A few years ago, I was present with a church member in the ER who was suffering from a brain aneurysm. She didn’t have immediate family to call, so they called me. Before I knew it, I was standing with the doctors and nurses doing my best to help.
My job was to hold her hand, put my face in hers, with doctors and nurses all around, and ask questions to get her to respond, “Are you in pain? Squeeze my hand if you are.” “Are you scared? Squeeze my hand if you are.” One of my last questions to her was, “Are you afraid to die?” Her eyes locked with mine . . . she squeezed my hand, and I knew we were in the Valley of the Shadow of Death . . . and she did too.
We did this for two hours before the doctors put her into a medically induced coma — which she never came out of. Her last cognitive human interaction was with me. Each time I’m in these moments, I’m reminded of how unfair death is.
There aren’t simple answers for what happens in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. No parent should have to bury their own child. No teenager should have to wrestle with unanswerable questions. No senior adult should have to fear death in the ER. But yet they (and we) still do.
I’ve come to terms with this fact, and I’m convinced we don’t have adequate enough words to understand it. Life unfolds as it will . . . things happens, and we’re left finding our way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
As a pastor, I’m under no preconceived notion that’s there’s a sentence, or phrase, or thought that prepares a family for what death brings, but words do have to be shared, and we need to be careful which ones we use because their implications are immense.
It’s easy to tell people, “God’s testing you.” Or “The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away.” Or “God’s just bringing God’s angel home.” At best, these sentences are unhelpful and way too simplistic for the complexities we face. At worst, these phrases damage our understanding of God, for they reinforce that it’s God doing the killing.
And that’s what the Valley of the Shadow of Death wants us to think. That it’s God who did this; it’s God who’s punishing us, and it’s God who’s doing the killing. But that is just not true. And I know this because I believe in what King David sings in Psalm 23.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
God doesn’t cause the hurt or pain or confusion that life brings. Instead, God steps into the middle of it and calms the waters and restores our soul. God leads us down the right paths. And we can fear no evil, for as King David sings:
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Our loved ones may no longer with us on this side of eternity, but we’re comforted in knowing they are not gone. They are with God. I love David’s imagery here. God, the great shepherd, is leading them away from death’s sting, away from harm, and the Great Shepherd’s prepared a table for them in the house of God. At least this is what King David sings:
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Even though our loved ones walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, even though they faced the darkest of all things, even though the months and moments to come for us were (or are) unscripted and unknown, we can fear no evil for we have the blessed assurance that our loved ones are dwelling in the house of God.
Psalm 23 may be the most comforting words in all of Scripture, for they remind us God is the one walking through the shadows with us. It was true for Israel, and it’s still true today.
Peace and joy,