Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

I have been pondering what to say about my sojourn into chemotherapy on Monday.  Surgery gives you a starting point from which you can measure your progress. With chemo, at least from what I experienced, there was a descent into new sicknesses caused by the chemo itself.  I was going to describe some of what I experienced, but have opted instead to mention three Psalms which in some way capture the experience spiritually for me.  I am at the beginning of this sojourn, but it has been a very arduous week.

The first Psalm is 23, referenced in the title of this blog.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

There is no doubt that chemotherapy is connected to death as is the cancer it fights.

In one Orthodox prayer for the terminally ill, there is a petition which says:

“… allow this illness to be for the death only of those things which are the result of evil or sin.”

One needs that prayer  for the chemo itself because these drugs cannot discern what they kill. Whether illness or chemotherapy, we want it to terminate in us any evil or sin.

The rod and staff of the good shepherd can be weapons, but they can be weapons that comfort us as well.  This is a great paradox.

The second Psalm is 91.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge…  (91:1-4)

Chemotherapy is risky,  a deadly pestilence, because it is toxic.   Navigating through the living experience of chemo is mentally and spiritually challenging.   It puts the body to a real test.   The protection we need from God is both through our sojourn in this life and in the sojourn to the world to come.   God’s will be done.

Finally, I mention Psalm 107

Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (107:17-22)

I experienced this through the chemo, especially the loathing of food.   And I felt that I had come near to the gates of death. I did not find my first treatment to be pleasant.  I had a very serious adverse reaction to the anti-nausea meds being given in the IV – this was before the chemo even started.   It was very painful, and colored my entire day and contributed to a difficult week.   And there are many months to go.  I thank God for bringing me to this day.  Psalm 107 continues describing a rough voyage, which no doubt the months to come will be.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (107:23-32)

In the end, despite sorrow and even despair, God is the Lord.  Even in the valley of the shadow of death or in Hades itself, Christ is present as Lord.

What Afflictions Avail

St. Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5 –

Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 

Professor Scott Cairns, reflecting also on the works of St. Nil Sorsky (d. 1508AD) waxes poetically about “What Afflictions Avail“:

“If not for sufferings, the unknowable

Providence of God would not be apprehended

as acting on the crowd. And we would be

unable to approach God with boldness,

unable to learn the Spirit’s wisdom,

or to be assured of divine love in our souls.

Prior to sufferings, the poor man prays

as to a stranger; but if, out of love, he struggles,

soon he observes a stirring change.

Before this, he held God as a taskmaster,

but now becomes God’s true friend.”

(Love’s Immensity, p 125)

St. Paul continues his thoughts in Romans 5:6-10 –

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Christ did not die for the righteous, but for sinners.  Christ did not descend into Hades to save the righteous, but sinners.  Christ did not wait for us to abandon sin before dying for us.  He did not die for us to reward us for our goodness.  He did not die for us to save us from sinners, but rather died for us while WE were still sinners.  Christ died for us while we were enemies of God.  Christ died for those who are still enemies of God.  He died for those are still sinners.

This is the most amazing love of God for us.  And we are to love others as Christ loves us (John 13:34; 15:12).

Suffering: When God Shouts

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

The Holy Prophet Elijah encountered the Lord God and Creator of the universe in a “still small voice.”  As the passage suggests, one might think one will encounter God in some event of great power – in hurricane force winds, in an earthquake, or a blazing fire.  But God doesn’t need Hollywood techniques to make His presence known.   The still small voice is God’s.

The challenge for us is to become silent enough in our hearts and minds to hear that still small voice.  And then to be prepared, not for some great revelation, but for a question from God:  “What are you doing here?”    


Good question.  One really has to know one’s self to know that answer.  Why do I want to be in God’s presence?  What am I doing here?  Am I ready to do whatsoever God might tell me to do?  Am I ready spiritually to encounter holiness?  Am I able to be in God’s presence or will my own sinfulness repel me from God?  Am I ready to hear what God wishes to say to me – not what I hope or imagine God would tell me, but to hear God’s voice and God’s message?  Or am I there only to try to get the Lord God to be my servant and do what I need some god-servant to do?

Then comes that still small voice.   Is my mind so full of its own thoughts and preconceptions, that it could even hear a still small voice?   I mean, would I end up saying, “Huh?”  “What?” Could you repeat that, Lord, I must be deaf for I couldn’t quite hear You?

Are we not in this situation every time we hear Scripture proclaimed in church?  The voice sounds so human, sometimes it is small.  And often it is just so hard to pay attention, to listen.  The minds wanders, I’ve heard it all before.  It is speaking to the congregation but not really me personally.  Or is it true that God is speaking in a still small voice?   Right in church, any day of the week?  What does it take for me to really listen, to hear God and not be distracted by the wind, earthquake and fire of my thoughts or of the people (the children!) who are all around me?  Can I discern the still small voice  even with all of these distractions around me or in my head?

