My friend and mentor Bill died a week ago. Bill went to sleep on Friday night and he never woke up. As near as anyone can figure, he was doing fine when he turned out the lights on April 24th. He had just sent an email to a bunch of friends in which he wondered out loud about life in pandemic. “We have lost things we value very deeply,” Bill wrote to his friends, “and we don’t know for sure that we will get them back.” And then he went to bed. And then, well, that was the end of his life.
Several folks have asked how Bill might have died, if COVID-19 was the culprit. And I guess it could have been and I guess I understand why people want to know – this plague is so much on our minds now. But I’m also not sure how much I care. No matter what the answer to that question may be, whether Bill died of COVID-19 or an aneurism or a heart attack or from some cause that will never be known, he remains equally dead. He is equally gone from my life and from the lives of so many other people who loved him.
What I do know is that, with Bill’s dying, my grief has a focus that it didn’t have before. Thanks to COVID-19 and its many economic and social side effects, a lot of us right now are experiencing grief or loss or even trauma. But this grief – at least for me, I don’t know about for you – often had an amorphous or diffuse flavour until now. Life was going okay, I guess, and yet I was regularly worn down and regularly sad and regularly anxious, as though I were personally carrying the weight of everything.
For the many of us who knew and loved Bill, there is now a specific reason for our sadness. Bill’s death is a rip off for him and for his family. He had retired just recently and he would have made such good use of the 20 or even 30 years that were properly due to him; he was only 66 when he died. And it is a rip off for me personally to have his laughter and kindness and wisdom gone from my life.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day on which we always hear from the Gospel of John and the day on which we always read the most famous of the Psalms, Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is the Psalm that, in the Jewish and the Christian tradition alike, is read or sung at more funerals than any other.
Psalm 23 is beautiful. It is also weird and it speaks with authority and it speaks with intimacy.
Psalm 23 is weird because it is written in the first person. And if the Lord is my shepherd, that means that I am a sheep, something that I am not 100% certain I want to be. If you have ever hung out on a farm, you will know that sheep are startlingly stupid. And yet, maybe that is exactly why the image works. We go through this life and stuff happens: the death of a friend, a job loss, a diagnosis, a pandemic, and we have little or no idea why. There is comfort in trusting that we are accompanied by and guided by one who understands what is going on and who knows the path.
Psalm 23 speaks with authority because the one who speaks knows about suffering and hardship and unfairness. They know that following the Lord does not mean that you are insulated from or excused from these things. The Psalm does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore nothing bad ever happens to me. It does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore the prosperity Gospel is real. It says: the Lord is my shepherd and yet here is the valley of death. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here are enemies. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here is randomness and unfairness and suffering. Psalm 23’s promise isn’t that these things don’t happen. It is that, when they do, God isn’t somewhere else.
Psalm 23 speaks with intimacy because, partway through, it switches from the third person to the second. It begins speaking of the Lord, of he. But come verse 4, this changes. Now it speaks of you or, in the beloved language of the King James Version, of thou. In spite of all the hardship – maybe, somehow, because of all of the hardship? – there is a transition from a God whom I have heard about (“the Lord,” “him”) to a God whom I know (“you” or “thou”). Over the course of this journey, this walk with God, the words that we hear in the funeral rite come true: I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.
We are in the midst of pandemic. With job loss and illness and death and wild uncertainty about what the future holds. And Bill is dead. And in the midst of all of that, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is your shepherd, the Lord is our shepherd.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.