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Through the Valley

Increasingly, I'm seeing life as a pilgrimage.

This may be a natural perspective of someone in middle age, which I have now entered into firmly, having achieved a certain number of years on this earth that make the moniker "young adult" no longer even remotely applicable.

Life is pilgrimage because just when you think you've arrived or figured something out about it, the ground has given way under you...and more than one time.

Life is pilgrimage because your body reveals to you every day that it is traveling somewhere, and that somewhere is a place that you're not so sure you're entirely comfortable with it going.

Life is pilgrimage because those who've made it to this point in life without some kind of a spiritual crisis are now showing the effects of a hardened heart and spirit or, as my favorite psychological theorist Erik Erikson called it, stagnation. Conversely, many of those who have experienced spiritual and emotional crises do indeed have the scars to show for it along with signs of the positive outcome of middle age which, according to Erikson, is generativity.

While generativity can still smack of an achievement mindset, with a hyperfocus on needing to leave a mark on the world, it doesn't have to. Care can also be a hallmark of generativity, especially care for younger generations.

Whether we like it or not, we are going somewhere and, Lord willing, those of us in middle age have bodies that are at the midpoint of the journey. Whether our minds and spirits are that far along has to do with what came before. Was growth chosen, allowed, and cherished, or have we come to this point kicking and screaming?

I always look to Psalm 84 as the quintessential journey psalm. When I opened my Bible to that psalm this morning as part of my regular readings, I sighed in pleasure. What a treat! In the Bible that I used as a teenager, nearly every verse of Psalm 84 is highlighted, with multiple layers of color indicating what struck me at a particular reading.

I love the psalm's opening of praise. It immediately brings to mind a worship song that I regularly lead in church, singing about how "better is one day" in God's courts than "thousands elsewhere." I get to lead a moderately high descant on this song, repeating the phrase, "better is one day" over and over again. I believe it completely. One day of total praise to God is indeed better than a thousand elsewhere.

The next verses have become more poignant to me as I've gotten older. I love the authors' lenses--the Sons of Korah who penned this psalm. As the worship leaders of their day, they had ample time to view the courts of God...where one of them noted a little sparrow who had made a home right near the altar of God. How did the sparrow get in there?

I wonder these things now that I have a family of wrens living on my back deck, some unknown baby birds nesting on the front porch, and sizeable swallow's nest glued to the side of the house over the back patio.

When we threw a graduation party for the Korean student living with us, we had to affix a white garbage bag under the nest so that the birds coming and going wouldn't poop all over the drinks and desserts.

We're coexisting, more or less, with all the birds.

Recently, when I'm typing in my home office, I hear what sounds like birds in our tiny attic space. How on earth did they get in there? Our old house had a chimney, but there isn't anything more than a small vent as an opening in our current house. Still, I'm pretty sure they're there and when afternoon rolls around, they start getting active.

So I believe it, that a determined mother sparrow could find a way through the temple courts right up to an alter and build the taj mahal of sparrows' nests there.

Rather than being annoyed, the worship leader observes this and concludes that even small animals like sparrows want to get close to the Lord and praise Him. Maybe they rigged a contraption to protect the nest as well! The Sons of Korah may have joined in with the birds in praising God. I do so on my back porch regularly.

The very next verse is when the pilgrimage begins. These are the verses that I embrace during this era of middle age:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion. (verses 5-7, NIV)

Before this, the Sons of Korah say, "Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you"--along with the sparrows, evidently. Immediately after, they offer a beatitude for those whose strength is in God and who have therefore set their hearts on pilgrimage. Other translations say that the hearts contain the highways to Zion. Both are spot on since the destination is clear for these particular pilgrims.

How interesting to set one's heart on pilgrimage. As a woman, I know it's very typical for my gender to set our hearts on comfort. I don't mean riches or glamorous living, but safety and security. A nice little nest for our family, if you will. Definitely earlier in my life, my plans were two-fold: achieving my career goals and setting up a little domestic heaven for my family. My heart was certainly not set on pilgrimage, although I was a devout worshipper of Jesus.