Dr. Daniel B. Hinshaw makes an interesting observation as he reflects on the writings of C.S. Lewis:

“The English academic, writer, and great twentieth-century apologist for Christianity, C.S. Lewis, described the role of pain and suffering in the Divine economy this way:

‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’

If pain and suffering are used by God to attract the attention of a deaf world, to what should the newly roused world attend?

‘As we rise daily, let us suppose that we shall not survive until evening, and again, as we prepare for sleep, let us consider that we shall not awake. By its very nature our life is uncertain, and is meted out daily by Providence. If we think this way, and in this way live – daily – we will not sin.’

St. Anthony the Great was not alone among the early fathers of the Church in admonishing Christians to remember their mortality. The pain and suffering that are such common features of the human experience are intimately connected to human mortality. It is the unique understanding of this problem and its resolution through the suffering and death of the Incarnate God that is the core of the Christian faith.”

(Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p 229)

In the Love of God

“The love of our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, of God the Father, and of the Holy Ghost to us is so great, so immeasurable, that, in comparison to it all human dislike, enmity, and hatred against us become insignificant, and seem to vanish entirely. It is because of this boundlessness of God’s love towards us and the insignificance of human enmity that the Savior commanded us to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and to pray for them which despitefully use and persecute us (St. Matthew V. 44). We are in the love of God; does it greatly matter to us if men are not well disposed towards us? What can they do against us when God has so loved us?”   (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p 229)

Sunday of the Blindman (2015)

The Paschal season in the Orthodox Church offers us several weeks to sing and absorb the message: Christ is risen form the dead, trampling down death by death.  And every year we read the Gospel of the man born blind in the context of our celebrating the resurrection of Christ:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9:1-5)

The Gospel begins with the disciples attempting to impose a moral order on the world they live in.  A man born blind – even before he had a chance to sin, he is already afflicted with disease.  Is the universe really so unfair, unreasonable and random that someone can be afflicted without having done anything wrong?  Doesn’t that very idea cast doubt upon not only the goodness of God, but God’s very existence?

The disciples endeavor to place a moral order on what they see – there must be a reason for the man’s blindness!  Perhaps forgetting that the story of Job is part of their scriptures.  The innocent are at times victimized by irrational forces in the universe.

The disciples expecting order in God’s universe, want to make sense of a baby being born blind – surely there must be a just reason which caused and thus explains such a tragedy.  God would not be so unjust as to inflict blindness of an innocent baby!  If a tragedy like blindness occurs it must be part of the moral universe: retribution for sin.   The book of Job, however, shows even a righteous man – not just an innocent man – can suffer, however unfair and unjust that is.   Suffering is not always related to retribution, but is always related to the distorted world of the Fall in which powers, some alien or hostile to God, do operate.

We cannot always know the reason for suffering.  Job never learns the truth about his suffering.  His faithfulness to God remains even without that knowledge.  Knowing God is enough for him.   He believes in God and that is Job’s righteousness

The book of Job is good Lenten reading.  It prepares us for understanding how it might be possible that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and yet God, His Father, allows Him to suffer.  There is no retribution there, no loss of love.   They mystery of incarnate love, revealed in Jesus Christ, gives hope and meaning to Job and to all who suffer.  Suffering does not mean or imply that one is forsaken by God.  That is a lesson of Job and Jesus and the man born blind from birth.

Christ is the light of the world, even for those physically blind.  Christ is the light of the world, even when we can’t quite see Him.  Christ is the light of the world even for those spiritually lost, or who are walking, whether fearfully or hopelessly, in darkness.

It does happen that our need for a moral order in the universe and for complete justice cause us to impose a meaning on events and an understanding of the universe that are not theologically correct.  It remains a fact that some things in the universe are beyond our comprehension.  Our effort to impose a moral order on events in fact take us further away from understanding God or the universe.   We who are so impatient, have to wait on the Lord.  Thankfully, God is not limited by or to our sense of justice, purpose and meaning.

Do not think that every affliction befalls people on account of sin, because there are some who are pleasing to God who are still tempted. It is written that the impious and lawless will be persecuted [Ps 36.28 (LXX)]; it says as well that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted [2 Tim 3.12].”   (St. Mark the Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle 2137-2139)

The Suffering of the Saints

St. John Chrysostom (d.  407AD) in a sermon offered an explanation for why God’s chosen saints suffer in the world.

“I have eight explanations of why God requires Saints to endure affliction.

