Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 11, 2008

Out From Under the Shadow of Death

“The Lord is my shepherd,
I do not want for anything.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
Though I walk through the valley
Of the shadow of death
I fear no evil.
For You are with me.”

I’ve practically been living the 23rd Psalm lately: from lying down in actual pastures and following behind Jesus beside the still waters of Skokie Lagoon (on my morning powerwalk), to having my soul restored through new and renewed friendships, and even a night in “the shadows” earlier this week, as Sue and I tried not to become anxious about my need for a good job.

We’re making our bills okay, and even our donations, Graham’s college fund, and so on. But we’re starting to watch our savings trickle out of the account in order to keep up, at a time of year when this didn’t used to happen. Another bad sign: last month’s credit card bill (which we pay every month to avoid interest) featured $529 worth of gasoline charges. We did go to our cottage in Wisconsin several times, and Sue’s commute to work is over thirty miles, but it’s not like we drive some 8-cylinder gas-guzzler!

So the “shadow” is definitely there. It appears sometimes as a worrying that we will have to make big changes (like sell the cottage), or that we’re not “better off than we were eight years ago” (to use the current political tone). Or it shows up when we face the possibility, like many Americans, that in the long run, we will not do as well economically as our parents did.

But then the Shepherd steps in and gently reminds us, “You do not want for anything.” Even better, I find myself wanting less, needing less, ready to give more when asked, even looking for chances to do so. I step off the manic hamster wheel of consumerism and stop running my soul (or my body) into the ground. I stop envying those who seem to be “winners” by comparison to my own situation. For one thing, who says I am SUPPOSED to become wealthier than my parents? It’s not some sacred American birthright. It may not even be ethical to have such an expectation at this point in history.

So it can be very freeing to be knocked down a peg or two like this, if one does not become bitter or anxious. And if I do get a lucrative job (which I do still hope for, I won’t lie), it will all be gravy… just that much more money to be generous with. And it will be a job that is generative in itself, that’s in line with my values and vocational identity, one that builds the Kingdom of God in some way. This is the biggest sign of all as to how “rich” one is: when one’s deep desire, and one’s gifts, precisely meet some deep need in the world.

My wife is not warming to this “downshift” position as easily, however. It’s forcing her to break some old habits, to let go of some things she’s tempted to grasp too tightly. Yet she’s very brave and conscientious. She willingly took a pay cut of about 15% this academic year, just to get out of the rut she was in at the wealthy, high-powered high school she taught at for 21 years, up till last June. Now she’s in a growing district that’s post-rural, with a higher Latino population, and in a hundred other ways is radically different from the wealthy suburb she knew (not to mention the wealthy suburb she grew up in outside of Boston).

But we believe this is where she’s supposed to be now. It’s a place where she can be more useful than where she was, a place where her kindness and professionalism is clearly needed (and more likely to be appreciated). At an age in life when most people are settling in, upwardly mobile, or seeking comfort, she made a choice toward discomfort and learning new things, in order to live out her values. And in an economy where everyone is seeking safety and security, when most folks are paranoid about what’s around the corner, she’s taking personal and professional risks, for less money and mediocre benefits. Furthermore, she’s choosing to serve in a situation where “the poor” are not some abstraction, but are sometimes right under her nose. In so doing, she’s also taking back some of the power and life that money (and worry about money) had begun to subtly steal away from her. I have no doubt she will eventually be happier in the new job, though it is clearly hard work right now, to remake an entire academic culture and overcome several generations of low academic expectations. Growth and development is not supposed to be easy, for individuals nor for schools. But when the fruits of her work are seen, in her students and teachers (she’s chair of the English department), her satisfaction and hard-won wisdom will be worth more than any money could be worth.

I’m not saying this to toot our own horn here (at least I hope not). I’m just grateful for both what we DO have, and for the learning. So I want to bear witness about God’s grace. For me, this place of economic and family tension is a clear example of God “preparing a table” for us, even “in the presence of my enemies”, as the 23rd Psalm later suggests. (I suppose the enemies, in this case, are the demons and worries that are trying to break our resolve.)

The good things God has in store for His people are almost always meant to be enjoyed while the enemy, the shadow of death, is near. Even the Last Supper is an example of this. It’s also part of the natural order of things: harvest time happens not long before first frost, right? Meanwhile, the palace and the penthouse (where people desperately try to keep enemies at bay, unaware they are secretly in their midst already) are not conducive to either community or communion, and these are seldom to be found there. Nor do those who “have it all” tend to be any happier than the rest of us. And though we will mostly try to deny it, death is never far from the rest of us, either.

So it is in choosing and valuing life each day, in giving love, in accepting God’s reality — especially owning the messy and difficult details of it– that we remain in the light instead of the shadows. It is in the struggle, in sacrificial giving, that we paradoxically receive the best gifts. And as a bonus, we can enjoy the company of the Shepherd Himself at our table. When we drink from His cup, it is simultaneously a cup that contains both death and life. And His is the only cup that runneth over, the one that never runs out.

Drink up!


  1. […] the rural Wisconsin lake cottage we bought a few years back. Though a bit hard to pay for given our downward mobility, Grayhaven’s still, in a word, good, … a real blessing. Lots of fun to downshift, turn off the […]

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