Last Sunday my wife and I were in South Carolina on the way to church when we received the news that Ashley had died. We received that news with overwhelming shock and disbelief. “No, this couldn’t have happened. It’s not true. There’s been a mistake. It’s a cruel hoax.” Then I spoke with Z., Ashley’s wife, and my denials gave way to silence and tears. I was overcome with grief, disappointment, and anger that death had taken a husband, a father, a brother, another son, and my friend.
It would be dishonest of me if I didn’t tell you this but it is in moments like that that I question everything I think and believe about our Creator. “From where is my help to come?” (Psalm 121) are no longer the psalmist’s words. They are mine. And so is Thomas’ question, “How can we know the way” (John 14:1-6)? And I think you know exactly what I mean and how I feel. They are your questions too.
It is in moments like this that I have no answers, explanations, or understanding for myself or for you. And I will not pretend to have any today. I don’t. It is in moments like this that I face the fact that death is an everyday reality. I know that in my head but I have a hard time facing that in my life and in the lives of those I love. I don’t want to accept that reality. And neither do you. No one wants to. Today, however, will not let us escape that reality.
Today we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23). Today the familiarity, poetry, and beauty of the 23rd psalm have a different tone. The shadow is dark and the valley is long and deep. I will not mislead you by denying that reality or letting platitudes and sentimentalities echo off the valley’s walls. That doesn’t help anyone. The valley is real and the shadow is here. That does not mean, however, that you and I are without hope. Let me be clear about this. That does not mean we are without hope.
Yes, the shadow of death is our reality today. But there is another reality, a greater reality. What is the one thing necessary for a shadow to exist? Light. There can be no shadow without light. And the darker the shadow, the brighter the light. Even when we don’t see it the light accompanies us through the valley. It is already a present reality. It was there the day Ashley died and it is here today. The shadow is not the ultimate reality. It is, rather, proof that the light is also here.
That light does not undo what has happened or magically make everything better. And please don’t hear what I have just said as an answer or explanation. It is not. It’s a way forward. It’s our hope.
I don’t know when or where or how it will happen for you, but I promise you this, there will be moments when you catch glimpses of the light, and the day will come when the light pierces the shadow. I’ve experienced that in my own life. I’ve seen it happen in the lives of others. And I listened to Ashley’s stories about how it happened time and again in his life.
The light has been with us from the beginning. It’s trustworthy. It never fades. And the shadow cannot overcome or extinguish it. Until that day comes when the light pierces the shadow – and it will – our challenge, our hope, and our way forward is to put one foot in front of the other. That is easier said than done. Sometimes it takes all we have just to take the next step. That’s why we must stay close, walk together, and continually remind ourselves and one another that a shadow cannot exist apart from light.
Some call that light God or Jesus. Others might speak of it as the Divine, the Holy, the Mystery. Others understand it as the power of resurrection. Isaiah spoke of it as the Sprit of the Lord God bringing good news, binding up the brokenhearted, and comforting those who mourn (Isaiah 61:1-3). In the Revelation to John it is that one seated on the throne saying, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:2-7). It is all those things and more.
Ashley, I suspect, would describe it as what he called “the matrix.” Shortly after coming to St. Philip’s he started telling me about experiencing the matrix. “Oh Fr. Marsh,” he would say, “You’ve created a spiritual world. It’s a matrix in which God and everything and everyone are connected. Life is really real here. This is what I’ve been looking for.” He said that he had traveled the world, gone to churches, searched in exotic and far away places, prayed in monasteries, had some wild times, and hung out with Buddhists seeking this matrix. He said he never expected to find it here in Uvalde and in Utopia. He never thought his life would be as full and beautiful as it was. And then he would tell me about you Z., and you M., and you O., and you R., and you A., and you too T. You all are the threads woven throughout his matrix. Every one of you here today, whether you know it or not, is a part of that matrix.
And you won’t be surprised when I tell you this. The more Ashley spoke about the matrix, the faster he talked and the more excited he got until he just started bouncing, and his arms flapping about. He couldn’t physically contain the joy, life, and vitality of the matrix within him. “Oh Fr. Marsh,….” he would say again. Every time this happened I would try to slow him down as best as anyone could and remind him, “Ashley, I haven’t created anything. This is not my doing. You have simply awoken to what has always been here, what has aways been within you.” The matrix Ashley experienced is the light behind the shadow.
Call it the light or call it the matrix, it doesn’t matter. It is the greater reality of today. The proof of that is not in what I say but in the life Ashley lived. That greater reality is what illumined his life and made him so tender hearted. It’s what attracted you and me to him. Ashley was contagious. He infected us with his life, and helped us to see the light. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, he was “a bride married to amazement” and a “bridegroom taking the world into [his] arms” (“When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems, vol 1, p. 10).
That is our way through the valley of the shadow of death. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. The light is always shining behind the shadow, and the shadow will never overcome it.