But here at the midpoint of life, I see that one's heart must be set on pilgrimage in order to survive spiritually. If you aren't moving, you are stagnating. That is a simple fact, whether you're travelling physically from point A to point B or emotionally or spiritually. Change happens whether you want it or not, but that isn't the same thing as having your heart set on pilgrimage. The Hebrew for this phrase has to do with one's inner self, one's very heart, mind, and will---the very things that Jesus says to love the Lord your God with (Matthew 22:37).

It's a heart set on pilgrimage that will make us blessed, rather than mere achievement of the very human goals that we set out to achieve.

God knows what is best for us, and He knows that we are but dust and cannot control the swirling dangers that life throws at us. We are blessed when we carry a temple of worship to God within us in the midst of these dangers. For they will come, one way or another.

Verse 6 is the clincher for me: the Valley of Baca. This is the only time this location is mentioned in the Bible, although some wonder if it's the Valley of Achor mentioned in the book of Joshua. Regardless, it was most likely a valley near Jerusalem, one that pilgrims passed through on their way to worship in the city.

The Valley of Baca is not a good place. The term has to do with a weeping tree, or one that weeps resin. The Sons of Korah are clearly using this term to describe a difficult life path. This is a dry place, a dead place where only weeping trees and hardy plants can grow.

We have to pass through places of weeping on the pilgrimage that is life.

Sometimes I feel that my weeping began much earlier than for others. For some, it was even earlier. My mother's father died when she was two years old. Many others have lost parents or other loved ones at very early ages. It varies, the time period for entering the Valley of Baca.

This is life. This is normal. We feel it as an aberration, but it is not. Life goes on all around us, and yet you're still part of life in the Valley of Baca, only a variant of it. Vales of tears are part of a normal life experience just as periods of joy are. Although, what looks like joy from the outside ain't necessarily so. Just going from activity to activity doesn't necessarily encompass joy. In fact, it often doesn't.

Interestingly, when going through the Valley of Baca, we can go from "strength to strength," according to the Sons of Korah.

We need to read this without the prosperity gospel-laced tinges of our modern era. "Strength to strength" does not and cannot mean that everything is working out beautifully and easily. This phrase is said over the pilgrims trudging through a literal vale of tears.

It's in the midst of the struggle and suffering that we can go from strength to strength, to dig in and put one foot in front of the other until we make it to Jerusalem. Psychoanalysts like Erikson were right to call the socioemotional stages of life "crises." It's not a small thing to choose generativity over stagnation. It involves a lifetime of intentionality and cultivation. It is work to cultivate the inner spirit so that what comes next is possible.

What comes next in the psalm is that by passing through the Valley of Baca, we make it a "place of springs." Yes, the vale of tears may change us but, more importantly, we change it!

What an astounding statement!

Jesus said that whoever believes in Him will have "rivers of living water" flowing from within (John 7:38). Apparently, these streams can flow outside us and transform the valleys that we are in.

Partnering Psalm 84 with Jesus' words, what are the secret ingredients for how to go from strength to strength?

  • Find your strength in the Lord, not yourself.

  • Set your heart on pilgrimage. Be open to the Spirit working in your heart. Surrender.

  • Pass through the Valley of Baca. Don't shy back. Digging in your heels will not protect you from life's difficulties, but going through them can help you to grow and even overcome.

  • Trust in Jesus and let the rivers of living water from Him dwell within you and spill out to those around you.

  • See God's work (the autumn rains also watering the earth) all around you. Open your eyes!

I've thought recently about leaving a place that I am in. The surroundings are a little tainted for me. I've come through a Valley of Baca. But then it occurred to me that whatever negative spirit was present is gone, banished from our presence. My family has claimed a corner, and this section is connected to Zion. There's a river running right from our hearts to a spiritual Jerusalem (also, the physical one, as I keep it in prayer). I've asked God to be my shield, and He is.

My job is to simply walk forward, to continue my pilgrimage, and occasionally look around to see the place of springs that God, in His great kindness, causes to spring forth around me.

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Songbird, you've created a woven nest of the "twigs" of life to build a balcony in the courts of God. Sing! 💗

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