Copyright by Melissa Hanberry.
Below is a guest post from Melissa Hanberry, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Melissa wrote this post in 2014, eloquently describing the lessons of faith that she and her family have learned as her daughter, Maggie, battled cancer from age 16 to age 20. Maggie went to be with the Lord on July 31, 2018. (Melissa is seated in this family photo, with her daughter Maggie seated on the chair arm, and daughter Molly and husband Phil standing.)
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4
Despite the Shepherd Psalm’s perennial status as the go-to passage for the dying and grieving alike, lately I’ve come to appreciate the message for the living that David expressed in Psalm 23. The picture of God as Shepherd and His people as sheep strikes at the heart of man’s humanistic hubris, but I find comfort in knowing He guides and cares for His own. My enemies and the evil they unleash threaten to turn life’s walk into a valley of the shadowiest shadows, as the Hebrew implies. David had more than his share of overhanging darkness and the wickedness that can hide within. I wonder exactly which foes pounced anew in his mind as he pinned these words. Lions? Bears? Goliath?
Goliath’s name is forever coupled with David’s as the ultimate descriptor for the unexpected triumph of underdog over odds-on favorite. When they faced off in the valley of Elah, Goliath seemed to carry victory in his back pocket. At least that’s the way it appeared day after day when his challenges were met with stony silence. But do we get the story exactly right? Did Goliath’s massive size and prowess present such an obstacle that David’s one and only chance was a miracle-type one in a million shot? David had faced hairy beasts before – and won. He had slung his stones countless times until he achieved true warrior status as an ancient artillery expert. Truth be told, Goliath was probably the underdog in his cumbersome attire and with his weighty weapons relying on his own brute strength. His defeat was the safe bet that day unless he could freeze David in his tracks with fear and doubt, not by his intimidating exterior, but with the tongue he used to taunt David.
Goliath has a thousand twins that live large in our valleys. A few have human faces, some have heavy-sounding names and lurk within, while many are formless clouds looming overhead with darkest intent. Cancer. Pride. Debilitating pain. Unbelief. Disappointment. Bitterness. Insecurity. They mock us with questions and foster doubts in the One who sends us into battle. Your God is not big enough, strong enough, wise enough, concerned enough to deliver you. You think you have the proper tools to beat me? “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43)
David took Goliath’s life with a stony missile and a conquered sword. Those are the tools of the trade we associate with his victory. But his first step in winning the battle was winning the war of words. “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted.” (1 Sam 17:45) And there were two more weapons with David that day. Those sticks didn’t escape Goliath’s attention, so they shouldn’t escape mine. David’s rod and staff? The same rod and staff of Psalm 23:4? Maybe David carried them to battle for comfort, a tangible reminder of the Good Shepherd who counts, rescues, and protects His own. Today they remind me that our battle with cancer is not fought on one plane with one weapon alone. In the same way a shepherd numbers his sheep as each passes beneath the rod, He numbers the very hairs on Maggie’s head and bids us not to fear (Luke 12:7). And with the staff, He searches and rescues me from the end of my own path. With such a Shepherd, my valley of darkest shadows becomes my place of deepest trust and sweetest victory.