Tag Archives: Valley

The Other Side of the Valley

The Other Side of the Valley (CaD Gen 21) Wayfarer

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Genesis 21:6-7 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have walked through a number of dark valleys. The thing about being an Enneagram Type Four is that Fours feel the darkness more acutely. We feel the despair more deeply. We tend to savor the melancholy the way an oenophile savors a complex Bordeaux.

When Fours walk through a dark valley we don’t rush to the next mountaintop. We tend to experience the dark valley in its fullness. This can be good because we can take the time to glean everything that the journey through the valley has to teach us, and every dark valley in life has a lot to teach us about crucial spiritual fruits such as perseverance, faith, perspective, maturity, wisdom, and joy. It can also be a bad thing, however, if we fail to progress through the valley; If instead of savoring the melancholy we become intoxicated by it.

In today’s chapter, Sarah finally emerges from a decades long journey in the valley of infertility. The promise is finally realized. She becomes pregnant in old age. She bears a son, and they name him Isaac, which we learned a few chapters ago means “He laughs.” God gave Abraham and Sarah this name after they both laughed in sarcastic doubt that God’s promise would ever be fulfilled. Sarah’s laughter has now been transformed from cynicism to joy as she holds her own son.

I’ve regularly written about Wendy’s and my journey through the valley of infertility because one tends to remember most clearly the valleys on life’s road that were the most difficult to navigate and had the most to teach you. I couldn’t help but read about Isaac’s birth this morning with a mixture of both joy and sadness. I also couldn’t help but to realize that Wendy and I journeyed through that valley for a handful of years while Sarah’s trek was literally for a handful of decades. The woman deserves a jackpot of joyful laughter.

In the quiet this morning, I found myself recalling moments during our slog through that valley. There were moments (in all my Fourness) that I pessimistically wondered if I would ever hear Wendy laugh with joy again. Of course, I did. I do. I hear it regularly. Unlike Abe and Sarah, we emerged from that valley with a different kind of joy than Sarah’s laughter, but it is pure joy that springs from God’s goodness and purposes for us. It is the joy of embracing the story God is telling in and through us.

The valley of infertility is now a ways behind us on life’s road. While Sarah’s story raises pangs of memory this morning, it also brings the realization of how far we’ve come. There are a number of dark valleys on this road of life. Despite my Fourness, I have emerged on the other side of each of them with greater knowledge, experience, and wisdom with which to experience the thrill of each mountaintop vista and face each dark valley that lies before me. With each step, I find the muscle of faith strengthened to press on to the journey’s end when…

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away,” and He who is seated on the throne will say, “I am making everything new!”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Of Rubble and Restoration

Of Rubble and Restoration (CaD Ps 126) Wayfarer

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.

Psalm 126:5 (NIV)

I had a great conversation recently with a gentleman who shared with me some of his life story. It read like a roller coaster of ups and downs in business from the luxuries of being at the helm of successful corporate ventures to the bitter pill of his own companies that failed terribly and lost him everything. As he reaches the twilight of his vocational journey, I observed a deep joy within him for all that he’d experienced and also deep wisdom sourced in the lessons of both successes and failures.

As I mulled over what he told me, it reminded me of my own dad who I observed navigating his own vocational highs and lows as I was growing up. There is so much I observed in my parents that I never fully appreciated until I was a husband and father trying to provide for my family and make my own way through vocational peaks and valleys. It’s in adulthood that I finally appreciated all of the joys of vocational success, all the anxieties of job changes, and all the pain of business failures.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 126, isn’t fully understood outside of the context of history. In 586 B.C. the Hebrew people had their own “lost everything” moment. Their nation was plundered, their capital city destroyed, and their temple was desecrated and reduced to rubble. Most of the people were taken into captivity and exile. For a generation, they were forced to make a new life for themselves in a foreign land left to wonder if they would ever return to their own land and rebuild their home. Those not taken into captivity were left to try and survive amidst the rubble and the carnage. Some were reduced to cannibalism just to survive.