Eight Explanations: The first is to guard against their great works and miracles resulting in their developing too high of a self-esteem.

The second is so that others may not take them to be gods instead of men.

The third is so that the power of God might be made more evident through the efforts of men who suffer.

The fourth is so that their sacrifices demonstrate to others their dedication to the service of God and their undiminished love for Him, even in the midst of suffering so many evils.

The fifth is to help reinforce in men the belief in the doctrine of resurrection. To see a just and virtuous man die in bondage, without earthly reward, strengthens in men a belief in an afterlife, when men receive just reward for their labors.

The sixth is to encourage all men to accept their suffering with patience, as they realize that far more virtuous and worthy persons than they have experienced even greater suffering.

The seventh is to remind us that the Saints were men like ourselves. So if they, sharing our mortal frailties, still could endure suffering for their beliefs, we should be no less able to do so.

The eighth is to help us to distinguish between those whom we call blessed as opposed to those who are not blessed.

It is important to establish the root of these explanations in the Scriptures, so that they not be suspected of being an invention of human reasoning. Now we shall see how the basis for each can be found in Scripture. That tribulation served the purpose of the Saints can be heard from David the Prophet, who said: ‘It is good for me Lord, that I have been in trouble, that I might learn thy statutes.’  Paul said, ‘I was caught up into the third heaven, and transported to Paradise. Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.’ By ‘messenger of Satan’ Paul does not refer to particular demons, but to men serving the devils: unbelievers, tyrants, heathens, all who constantly troubled him. ‘God,’ he said, ‘permitted these persecutions that I might not be too much exalted.’ Although Paul, Peter and others like them are holy and wonderful men, yet they are but men, and require much caution lest they should allow themselves to be too easily exalted. Nothing is as likely to cause one to presume a high state for himself than a conscience full of good works and a soul that lives in unquestioning confidence.” (Afflictions of Man, O LOGOS Publications,  pp 3-4)


“True patience consists in bearing calmly the evils others do to us, and in not being consumed by resentment against those who inflict them. Those who only appear to bear the evils done them by their neighbors, who suffer them in silence while they are looking for an opportunity for revenge, are not practicing patience, but only making a show of it. Paul writes that love is patient and kind. It is patient in bearing the evils done to us by others, and it is kind in even loving those it bears with. Jesus himself tells us: Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, pray for those who persecute and calumniate you. Virtue in the sight of others is to bear with those who oppose us, but virtue in God’s sight is to love them. This is the only sacrifice acceptable to God. But often we appear to be patient only because we are unable to repay the evils we suffer from others. As I have said, those who don’t pay back evil only because they can’t are not patient. We are not looking to have patience on the surface, but in the heart.” (St. Gregory the Great – d. 604AD, Be Friends of God, pp 50-51)

The Paralytic: Enduring Suffering

The Gospel Lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pascha comes from John 5:1-15.

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says in a sermon:

“Having lately come across the incident of the paralytic who lay upon his bed beside the pool, we discovered a rich and large treasure, not be delving in the ground, but by diving into his heart: we found a treasure not containing silver and gold and precious stones, but endurance, and philosophy, and patience and much hope towards God, which is more valuable than any kind of jewel or source of wealth.” (Christ’s Power to Heal: The Paralytic, p 2)

 Chrysostom like many of the fathers praises the paralytic for his patient persevering in the face of prolonged suffering.  Perhaps it is true at that time that there were actually few cures for diseases and patiently enduring suffering was seen as heroic and godly since there was no alternative.  It is more difficult for us today to be patient in the face of suffering as we want immediate cures or at least instant relief from suffering and we don’t appreciate the Stoicism embraced by the ancient Christians that a man of perfection is already beyond caring about pleasure or pain.

Fr. John Breck in his writing offers a more biblical  view which makes more sense to the modern Christian that suffering is not to be denied or ignored but that it might in itself have some redeeming value.

“Suffering can make us aware of our total dependence on the inexhaustible love and mercy of God. Like no other experience known to us, it focuses our attention on our weakness and vulnerability, and on God as the unique source of mercy, grace and ultimate healing. As a corollary, suffering can bring a heightened self-consciousness and, with it, an awareness of our personal limitations. More than perhaps any other experience, pain and suffering signal the fact that we are not in control. This is a profoundly humbling experience, one that can lead to either despair or to previously unknown heights of faith and hope. Suffering can also have the effect of purging and purifying the passions, that is, the desires and deceptions that corrupt our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. At the same time, it draws our attention to the present moment, forces us to reorder our priorities, and invites us to seek above all ‘the one thing needful’ (Luke 10:42). Suffering also brings awareness to our mortality. In Christian monastic tradition, the monk rises to pray with the admonition, ‘Remember death!” There is nothing morbid about the memory of death. Rather, it is a joyful expression of hope, based on the conviction that by his death, Christ has once and for all destroyed the power of death. Suffering can also foster ecclesial communal ties with others on whom we depend. In return, their own spiritual growth can be enhanced by the experience of sharing another’s pain through their prayer and gestures of care. Finally, suffering offers the possibility to share in the life and saving mission of the crucified and risen Lord. For the dying patient, this means to take up one’s cross and to follow Christ to his own passion and death. To endure one’s suffering for the sake of Christ, in the certainty that one will rise with him into the fullness of life, is also to offer to others the most eloquent and effective witness or martyria possible.”  (The Sacred Gift of Life, p 216)

