Sunday, August 26, 2012

Into the Valley

            Everyone has had the childhood experience of trying without success to go to sleep in a room filled with frightening shadows.

            The shadow of the tree outside is cast on the bedroom wall looking like a giant with outstretched arms.

            The shadow of the cute teddy bear is cast onto the floor, looking like a grizzly bear ready to kill.

            The shadow of a belt becomes a snake.

            The shadow of small toy becomes a rat.


Shadows can be frightening things.

And the reason why these shadows can become so frightening is because these shadows reflect something that is real.

But they are frightening because we are not quite sure what is real that is represented.

Even the youngest child would never be afraid of a cute teddy bear. But the shadow cast onto the floor of the child's bedroom doesn't look like the teddy bear, and the child, uncertain of what creates the shadow, becomes afraid.

Parents take these childhood fears seriously. I know a few parents who have been called into the child's room, for the child has seen a monster lurking in the shadows. And a common way to get around that is to take a can hairspray, which to an illiterate 4 year old is
MONSTER SPRAY, and you spray the monster away. Parents often take these fears seriously because the fears are real. The monster is not, but the fear itself is very real.

The 23rd Psalm has that wonderful verse, "Though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

Many people are afraid of death. This fear is real. And so is death. But it is very much like being in that child's room late at night.  We see the shadows of death, but we really don't know what is behind the shadow. We really don't know that much about death and what it is like, as so we are afraid.

We see the shadows of death. This shadow comes to us as a prolonged illness that slowly robs us of our strength and energy, and finally our life.

This shadow walks the highways of our nation and without warning takes some of the finest young people out of twisted steel and broken glass.

This shadow sneaks into nurseries and in the silence of the night takes a newborn infant.

The shadow comes from the drugs sold right down the street.

The shadow comes on the weather channel as we watch the ever changing cone of the predicted path of a tropical storm or hurricane.

We see the shadows every day. And we are afraid.

     It is easy to be afraid of the shadows of death because death comes so unpredictably, coming with great suddenness or with agonizing slowness.

Death comes with pain or with grief. It always means the end of a life. It usually means an absence of a loved one for those who continue to live.

And it so unknown. What is death like?

We see the shadows. We see the illness or the funeral home or the body on display, or cemetery. But these are shadows. We do not see death itself.

Like the child who is afraid of the teddy bear because the shadow in the late night bedroom seems so vicious, we fear death, because the shadow seems so vicious.

We see the shadows of death, now what is death itself like?

When we die, what do we see? I'm not asking what the living people see when we die. They see the corpse. I'm talking about what WE see when we die. What do we hear? What do we feel? What do we do? What happens to us?

The Bible has a lot to say about death, but not nearly as much to say about what happens to us after we die. 

We get a glimpse, but only a glimpse. 

We want details, lots of details.

Do we know our friends in heaven?  Do we sleep and wake up and go back to sleep in heaven?  Do family ties mean anything?  Are there books to read? Stories to tell? 

Is there food in heaven?  More importantly, is there chocolate.  And even more importantly, are there calories?

We want to see beyond the shadow of death, and get a glimpse beyond.

We are told that for the Christian, death is not an end. Nor is it a sleep.

But there is a consciousness that we will have that continues forever. We live beyond our death. We know this to be true because we are told time and again about the promises God has given us in Scripture regarding the eternal life that we have through Jesus Christ.

     In the 11th chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life...whosoever believes in me shall never die."

Our bodies, of course, may die, but our souls do not die. The essence of who we really are lives on.

A few years ago, I shaved my beard.  After having it for 19 years, I decided to see what I would look like without one.  So I shaved it.

Now, in spite of the fact that I no longer look like the photo on my driver's license, the essence of who I am remained.

My beard was gone, but Maynard Pittendreigh was still here. Now I had some trouble with this with the younger members of the church that I was serving at the time. Some of the very young children weren't quite sure who I was. I had to tell them that the beard is gone, but Dr Pittendreigh is still here.

Sometime in January, I will finally be able to cut my hair!  YES!  It’s actually long enough now to send to a charity to contribute to wigs for cancer patients, but I promised I wouldn’t cut it until everyone was back for the season.  I suppose I’ll look different.  But the essence of who I am will not change.

     And in the same way, there will come a time when not just my beard, but my whole body will be gone. But Maynard Pittendreigh will still exist.

So the first thing that we can say is that for the Christian, there is a death of the body, but not of the soul.  There is a death of our physical life, but who we are will continue.

What else can one say about what death is like? In Revelation (21:4) we are told that for the Christian it is a state in which there will be no further death, neither shall there be any sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain."

     In fact, most of the passages of Scripture that address themselves to the subject of death and heaven are just like that one in that they do not give details of the day to day routine of what we will do in heaven, but rather the Scripture gives us descriptions of what the substance of our life beyond death will be. We are not given descriptions of our way of life in heaven, but rather of our quality of life after death.

And the most important fact of this quality of life is that God is with us, Christ is beside us, and the Holy Spirit never deserts us in our death. All of the passages that describe death and heaven have this to say. That God is with us.

And that is the thrust of this passage in the 23rd Psalm. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil because YOU ARE WITH ME."

     We all walk through this valley of the shadow of death eventually.

     We may walk through it when we go to the doctor and we hear him say, "Your tests are in. I'm afraid the news is not good."

     We may walk through this valley of the shadow of death when we stand at the grave of our best friend.

     We may walk through this valley when we struggle with a loved one who is ill.

     Or in a moment of intense fear we may suddenly become aware of our own mortality. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

     We all walk through that valley of the shadow of death, many times. Any time we become aware of the reality of death. And the tendency is to become afraid. To fear the reality of death.

But you see, the Christian doesn’t have to be afraid. The promise of the 23rd Psalm is true. God is with us to comfort and to protect us.

            Recently, I came to a conclusion.  The hardest funerals I do are for those who have no faith.  The first funeral I did was 38 years ago.  It was for a friend of our family and I was still a student.  I’ve done funerals for children.  I remember one was for a child who, at the time, was the same age of my son.  The casket was so tiny.  I’ve done funerals for close friends.  I did my Dad’s funeral.

            But the hardest are for those who have no faith. 

            It always hits me in the middle of the service.  Every funeral has tears, but at the funerals of those who have no faith, there are so many more tears and sobs.  There is always grief – always.  But at funerals for those who have no faith, the grief is terrifying.

            I’m often reminded at those funerals of what Paul said in his New Testament Letter to the Thessalonians – “Do let us grief, as those have no hope.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2012
All Rights Reserved