October 11, 1982 – June 10, 2009
Here is the message I shared at Kody’s funeral.
When we were children, Kody, Shawn and I would spend our summers in Oklahoma visiting Nanny and Papa. We would take fishing trips with Papa and on one trip I caught a soft-shell turtle. Papa said, “Put it in the bucket and we’ll eat it for dinner.” Well, I was just a visitor to the south and never claimed to be a southerner and I was not about to eat that turtle. As soon as my Papa wasn’t looking I threw that turtle ninja style as far as I could into the river so I wouldn’t have to eat it for dinner. Most mornings we would wake up early with Nanny and go look for box turtles; not for eating, but for the county turtle race. One year we found a silver-dollar-sized snapping turtle. Boy was that turtle fast! We called her Shelly because she had an E on her shell. Come the day of the race we knew we would win. Now they usually put the turtles in the middle of a circle and the first one to leave the circle wins. This year though was different. They set up lanes and on “go” our turtle took off like lightning … in the wrong direction! Needless to say we didn’t win, but we loved that turtle just the same.
Oklahoma wasn’t all fishing and turtles though. Summer also meant tornados and lightning storms. As children we were terrified of storms. I can remember watching the sky grow dark and the wind calm down. These were sure signs that something dreadful was on its way. We would turn the television on and listen to the news report. As the winds grew stronger we would often go to the storm cellar. As a child I can remember being so scared, even though I had experienced tornados before, because with each storm and each tornado I did not know how things would turn out. Would Nanny’s house still be there when we got out? Would Papa be sucked away since he refused to go to the cellar? Would we live? Would the storm ever end? There was too much out of my control and I was scared, confused, and did not know what to do.
Life isn’t always fishing and turtles. Storms always come rolling in at some point. The writer of Psalm 23 understood this well. Psalm 23 is mostly fishing and turtles, but it also contains a storm, a dark shadow, which the psalmist calls the valley of the shadow of death.
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. (Psalm 23 NKJV)
Life is only fishing and turtles some of the time. At some point everyone walks through this darkest valley. Today, we are here because the shadow of death has come close to us through the death of my brother Kody. Today it is Kody’s shadow, but soon it will be our own. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that it is appointed for each person to die once. Of all the appointments we make and then cancel or miss, there is one appointment none of us will avoid, the appointment with death. James warns us that our lives are but a morning fog, here for a little while and then gone. It does us no good to ignore the reality of death. We must be honest and recognize that one day we will each walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
The valley can be scary because it is uncertain and unknown. Some translations call this valley the “darkest valley.” The dark scares us because we cannot see what it may be hiding. The valley threatens to take away all that we hold dear in life. It threatens to take away our hopes and aspirations. It threatens to take away our life.
The good news is not that we have to face this valley but that none of us have to face death alone. Notice in Psalm 23 that beginning with verse four the psalmist is no longer talking to us, but to the Shepherd. “For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The psalmist is telling us something that is crucial for us to understand, “Don’t face death alone.” We were not created to face death alone. The Shepherd knows the path through the valley. The Shepherd is equipped to lead his sheep. The Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Only the Good Shepherd can lead us through the valley because only he knows the way home, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
The reality of death is this, No one can live forever; all will die. No one can escape the power of the grave. Psalm 23 soberly reminds us that all must die. The good news is that we do not have to die alone. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” He also said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The promise of Jesus is this, “If I go away and prepare a place for you then I will return to take you there.” We all will die, but we do not have to face death alone. The good news is that all who follow Jesus, choosing him as their way, their truth and their life, will overcome death by resurrection.
The Shepherd is the only one who knows the way through this valley. When we are in the valley it is natural to ask three questions: why did this happen?; now what do I do?; and what is God doing about suffering in the world? We may never be able to answer the first question. What we can do is come to the Shepherd who is the one who can transform our ashes of mourning into crowns of beauty. The Shepherd is the only one who can raise my brother’s ashes from death unto life. The Shepherd is the one who comforts those who mourn. The Shepherd is the one who is able to bring good in the end. The Shepherd is the one who will restore creation and make it a place where there is no more suffering and no more death. The Shepherd is the one who promises life to those who follow him.
Life is not always fishing and turtles. Storms come rolling in. The good news is that we have a Shepherd who loves us and is willing and able to walk with us through these storms. Jesus stands ready and willing to give us life.