Fragments from the Valley of the Shadow
This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com to see all the other posts in this series.
As I was reflecting upon what and how I might contribute to this Synchro-Blog, it occurred to me to do some snooping around in my own archives. I discovered that I have actually written a fair amount on death over the years. What follows is a compilation of three posts from the past. The first was written after the death of a friend and is a personal expression of the pain of loss. The second is a reflection on death in the context of the pastoral vocation, written after being called upon to do a memorial service at the outset of my new role. The third is simply a quote about death that I have grown to love and deeply appreciate over the years.
Someone I know lost a long battle with cancer today. I grew up with this person. We played hockey together, went to school together. He had a child, had a career, had friends and family, had hopes and dreams and plans for the future. And then… gone.
The news came through via a few lines on a little screen, opened casually between activities on a lazy Sunday afternoon. How is that possible? How can the same sound on a phone that signifies an updated sports score or an mind-numbingly banal status update also bring news of the end of a precious human life? How can the same medium that conveys the trivial minutiae of our blogged and Facebooked and tweeted lives also bring these little droppings of dread encoded in zeroes and ones, reminders that despite the many and varied ways that we keep ourselves distracted and entertained and numb, death is always in the air?
Today was a strange day. I was restless, sullen, unable to focus or concentrate for a good part of it, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I was easily annoyed, for example, by the ubiquity of the “smart” phone as I sat in a restaurant this afternoon—everywhere I looked, people staring at their phones instead of at the person across the table from them, straining for that new high score in that stupid game they just downloaded instead of talking to the flesh-and-blood child in front of them, gazing absent-mindedly at the game on the screen instead of engaging with the glorious man or woman beside them. It made me angry—today, more than usual. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m often as guilty as those that so irritated me today. Or, maybe because death was in the air, waiting to make its usual thoroughly unwelcome appearance. Maybe we can sense death coming, like a change in the weather. Maybe it sends advance warnings through the air and we feel it in our bones, in our stomachs, in our synapses.
And then, I get home, and I, too, am staring at a screen. Staring in disbelief at a screen that displays words like, “lost his battle,” “struggle with cancer,” “declining strength” and “gone.” Vicious words, painful words, heartbreaking, heart-in-your-throat words. Words that make me feel sad and angry and helpless and confused, even though I know they are words that others are facing much more acutely than me today. Even though I know that they are words that people must face every day. Other people… Far away people… Not-me people… People-I-don’t-know people.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul seems to almost mock death. Borrowing the words of a Greek poet, he sneers, “Where O death is thy victory? Where O death is thy sting?” I wish I could muster this kind of confident derision when it comes to death, but whenever I come across it, it sure seems to have plenty of sting. It stings like hell, actually—especially when I think of those who will be affected most directly by this death. And as for victory? Well, the game isn’t over yet, and this is what keeps us hoping. Keeps us believing. Keeps us anticipating a glorious comeback where life roars back to win the game, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
How we need this hope, this belief, this anticipation.
My first “official” responsibility in my new position took place a week or so earlier than schedule, as I officiated at a memorial service on a sunny, breezy, southern Alberta Saturday. It was a somewhat strange thing to be leading a service like this before even attending a Sunday morning service!
Throughout the day, a number of people expressed appreciation that I had agreed to do this before I had officially begun. Of course it was no problem, whatsoever, and I was honoured to do it. Death is no respecter of schedules, after all. Death always intrudes. A few others remarked—tongue in cheek—that this was a bit of an ominous beginning for me! Welcomed by death. Or something like that. I smiled and laughed weakly.
As I was silently observing people come and go from the viewing room, my thoughts, unsurprisingly, turned to death. It’s impossible to go to a funeral or walk the paths of a cemetery without pondering the uncomfortable fact that one day this will be me. We modern westerners can be fairly committed and inventive death-deniers, but there are always moments when the intruder barges through the door, and the reality of death is unavoidable.
As I drove home yesterday afternoon, I wondered if an encounter with death was perhaps the most appropriate way to begin a new season in life as a pastor. We, who presume to speak for/about God. we who are given the fearful honour of being present with people during their highest highs and lowest lows, we who are somehow permitted to steward the mysteries of life and death and suffering and salvation—perhaps it is we who most need to be reminded of the shadow that colours all that we do. Part of life is learning how to die.
There are no shortage of expectations out there for what a pastor ought to be and do. Decisive program administrators, witty intellectuals, compassionate shepherds/counselors, skilled social networkers, creative entrepreneurs, indefatigable apologists… the list goes on and on. Some of these expectations have their place… many do not. But experiences like the one I had yesterday add a touch of perspective to things.
Perhaps one of the most important things a pastor can do is to refuse to surrender death to the realm of meaninglessness and chaos and pain. Perhaps one of the most vital things we can ever do is to stubbornly insist that there is meaning, here in the valley of the shadow of death—that words like “redemption” and “resurrection” have not gone extinct, that phrases like “running the race” and “finishing well” make contact with truths about the universe that are real, and solid, good, and hopeful. Perhaps that is our job, in this post-Christian context—to tend to the embers of meaning and hope in this death-denying space and time.
I think it is appropriate for me to begin with death for another reason: I am quite a competent death-denier, too. I am as good as anyone else at pretending that death will not come calling. And if I am going to presume to help wrench meaning out of death on behalf of others—if I am going to stand in front of wooden boxes in front of holes in the ground and presume to locate all of this grief and pain and confusion within a narrative of hope— then I need to pay careful attention when death intrudes.
From Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, written after the tragic death of his son:
To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live in the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death, be proud.
Featured image above courtesy of Ruth Bergen Braun.