You know the line from Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ….” I’ve been spending a lot of time in that valley these last few weeks. Lots of death, lots of funerals, lots of grief—I just finished my third funeral in a week’s span last Friday. And there were several more in November and December. The Grim Reaper is doing a brisk business in my little world. And I feel like the little boy in the film The Sixth Sense who says, “I see dead people.” I do. I see a lot of them. I spend a lot of time in the valley of the shadow of death.
It takes a toll. I’ve been pastor at my current post for going on eighteen years. I don’t just bury parishioners; I bury friends; some are like family even. I enter the anguish of families and even bring a little of my own. And it wears on a person after a while. The grief adds up over time, yet I seldom give myself freedom to embrace it—in part because there’s a grieving family to care for, a funeral to prepare, Sunday’s sermon to crank out, a visit to make, a gripe to listen to, a counseling session to hold, the next death to attend to and the next funeral to prepare for. Sometimes that stuff is waiting for me when I get back from the cemetery. And it never ends. The deaths of my own parents were swept up in that same cycle. I confided in a retired minister some months ago, “I live with this nagging fear that someday all the grief I’ve pressed down across the years is going to rise up and crush me when I least expect it.” I’ve wondered why it hasn’t done so yet.
Based on a study I did of a David text in 2 Samuel where he eulogized Saul and Jonathan when he got word of their death, I discovered that maybe I have been processing my grief all along through the writing of eulogies for the people I bury. It gives me time to reflect on the deceased’s life, to celebrate that life, to offer thanks for that life, and to grieve the loss of that life from our everyday presence. This helps, I think.
And something better help because we pastors spend a lot of time in the valley of the shadow of death. The good news is, however, that we are not in that valley alone. Remember what David said about that valley? “I will fear no evil, for you are with me—your rod and your staff: they comfort me.” We pastors are in good company in the valley of the shadow. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is there. Yes, that’s Him—the one with the nail scars in His hands. Jesus has walked this valley of the shadow of death for himself. This isn’t new or strange terrain to Him. He knows the way through. He knows how to get us to the other side. His very presence with us in that valley reminds us when we need it most that death doesn’t get the last word and grief doesn’t get the last word; Jesus gets the last word—and that word is life.
No wonder Paul could write with such confidence: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O grave, where is your sting? O death, where is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”