“Death comes in threes.” This is the only explanation my wife could muster when our daughter asked us, “Why are so many people dying?” We had just found out that a dear friend of ours had been placed in hospice care and was expected to die within the week. This was on top of the tragic and unexpected deaths of two students in our community this past week, Levi Knop and Harrison Hooks. Three deaths in one week. Of course, as Christians, we don’t superstitiously believe that death always occurs in sets of three. But the reason we say this is because we try to make sense of tragedy. We look for reason behind the seemingly chaotic and random tragedies when they intersect our lives.
When we are confronted with death, we stand at the edge of an abyss whose bottom we cannot discern. We can be tempted to stare down at our own feet on the solid ground and pretend the abyss isn’t there. Or our discomfort may cause us to put a band aid on an amputation. We look for comfort in platitudes and reassurances: “They are in a better place,” “God wanted another angel,” “It was just their time.” Trying to cover over tragedy or withdrawing from tragedy are tempting options, even for Christians with a firm belief in the resurrection from the dead. After all, it is very uncomfortable to look tragedy and death square in the face. It is tempting to run and hide. The psalmist writes in Psalm 55,
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.”
When we feel like the psalmist, what should we do? What comfort can we find in the dark valley?
At every funeral I have ever attended or officiated, Psalm 23 is always read aloud. This is a longstanding tradition in the Church, across time and denominations. Psalm 23 points us to a very different type of comfort in the face of tragedy and death. Psalm 23:4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” When we must walk through the dark valley, we are assured that God is with us. God is with us in the tragedy. In every dark valley, He is there. He has gone before us. He walks beside us. He comes behind us. He is there. God did not spare Himself from tragedy. God knows the pain of losing a son. He knows the tragedy of a life cut short. He placed his very body at the climax of human tragedy, suffering death on a cross, just to be with us there. No matter what tragedies we face, God’s desire is to be with us in those tragedies. There is a lesson for us in this. Presence is more important than platitude. People are more important than peace of mind. It is uncomfortable to walk with people through the dark valley, but that is exactly where we will find God.
Far be it from us to fully understand the mysteries of God’s will and working in the midst of tragedy. But what we can say is this: He is there in every dark valley.