GRACE IN THE VALLEY
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The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is Your faithfulness O Lord. This passage is one that comes to mind often. These are words for those of us who are walking through the valley. In the Bible, the valley is a metaphor for a time of darkness or grief. In Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones is a place where there is no life. There’s not even a chance of life. In the 23rd Psalm, the valley is a place of death or evil. It’s a scary place. It’s a place we want to avoid.
Over the past few years, I have been on a journey that I can only compare to walking through the valley. It was a valley that was filled with darkness, sorrow, and grief. And while I’m not exactly out of the valley yet, I know that God’s promise is to take us through the valley and not to leave us there. This morning I want to tell you my story of being in the valley. And it’s also a story of God in the valley because God never asks us to walk these roads alone. I feel compelled to share this story because we all have our valleys that we’re walking through. We know that God is always faithful, but it’s not always clear what that faithfulness looks like. The first time I shared this story was in Mistissini. What I learned there, is that by sharing our own suffering you are giving people permission to share about their suffering, and there’s healing in that. I hope that I as I tell you my story, you will see how good and faithful God is. And my prayer is that he will be glorified through my words.
It was one of those times where the phone rings and although you’re unaware, this phone call will be the moment you look back on in your life as the moment when everything changed. Before the phone rang, I was walking down the street and I was feeling joyful. One, it was Christmas Eve, two, it was fifteen degrees and sunny, very unusual for winter in Canada. Perhaps that in itself was an act of divine grace before the storm hit. The phone rang, I answered, and within about 30 seconds I learned that Bruce and I are unable to have children. This was the beginning of my journey into the valley. There’s never a good time to get this news, but it did seem particularly cruel that we received it on Christmas Eve. Later that night we would come to church and hear about waiting expectantly for a baby to be born. We would sing songs of joy that a child was coming into the world. And we would talk about the longings of advent finally being fulfilled. I sat and listened to words of promise being read from the gospels and I asked God Why? Why does it have to be this way? Why can I never have life growing inside of me? And in that moment I heard God say “You have life inside you, MY life, and it’s always growing”. After those words from God, I wouldn’t hear his voice clearly again for a while.
Over the course of the next couple years, I would experience grief that I had never felt before, longing that I had never known and my experience of God would be challenged and changed. During that time, I would often look for stories of God’s hope; mainly stories about people who had been through the same thing and were okay. I couldn’t find any. There were a lot of stories about miracle babies. There were people who told me stories about the moment they finally had faith that God would act and then they got pregnant. I understand that everyone has their own journey, but I was very uncomfortable with these stories. It felt as though if you can just spin the wheel and land on the right spiritual peg, then God answers your prayer. I wanted a story of someone whose prayers were not answered. I wanted a story of someone who had experienced suffering, maybe even was still suffering, and could say, “I don’t have a child, but yes, God has been faithful, yes, God has been good, and yes, I can say truthfully that the joy of the Lord is my strength”.
Thankfully as I was searching for these stories, the internet was not my only resource and God brought people into my life who had walked the same journey; people who knew what to say and what not to say. It was a journey of learning how to be disappointed in God. The first step in that journey was to be honest with God. When you’ve grown up in church, when you’ve been in the life of faith for a long time, it can be hard to be honest with God. God is Sovereign, he’s in control, so who are we to question God? I knew that our situation was not a result of God. We read this morning in verse 33 that God doesn’t willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. But still, I knew that God could do something about it. So why wasn’t he acting? I know I’m not the first person to ask that question, and I know I won’t be the last. Why doesn’t God intercept suffering when he has the power to do so? I didn’t have an answer to that question at that time. I was only left with questions. And in that time of questions, I learned how to pray the prayers of lament. Why my soul are you so downcast? My God, why do you forsake me? How long Oh Lord, how long? As I joined voices from the past in praying these laments, I didn’t feel better, but I didn’t feel a sort of freedom. I think I worried about offending God, and given that He already felt far away, I didn’t want to widen the perceived gap between us. The language of lament gave me a way to pray that I hadn’t learned in Sunday School. It turned me toward a God who loves us and who can handle our pain. More than that, I saw that God invites us to lay our pain and our disappointment at his feet so that He can grieve with us. We read the story of Lazarus rising from the dead in John 11 and we see a God who suffers with us. Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick and he waits to go to Bethany. When he arrives, Mary and Martha are distraught that their brother has died. They look at Jesus and say if you had only come sooner. In this moment, Jesus knows he can and will raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ response is surprising. He doesn’t tell the sisters to have faith, or that he is in control and not to worry. Instead, Jesus weeps. Why does he weep? He knows that he’s going to revive Lazarus in a few moments. But the author tells us that when Jesus sees Mary and Martha weeping along with the others, he is “deeply moved”. He feels compassion for them. The word used in this passage for “deeply moved” is a Greek word that is closely related to the Hebrew word for compassion which refers to the womb of Yahweh. Henri Nouwen, in his book Compassion, describes it this way:
There all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden… When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.
