Are We Walking Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death?”
By Jim LaBate
Today is the fourth day of our spring break, and we were supposed to be in Philadelphia. My wife and I had planned to visit my sister and her husband, and we had tickets to see a play. The play has been canceled, though, because of the virus, so we decided not to travel, to instead lay low and ride out the storm, so to speak.
We didn’t go to church on Sunday either because the medical experts have advised us to avoid crowds and, thus, avoid contracting the virus or, if we are unknowingly carrying the virus, spreading it to others. As a result, I stay at home, and I think about similar events that have frightened me in the past. Numerous examples come to mind.
As an 11-year-old boy, I vaguely remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. At that age, I didn’t know details, of course, but the adults at school kept talking about a “possible nuclear war” and “the end of the world.” Yes, I was definitely afraid. Fortunately, those same adults, the nuns and priests at St. Mary’s Institute, prayed for a peaceful resolution and safety for us all. Fortunately, too, after 13 days, the crisis was averted.
Three years later in November of 1965, I clearly remember the Great Blackout that affected the Northeastern United States and parts of Canada. I was on the junior varsity basketball team, and we were practicing at the Armory on the South Side when the lights flickered for a bit and then went out. At first, I was positively excited because Coach sent us home early, but I became scared as soon as I walked outside the Armory and saw from its elevated entrance that the entire city of Amsterdam was dark. I became even more scared when my friend’s father gave me a ride home, and our house was not only dark but empty. “Where is everyone?” I wondered. Today, honestly, I don’t recall where they were, but I do know that, like the nuns and priests had prayed previously, I, too, prayed for safety as I searched for matches and a candle in our darkened kitchen. Soon enough, my parents and my five sisters did return, and, before long, the power was restored. Another crisis averted.
Looking back at that era, the entire decade of the 1960s was frightening: riots occurred on college campuses, the Vietnam War entered our living rooms every night, and three of our young leaders were assassinated: President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy. As I went off to college in the fall of 1969, though, I was uplifted by Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and by the good Friars of Siena College who, through their theology and philosophy classes, reminded me that Jesus is, indeed, on the throne, and just as He did for his followers on the Sea of Galilee, He will calm the storm (Mark 4: 35-41).
During the decades after college, as a Peace Corps Volunteer and during my early years as a teacher, I think I was fearless. I was young and healthy, and I felt like I’d live forever, no matter what happened. I didn’t really worry about major events again until 1990 when the Persian Gulf War began. By then, I had a wife and two young daughters, and the colorful bombings on the nightly news reminded me of those earlier images from Vietnam, war images that frightened me once again. And once again, I prayed, but I tried to shelter our girls from my fear that the war would escalate or come to our shores, yet they learned about that fear firsthand roughly a decade later on September 11, 2001. By then, they were both teenagers and acutely aware of what had happened, so we prayed as a family. And today, as a worldwide family, I hope we can all pray for deliverance again, deliverance from this unique situation that has us all sailing in uncharted waters.
Personally, I find myself returning to the Good Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, especially verse four: “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.”
This particular virus situation is unique because it doesn’t involve nuclear weapons, it doesn’t involve a power shortage or assassinations, and it doesn’t even involve an enemy that we can see. To avoid this enemy, we are told to avoid large, public gatherings and to avoid close personal contact with one another. We are encouraged to say “safe” at home where isolation can possibly protect us from physical danger, but that isolation may also bring about the spiritual and emotional dangers of loneliness and fear. Thus, as we walk through this most recent valley, I seek a close, intimate embrace with the Good Shepherd, who is our Creator and our Provider, because His “goodness and love follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).
Since January of 2000, Jim LaBate has worked as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. Jim lives in Clifton Park, New York, with his wife, Barbara. They have two grown daughters: Maria and Katrina.
(Photo by Anthony Salamone)