Beauty in the Valley

January 25, 2018

Our pastor ran a sermon series in December called God With Us.  The promo video that ran each week began with a reminder that God is always with us:  “On the mountain…in the valley….”

Ah, yes, the valley.  The first sermon was all about the valley, which is where our family spent most of 2016 and a fair portion of 2017.  The valley is supposed to be a dark, desperate place–“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” from Psalm 23, right?–but here’s what hit me as I watched the video intro:

Valleys are beautiful.

Honestly, on our trips to Colorado, valleys are my favorite places to be.  Mountains are majestic, of course, but the countless houses tucked into the deeply wooded valleys? That’s where I’d want to live.  There’s beauty there; it’s not hard to see.

There’s beauty in the valleys of our lives, too.

A perfect example came to me a few Fridays ago, when I went to bed early (like before-dinner early) with what seemed to be a stomach bug.  My husband had plans that night, so my twelve-year-old daughter put my four-year-old to bed.  While I lay curled up under the covers, miserable and barely awake, the sound of my older daughter’s voice floated down the hall, reading bedtime stories to her little sister. Snuggles, giggles, a chapter of Betsy-Tacy; A Birthday for Frances….

When did she get to be such a beautifully fluent reader?

Beauty in the valley.

Watching your oldest pull back and withdraw, more and more often, until you fear that depression might actually really win–that’s a valley.  No doubt.

Watching your son buy his younger sisters stuffed animal souvenirs on the zoo trip he chose to go on with the family, smack in the middle of the ugliness….spending his own money to put a smile on their faces….there’s beauty in the valley.

Holding your son while he sobs and begs….begs you to buy him a gun, so he can end it all and just be done with it for good…that’s the deepest, lowest valley I’ve come to yet.

A doctor who returns your calls while on vacation to ensure he gets medication started: beauty in the valley.

Any trouble with friends tripping a switch that still seems to be set to “despair” is even now a very real part of our valley.

Watching the same child–barely 24 hours later–bringing the folding card table up from the basement, setting it up on the back deck, and cooking and serving dinner to his entire family under the light of the near-full moon….that is a step beyond beauty.  That is unbelievable.

Watching my middle child lose her older-brother-best-friend to the gaping maw of depression has been one of the most ongoing, difficult valleys.

Signing off on her “homework” for church and realizing that under “list three ways you know God cares for you” she included, “He gave me a baby sister….”  That is beauty so vivid it brought me to tears.

It’s beauty, too, when the big kids do reconnect and find out they are still friends, even after everything they’ve been through.

I know that God has been with us in every one of these situations.  He was sitting on the bed with us, brokenhearted, while my son sobbed into my shoulder.  He was pulling up a seat with us, outside on the deck, rejoicing in His gorgeous night and healing child.  I know his hand is on my family as we walk this rocky road, full of switchbacks, that winds through the valley.  But I’m also realizing the valley can be an amazing place, full of beauty, if I can just pay attention.  I don’t know how much longer our valley is.  I do have faith there will continue to be beauty along the way.

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Start the Car

January 11, 2018

As the year turned I was having my usual evaluation of The State of Things.  I’ve spent the better part of five years paring down this family’s life, and I was wondering–especially in light of a potential job offer–what was next.  Was it time to start adding in?  Was it time to say “more” instead of “less,” at least to some things?

What I really want, I’ve always joked, is for God to put a sign in my yard.  “Do this,” it would say, and I’d do it.

Reading during my quiet time one morning I came across this verse:

“I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.” –Psalm 119:45

At liberty.

It’s almost like as long as I’m seeking him, following Him, I can do whatever.

Well, that can’t be right.  Can it?

Not even two weeks go by and I stumble across this quote in Emily P. Freeman’s book A Million Little Ways:

“Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a time in her life when she was desperate to discover what she was supposed to be doing with her life.  She describes praying to God, asking him that very question in her book An Altar in the World.

God’s answer to her was both surprising and infuriating.  She sensed him saying this:  Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me.”  (pg. 50)

Well….okay then.  Let me think on that.

One week later I’m reading in the book we’ve chosen for our Bible study and come to this beautiful (and comical) word picture:

“The difference between the mechanical and relational approach could be pictured like this:  Let’s say you’d been taught how to get written directions from God to go any place you wanted to go.  You could get in your car and hold these instructions in your hand, printed clearly in black and white.  That’s what many people want from God:  ‘Just tell me what to do!’          [See?  There’s that sign I want in my yard.]

