I have been comforted on my Lenten journey to encounter Holy Presence in signs and detours and delight. However, I am deeply aware that I am also daily faced with other phenomena: valleys–of the shadow of death, of dry bones, of tears; and of depths–sorrow, fears and despair. I am of that era in my life where news of death, of troubling diagnoses, of unbearable losses are so regular that they are almost routine. Not a day goes by without another request for prayer–for the world, for the nation, for the Church, and for people who are loved and cherished. And so I travel the Lenten way on a road of mourning as well as rejoicing.
The “valley of the shadow of death” becomes more real to me each year. I have been helped greatly by reading the two volumes by Marilyn Chandler McEntryre for those traveling in that valley, those who are facing death themselves, A Faithful Farewell,
and for those losing someone they love, A Long Letting Go. The author herself, no stranger to grief, gives some perspective, some comfort and some practical helps is the process of mourning:
To mourn is to open ourselves to comfort, which is a unique dimension of love. To mourn is to make our sorrow hospitable to those who are willing to enter into it…Our work is to accept the sorrow, to live it, to suffer it, and finally in humility to let it be drenched in the healing waters of love that come to us from as many sources as we allow–great wells of it, great waves of it, and daily infusions from old friends and from strangers who may be angels sent to walk us through the valley of the shadow. (A Long Letting Go,pp. 84-85)
Part of my Lenten journey is to do this work of mourning, on behalf of those whom I have lost, and on behalf of those who are in the valley of the shadow themselves right now. Yesterday I heard of two more friends who have lost parents, always a turning point in each person’s life. I now know that grieving is holy work, an important piece of giving sanctuary to those I am given in the world.
Others within my ken can only see a Valley of Dry Bones when they look at our world–few life givers, few Spirit breathers, few points of Light. I resonate with that. If I only read headlines, banners and listen to sound bites, I know that dry bones might be all that I could see also. But I feel strongly that even as I look at the Truth, with as much clarity as I can, I must point to and witness to a bigger reality than the current state of things in the universe, the nations, the Church, even in the microcosms of deadness in our personal lives. I believe that in God’s providence, there are no final defeats. Therefore, I plant myself in that reality as a starting place on my Lenten journey, and then pray, as I weep over the Valley of Dry Bones, that the Spirit will breathe Life back into them. I ask also what my part will be in that; to whom do I speak? to whom do I give? am I invited to bear witness in a way that is public and noticeable?
And with those whose losses can seem less tangible, less noticeable, less dramatic, but who like the Psalmist have experienced that “tears have been my food day and night, while people say continually, ‘Where is your God?'”, I am to be a friend listening to their truth with respect and without judgement, and without letting their sorrow become my sorrow, only holding them with compassion and hope.
These valleys and shadows are not the easiest part of the Lenten journey. And once again I turn to a British hymn set to a French carol:
When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,/your touch can call us back to life again;/fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:/Love is come again like wheat that riseth green. (John Crum, 1928)
I hold this as I continue on my Lenten way, for those I have lost, for those I love, and for myself.
Personal photo of street art in St. Petersburg, Florida.