Found in the valley of death

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

 Rarely do we wish to speak of it. Always are we looking for ways to avoid it. Society apparently seeks to deny its existence. Death is truly the elephant residing on the dining room table.

Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, recently addressed the issue in a column printed in Time magazine. Its title was, “Lost in the Valley of Death.” Crouch stated: “This uncanny valley is one that we modern human beings have created for ourselves. Far from solving the problems we want medicine to solve — our vulnerability and mortality — it can actually heighten them, leaving us more vulnerable and no less mortal.

Life in this uncanny valley’s shadow is neither death nor life. It calls for mourning but also forbids it. It offers the slimmest of hopes ... but slowly squeezes hope out of life one mechanically induced breath at a time.”

In Crouch’s view, much is at stake in death’s shadowy valley. He writes of the dilemma faced by families when forced to choose between the usage of heroic measures and denial of them. Raymond Barfield, director of the pediatric palliative-care program at Duke University, believes “it is the people with a ‘strong faith’ who also want the most dramatic technological interventions.”

Additionally, medicine has come a long way, a very far distance, in procuring access to technologies that can keep molecules going indefinitely. In fact, he uses the phrase, “keep molecules going in the right direction.” Is life all about keeping the molecules going in the right direction? If so, what does that mean to people of faith?

People of faith want to go in the right direction. People of faith then find themselves wrenched with pain and filled with hope as they ponder whether or not to pull the proverbial plug. Even the words are harsh. Is life a plug to be pulled? Is death an emptying of life? There are so many questions and so few answers. However, I suggest we ponder the power of being found, not lost, in death. What might happen if we think about being found in death-dealing situations?

The thought is not pleasant, but it is matter for serious contemplation. How often do we find ourselves mired in problems that seem to deplete our energy, diminish our optimism — in short, drain us of life? It can happen when we can’t remember information we used to have readily available. It can happen when we discover that we really can’t multitask without losing track of what we are doing. It can happen when our bodies won’t move with their former ease and grace.

Do we pull the plug on our existence then or do we begin to find ways in which to recognize the learning process, the new life, offered by entering into those little deaths as preparation for “the big one?” These are times when we need to both recognize and mourn our losses without pulling any plugs on them. We need to give ourselves the gift of grieving without groaning. We need to be found in the valley of death, not lost in it.

The journey is an important one. It will lead us into a deeper understanding of life itself. It will afford us to enter, even tremulously, what Richard Rohr calls “the second half of life.” This is not a chronological event. It is not a one-time entry. It is the process, mentioned in Scripture, of growing in wisdom, age, and grace.

The journey begins when it begins. There is no age restriction, nor is there any finality. It continues until we are no more. Life enlarges in the process. Death is engaged and embraced with each challenge, each change, each conversion. The choice to live until we die, to die within each moment of deep living, is our way to “let go and let God.”

This is not frivolous living. This is not superficial dying. It is not a matter of holding tightly to either life or death. It is knowing we are not in control. Hopefully, the knowledge brings release and relief.

While accepting the possibility of miracles, Crouch reminds, “strong faith accepts our limits as mortal creatures, including the limits of medicine and the ultimate limit of death.” There are miracles. I have had personal experience of them. Many people can attest to them. However, Crouch also indicates, “Miracles are not the result of human or technological heroics. They come, if they come at all, when we are at the end of our heroics.”

His words are powerful. To say miracles come at the end of our heroics is to indicate we know the presence of miracles in the midst of our death experiences. Miracles are not magical events resulting from our persuasive prayers to God. Even for the faithful, miracles sometimes do not come at all. That is, unless we perceive the miracle existing in our choice to enter the dying and rising offered by Christ as good news.

There lies our faith. There lies our hope, our radical hope. Hope rooted in trust and trust grounded in the belief that God is in charge, always and in all ways. When we are lost in the valley of death, God finds us and brings us to new life.

When we relish the new life, our renewed vitality, we rediscover the wonder of death. The one cannot exist without the other. There can be no death unless there is life and there is no life without the knowledge of death.

This is more than philosophical navel-gazing. It is the profound mystery of love and life. It is the deep truth of the Gospel message. It is the reality hidden in the treasure trove of humanity. When we try to avoid it, deny it, escape it, we lose far more than we think we have gained.

Crouch says it well at the end of his article. “The real hope for all of us is not that there is a machine that will save us but that even at the very end there will be someone who loves us, closer than our own breath.”

There we have it. The lost ones are found in the Valley of Death. God says it. I believe it. The end.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.