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New Horizons

A Walk through the Valley of Shadows

Mark S. Schneider

Amidst the dark shadows, light can be a revelatory shepherd. My nocturnal epiphany began while on a church retreat. I decided to take a late afternoon stroll alone in the woods. The cool, crisp autumn air and the beguiling fragrance of fresh pine lured me to see what was ahead, while I failed to note the path I left behind. I neglected to make a mental map directing me back to the lodge. Suddenly I became aware of the swiftly setting sun. The shadows of eventide quickly surrounded me as the sun yawned one final time and went to sleep. Blindsided by the rush of darkness blanketing the forest, I lost my sense of direction. I could no longer find my way back home.

When entangled by the dark shadows, light can become a redemptive hope. Consider the case of my father, Murray Schneider. A life of ethnic and humanistic pride enmeshed him in the dark shadows, in defiance of his Creator. He was raised in a Jewish family in Russia, where Hebrew cultural pride dominated, but God took a subordinate role. My father embraced an agnostic piety, seeing God as an enigma to whom he turned a blind eye, yet he saw himself as a knowable deity. Self-worship mixed with his insecurities was a toxic brew to his soul, leading him to maintain tight control over my mother, my sister, and me. For my father, the world was divided into two camps. The Jews were the virtuous, and the rest of the world consisted of Gentile Christians whom he viewed with suspicion. Yet he married a Spanish Catholic woman (Olga Veronica Fernandez), much to the chagrin of most of his family. He was a man cut asunder between Jewish pride and love for my mother. This combustible fusion led to inner torment and a volatile temperament.

My father always said he would live forever, while denying the Author of life. He was a truly autonomous man, suppressing the reality of his dependence on the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In the closing chapters of his life, though, he was beset with crippling diseases, which left this once strong man mentally and physically incapacitated. One night, as I was taking him to bed in his wheelchair, I noticed he was sitting motionless. His wide-open eyes seemed to observe what is unobservable to the living. My father was dead. The closing curtain of his life became his shroud. My father never verbally welcomed God into his life, but during his final years I lit his way with daily readings from the Gospels. He was unable to speak, but appeared to express satisfaction, learning about him whose light enables us to see light. It is my hope that God’s Word was a lamp to my father’s feet, lighting his path and emancipating his spirit. Perhaps finally he found his way home.

A moonless, cloudy sky was the accomplice to the night, transforming the forest into an impenetrable veil of darkness. The cacophony of crickets and a blustering wind were my only companions. I felt incapacitated and stood motionless, trying to pierce the night. The darkness was becoming a shroud, and I stopped to pray in order to sense the rod and staff of my Lord, who had never failed to shepherd me.

The dark shadows beguile, but light brings clarity. My maternal grandparents enjoyed a moment of love without marriage, resulting in the birth of my mother. The culture dictated that family unity was not an option. Consequently, my mother was given to a distant relative for care. This arrangement didn’t last long, and soon my mother found herself growing up in the shadowlands of many foster homes. She never found a permanent family to call her own until she married my father. Yet she never felt alone. Our Lord had made his presence known to her, and as a Roman Catholic she loved him as her Father. This piety was reinforced when she spent a few years living in a convent. She was deeply impressed with the holiness of the nuns who extended Christlike love to her.

Through the years, my mother always sensed the loving rod and staff of her heavenly Father, but was not always responsive to his guidance. She met my father at a dance, and his romantic and charming personality wooed her to be unequally yoked in marriage. Once they were wed, my father forbade my mother to practice her faith. This spiritual prohibition extended to my sister and me. Proscriptions may succeed, but they can also serve as prescriptions for greater piety. For my mother, it regenerated her devotion to Christ, which she privately shared with my sister and me.

Finally, at the end of her years, she was bedridden with debilitating diseases. Physically she was wasting away, but spiritually she was renewed day by day. Suffering only increased her faith as she clung to Christ, gave him her pain, and received rest for her soul. She understood how much Jesus suffered to secure her salvation. In comparison, her discomfort was a slight, momentary affliction in preparation for the glories of eternity. She was more than willing to carry her cross as a dull reflection of her Savior’s suffering. Ultimately her infirmities came to a fatal conclusion. I came home one night to find her in an unconscious state, gasping for breath. I called the hospice nurse, but it was too late. My mother was dead. Death, though, was swallowed up in victory, because my mother was no stranger to the loving arms of her Redeemer. She had found her way home.

It is a shadowed valley of death in which we often find ourselves during life’s pilgrimage. The good news is that we are never alone. The green pastures and still waters restoring our souls are the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. It is only Jesus who can dispel the shadows, guide us, and prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. At the table of the Lord, we are his honored guests. He feeds us himself, thus uniting us with him.

The result is a persevering spirit finding pleasure in God amidst the howling cackles of an unbelieving world. The demonic adversary of our souls takes the form of innumerable foes from sources outside of us and depravity within us. The Good Shepherd, though, steps in amidst the roaring lions seeking to devour us. He lifts us above their snapping jaws, and places us securely on his shoulders. The Lord has borne my weight for many years since he first found me on a wide road to destruction. He has altered my journey to a narrow road leading to Emmaus and new life. Like water turned to wine, he transformed my recalcitrant soul into a submissive, joyful spirit. Now my chief goal is to enjoy and glorify my Redeemer. The way can be beset by battles with temptations and angst, but Jesus makes my yoke easy and my burden light.

I have spent much time grieving over the loss of my parents. Yet my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. I fear no evil because the presence of my Lord is an overflowing cup filled with goodness and mercy. He enables me to persevere through the dark shadows, and shepherds me with his revelatory light. It is like the night in the forest, when I feared my demise. When I prayed, I received a new sense of direction. I did not die, but lived to celebrate my Savior’s mercy and grace. Suddenly, I saw the lights of the lodge and was on my way home.

The author is a member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. New Horizons, October 2014.

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