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My Father In the Valley of the Shadow

My Dad has a large tumor on his pancreas, strongly suggestive of cancer. This is, of course, a dreadful thing, terrible and deadly. We have been aware of a potential problem only for a very few days, and so the news is still fresh for us. We are hurting, of course, but I think following Dad’s lead in trusting in God’s good hand in this hard providence. I have been, as we all are in such times, alternately downcast and braced, sometimes (somehow) at the same time.

The details go from grim, to somewhat hopeful (he will have surgery to remove the tumor on April 1), once things looked really bad, but we have some reason to hope that the cancer has not spread yet. However you interpret the news, it has been a trying time. A time to weep, and mourn. But also, strangely, a time to be thankful and glad. Sincerely.

I can’t speak for everyone else (Mom, my brothers and sister and our families) in every detail, but I can tell you we all love and respect Dad immensely. He is universally loved, deeply appreciated, and highly-regarded. His children all bless him, and his friends are legion and located all around the world. If it were possible to see (I see it in part), the collage of faces of those he has loved, discipled, fed spiritually and otherwise, it would span the spectrum of color and language, nation, and age. Vietnamese, Afrikaans, Zulu,  Xhosa, Sotho, Ndebele, Shona, English, Scottish, Welsh, Puerto Rican, Americans of many stripes. Red and yellow, black and white…Many.

He has been wonderful to me, and hundreds more. So, the idea of losing him feels, well, catastrophic. At least in a sense. This means I have had those questions and complaints people so often bring to God in such times. They are real and heartbreaking and I am still making my way through them.

I wrote the following during one of those battles with despair, when God gave me joy.

I can focus on what may, sooner than I wanted, be taken from me. Or, I can focus on the great gift I have received. One is a pathway to depression and disconnection, the other to a –sad, yes, sober, yes, but true– contact with the deep reality of the world and my own story in it. God means a million things, but is not mean. He gives and takes away, but is neither pernicious nor capricious. My feelings at every moment cannot be a standard by which to judge the universe, still less the universe’s God. So through this valley of the shadow of death I’ll walk, grateful and probably too much afraid at many times. But not afraid of the result in Dad, or me, only the terrible dangers we’ll be written into on our way to becoming the characters God means us to be. Love suffers all sort of injury. I have and will suffer great sadness for love. But I will not, cannot, follow another way than the way of love. God is love. And I love my Dad. Whatever comes, these two realities of the world must reconcile in the end. Meanwhile, I must be honest with myself, with every emotion and every pain and walk through it with my Dad, under God. I would be a faithful son in every way, God help me. My Dad has certainly been faithful to me.

And I want to live there, frail as I am.

Don Smith is a lovely man. I have always wanted to be like my Father. He has been close and reachable, while somehow still high and heroic in my imagination. He is a very good man. He has received much from the Lord and served the Lord with his life’s work.

When we were kids, Dad would always leave us at school, or the ball field, or gym (wherever) with these words.

“Don’t forget whose boys you are.”

I have tried to always remember that. I have tried to remember that everything I do reflects upon, and carries on, the heritage I’ve been given. I am a son and a steward. This means so much to me. Especially when coupled with another of Dad’s oft-repeated admonitions: “Do a little better.” Dad has never been threatened by the specter of his children exceeding him, but rather delighted. His words call for building on to the foundation we’ve received, for going on –further up and further in.

This is something else I wrote in the middle of this, early on after receiving the news. I seem to process things through verse, as poor as it often is.

Confessions of a Worried Son

My Father, oh my Father.
Be well this day and never fail.
How can it be that you suffer and decline?

Young men jump and run, hardly able not to strut,
and you, in a decline?

Have they courted danger for duty in the Mekong Delta?
        Visited the afflicted in a Zulu township at midnight?
        Endured slanders from ignorant fools?
        Fathered five children?
        Grandfathered more than twenty?
        Been a father from God to hundreds more all over the world?

Why do young men strut, their glory and their shame?
        When you are declining like the late fall, graceful and ominous?

The young men are like gods and you, a withering farmer.
        Your fields are wide and beautiful.
        Your lands a lavish gift,
            to a hundred-thousand others.
        Blooming, bright, and happy,
        Food, plowed and planted,
            for a million souls, hungry and hopeless.
        Shade for countless playing children,
            laughing carelessly, happy and forgetful,
            of who planted these trees under God.
        Acres and acres into the horizon,
            farther even than you could ever see squinting.