One of those left behind was the prophet, Jeremiah. The book we call Lamentations is his poetic expression of grief at the devastation he witnessed when Jerusalem was destroyed:

“This is why I weep
    and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
    no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
    because the enemy has prevailed.”

At the same time, it was at this rock-bottom, lost-everything moment when Jeremiah’s faith was activated and he discovered this thing called hope:

Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

In 538 B.C. the first wave of exiles were allowed to return and begin rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple and for the next 100 years the restoration continued as more and more exiles returned.

Today’s chapter was a song likely written from the pinnacle of Jerusalem’s restoration and the realization of Jeremiah’s hope. As I go back and reread the lyrics, I imagine being the descendant of Jeremiah singing those lyrics on my pilgrimage to the Passover festival knowing that I was experiencing the realization of what the prophet could only dream.

As I meditated on this, I thought of my grandparents being newlyweds and starting a family during the Great Depression. I know their stories. They shared with me how little they had, how hard they struggled, and I got to observe them en-joy-ing the goodness they experienced in their later years, long after those tragic times. It strikes me that my generation is probably the last generation to have known that generation and to have personally heard their stories.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reflecting on the highs and lows of this life journey. There’s so much joy, faith, and hope to be found in life’s dark valleys if I choose to seek it. Wisdom is there if I open my heart to hear her speak to me. There is also so much to celebrate when the road of life winds its way up the next mountain and that dark valley is a distant memory and life lesson. That’s the waypoint from which the lyrics of Psalm 126 spring.

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

Destined for Tough Terrain

We sent Timothy,who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV)

This past week was a bit of a whirlwind for Wendy and me. It began with the unexpected death of a friend. She and her husband had been in a small group with us during a particularly turbulent time of our lives, and her death rocked our world a bit. The morning of the funeral we received news that another friend had suffered a heart attack in the night and had been flown to Des Moines for a hastily performed cardiac procedure.

We visited our friend in the hospital and were encouraged to find him alive and well. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we knew he’d just been through a life-threatening trauma earlier that day, I’d have told you everything was perfectly normal.

As we spoke with our friend and his wife there in the CCU she shared about their life journey and the fact that the two of them had just entered a particularly enjoyable stretch. Retirement, time together, and the opportunity to enjoy large parts of each day in conversation and shared activity had been brining them both tremendous joy. She told us of her emotions and prayers the previous night as she faced the potential reality that it might be coming to a tragic end.

I thought about these two experiences, with two very different outcomes, as I read today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to believers in Thessalonica. Paul fled the city when his life was threatened. He knew that the fledgling believers he left behind continued to face opposition and persecution. Paul was worried about them, which was why he sent his protege, Timothy, to check on them, and why he was writing them this letter after Timothy’s return and report. Addressing the trials they were facing, Paul states quite bluntly: “You know quite well we are destined for them.”

Along my faith journey I’ve observed many who seem to have approached their life and/or faith journey with the expectation that it should always be a cake walk. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering the various reasons we might come to that conclusion. Is it somehow that the “prosperity gospel” that falsely teaches God wants us all to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” has permeated our culture more than we care to admit? Is it somehow, for those of us living in America, some kind of bleeding over of the American Dream into our faith? Why is it that I am shocked and feel somehow cheated when life’s road unexpectedly becomes rough terrain?

My journey through God’s Message has taught me that I should expect rough terrain on life’s road. All of the early father’s of the faith said so. Here’s just a small sample of reminders:

Jesus:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Mt 10:16)

Paul:
We glory in our sufferings.” (Rom 3:5)

James:
Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials….” (Jam 1:2)

Peter:
“…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Pet 1:6)

I find myself looking back this morning at Wendy’s and my journey over the past 13 years. Like our friend we visited in the hospital we’ve recently been experiencing a sense that we’re coming out of a valley and into a stretch of smoother terrain. It’s a good feeling, and we’re enjoying the lift. Nevertheless, this past week has been a reminder that I can never know what’s waiting for us up ahead.