As I meditate upon this divine tenderness, I see that God is present in our pain. It doesn’t matter what the outcome will be. In our time of suffering, God is present, he suffers with us. And in the divine womb of Yahweh, in his compassion, life is always being born again. That presence is God’s grace in the midst of the valley.
Purpose in our pain
God is generous with his presence. It doesn’t only come from above, but it comes from around us as well. I received a lot of grace through God’s people. There were times when I found it very difficult to pray. I had lamented and said all there was to say and I listened and didn’t hear anything back. My prayers were reduced to phrases like “Help me” or “Have mercy on me”. When I ran out of words to say, I had people to pray for me. People who would write cards or give me small tokens simply to let me know they were praying for me. I can’t tell you, how encouraging this was. It seems that the enemy loves to creep in when you’re vulnerable and tell you lies, like God has forgotten about you. It’s hard to believe that God has forgotten about you when his people show you that’s clearly not the case. There was one woman in particular who embodied hope despite pain. This woman had been through a tragedy herself, and she was always encouraging me, always checking in, and always speaking God’s promises over me. Even though she had every reason to be bitter and angry when I asked her how she was she would always say “Life is good” and tell me something she was thankful for. She demonstrated to me that even when you’re in pain, you can minister to others and show them God’s love and compassion. That gives purpose to what we are going through.
Purpose is different from reason. We often ask why we suffer and we look for a reason that will satisfy us. But there is no reason, except that we live in a broken world where suffering happens. When we’re in the valley we want to climb out or have God pull us out. But instead of taking us out, he takes us through the valley. And God in his grace gives us purpose in our suffering. It’s not always clear what that purpose is and I don’t think it makes it any less painful. But it is a sign of God’s grace acting on us. I think of when I shared this story in Mistissini. After the service was over, people came up to me, one by one, and told me their stories of suffering. Some were stories of being disappointed in God and others were stories of losing hope. I believe God is working in that community to restore hope. And I am humbled and grateful that he chose to use me as a small part of the work he is doing there. I also shared this story in Texas and at one of our sister churches here in Toronto, and each time I realized that it’s not just my story, a lot of people have this story. For some it’s longing for children, for others it may be losing a spouse or having an illness. Our valleys can look different but sooner or later, we all have to walk that journey.
Hope in the Valley
There’s an article I read recently by a woman named Stephanie Phillips and she finished with this quote: I am constantly between a rock and a hard place, but when I look more closely I find they are a stone rolled away, and a cross. It doesn’t look like victory, yet that’s exactly what it is: freedom disguised as weakness.
The valley is the tension between death and new life. We’re created to be Easter people. We long for new life. When I preached this sermon in Mistissini, I told them I was reluctant to speak because I wasn’t through the valley. We long to be through the valley. We long and we wait, we pray and we wait. And God works. God works in our weakness. He works in our mess, and he works in our pain. The hardest thing for me in the valley was that I struggled to be joyful. Joy is kind of my thing. My name means “My Father’s Joy”. But it was really hard to feel joy after learning about our infertility. It was hard to believe that I would ever feel the way I felt as I was walking down the street, Christmas Eve on that sunny day. But I can stand here in front of you today and say that God has restored my joy. It happened slowly through prayer and people, and through teaching two-year olds how to dance. It’s not the same as it once was. It’s a joy that’s been down in the valley. A joy that’s looked around and seen nothing but dry bones. A joy that cried out for God to act. And it’s a joy that waited on God.
I wish this sermon was called, Three easy steps to get out of the valley. But I don’t think it’s for us to know how or when. It is for us to look for God’s grace in the valley. It’s for us to look for signs that new life is coming. As we gather to receive communion in a few minutes, we will remember Christ and his body that was broken for us. As Nouwen writes:
The breaking of the bread connects our broken lives with God’s life in Christ and transforms our brokenness into a brokenness that no longer leads to fragmentation but community and love. Wounds that are the beginning of the process of decay must remain hidden, but wounds that have become gateways to new life can be celebrated as new signs of hope.
If you’re waiting on God, don’t lose hope. God is good to those who wait for him. That’s the promise he gives us in Lamentations 3. For me, that goodness has been joy restored, and a deeper understanding of my need for God and his grace. And that’s just the beginning of it. I still feel the sting of grief and I think I always will. I think of the resurrected Christ who appeared to his disciples with scars on his hands. He was perfect in every way but still bore marks of the suffering he had been through. But instead of scars being ugly reminders of what had happened, they attested to God’s glory and the great work he had done.
Another word for valley in the Bible is ‘cleft’. Think of Moses, hiding from God in the cleft of the rock because he couldn’t handle God’s glory. The cleft, or the valley, was there to protect Moses because God was about to show his glory and it was too much for a human to behold. I wonder if the valleys we walk through are the places where God is most likely to pass by and display his glory. I pray this is true.
This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness Oh Lord.