This coming Sunday, the appointed psalm is Psalm 23. As I have been praying on the texts, that phrase, “the valley of the shadow of death,” has been haunting me. In some ways, it feels like our country has been in the valley of the shadow of death for quite some time. After Hurricane Sandy and Newtown last year, multiple deaths by gun violence since Newtown – including two accidental deaths caused by four-year-olds with guns, and now the tragedy in Boston, it feels like we are in a valley of death that we cannot escape. In fact, on Monday, I almost found that I could no longer watch the coverage about Boston because I could not handle the emotional overload that has been these six months. The images were just too much to bear.
What is interesting about the texts for this Sunday is that not only do we read the 23rd Psalm, but also we read a text from Revelation 7. Both of these are regularly read at funerals. As I sit with these texts this week, all I can think about is death – which is especially frustrating in the midst of Eastertide – a season supposed to be about life. So what do we make of a Sunday about death, and what feels like a world overshadowed by death, in the midst of Easter? I suppose in many ways, this is the same paradox we have at every funeral. At every funeral, a time when we mark someone’s death, the church encourages us to look toward life. In fact, we decorate the church in white for funerals because burials are Easter celebrations.
Recalling the many times I have redirected mourning families toward life, I took my own advice today and starting looking for signs of life in the midst of this valley of death. I was amazed at how much I could recall. Here in New York, the trees are just now starting to bloom, and pops of color continue to surprise and delight me. Our Vestry just had a retreat this weekend to talk about Evangelism. The day brought up all sorts of fresh ideas and a commitment to growth. The hopefulness of our Vestry is nothing like the weight of the valley of the shadow of death. Even the empty garden bed which will be filled with soil this weekend is a sign of life here at St. Margaret’s. As our parish children stood in the bed on Sunday, which will only be empty for a few more days, I smiled to think about the convergence of life both in our children and in our produce for the poor. And even in Boston, there were immediate signs of life – people rushing to help victims, even to their own personal endangerment, strangers holding hands, people carrying victims, and strangers using their own clothes to stop bleeding and death.
I do not know if I can completely erase those words, “the valley of the shadow of death,” and all that it connotes for me this week, but my hope is that I can at least linger equally on the next words, “Thou art with me.” Perhaps the answer is not that life erases death, but that God is with us in both. And knowing that God is with us in death and in life helps me better to be an Easter person this week.