As I start this week I’m reminded that with each warning of trouble, suffering, trials, and grief, Jesus and the early followers connected the inevitable hard stretches of life’s journey to heart, overcoming, glory, joy, and rejoicing. This journey will include both good times and unexpected bad times. It’s a natural part of the journey. Paul told the Thessalonians believers “we’re destined for them.” I shouldn’t be thrown for a loop when they happen as though I hadn’t been warned that they will come, or like I hadn’t observed that everyone I know experiences tough stretches along the way. There’s always purpose in the pain.

It’s the trials and the overcoming that make our favorite stories “epic.”

Have a great week my friend.

The Story is NOT Over. The Story WILL Go On.

He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
2 Chronicles 22:12 (NIV)

I am convinced that there are stretches along every person’s life journey in which the road descends into chaos. Things we trusted to remain solid fall apart. Tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, another bomb drops. The compass we’ve always trusted to point true north spins out of control. We lose our personal bearing. Nothing seems safe. It is as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

For the people of ancient Judah, their unshakable faith in God’s promise to King David had provided them with a sense of peace. The Davidic line would remain as a trustworthy sense of stability. The throne would pass from father to son, from generation to generation. You can count on it.

Until things descended into chaos.

Jehoshaphat marries his eldest son, Jehoram, to Athaliah the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Jehoram kills all of his brothers in a bloodbath intended to solidify his control. His reign implodes as enemies invade and kill his entire family with the exception of his youngest son, Ahaziah. The only viable heir of David, the young Ahaziah is placed on the throne. His one-year reign is a disastrous chain-reaction of events ending in his assassination. Ahaziah’s power-hungry mother, Athaliah, kills off the rest of the royal family to consolidate her own power over the nation of Judah.

The Davidic line wiped out. That which was trusted is lost.

The people of Judah had to be reeling in the valley of chaos. They trusted the Davidic royal line would be forever. A member of the reviled and evil house of Ahab and Jezebel is on the throne of their nation. The compass they always trusted to point true north is spinning out of control. Nothing seems safe. It’s as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

But, the story isn’t over. While the circumstantial events in the valley of Judah’s chaos seem eternal and inescapable, the perspective of history allows us to see that this is simply a dark chapter in the Great Story.

There is a woman. There is a baby.

(How often can we quote that line in the Great Story?)

The woman is a daughter of the king. She is the wife of the priest.  She has the courage to risk her life for what is right.

The baby is the son of the king.

In the moment, no one knows it. In the chaos they cannot see it.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the valleys of chaos into which I’ve descended. I’m remembering my own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. And, I’m looking back from a waypoint further down Life’s road that provides me with a much needed perspective.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

Chapter-a-Day Exodus 5

Where the mountain-top experience begins. Moses went back to God and said, "My Master, why are you treating this people so badly? And why did you ever send me? From the moment I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, things have only gotten worse for this people. And rescue? Does this look like rescue to you?" Exodus 5:22-23 (MSG)

I grew up in a family of swimmers. I started swimming competitively when I was nine and swam year-round through my freshman year in high school. If you were to look back in the Vander Well family scrapbooks, you'd see medals from city, district and state swimming meets. You'd find many blue ribbons from winning various events. There are certificates of acheivement and  a high school letter from when I made varsity my freshman year.

What you won't see in those scrapbooks is a snapshot of me at the age of eight, screaming in fear because I just knew there was no way I could swim across the width of the pool without drowning. You won't see family videos of me groaning about getting out of bed at 5:00 a.m. in the summer to make early morning practice. Nor will you find framed pictures of me crying in defeat, screaming in pain from mid-lap charlie-horses, and frustrated at getting beat out for a spot on the top relay team again.

We tend to think of Moses walking down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. We think of him parting the Red Sea in triumph. We picture him standing defiantly and triumphantly before Pharaoh. Reading the actual story reminds us that before any of those victorious mountain top moments came to be, there were moments of frustration, doubt, pain, fear, and confusion.

Mountain top experiences generally begin standing in a valley staring up at a long, hard climb.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Gone-Walkabout

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