the only strong independent pronoun referring to God in the psalms and it may be the reason psalm 23 is so popular—because the second person pronoun feels more personal.  “You are with me.”[2]It is the central word, the most significant statement on one of the most beloved psalms.

An argument could be made that this is a significant statement of the Old Testament.A form of “I am with you” appears in Genesis 15:1, 26:24, Deut. 20:1, 31:8, Isaiah 41:10, 13, 43:5.[3]Isaiah 41 even speaks in the voice of God with the first-person pronoun, “I am with you.” Scholars understand the phrase as a word of salvation, directed to someone in lament.

The power of presence

And yet, this word of comfort doesn’t mean that there aren’t dark valleys.  It doesn’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, it affirms that God’s companionship can transform every situation.  Even in the depth of darkness, God can bring light of presence.

God offers comfort and solidarity in the face of threat.  The relationship with God is capable of ending forlornness. The author of Psalm 23 knows that darkness and hardship is present in the world, but it is not to be feared. The assurance of God’s presence with us offers solidarity and hope.[4]God is with us even when we don’t feel God.

John of the Cross penned poetically, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united The lover with his beloved.” The dark night moves the soul in its journey to deeper life with God.  John writes, “although this night darkens the spirit, it does so to give light.”[5]God is always with us, bringing light and love out of the darkness. You are with me.

[1]John of the Cross, The Ascent to Mount Carmel,,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.:  Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1964), 65.

[2]Walter Bruegemann, The Message of the Psalms, 155.

[3]James May, “Psalms” Interpreters Bible Commentary.

[4]Brueggmann, 156.

[5]John of the Cross, 204.


To ground into the sense of God’s presence with us in the valleys, I offer for the class an “earth salutation” (instead of a sun salutation) that incorporates malasana, depicted above.  In rooting down to earth (or the “valley”) we open our hearts (and our hips!) to the presence of God.

Stand at the top of the mat with a wide stance (almost as wide as the mat). From tadasana (standing mountain) inhale the arms up to the sky, exhale and fold into uttanasana (forward fold). Turn the heels in, toes pointing out, bend the knees, and sink the hips down toward the ground.  Wedge the forearms on the inside of the thighs below the knee.  Place the palms together. Roll the shoulder blades on the back.  Lift the head and heart.  Open to the God who is with you.



Let There Be Light

Scripture: Luke 2:8, 11, Matthew 2:2, 9, John 1: 4-5

“Let there be light.”  This phrase comprises the theme for my church’s worship services for Christmas Eve.  So, in preparing sermons for this most festive night in which Christians celebrate the incarnation, I decided to look at light in the Christmas stories.

In the gospel of Luke, shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night.  Then the angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines all around them.  They are then terrified.  The angel is then joined by a heavenly host  that praise God and say “Glory to God in the highest!”

The light in the Lukan story is not a star–it comes from the glory of the Lord.  This glory was brilliant, majestic, awesome–enough to frighten poor shepherds on a dark and cold night. Glory in the original Greek language is doxa, and means “praise” or “worship.” Glory belongs only to God or to Christ.  Glory holds a brightness of solar light.  It can be startling or intimidating at times, as it was for the shepherds.  The majesty of God can inspire fear and awe.  A great definition I discovered was that glory denotes an outward expression of an absolute, inward perfect love.  Glory at Christmas is God’s inner light shining bright with love, shown in the beautiful babe lying in a manger.  No wonder the shepherds felt they had to go immediately and see this baby.  They had been illuminated by God’s glory.  As scary as that was, they now had experienced an amazing love and wanted to go see the source. In Luke, “let there be light”  means let there be love.

In the gospel of Matthew, the light comes from a star. The wise men say, “we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”  They then followed the star they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.   When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

The light in Matthew is that of a star.  This celestial light was bright enough to launch a journey, and then to illuminate the way.  The star showed the wise men the right path, and they followed it until they arrived at joy. The light of the star gave them courage to confront the governmental power of King Herod. The light of the star gave them hope to keep going on an arduous journey of unknown length.  Most of all though, the light of the star brought to them joy.  In Matthew, “let there be light” means let there be joy.

