Every person’s death and loss diminishes me, according to John Donne. But the closer geographically it gets to me, the more I feel the oppressive and opaque weight of that shadow. This past week the gun violence was on my turf–my alma mater, with my extended family member enrolled; the neighborhood where I worship, shop and meet people for lunch; and the car of the shooter, located less than a mile from my house on a route that I travel frequently. The shadows feel ominous.
There are other shadows in my valley: people I love are struggling with illness and limitation; others I love are frustrated by the impenetrable job market; some suffer from lack of sufficient resources for what they need. Some of us are in the long, slow process of letting go of one who has died, another loop in the valley of the shadow of death. In addition to the personal shadow, there are the billowing clouds of the tenor of public discourse around the country is full of blame, accusation, and lack of charity.
So when the Psalmist in #23 names the “Valley of the Shadow” of death–of persons, of hopes, of dreams–I know whereof the poet speaks. The challenge is how to walk it. I have found just in the amount of time that it has taken me to actually get this blog written that the walk in the valley of the shadow is very slow. Grieving and letting go cannot be rushed, nor can I move too quickly in my body and heart to what I deeply believe, that all will be well. I need to silence the voices that yell from the back of the heart, “Are we there yet?” and listen for the voice of the Shepherd who promises that love contains no fear, and that there is a rod and a staff gentling me into comfort on the way to the table of peace and plenty.
“Rods and staffs” are not obvious in my daily rounds, so I am trying to attend to the ways the Holy is present in symbols that are easily accessible to me. Memories of the gifts I have been given in the ones and happenings that are now lost often comfort me; they are gifts of God. This person showed me a road not taken; that phone conversation invited me to listen in a new way for a sacred Word; that encounter, as brief as it was, became an “aha” moment, and though there was no more than that “brief shining moment,” it was a game changer.
The “rod and the staff”frequently show up in others who are walking this same valley. Even though the journey is my own, my fears are lessened when I encounter someone else whose sorrow is the same or who has walked this valley before. I am not looking for answers or solutions, but rather for open hearts and compassionate listening.
And I feel balm for my wounded soul in the words in sacred text–in Scripture, song, wisdom–that is embedded in me from my youth: It is Well With My Soul; We Rest on Thee, Our Shield and Our Defender. From Isaiah, “I have called you by name.” From Psalm 139, “My darkness is not dark to you.” From I John, “Love contains no fear.”
And so the winding, opaque way through the valley of the shadow goes ever on, and I am accompanied by the Presence that I cannot see or always apprehend, but that I count on. That Presence keeps me from despair, because a “way is being made where there is no way.”
I would love to have the June gloom that is covering Southern California lifted soon, both where I live and in my soul trudging this valley of the shadow. However, I am confident that Light and Darkness co-exist, and that when the time is right, I will burst out into the clearing where I will once again dine and laugh and revel at the table, where cups are running over with love and joy.
Thanks be to God!