Last week my husband and I were in Connecticut where we gathered with his family to celebrate the life of the family matriarch, my husband’s mother, who died at 93 after a long and beautiful life. It was a lovely funeral and a family reunion. It is often an unexpected blessing that a death in the family brings everyone together again – relatives came from great distances to see one another, neighbors from long ago appeared and new members of the family were introduced. We all came to say good-bye to Mom, or Gramma, and to give thanks for her gifts to us. As families often do at funeral services, memories and tears were shared. One grandchild sang the lullaby she remembered hearing her grandmother sing when she was very young. My husband talked about the legacy of love that his mother and father had generated in four children, five grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. My contribution was designing the service with the pastor at the Presbyterian Church where the family had been members for many years. When I asked the family if they had any requests for scripture lessons to be read and hymns to sing, they chose the lessons that most family’s choose when a loved one has died. The Wisdom of Solomon ch. 3, Romans 8, John 5 and, of course, the 23rd Psalm.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” There are many reasons why this Psalm is so comforting at a funeral service. First, it is familiar to nearly everyone. Many of us had to memorize it before being Confirmed in the church, the Authorized Version (KJV)! It is also a very personal psalm, using the first person, “I”, and “my soul”, “my shepherd”, which helps us to address God directly, “thou anointest my head with oil”. The language of the psalm calls to mind our desire to be in a personal relationship with God, especially at times when we are alone and frightened by the loss of a loved one or when we want to share our confidence in God’s promises when we are near the end of our life. We pray and hope for God’s embrace in the next life. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” The psalm names death as a reality that will not separate us from God. But in the psalm, we are also confessing our fear of death and our hope that God will be with us always. As death approaches, we name the “shadow of death”, the darkness that falls over us, when we cannot see what lies ahead for us or for our loved one. The journey of dying may seem like a dark path on which we cannot find our footing and are uncertain of where we are going. But the psalm assures us that even in the darkness, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. God is with us in the transition from this life, guiding us through what is unknown to us, to a place where we will rest in God’s love forever. The words of the psalm brought tears to our eyes as our family said it together.
Having witnessed the passing of many loved ones and parishioners in my life and ministry, I have complete confidence that the 23rd psalm is an accurate description of the journey we will take from our earthly life into eternal life with God. I pray it with confidence in the promise it offers us. Teach your children this psalm, and learn it yourself. It is a prayer that will bring comfort and strength in all kinds of difficult situations, and one that you will want to say and hear when your earthly life comes to its completion.
You are absolutely right:
“It is often an unexpected blessing that a death in the family brings everyone together again – relatives came from great distances to see one another, neighbors from long ago appeared and new members of the family were introduced.”
In the presence of grief and trying times that I’ve experienced, I’ve been taught to find the “silver linings” that may come out of the situation–if we let them! I read your post at work this morning and couldn’t help the fact that tears welled up in my eyes as I was reading. This psalm was read at the funeral of my best friend, and holds a special place in my heart. Thank you.
Very special Carol. Thank you. I am sorry for your loss, but you are comforted in the richness of this psalm. Lois