Holey Heart

The Shadow Of Death

A few years ago I had a friend whose mother had lung cancer. This friend is a wonderfully faithful evangelical Christian woman, and she prayed constantly and with deep, abiding hope for her mother to be healed. She was healed, on the “other side.”

I know someone else whose father also had lung cancer. That family, too, is very much a family of deep religious faith and conviction, and though his cancer was advanced, it miraculously went into remission.

Why do some people get miracles, and others do not?

That is the question that popped into my head upon reading this Sunday’s scripture selections. Both Elijah and Jesus bring the only son of a widow back from the dead. Surely in Jesus’ time there were many widows whose sons had died, leaving them subjected to a life of poverty and powerlessness. Why just this one widow? If God really cared, wouldn’t He raise all the dead sons of all the widows?

I’m in no position to guess at why some and not others, and pursuing that question does little to bring me closer to my God or giving me personal peace. What is important about these two parallel stories is the simple fact that God has the power to raise the dead.

Several years ago I attended the funeral of yet another lung cancer victim. She was the mother of an acquaintance who was not at all religious, but nevertheless loved and grieved his loss. The minister, as ministers do on such occasions, quoted the 23rd Psalm: “Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” His sermon at the graveside focused on that one phrase, “the shadow of death.” He likened it to driving on a two-lane road toward an oncoming tractor trailor truck. As the two vehicles pass each other, they may be so close that the rush of air between them shakes the car. But it is only the shadow of the truck that hits the car. It is unharmed.

We are hit every day by the shadow of death. It may seem final and substantive at the side of a grave; it sure did at that sunny afternoon funeral. But if we are spiritual beings, death is an illusion.

It is a painful illusion. I miss both of my grandmothers. I miss the way they cooked kilbasa sausage, and the family trips to Pennsylvania to visit them. I miss the chats around kitchen tables. I miss all the human elements of those relationships. But I believe in the core of my being that they are not really gone. They have only been hit by the shadow of death, and they are no longer living in this shadow world of ours. They are now in the real world.

As I write this, my heart remembers my children’s other great grandmother, on their dad’s side. She had cancer too. She was hit by the shadow of death. She found healing on the other side. I think of her often when I’m tucking my youngest into bed. We say our “God Bless” prayers and very often say “God Bless Nanny Nell.” I want my children to know that while death separates us physically, it does not separate us spiritually. It is physical life that separates us, and life is good. It is good to feel sand between my toes or hear a moving symphony or cuddle my children in a thunderstorm or make love when it’s right. It is good to give love to both friends and strangers through selfless service. It is good to love people through their transition into fullness of life on the other side, and it is good to be kind and compassionate to those who grieve.

I know that those who have passed on are closer to me now than the air is to my skin, and I know that love is stronger than death.


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