The words of the Psalmist are printed indelibly upon the hearts of most of us, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for (the Lord) is with me." We inevitably walk toward the valley, sometimes accompanying another as far as we can go, and then eventually moving toward that space ourselves.
Funerals or memorial services afford opportunity to remember the deceased with dignity and gratitude provided they are not led by an egomaniac who has a perverse need to give an altar call. A good number of us remained close to the valley recently as we grieved the loss and celebrated the life of Kathy Holland. Kathy moved into the valley on August 22 and our time since then has been one of remembrance. We remember when she and her husband Matt and daughters Sophie and Emma came into our faith community six years ago. The church has not been the same since and that has been for the good. Her remarkable sense of humor, leadership skills, interest in and love for young people, desire for deeper understandings of her faith, and the ability to perform the ministry of encouragement as well as anyone could endeared her to a whole broad section of folk. Her memory carries us still and all that we experienced with her become gifts to us from the valley.
And then comes word last evening that my ailing dad in Fort Worth is being transferred soon from a hospital to a long-term medical care unit. He has lung cancer, a heart that plays tricks on him, fluid collecting on his brain that shortens his memory and an all-around weakening condition. And then those words from my brother who, when he asked the doctor "how long" quoted the answer back to me, "maybe six months." I lost my mother thirteen years ago and my dad lost his wife and best friend. As son Donny has said, "He could never live long enough to get over the grief of losing her." As best medical prognostication can be, the valley is approaching.
I have known this day would come, but it is that time for which one never gets ready. But it has caused me to reflect on numerous occasions of the gifts received from my dad. Although there were many, the one that sits most closely beside me is that I learned about grace from him. He never explained it in theological terms. But he communicated to me verbally and many other ways that he loved me and that nothing in this world could ever possibly tear me away from that love and acceptance. In that grace, he was indeed my cheerleader. And that matchless truth will accompany me, even from the valley.
It is my understanding that the Shinto religion does not have a developed concept of an after-life. Instead, they believe that when a person dies, who they were (essence or emotion) enters their loved ones. When the first person dies, the love they had for another person becomes a part of the second person. What greater gift could we receive from someone we treasure than to know that they enter our lives as they proceed into the valley.