The valley of the shadow of death

May 7, 2014

The two neighbour boys are 8 and 5 and it looks like their father is about to die.

It’s this morning. My kids and I walk to school with them and the boys’ mother.

The 8-year-old is in Hannah’s class.

What can you say?


It’s yesterday evening and we, Mother and I, that is Jean and I – the children are fond of calling their mother “Mother” these days – are at the hospital to see him, the patient, this father, who is about to cross the bridge into …

We stand at his bedside. He lays motionless, eyes closed, tube in his mouth, this father. His name is Gary.

He is a large man with a large personality. I say something light. He has the biggest room in the hospital. “Gary, how did you manage that?”

Jean chokes up.

“The Lord is my light and salvation,” she then whispers. “Whom shall I fear?” She wipes her tears. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? …”


Gary’s blood is full of cancer. So much that it can’t clot anymore, and a little bit of blood even runs, like tears, from his eyes. I wipe them while he lays weak and motionless and listens.

And he does listen. We know this. Every once in a while, his swollen eyes open and he looks out as if saying, ‘thank you.’

I speak now because Jean can’t get beyond a whisper.

“And even 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 …”


Gary, while sick for some time, was up and about as usual in our little condo neighbourhood just a week ago. We arrived from overseas into our Hamilton home just before he fell into this all.

When his wife is not at his bedside, she’s with the two boys. They haven’t yet seen their father in this condition.

With great effort, Gary moves a little every so often as signs he can hear.

Jean and I continue.

A young nurse comes in and we talk about the hospital and his work – he does it with a calm disposition – and then the young man leaves and we continue to talk with Gary because this much we know, that he can hear us.


“How is Gary?” Liz, our eldest, asked when we got home.

“Not good,” I said.


It was Sunday – the kids’ first full day in our Hamilton home – when Jean and I were at a funeral. He was the father of a close friend, gone at 89, but already gone for years before with dementia. He was a long-time minister.

So, to close it off, after the tears and joy and before the sandwiches in the lobby,  his family invoked his voice, a recording of a benediction from one of his own services that he’d have given Sunday after Sunday for so many years.

“That’s the first time I’ve been at a funeral where the voice of the dead ended the service,” I said to the couple in front of us. “No,” I then said. “The voice of the living.”


There are many things we don’t know about the afterlife, which is why it’s so disturbing, this crossing of that bridge to Who Knows Where. There are clues, though, in those ancient words spoken to Gary. And there are good reasons to look for these clues.

Pascal said as much with his well-known wager.

That is, if you live your life like God exists but you are wrong, well, then you’ve lived a life of disillusionment and maybe foregone certain pleasures – rather than putting a Beamer in the driveway, you’ve maybe trotted off to Africa or some other God-forsaken place (which, I’ve discovered, isn’t so bad).

But – Pascal said – if you’re right, if God is real and the sort of Scriptures given at hospital bedsides point to this ultimate reality, then the payback is the sort of thing that goes far beyond anything anyone could ever imagine.

On the other hand, you may choose – this is the blessing and burden of having free choice – to see yourself as the only king worthy to sit on the throne of your life. It is your life, after all.

So, Pascal says, if you are right, if there is no worthwhile God to consider, then what you’ve gained is a season of time, a few decades, a short blip on the merry-go-round of this world, to be followed by a sort of great nothing.

But if you are wrong – oh, if you’re wrong and there is a God and a bridge into Somewhere, that is His Somewhere – then you have lost a life that is not only beyond your imagination, but an eternity that is infinitely good.

The thing is, you have to decide on one or the other. By the mere fact of your existence, you — and I — have been put in this position.  And it’s a wager – Pascal was a mathematician, after all – that needs some level-headed reasoning as much as any pie-in-the-sky faith.

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May 7, 2014 • Posted in
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4 thoughts on “The valley of the shadow of death”

  1. I’ll wager that my life with God has been infinitely more meaningful, adventuresome, rich and full than it ever would have been without Him. In my humble opinion, I have already ‘won’ that wager. Further still, I’ll wager that there is more to come after I’m gone.

    That is not to discount the pain and suffering your friend is going through. His children are going to struggle with the notion of a good Heavenly Father when they see what their earthly father had to suffer. Cancer is a fitting metaphor for what sin does in a life. But no one is looking for metaphorical meaning when someone they love is suffering.

    May God give you the words to say.

  2. Thanks Steve — some good thoughts. At the moment, a few days later, Gary is well-enough that his two boys have seen him and even talked with him. I appreciate your note on adventure, that you’d wager there’s “more to come.” I’ll wager you’re right. That’s the thing about a place like heaven. Everyone wants to go. Just not today.

  3. Thomas – this post really touched me. I am the mother of three young boys and can’t imagine what this family is going through. My thoughts are with them.

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