Holiness as a Challenge to be Human

911Some critics of religion think religion is nothing but a crutch which helps people get through life.  But religion doesn’t always make life easier.   A tsunami happens and a quarter million people die, and a believer is stuck with trying to understand how a God of love who is supposedly all powerful and wise, could let such a tragedy destroy so many lives.  For the believer, there is a God, but where in the midst of such massive suffering, death and destruction?   Faith in God leaves us wrestling with God.  Faith in God cannot do away with human tragedy; rather it creates a bigger dilemma.

Believing in God does not make understanding catastrophic human suffering any easier.  Of course even if there is no God, the 250,000 are just as dead.   The believer may not be able to account for the particular event, but perhaps has hope that this catastrophe is part of some grander scheme which we cannot see in the here and now.  The believer can hope that life cannot be measured or valued by its longevity in this world.  All life is sacred and valuable and has purpose, no matter if shortened or even how short.   What we may not be able to explain or comprehend even with a faith in God, does not leave us hopeless, for events in this world may have purpose which we cannot yet know.  Our faith leaves us to trust God in the life beyond this world which is just as real, even though we cannot experience that greater reality.  Faith and hope are not defeated by death for death is not the end nor the last word nor an unbeatable power.

Fr. Alexander Schememann offers a similar thought:

“The experience of the holy is a mystical ‘encounter with the worlds beyond,’ a ‘fleeting vision of pure beauty,’ which makes life not easier, in fact, harder, and one begins to envy people who are simply immersed in the fuss and bother of life with no inner struggle. However, it is precisely in this struggle that man fulfill his high vocation, only here in this effort, in these ascents and descents, can he consider himself a person.” (Our Father, pp. 30-31)

It is in the struggle with death and life that we discover what it is to be human.  We discover that suffering itself, as horrible as it is, is itself of limited duration and of no eternal value.  Suffering does not define or limit life.  Rather in the struggle with living, we begin to experience the possibilities of life beyond the empirical world, beyond suffering and struggle.

Christ appears to His disciples after His death.

Jesus said:  “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

The Holy Prophet Jonah

On our Church calendar the Holy Prophet Jonah is commemorated on September 22.  Here is a meditation on Jonah:

“It is only through suffering that Jonah, so bent on going along paths directly opposed to Yahweh’s plans, can be made to think again. It is only in suffering that Jonah turns to Yahweh. Even though Jonah knows all about God, can give Yahweh’s message to the pagans, can even dare to tell Yahweh all about himself, only suffering has a chance of making Jonah sympathize with the way that Yahweh runs his world. Perhaps the satire of the book is that a half-hearted prophet can convert Sin City in a day’s bad preaching; but God has to mobilize half of the forces of creation to teach his prophet anything.

If suffering poses a problem for Christians today, it posed even more of a problem to the people of the Old Testament times. Before there was any concept that God would reward the just and punish the wicked in the life to come, it was patently obvious that he should do it here and now. Suffering was therefore something reserved for the wicked; if good people suffered, it was a temporary measure to correct a fault (as in Ps 119:67 or Ps 32). Religious people may have pondered the problem of suffering, but there was no real mystery to it; the function of suffering in the divine plan for humanity was predictable, a mechanical corrective to imbalances in the human cosmos. To the author of the Book of Jonah, however, suffering had greater potential. The main character of the book is painted as a comic hero, and comic heroes are expected to suffer; slapstick remains the first language of humor. But the suffering of Jonah is not gratuitous. The suffering in Part One might be construed as a just and effective corrective to Jonah’s misguided flight, but the same construct can hardly be applied to Part Two. Jonah has fulfilled the commandment placed upon him, and still he suffers; in fact, his suffering is far deeper, for it provokes an anger that cries out for death. The suffering of Jonah in both parts of the book enables the prophet to see what God is about.”(Carmel McCarthy, RSM & William Riley, The Old Testament Short Story, pgs.136-137)

Next: The Prophet Jonah (II)