If you are Dying or a Loved One is Dying....
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23 (RSV)
There is a custom among shepherds in the Alps. In the summertime when the grass in the lower valleys withers and dries up, the shepherds seek to lead their sheep up a winding, thorny, and stony pathway to the high grazing lands. The sheep, reluctant to take the difficult pathway infested with dangers and hardships, turn back and will not follow. The shepherds make repeated attempts, but the timid sheep will not follow. Finally, a shepherd reaches into the flock and takes a little lamb and places it under his arm, then reaches in again and takes another lamb, placing it under the other arm. Then he starts up the dangerous pathway. Soon the mother sheep follow and afterward the entire flock. At last they ascend the tortuous trail to green pastures.
As I read that story, I had to think to myself that our Lord, The Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, has reached into the flock and He has picked up some lambs that you know. Some from his flock. He has taken them to a higher pasture in heaven. He did not do it to rob you, but to lead you out and upward. He has richer and greener pastures for you, and He wants you to follow. Maybe you will be following to those high pastures soon. Maybe someone who you love is dying.
The scripture above is from Psalm 23. Psalm 23 talks about God as our shepherd, and how this Great Shepherd takes care of the flock, of those of the faith, of those who follow him. We are told in scripture that sheep follow the shepherd. If you are truly a sheep in God's fold, you have followed the Great Shepherd for some time. I hope you've come to know the voice of the Great Shepherd when he calls.
Psalm 23 is read at many funerals. It is a chapter in the Bible that brings such comfort and assurance to people. The reason why is obvious. It begins by talking about God not as a powerful, lightning-enabled master and commander, but as a Gentle Shepherd who watches over those in HIS flock. Psalm 23 begins with "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." This verse really means, "with God as my shepherd, I shall not be in want for anything I need. God will take care of me. "He makes me lie down in Green pastures, he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul." These verses tell us that God will lead us to good things in life. God will make sure we get enough. God will satisfy those who follow HIM as the Great Shepherd.
These are all beautiful words, but, the reason that Psalm 23 is read at so many funerals is due to the verses that come next…. "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, (or the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me." These verses are so very heart-warming. They tell us how God will be with us when we walk through dangerous valleys, when death is near, when danger is at our doorstep. God does not fly away when we are in greatest peril. God comes closer. God is near. Friends and family cannot usually walk with us in that valley, but we are not alone. When we love God, God is with us in that lonely walk.
Recently, a mother, wrote these words…. "Not long after my six-month-old daughter Hope died, I was at a cosmetics counter buying some mascara. "Will this mascara run down my face when I cry?" I asked.
The girl behind the counter assured me it wouldn't and asked with a laugh in her voice, "Are you going to be crying?"
"Yes," I answered. "I am."
We had Hope for 199 days. We loved her. We enjoyed her richly and shared her with everyone we could. We held her during her seizures. Then we let her go. The day after we buried Hope, my husband said to me, 'You know, I think we expected our faith to make this hurt less, but it doesn't.' Our faith gave us an incredible amount of strength and encouragement while we had Hope, and we are comforted by the knowledge that she is in heaven. Our faith keeps us from being swallowed by despair. But I don't think it makes our loss hurt any less. I've been blessed with many people who have been willing to share my sorrow, to just be sad with me. Others, however, seem to want to rush me through my sadness. They want to fix me. Ours is not a culture that is comfortable with sadness. It comes out in tears, and we don't quite know what to do with those tears. Many people are afraid to bring up my loss, my Hope. They don't want to upset me. But my tears are the only way I have to release the deep sorrow I feel."
The fantastic thing about our God is that HE is willing to share our grief, to be with us during terrible moments, and even to walk with us when death comes. God is not some being far away in a Heaven so distant we can't even see it. God is in the room when this mother cries for her little girl. God is in the hospital room of the mother who is having life and death surgery. God is close-by, so watch for signs HE is near.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil… thou art with me." Those words are so profound, so comforting. Having God with us; it's an amazing thing. Having God with us, holding our hand as we pass from this life unto the next, shows God's love for us, and the power of his presence.
In my years of ministry, I’ve heard of many who felt God’s presence in their final days. I remember one woman who had cancer. She was always quiet, and never spoke much to anyone. I went to visit her. As we talked, she looked pale. She began to share with her son and me about her seeing things. She felt Jesus was waiting for her. She told me, “I’d swear on a stack of Bibles that Jesus came and talked with me and said my time was short. I believe with my whole heart He was here!” It was only a few days later that Jesus came and took her home to heaven. A man in my second congregation was shook up because he saw Jesus reaching out for him in a dream. The man was dying of cancer and was pretty sure he was going to heaven, but when he saw Jesus coming for him in a vision, it frightened him terribly. He was afraid to tell anybody, in case they thought he was crazy. He told me, instead. Not long after, his daughter found him in bed. He had died peacefully. What was unusual? His arm was reaching out from the bed as if he was taking Jesus’ hand. His daughter told me that her father had great peace knowing God was with him.
When I was a chaplain in a nursing home, I saw people who were not faithful, who never went to church, and who didn't care about prayer. I saw the looks on their family as they died. The family knew there was no hope to be with them again. The family knew that heaven would never happen to this person. I remember in one instance, a daughter said to me, "Well that's that. She's dead. I'll never see her again." But, it doesn't have to be that way. All it takes is a person who wants to see God, is willing to repent, and is willing to have and share faith in that difficult time.
We believe in a God who is with us on earth as in heaven. Because of Jesus, we know God has power over death, because Jesus lives. The scripture tells us "do not be afraid of death" and "death has no sting" (I Corinthians 15). Why? God is with us. Yea though you walk through that valley of the shadow of death, HE is with you. HE will comfort you.
When death comes to call, remember Psalm 23. Remember that God will be with you. Be at peace. Look for God's presence, for Jesus to come get you, for God to take you home. That's how God works. That's the promise of this psalm. That's the hope we have. In Jesus.