But you decline, my Father, oh my Father.
        And I thrive.
        Am alive and go on and on like a sacred river.
            Undamned.
        And you, my source, clotted up and choked.

I am desperate for Moses and the 82nd Airborne,
        to part the seas and clear the danger.

For a moment the young men sicken me.
        I would trade them all for you, well and good.

I am bewildered by God.

The young men look at their strength,
        They notice how glorious they are.

But your eyes have been on God,
        your heart inclined to him and his people.
        Black and white and every blessed shade or hue, loved by you.
        Loved by God in you.

I am a grateful son.
        I try to torture myself with recollections of my own failures toward you.
        I try to find the ways I’ve hurt you, caused you pain.
But you have absolved me every day, so that nothing’s in my way.
        Given every grudge away.

All my life to the end of my days,
        You will haunt me with grace.
        There is no trace of guilt in me.
        I am free.

The sons are free.

I have inherited goodness, a level land.
        from your hand.

I love you, oh my Father.
        You are the best man.
        I know.

And lest this feel like the sentimental ramblings of a frightened man, blind to the defects of his family, let me assure you I am definitely afraid and definitely rambling and definitely aware of our defects. It’s not the time to enumerate them, but rest assured that I am, in my life, perhaps more prone to dwell on them than I should be. In any case, we are what we are, are who we are. Flawed and forgiven, becoming more than we were –in Christ. And the refrain through that song, for me, is gratitude. I know many notes are off, and I know I can’t even hear all the ones which are out of tune. No doubt many sound great to me because they are so familiar. But the echo of this song is a cause for joy for me, and thankfulness to the God who does miracles.

My Dad has lost both of his parents in the past 15 months. When my Grandfather died, I was heartbroken. It was such a deep wound. And he was in his nineties. When my Grandmother died it only added on to the pain. You have probably been there. I still cannot keep from weeping when I see my Papaw’s picture, surprised into tears by an image of him, alive and well, looking at me through a screen. One of my prayers during those days, especially when Papaw died, was “Not too soon for my own Father, please God. Not too soon.”

It’s strange how something you have been terrified of, one of the worst things you can imagine coming upon you, can result in gratitude. I don’t know how long I will have my Dad here. I hope for many happy years. I cannot be certain of that. I hate Death and I will hate that bastard every day for all my years, longing for Christ to finally finish off this forbidding, final enemy. I will hate Death especially whenever it takes my Father. But no matter how the future of the story goes, I will have a backstory to be grateful for. And a big part of that is having a Father whose life has not been a slander against the Father in heaven. Perhaps there is little more good in the world. Certainly, this is a good from which a thousand others bloom and flourish.

And more than a fine backstory, you would not believe what happens later in the tale.



The conspiracy of goodness that has been my life,
I recollect in silence.
For once my frustrated sighs are quieted,
In holy reverence.
Gardens grow on graves.

The true New World is my home and hope,
This shadow I have seen,
And loved and hated all my life will,
Only be a place I’ve been.
When beneath my vine, I fear not.

So the terror that now threatens me,
Is only another day, I find,
Another chapter in the tale,
A fine tapestry on the wall behind,
The inevitable, eternal feast.

Please pray for my Dad, and the rest of us. Especially on April 1 in the early morning.

And be happy for me. I have a wonderful Dad.

30 Comments

  1. Please know that since your Mom shared this with us your Dad and the whole family have been in our prayers. The Newcastle Bible Church are praying too and you will be especially in our prayers on April 1st. Be strong and know that our loving Lord has you all in the palm of His hand.

  2. Sam, I’m so sorry to hear the news about your Dad. All of you will be in my prayers esp on April 1st. May God hold you all tightly in the circle of His arms.

  3. We’re praying for you all, Sam, and comforted to know there are men like your dad on the earth, and his sons.

  4. I am a member of the hundred-thousand others. Your dad, in our quite limited interactions, has spoken much love and wisdom into my life. I will always treasure my week with your parents while in Puerto Rico, and a distinct memory of house/pet-sitting for them one time and him cutting a rose from the garden to put on my bedside table. A little sweet gesture that made a young believer’s soul (very hungry for her heavenly Father’s love) see it and experience it here on earth. I will be on my knees this week. Thanks for sharing your heart with us.

  5. Oh Sam, I know this feeling all too well and too recent. We learned yesterday that my mom’s outcome will be short as she meets the sweetness of heaven. I’ll be praying for you and your family as April 1st is coming and then results come. The waiting for the Coming is the hardest.
    Love to you guys.

