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.



When I am living in the present, I am able to keep promises.

Scripture: Joshua 24: 1-3, 13-26

In this story from the Old Testament, Joshua has gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, a sacred site where Joshua had previously enacted a covenant with God and the people.  Now advanced in years and long past the great battles of Jericho, Joshua takes in a deep breath, and then speaks forth in the voice of a prophet.  “Thus says the Lord,” Joshua says, and then narrates all the mighty acts God has done for the people of Israel, from Abraham through the conquest of the land. He speaks of God’s faithful presence with and action on behalf of the people.  Joshua, very kindly, doesn’t mention all of Israel’s failures–their lack of faithfulness, or their forgetfulness of the covenant.

After narrating all the good God has done, Joshua charges the people to revere and serve God alone, and not all the other false gods the people had worshipped prior to Abraham and while in captivity in Egypt. “Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, ” Joseph famously commands. The people, inspired by the words of their leader, respond with full heart, “We also will serve the Lord.” Joshua then makes a covenant with the people and their God.

With the sights of that holy place filling their eyes,  and with such sacred language running through their ears, the people of Israel make full-hearted promises to be faithful to God, which is what a covenant is.  To make and keep a promise requires a full presence, and a potent attention.  The people held that in Shechem.  Israel, however, would soon be distracted, and break their promise to God, as they had done in the past. They would worship false gods once again. God in God’s lovingkindness, will continually call them back to be present to God’s love again.

The people of Israel are so human, and so prone to distraction and the breaking of a promise.  Thank goodness, for it shows us how to receive forgiveness for our own distraction from the true God.  False gods call, and their allure and our inability to be present leads to broken promises. How easy it is to be distracted by screens of any kind, or the false gods of money, prestige, or success. God’s forgiveness and mercy offers the capacity to commit anew to our promises.  By being fully present in the here and now, we can make and keep our promises.

Yoga Practice

The practice of presence, of being fully in the very now rather than lingering in the past or stretching anxiously to the future, enables us to keep promises and be true to the one true God.  The invitation in the yoga class is be practice being present.  We do this by connecting deliberately to our inhale and our exhale.  The breath invites us to be fully present in this moment.  This attention then enables us to keep whatever promises we might have made to God or to people whom we love.

In this practice, we will do the pose Janu sirsasana, and will practice deliberate breath work while here to call us to be fully present to the moment and to our promise.

(Pose directions are taken directly rom Yoga Journal’s website)

Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend)

Step 1

Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Use a blanket under your buttocks if necessary. Inhale, bend your right knee, and draw the heel back toward your perineum. Rest your right foot sole lightly against your inner left thigh, and lay the outer right leg on the floor, with the shin at a right angle to the left leg (if your right knee doesn’t rest comfortably on the floor, support it with a folded blanket).

Step 2

Press your right hand against the inner right groin, where the thigh joins the pelvis, and your left hand on the floor beside the hip. Exhale and turn the torso slightly to the left, lifting the torso as you push down on and ground the inner right thigh. Line up your navel with the middle of the left thigh. You can just stay here, using a strap to help you lengthen the spine evenly, grounding through the sitting bones.

Step 3

Or, when you are ready, you can drop the strap and reach out with your right hand to take the inner left foot, thumb on the sole. Inhale and lift the front torso, pressing the top of the left thigh into the floor and extending actively through the left heel. Use the pressure of the left hand on the floor to increase the twist to the left. Then reach your left hand to the outside of the foot. With the arms fully extended, lengthen the front torso from the pubis to the top of the sternum.

Exhale and extend forward from the groins, not the hips. Be sure not to pull yourself forcefully into the forward bend, hunching the back and shortening the front torso. As you descend, bend your elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor.

Step 5

Lengthen forward into a comfortable stretch. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, the head last. Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. Come up with an inhalation and repeat the instructions with the legs reversed for the same length of time.