A few weeks ago a single phone call changed our family. That’s how unexpected death works, right? One minute you are sitting on the couch with your spouse, debating which TV show to binge next before bed and the next an unexpected phone call with unexpected news makes the decision for you. No TV show. Instead, you sit in stunned silence for a while, wondering what in the world just happened?
Last weekend my family gathered for the funeral. I woke up the morning of the service in a hotel room in South Carolina, just beyond Savannah and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes while I steeled myself for the moments that would soon populate my day. As I readied myself to encounter the grief of my immediate family, of parents who had just lost a child, of strangers who had just lost a friend, Psalm 23 ran rampant in my head.
I scoffed at it and to be honest, was a little disappointed in myself. I went to Baptist Christian school for 13 years. I was in Sunday School just about every Sunday for even longer. I went to this weekly program called “Awana” as a child where I memorized Bible verses for literal jewels in tiny crown pins (this is not even remotely an exaggeration). When it comes to the Bible, I know some pretty deep cuts, man. And I know them in the original King James Version because of the aforementioned Baptist-ness of it all. If you are ever on a game show, and a million dollars is a stake and you get to phone a friend on some remote Biblical trivia question, you call me.
And yet, in the dim light of dawn, listening to doors slam down the hallway with the noise only a hotel full of people waking up can make, Psalm 23 was playing on a loop in my head. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” (Told you. King James all the way.) I made a mental note to hang out in Ezekiel or something for a while the next time I opened the Bible as I headed downstairs for a stellar breakfast of hotel Raisin Bran and a warm coke. (Judge not, lest ye be judged. Bam. More Bible.)
A few hours later, I found myself standing in a small room with just about every relative I knew, as we waited in the space the church had provided for us to grieve in while the rest of those mourning trickled into the chapel. I had never seen with my own eyes someone so overwhelmed with grief they had to be physically supported. I’ve been fortunate in life to not have known too much grief. Not to say I haven’t grieved. But the grief of a parent laying to rest their child, despite the age, is one I hope to never know personally. As we waited and prayed for the minister to let us out of this room of tragedy, there it was again in my mind, “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
The door opened. The minister was ready. The chapel was ready. The service was beginning. We filed into pews, listened to stories, laughed at old memories and settled in for the minister’s sermon.
I shook my head in disbelief as the words of David appeared on the screen. And there it was one more time, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” I tuned the pastor out a little as I reflected on these words. As a child, I had been taught this Psalm was one David had written on one of his many adventures being chased by King Saul. It was always told to me as if David was Robin Hood, the people’s king, fighting off the Sheriff of Nottingham, as he waited to claim what was rightfully his and bring peace to the land. The shadow of death was imminent for David. It was personal. It was his life or death situation. Literal, never figurative.
But as I sat in that chapel, reading the words I realized we were all sitting in the valley of the shadow of death. We were alive but death had come and it had cast a long, brutal shadow. A shadow which felt cold, black and isolating.
Grief is a brat of an emotion. It wages war on entire families, cities, nations and yet somehow despite the common loss, grief leaves us feeling so alone. As individuals, we all grieve differently. Some sit in silence, some sob, some argue, some write. We all see grief a little differently from one another. And if we aren’t careful, it can leave us feeling so very alone, even when sitting in a room full of people mourning the same exact loss.
I let my mind wander to the end of the refrain, “….I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” A flash of light hit my mind. A light tearing through the shadow. We are not alone! Never. Not only are there flesh and blood people sitting in grief with us, but there is also a flesh and blood God sitting there as well, right there, in the valley of the shadow of death.
For me, right now, this shadow is literal death. It is the grief of a loved one lost. But sometimes the shadow of death I sit in is the loss of a friendship, the loss of a job, the loss of a dream. Grief surrounds us. The world is hard. Light doesn’t win that often. I don’t watch Game of Thrones but I guess sometimes winter comes? (I don’t know.) We fight with our neighbors, our friends, our families. We experience loss, literally and figuratively. And we can become so tempted to sit through it all in isolation. To withdraw to a place only we think we can understand.
But we are not alone. We are not alone in our grief or fear or dismay. The shadow of death is long but we are not in it alone. And light is breaking through.