  6. Sam,

    Thank you for sharing this. You do have much to be thankful for. Your dad truly is a great man and – through you – has blessed and challenged me, who he’s never seen. This story is mysterious and good. I’m sorry it also hurts. You continue in my prayers.

  7. Sam, thank you for this. I have not had the pleasure of knowing you, but I know your Dad, Mom and Will from Puerto Rico and I’ve only been able to see him once since 1999. I know you are a blessing to your Father as he has been a blessing to all of us. I’m sure he’s thankful that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I love your Dad and I don’t fear for him whether in life or in death. I will pray for him because, like you, I’m not ready to miss him yet. Just tell him to be warm and filled. He’ll get it.

  8. Dear dear Cousin Sam such beauty in your words….my dear dear first Cousin Hammy Don, your Dad, I am just learning of his state-of-health through your writing(s)….it is overwhelming right now, but what a legacy you have….what a blessing you have received to be born at such a time as this and to have experienced such love of a father and for a father, love of a grandfather and for a grandfather…you are from a family who has overcome cancer before…your aunts, what miracles they are…even your grandfather fought this horrible disease….your Dad will fight too and all must join in fighting by faith, knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus defeated disease, sickness, death and Hell…our eternal hope within causes you to write such honorable words, let your hope stay strong, claim our promises for healing in scriptures, and never give up on a miracle…even miracles in death…eternal life is secure, victory is secure, and weeping may endure for a night, but joy does come in the morning…HIS mercies fail not, they are new every morning, great is His faithfulness to us! Love to you Cousin…my heart aches with you all over the news, but I will pray and believe, Don will have a testimony of great inspiration through all of this and so will your family! God bless you for sharing your intimate thoughts with all…your “Pawpaw” my Uncle Clair and all our Smith family would be (are) shouting in Heaven over your tribute! May you be comforted and strengthened to meet all your Dad’s needs as he endures and battles this pancreas cancer…victory is assured! I will be joining with the family in prayer and appreciate any and all updates! God bless you, your brothers, sister, Barb, your Mom and of course Hammy Don, my cousin and your Dad!

  9. Sam I am praying for your dad and your family as you go through this time. Your dad has touched so many lives and you are blessed to have him as your father. Keep looking up.

  10. Dear dear Cousin Sam such beauty in your words….my dear dear first Cousin Hammy Don, your Dad, I am just learning of his state-of-health through your writing(s)….it is overwhelming right now, but what a legacy you have….what a blessing you have received to be born at such a time as this and to have experienced such love of a father and for a father, love of a grandfather and for a grandfather…you are from a family who has overcome cancer before…your aunts, what miracles they are…even your grandfather fought this horrible disease….your Dad will fight too and all must join in fighting by faith, knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus defeated disease, sickness, death and Hell…our eternal hope within causes you to write such honorable words, let your hope stay strong, claim our promises for healing in scriptures, and never give up on a miracle…even miracles in death…eternal life is secure, victory is secure, and weeping may endure for a night, but joy does come in the morning…HIS mercies fail not, they are new every morning, great is His faithfulness to us! Love to you Cousin…my heart aches with you all over the news, but I will pray and believe, Don will have a testimony of great inspiration through all of this and so will your family! God bless you for sharing your intimate thoughts with all…your “Pawpaw, ” my Uncle Clair and all our Smith family would be (are) shouting in Heaven over your tribute! May you be comforted and strengthened to meet all your Dad’s needs as he endures and battles this pancreas cancer…victory is assured! I wll be joining with the family in prayer and thank you for sharing and keeping us all updated…love to you and all of Hammy Don and Barbara’s family!

  11. Sam, wow. I’m grieving this news, but hopeful with you. This is beautifully written. (Really.) Wonderful dads are one of the best things ever. I am happy that you have one (and are one). You’re all in my prayers.

  12. My dear brother and friend, I am praying for your dad and your family. May you sense His presence and loving kindness in every fearful and uncertain moment. He will remain faithful whether you pound your fists on his chest or rest easy in his embrace. Standing by you with much love!

  13. Hammy Don,

    We had a shared a season in our youth. I remember it often. God had a plan for the two of us that, for me was an unexpected one. Though we have not seen each other often I have thought of that time frequently. You, my distant cousin, are a blessing in my life and will be prayed for often in the coming days. My faith is that God’s plan is still at work in you. God bless you my friend.