In the gospel of John, the story of the incarnation sounds completely differently than the shepherds of Luke or the wise men of Matthew.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The light in John is actually Jesus.  Jesus as incarnate God is life and is light.  This divine radiance is of such a quality that no darkness can overcome it.

I read a reflection from a father whose 18-year old son died three years ago in a car crash at Christmas.  He said that the verse from John “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” sustains him through his grief.  He offered that there is no darkness so dark, even the darkness of a son’s death, that Christ’s light can’t in some way find its way through.  This light in the gospel of John is one of mystery.  It is the light that comes through the cracks and crevices of our lives.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  It is the light that lets us know we are not alone.  In John, “Let there be light” means let there be comfort.

On this Christmas Eve, what kind of light from Christ do you need?  Do you need to be illumined with love?  Awed with majesty? Then shine bright with the glory of Luke’s gospel.  Do you need a softer, but strong light that shows you the way and leads you down a good path?  Do  you need a light of courage that helps you confront power?   Then shine steadily with the joy of Matthew’s gospel.  Do you need a little light to push back on the darkness? Do you need to know you are not alone?  Then shine graciously with the comforting light of John’s gospel.

Whatever light you need, receive the light Christ offers of love, joy, and comfort this Christmas.  Then, shine on. Shine on.


This practice will again be restorative.  (The picture included on this post is shoulder stand, which is a more active version of legs up.  We will do this with hips down and legs at the wall)  We will start by envisioning the word light, and bringing it to our eyes.  In a meditation, we’ll then send the light to any area of our body that needs love, joy, or comfort.   I’ll also intersperse the practice with Christmas carols that reference light.

One of my favorite restorative poses is viparita karani.  We’ll do this Legs at the Wall pose while the sound of Silent Night plays. Pose instructions are taken from yoga

Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose: Step-by-Step Instructions

The pose described here is a passive, supported variation of the Shoulderstand-like Viparita Karani. For your support you’ll need one or two thickly folded blankets or a firm round bolster. You’ll also need to rest your legs vertically (or nearly so) on a wall or other upright support.

Step 1

Before performing the pose, determine two things about your support: its height and its distance from the wall. If you’re stiffer, the support should be lower and placed farther from the wall; if you’re more flexible, use a higher support that is closer to the wall. Your distance from the wall also depends on your height: if you’re shorter move closer to the wall, if taller move farther from the wall. Experiment with the position of your support until you find the placement that works for you.

Step 2

Start with your support about 5 to 6 inches away from the wall. Sit sideways on right end of the support, with your right side against the wall (left-handers can substitute “left” for “right” in these instructions). Exhale and, with one smooth movement, swing your legs up onto the wall and your shoulders and head lightly down onto the floor. The first few times you do this, you may ignominiously slide off the support and plop down with your buttocks on the floor. Don’t get discouraged. Try lowering the support and/or moving it slightly further off the wall until you gain some facility with this movement, then move back closer to the wall.

Step 3

Your sitting bones don’t need to be right against the wall, but they should be “dripping” down into the space between the support and the wall. Check that the front of your torso gently arches from the pubis to the top of the shoulders. If the front of your torso seems flat, then you’ve probably slipped a bit off the support. Bend your knees, press your feet into the wall and lift your pelvis off the support a few inches, tuck the support a little higher up under your pelvis, then lower your pelvis onto the support again.

Step 4

Lift and release the base of your skull away from the back of your neck and soften your throat. Don’t push your chin against your sternum; instead let your sternum lift toward the chin. Take a small roll (made from a towel for example) under your neck if the cervical spine feels flat. Open your shoulder blades away from the spine and release your hands and arms out to your sides, palms up.

Step 5

Keep your legs relatively firm, just enough to hold them vertically in place. Release the heads of the thigh bones and the weight of your belly deeply into your torso, toward the back of the pelvis. Soften your eyes and turn them down to look into your heart.

Step 6

Stay in this pose anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Be sure not to twist off the support when coming out. Instead, slide off the support onto the floor before turning to the side. You can also bend your knees and push your feet against the wall to lift your pelvis off the support. Then slide the support to one side, lower your pelvis to the floor, and turn to the side. Stay on your side for a few breaths, and come up to sitting with an exhalation.