Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale
Yet will I fear no ill,
For thou art with me and thy rod
And staff me comfort still.Psalm 23 v3
The phone just kept ringing.
Could she get there in time? O fiddle-de-dee. It stopped ringing just as she walked through the door. Her legs just couldn’t carry her fast enough these days.
And where was Arthur? It must have been nearly an hour ago that he took himself off to the corner shop for a bar of chocolate. It couldn’t take him that long to choose, could it? Well, perhaps he’d gone on to make that appointment at the doctors.
Oh no, there it was again -ring ring…ring ring. Incessant ringing! Lottie was beginning to wonder if she had tinnitus. She was in time this time. She flopped onto the chair next to the phone before she grabbed the receiver from its cradle. There was an unfamiliar voice at the end of the line. “Hello, is that Mrs Johnson?”
“Yes – who is that speaking please? “
“Hello Mrs Johnson this is Naya here from Camfield Housing Office. Mr Johnson is with us at the moment. “
“Arthur. Arthur is there with you? That’s odd. He went to the corner shop for some chocolate. We don’t pay you rent and our Council Tax is up to date. …And you don’t sell chocolate, do you? Why is he there?”
“No, of course not. But he’s come to us complaining that we haven’t paid his pension. We are not responsible for pensions. And he won’t go away!”
Shock waves rippled through Lottie from top to toe. She was trying so hard to hold back the tears. She wanted to tell herself that all this was a total shock. A terrible revelation. But it wasn’t. Not really. The sad thing was that she was not surprised.
Arthur had been behaving oddly on and off for some time now. Last year when they had been on holiday Arthur had lost his false teeth. The hotel had had to post them on. And Lottie felt so guilty because even she had not noticed. How could she keep an eye on him when it took her all her concentration to look after herself.
He’d had to give up the car recently. He’d not been able to drive for some time if she didn’t tell him which way to go. His inner GPS didn’t seem to work any more. She had to direct him everywhere he went.
The doctor had said it was depression and offered medication, but that didn’t seem to work too well.
And now this. Lottie’s sister had been living in a residential home for some time now. Edith did not even recognise her family. Every time Lottie visited she had to say who she was. It made no difference. She could remember who Lottie was. This wasn’t Edith. She seemed like an empty shell. So outgoing and kind she had been. But now?
The same thing was happening to dear Arthur. She wanted him to stay independent. Lottie wanted to look after him, not for him to decline alone as Edith had done. But when they went to church she was beginning to identify that look of pity on peoples faces as they sat next to you to say hello. Then they retreated because they didn’t know what to say or how to help. She didn’t want their pity. She had self respect which she was slowly losing. The Arthur she had fallen in love with was disappearing. That little “Arthur light” was dimming each day. He was gradually turning into an empty shell too.
Death was beginning to seem a welcome place……
“No worst, there is none” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem.
“Mrs Johnson, are you still there?”
“Oh yes dear, so sorry… I was thinking. Tell Arthur I’ve just got to put my coat on. Give me five minutes and I’ll be there. We’ll go home together and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.”
Every one of us goes through that dark vale at least once in our lives. Sometimes that dark valley in life seems worse than death. Alzheimers or dementia can be a cruel disease. But so can cancer and many other illnesses. Sometimes we are shrouded by the dark vale of depression, stress, family difficulties. We can all relate.
God does not leave us. David the psalmist talks about God the shepherd who guides his sheep. He rescues his flock when they flee to difficult places. If darkness falls and they cannot see, he taps his rod against the rocky path to indicate his whereabouts. If they hear his tap they can follow and return to safety, knowing they are travelling in the right direction.
Sheep and shepherds pop up in the gospel stories too. Shepherds come down from the mountains to present a lamb to the “Nativity Child” Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who searches high and low for his lost sheep. In fact he does not rest until his sheep is safely in his care. Jesus looks after his sheep. He is also depicted as the perfect lamb, a reminder of the sacrifices made by the Israelites of a perfect lamb sacrificed before their journey to freedom and the Promised Land.
After his resurrection we read of a time when the disciples were preparing breakfast on the beach after a heavy haul of fish.
“Peter, do you truly love me more than these?” asked Jesus
“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” said Peter.
“Feed my lambs.”
“Peter, do you truly love me?” asked Jesus.
“Yes Lord. You know that I love you,” said Peter.
“Take care of my sheep.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep”
And so Peter the impetuous, the one who first claimed that Jesus was more than a prophet, he was the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel was called to be a shepherd. Peter, the one who Jesus had called the Rock. Peter, the one who had failed his Lord and hidden in the shadows at the trial was called to do Gods work. Peter for all his strengths and all his weakness was called to follow.
We are imperfect. There are times when we fail. When we stray on the mountain. Times when our world seem shrouded in the darkness of worry and depression, of failing when we should not. Times when we need the night to lift, when we need to listen for the call.
We know that we are called to follow.
Who are we called to care for?
Where is he calling us to go?
Sometimes when life seems dark, when there seems to be no light to show the way. The mist has fallen around us, not a sound to be heard.
There is no hope, we say to ourselves, for where is God in this Godforsaken mountain terrain? There is only darkness and death.
We have lost touch with our Lord. We have lost touch with the Master. We have no strength save in him.
So we wait, afraid, praying t0 be filled with his determination, his fortitude, his power against the encroaching gloom. praying to be filled with your strength,
Praying for the strength to take that next tiny step, that next tiny step which will bring us closer to you.
Because in you O Lord we put our trust. In you O Lord we place our weakness, that we might gain the strength to keep on walking, to keep on climbing towards the source of our hope, our light our might our inspiration our Lord.