In the same way any word transforms itself into a virtually indistinguishable collection of lines and curves after having been written over and over again, I’ve begun to wonder what exactly is the meaning of that phrase so often dispensed as a mantra during times of suffering: It’s all going to be okay. I’m not trying to disparage those who have used it (and I admit, I’ve probably used it myself) but I’m asking because I genuinely don’t think I understand anymore: What do people mean when they say it? I think mostly our intentions are good. Perhaps it is a hope or a wish or a prayer because it certainly can’t be a promise or a statement of fact.
What is ok? When does everything turn out that way? Because maybe some things get better, but some things only get worse. And for each of us, surely there are some things that never will be ok. I don’t know about you, but I know for me there are days when people saying everything is going to be okay just feels like an accusation, as if everything doesn’t seem that way for me because there’s something wrong with me. Maybe who I am or what I do or at least with my way of perceiving the world somehow prevents me from arriving at this promised state of OK-ness and staying there.
It’s not that I’m unaware of the beauty and mystery of life here on Earth. I am awed by it. But it seems you’d have to be willfully ignorant or blind to not also be aware of the persistence with which death and decay lays its claim on everything and everyone who dares to pass another day here. Yes, there is beauty in the mess of it. But there IS the mess of it.
5 How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
6 Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
7 They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.
In these days of the old covenant, the presence of God was in a particular and specific place and could only be accessed fully through prescribed and meticulously enacted rites and rituals. Three times a year the men were called to make a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to encounter God in a special way. The Psalmist for some reason was not able to make the journey to have this divine encounter. He is envying those who are on their way there.
BUT He is also cognizant that going there inevitably takes pilgrims through this particular valley known as Baca, which is a predictably difficult passage. In other translations, it’s called the Valley of Weeping. In these present days of the new covenant we know that the Psalmist’s verses serve as an allegory for our pilgrimage to our forever home in heaven, commonly referred to in scripture as Zion.
I love the word picture created in Psalm 84. I can strongly identify with the deep yearning the writer expresses. Fueled by both desperation and devotion for the One he loves, the traveler has become intimately acquainted with the path he must take, going over it again and again; tracing it, carving it even, into his soul. He has done more than just carry a map around, He has made his heart a place where the Way and His ways have become etched into the fiber of his being. Almost as if they’re tattooed there.
But the Psalmist is not glossing over the difficulty of the journey. He speaks matter-of-factly about the suffering. There’s no way around it, we must go through it. He doesn’t just say that it’ll all be ok, he outlines what others have done to make it survivable, even to find refreshment there.
The Psalmist calls the sojourner blessed who, going through the Valley of Weeping, makes it a spring. At first, I wondered if the writer was referring to a traveler so cheerful and with such capacity for optimism that even the Valley of Weeping would have been for him like a beautiful oasis. But then I came across some notes that clarified that the way through this valley was so perilous that some of the pilgrims would actually take time as they traveled to create places of respite and refreshment. They’d dig a well to collect the rains when they fell or perhaps even lay stones to bolster the path from eroding.
I think of all the times when we wonder why we’ve found ourselves in a particularly difficult place. Again. Or still. Shouldering a shovel and bending low under the weight of another day. It feels like a punishment. Or like we’ve lost our way. But what if, instead, we’ve been called to remain here awhile so that we can be the one who makes the valley of weeping into a place of refreshment. Who finds her only way to survive is to dig deeply to gather the Living Water. Her only way through is to pick-up rocks, clinging to His promises, and lay them into stepping stones to make the path less treacherous as she goes. And to, perhaps most importantly of all, transform the landscape of a valley of weeping so that it’s more navigable for others who come after or maybe even for ourselves next time around.
Psalm 84:5 starts out using a singular subject: the man whose strength is in God. But by verse 6, the writer has already begun speaking of plural subjects; many people passing through the valley and going from strength to strength. How profoundly the pilgrimage changed for those that followed the first one who began the tradition of spring-building and path-laying!
Is it strange that I am comforted by the acknowledgement that difficulty, weeping even, is a predictable part of our passage? Life here feels hard because it is hard! And that doesn’t mean we’re going the wrong way or that God has forsaken us or even that we’re somehow failing as people if we experience and actually acknowledge the difficulty. Instead, blessed is the person who, knowing with equal certainty that there will be difficulty AND that God will provide the rains to we need to refresh us, makes the valley of weeping into a place of springs! We are a people who offer, through Jesus, profound hope and practical help. We do not need to rely on tired platitudes. We have much, much more in Christ.
This work of re-landscaping a valley of weeping is holy work and it is excruciatingly difficult work. It is part of what we are called to as co-laborers with Christ. It’s practically the family business: transforming barren wastelands into verdant oases.