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Lectionary Living

Valley of Death

(4/25): Acts 4:5-12  •  Psalm 23  •  1 John 3:16-24  •  John 10:11-18

    The fourth Sunday after Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is always about sheep. A friend and I had a good chuckle one Sunday after church, thinking of how many sermons we'd heard – and how much we knew! – about sheep. This morning, though, I'm going to turn to another aspect of the fourth Sunday of Easter that is always the same: the appointed psalm 23.  

    Verse four of the psalm was translated in the King James Bible as "Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." More modern translations describe "the valley of the deepest darkness." Whichever one chooses, the reader is identifying with the fear of the psalmist. Wherever he is, it's a scary valley.

    This past week, I had the chance to tour a WW2 battleship. A family member had served on a similar ship during the war. Grampa, as we all called him, who had found a way out of a lifetime in the coal mines of the southern Appalachian Mountains by volunteering for duty, instead found himself pushing fossil fuels into the ship's boiler.

    When we began the tour, I asked the guide where we might find the engine room. He showed me the path to the very bottom of the ship. Walking down the steps – just like the movies, turn around, duck your head, hold onto the side rails – things got tighter and tighter. On the upper levels, people actually slept in rooms. On the bottom, bunks were in the halls, three to a tier, folding up against the walls during the day. The (simulated) loud noise added to the sense of smallness.

    As the psalmist was describing, this must have been one scary valley. I remember asking Grampa once, what it was like during a battle, and how folks managed or not, during one. He just shook his head and said I couldn't imagine. Now, I wish I'd asked a different question. I wish I'd asked what it was like during the many long days when they weren't in battle. It seems like that might have been even harder. How often did they get to go up on deck for a breath of fresh air? What was it like to know what might happen? When his shipmates were buried at sea, what was that like for him? How did he get through it?

    Many (if not all) family members have led interesting lives. Getting them to talk about it, though, can be challenging. I look back on this conversation, or my effort to have one, with some regret. By going for the exciting battle moment, I missed the everydayness: the ordinary, dreadfully ordinary bleakness he must have endured, and probably could have talked about all day! Beginning with more factual questions might have helped.

    Family conversations seldom turn to how a person faces the challenge of her own mortality – to death itself. Even during covid, the topic has been avoided whenever possible. How does one join the psalmist in talking about death? In facing the reality of death without fear? Here, we must join the sheep. Embracing our creatureliness here on earth provides a peculiar comfort. Knowing where one has agency comes with seeing where one does not.

    A person does have considerable agency in learning about their family. The morning I spent seeing the battleship has helped me to see much more about Grampa's life than I had understood until now. His own resilience is clearer to me; his capacity to do what had to be done is plain to see. Not only that, I now have a better appreciation for how this family trait, this ability to step up to the challenge, has been passed down the generations.


Morning: What do I want to know about my family? Where can I get started today?

Evening: How do I think about my own dying?

Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.

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