The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Who knows when it comes? Who knows how it will come? Suddenly. Slowly. Death comes. Fear it? Face it? Fret about it? I listened as Nan expressed frustration and fatigue. She recently noted, “My legs just don’t work,” as she gave an accompanying motion as though trying to nudge someone forward. There is little doubt she moves between determination and giving in. Ninety-two years old. 92.

Death is not a fascination as much as it is a human experience that goes along with “pastor.” Slowly he speaks. Faint is his voice. Arms and legs that once rebuilt cars, assisted in building a building and served him well in his profession rest with little control once enjoyed. We sat for a bit together. I recalled the time he took me to breakfast. He shared with me where he once worked – even took me by to see the place. He was proud. He worked hard. There is little doubt he thinks about those times. I am certain he did not expect “retirement” to be like this.

The UPS delivery person opened the door. “He’s here all the time,” the faint voice informed. Noticing the UPS man left, he softly noted, “He probably forgot something.” There is little doubt he has seen this before from his wheelchair perch. He may not be able to move much, but he does not miss much either.

The news came like a weight. Hopes propped up by possibilities fell when the word came. Death lurks. Sooner than later? Only time will tell. Our hopes drive us to look for later, much later. Her family congealed. Once uncertain, now resolved. “Whatever it takes.”

These three flesh and blood stories could be filled in with greater detail.

Reflecting on these beautiful lives left me thinking of Psalm 23. Not the sterile Psalm intended to offer consolation as it is read from the back of a “Funeral Folder.” Rather, the Psalm as described by Dr. Garland during a Hebrew class in the mid 1980’s while in seminary. Pressing home the understanding of “intensives” it was noted the impending “valley of the shadow of death” was not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Knowing the day would come when the journey turns dark the songwriter wrote confidently of the absence of fear in the presence of the Shepherd.

Just how is that “shepherding” expressed? For the very mystical among us it comes in the “felt” presence of Jesus. For years I have heard people express the appreciation for the presence of God for without it they speak of feelings of loneliness. What about the less mystical among us? What about those who look around the waiting room and see no bright lights and feel no warm glow? How would they know of the “shepherding” of which the Psalmist directs our singing?

More and more, I am convinced in the reality of the presence of the Spirit of God in the company of people. Some of us need others around in whom we see the face of Jesus, feel his touch and find security in his embrace. For some of us it is not enough to consider the abstractions brought on by words intending to bring comfort. Some need the very tactile presence of God experienced in the “other.”

Many came to hug. Others came to stand and not say much. Still others offered to run errands or get dinner. Each of these dear ones came expressing the presence of God – the Triune God.

Would that the church, the Church, would take on the expression of the presence of God – the Triune God – in the world. In so doing we may find many who need companions for that long dark walk that surely comes. Embracing our kinship in shepherding with God may give us greater occasion to celebrate the love of God in Christ Jesus mediated by the Spirit for the blessing of the world.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

2 comments on “The Valley of the Shadow of Death

  1. Kris Anne says:

    Todd, when my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in June of ’04 and then died that November, I remember the shock and gut-wrenching pain that I felt (still feel, really). She died here in my home, and I vividly remember her last moments… they were not peaceful. I had never watched someone die before, and her jerking, convulsive last breaths tormented me… they still do, when I relive them in my dreams (sleeping or waking). It is an earthy, agonizing, awkward journey from this world to the Presence of God.
    I have trouble even visiting her grave, because it reminds me of what is happening to her body. Though it was sick and is now dead, it is a body that I loved to be held by (and humored by, as she would dance around the house to our old Monkey’s record).

    Death truly is a thief, and I struggle to hold on to the belief that it really is just a doorway… I know it is in my head, but my mother feels so far away in my heart. On this New Year’s eve, I long to hear her voice again and to smell her smell and hold her hand. Another year without mom is ahead of me… and yet, you are absolutely right, that the love of my community brings near the love of God… and in a way, the love of my mother. Those who remember her and speak to me about her, who laugh with me and cry with me; they ARE Jesus with skin on during these years of waiting… I wait until I can be with her again, with my Lord.

  2. Todd Littleton says:

    Kris Anne,

    Thanks for opening us up to the very kinds of struggles we often ignore. I think we ignore them for we do not know what to say. Our former Associate Pastor onces said it is better to say nothing than try to say something that really comes off poorly. I really think we want to help but we just do not know how.

    Prayers with you longing to hear your mother’s voice. Hopeful with you when the day comes where we will together hear the voices of the many we love.

    Blessings in this New Year.

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