    Wayne Haynie

  14. You are in our prayers. Hope is a current thing, not just a far off reward. I pray your hope in God’s hand will be realized on April 1. Your words are a moving tribute to your living and faithful father, and to the faithful Father of us all. We all walk together on this path of life your closing verse so beautifully captured. Thank you for inviting us into your journey. May you and your family know the grace you have given us on your journey with your father.

  15. Beautifully written. I join you in your gratitude to a wonderful man and entire Smith family. I miss mommaw and poppaw too the way you described your feelings upon seeing his picture is equally shared. Love you.
    Elizabeth

  16. Beautifully written. I join you in your gratitude to a wonderful man and entire Smith family. I miss mommaw and poppaw too the way you described your feelings upon seeing his picture is equally shared. Love you.
    Elizabeth

  17. Have prayed, am praying, will continue to pray. It feels impossible for me to comprehend the legacy of grace bestowed upon your covenant generations. Oh, to be a link in that chain someday.

  18. God has gifted you to write meaningful words about your Dad. thank you for that. Don has always been a special person to me (along with your Mom, Barbara.) In my times of distress and need of comfort, they were always there to cheer me and to support me. When my husband, Walter, died, they were there. Don wrote and read at Walter’s funeral a very meaningful “poem” about my husband and his testimony to his students. I’ll always remember them. My family and I will be praying that God’s will be done in his life. To God be the glory! Norma Jean Staten (Tri-State Bible College).

  19. God has gifted you to write meaningful words about your Dad. thank you for that. Don has always been a special person to me (along with your Mom, Barbara.) In my times of distress and need of comfort, they were always there to cheer me and to support me. When my husband, Walter, died, they were there. Don wrote and read at Walter’s funeral a very meaningful “poem” about my husband and his testimony to his students. I’ll always remember them. My family and I will be praying that God’s will be done in his life. To God be the glory! Norma Jean Staten (Tri-State Bible College).

  20. Sam and All,

    Be assured that Judy and I will add our hearts to the symphony of prayer that is already ascending for your dad and your family.

  21. Sam,
    What can I say? Your father has been (and will always be) my greatest and most cherished friend, mentor, brother in Christ and brother in arms — when I was stumbling clumsily, he acted as my personal ‘John Alden’, greasing the skids to bring Pam and I together, and then officiated at our wedding. He has the rare ability to merge good humor with moral certitude; his Christian example is impeccable…
    Pam and I are praying furiously to a merciful God for a positive outcome on April 1st — surely He will hear our prayers and those of your dad’s innumerable ‘fan base’…
    I recall with great joy how I would knock on his front door at your folk’s home on the Grace Bible Church compound c. 1997/8, to ask your mom “if Don could come out to play”, so that we could work together on a church project — or just attempt to perfect our faltering horse shoe prowess…
    I sense that the Lord will lead him through this trial — he will surely survive to play another day!
    Love, hugs and fervent prayers for my old ‘pard’ — and fondest regards to you and all Smith family members during these anxious days to come…
    Alan and Pam

  22. Sam and Gina,
    I don’t have words. A lot of feelings, but no words. Phil. 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

    your gentleness is evident to all – your honesty about your feelings says a lot about your trust in the Lord and that He is near and that truly “the God of peace” is “with you”! We will be praying for you and the whole family during this trial!!

  23. Thank you all so much for the thoughtful, lovely words. I am so grateful for your sympathetic hearts and kind thoughts.

    I’m especially happy to hear those words of praise for Dad. He’s such a great man.

    Bless you all. We appreciate your prayers on Monday.

  24. Thank you so much for opening your heart and sharing what you’re going through as you deal with this painful moment.

    I am so glad that y’all continue to count God’s blessing of having had your dad be the man he’s been! It’s so easy to give up, but you continue to praise God!

    I was blessed to read this, and I thank you again!
    I will definitely be in prayer for y’all, especially on the 1st!

  25. I am so sorry about Don. My prayers are with you and your family. Our hope is in the Lord. We can still have hope through Him as well as know He is in control. The Lord is good. We have all been blessed by just knowing your Dad.

  26. Sam, I’m saddened by this news. Please know we’re praying for you all even now as you begin to walk with this mantle.

    I had to laugh as I think how good God is to so boldly remind you all of His power and love the very day before the surgery? Ha! May He continue to shine His light along the path and pour out His grace and peace on you all every step of the way. We love you. We’ll be walking with you in prayer and watching for updates. ~ deb & tom

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