But Jesus will not have it!  Jesus is relentlessly relational.  He gets in the car with you, takes the instructions out of your hands, and grins as he tears them up.  ‘Start the car!’ he says.

You feel uneasy; you just want the instructions!  You protest:  ‘How will I know when to turn?’

He smiles and challenges you to risk trusting him:  ‘I’ll tell you when to turn.  Start the car!’

You protest again:  ‘I need to know ahead of time!’

But Jesus replies, ‘Trust me.  We’re going to stop at restaurants you’re going to love; we’re going to see beautiful places; we’re going to stop alongside the road and help people you can’t stand.  It will be wonderful.  Start the car.”  (–When the Soul Listens, by Jan Johnson, pg. 6-7)

I’d like to think, by now, that I’m starting to get the point.  (I can be slow, don’t get me wrong, but this is a little much.)  All these moments formed the beginning of my “intentional” year, the things that came together just before I sat down to look at my days and do something about them.  I don’t have a map (honestly, I’m lousy at reading maps anyway), and I have no idea what the year in front of us holds (let’s be real, no one really does), but I plan on walking as closely to Him as I can.  If I’m close enough–and stay quiet enough–maybe I can hear his direction.

 

(Incidentally, the other option I considered for my word this year was “abide:”  “Abide in me as I abide in you…..I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).  It sounds like I’ll be focused on doing that anyway, “word” or no. )

When my first daughter was born eleven years ago, she was very slightly jaundiced. The doctors asked us to bring her back in to the hospital just a few days after birth, to do blood tests and make sure all her levels were acceptable.  I still remember laying my little bundle down on the table for the sweet nurse to prick her tiny heel and gather the blood necessary for the lab work.  She held my little one’s struggling foot in her hand…then asked me to help hold the baby….and once she finally managed to get the sample, she looked at me with wide eyes.  “She is strong,” the nurse informed me.

Little did we know….

At four months, I was so exhausted from simply surviving her presence that I chose to take her to the Mom’s Day Out where I was taking my two-year-old son once a week. Looking back, I’m slightly horrified–she was four months old!  But I remember my desperation for any kind of break from the crying.  There was the colic; you could set your watch by her: at 5PM, everything fell apart and it didn’t stop until around 9:30. But there was also, simply, the crying.  The “I’m never happy….what will you do to keep me happy….that worked for ten minutes but now I want something new” crying. Her first day at Mom’s Day Out, she came home with a note from her caregiver:  “She certainly knows her mind!”  That’s an understatement.

The tantrums of her toddlerhood.  The violent frustration that might show up unexpectedly, at any moment.  Scrolling through “Your memories on Facebook” recently, it revealed that at age four we had a conversation:  “Are you going to go upstairs now, get dressed, and get out the door at a reasonable time?  Or are you going to have a screaming fit, spend all your time crying hysterically, and finally give up and get dressed?”  Her response?  “Yeah, let’s do that.”  Sigh.

I don’t need to go on, do I?  Because if you have a strong-willed child, you know.  You have your own stories, probably even bigger and larger-than-life, that you’re dealing with daily.  The draining, depleting kinds of stories.

Can I tell you something?  A strong-willed child looks quite different at eleven.

It looks like a kid who sings in six choir performances during the Christmas season….with undiagnosed bronchitis.

It looks like a kid who is teaching herself to play the piano.  Each time she turns the page to a new song, she struggles a bit, and growls a bit, and each time she sets her jaw and works until she’s got it.

It looks like a kid who plugs along, doing the things that need to be done, until she finally admits that her ear hurts a bit….and is informed by the doctor that she has a double ear-infection and a blister on one eardrum.

It looks like a kid who, in fifth grade, is wrestling with questions I only took on in high school and college.  What do people mean when they say God spoke to them?  What does it mean to follow Jesus with all my heart?  What does “giving all my life to God” look like?  (A small sampling of our conversation over my coffee this morning….)

It looks like a kid who will find a way to make things happen, instead of rolling over and playing dead when she’s told they can’t.

I remember joking, when she was tiny, that someday this stubbornness might be a good thing. I think, maybe, we may have reached that point.

So to all the parents of strong-willed little ones who are pulling their hair out with frustration and exhaustion:  it gets better.

These kids of ours may very well end up doing something magnificent.