Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. — Psalm 23
It is a path everyone must walk, the valley David refers to as “the shadow of death.”
But David’s next line overflows with confidence in the face of suffering: I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
David reminds us that with the Lord as our Shepherd, we need not ever walk alone.
I read this at every graveside service over which I preside. The 23rd Psalm is not only a word for the graveyard, but it is certainly one of our better ones for such an occasion. There is comfort in knowing that God is not some ivory tower deity, far removed from our suffering. Rather, he promises to be with us, to journey alongside as we traverse our most difficult and trying seasons. He stands vigilant, shepherding us with his instruments of comfort. We never truly walk alone.
In his Gospel, Matthew points out that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel, the fulfillment of the “God with us” promise of Isaiah 7. The Word becomes flesh not only to redeem us from our sin but to join us in our pain. To be with us in our pain. Those who join us in our pain join us truly. John’s Gospel says it even more succinctly: “Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but you won’t find many that run deeper. Jesus is God with us, tears streaming down his cheeks to match the blood that would run down that cross.
This is important to remember, because there are times when we might be tempted to think that God has abandoned us in our grief. But nothing could be further from the truth. In our grief, God is near. Psalm 34:18, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.
One of the ways God’s presence is mediated to us is through the presence of other believers. I’ve long felt that Romans 12:15 is one of the best descriptions of the church rhythm and life: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” This is church, is it not? We are the ones who convene regularly around the twin polarities of joy and grief, jubilation and sorrow. Last week, I communed with an elderly lady who decided to give her life to the Lord and a young couple who have been told their yet unborn child has a 0% chance of surviving outside the womb. The church wept with those who were weeping and rejoiced with those who we rejoicing.
I don’t remember much about my mother’s visitation or funeral, just bits and pieces. I remember getting my hair cut short the day before — I had let my hair grow long in the back in those days; it looked awful. Someone suggested that my mother would have liked it if my hair were shorter, so I agreed. I also remember thinking that her funeral was the most racially diverse assembly in the history of our church’s sanctuary. My mother taught in what amounted to my hometown’s “inner city” public school system for over 20 years. I remember seeing the black and brown faces of so many of her former students packed into our church’s auditorium and I remember thinking, “Why isn’t it like this on Sundays?”
And I remember Tom.
Tom was my friend’s father, a man who let me stay at his house for weeks at a time during the summer, a man who would take me fishing with his son, a man who I’d known for years. At the visitation, with the line stretching the length of the room to the back door, I saw Tom walk in and scan the room. When he spotted me at the front, he bypassed the hundred or so people who had been waiting — daring them to stop him — and headed straight for me. Unsurprisingly, no one said a word to him.
Tom came right up to me, didn’t say a word, just grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed, his eyes narrowing with focused concentration. And I knew what he was communicating with that squeeze. Be strong, boy. Stand, and be strong. And then he embraced me. This big, burly man put his arms around me and hugged me harder than anyone has ever hugged me, lifting me off my feet. And with a lump developing in my throat, I knew once again the language that needs no words: I’m here for you. I’m right here, boy, standing with you. Standing for you. Tom put me back down, pushed my shoulders back, putting his hand to the back of my neck. And I saw a tear in his eye as he stood there shaking his head. This ain’t right, what you’re going through. But you keep standing, you hear me? You just keep standing. And with that, Tom turned and walked out the door.
I heard a lot of sincere, heartfelt words that day — words of condolence and comfort from many well-meaning people: family members, friends, members of our church. But I don’t remember a single one. I wish I did, but I don’t.
But twenty-four years later, I remember Tom.
I remember his presence in my pain.
I remember his embrace, his quivering lip, his willing to weep with me while I wept.
And when I am tempted to let grief become despair, I remember that I never truly walk alone.