Grace in the Valley of Baka

valleyThis is one of my favorite passages from the Psalms, specifically from Psalm 84:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
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.

Psalm 84 is a picture of the Israelites as they traveled on the road to Jerusalem for the yearly religious festivals. There were songs written for these journeys, reflecting the joys and trials along the way, and this passage is one of those songs. The Valley of Baka (“Valley of Tears”) mentioned in Psalm 84 symbolizes for all of us, spiritual pilgrims in every age, the difficult, dangerous and dry places on the road. It’s a beautiful image, this idea of the place of dryness and sorrow becoming a place of refreshment. I almost named my blog “heart on pilgrimage” after this passage, but too many people had the idea before me (including Dorothy Day).

The problem is, I’ve been in the Valley of Baka for a while now, and it hasn’t become a place of springs.

A few months back I wrote that I was going to try counseling. I felt embarrassed after publishing that post, because it was mostly crickets in response. I don’t know what I expected, and I’m not complaining – I just wondered if I had crossed into uncomfortable territory for readers. I wanted to blame it all on the loss of my mom, because that makes sense. If you say, “My mom just died and I’m feeling depressed,” people are sympathetic and understanding. If you say instead, “I feel terrible for no discernible reason,” it’s much harder for people to know what to say. Buck up? Count your blessings? Don’t be such a narcissistic baby? I’ve directed all of that advice at myself, without it doing much good.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll always been on the melancholy side.  I always have been. Most of the time it’s manageable, tolerable, not what defines me. And then sometimes….like this past year….it gets out of hand. My usual over analysis becomes torturous: the angsty voice in my head never shuts up. The sense I have of being an outsider deepens into existential estrangement from God, my family, everyone. Self criticism becomes self loathing. Energy (which I never have in abundance) is depleted; motivation dissipates;  purpose is gone. I can’t figure out why I’m here. I worry that when I die, my life will have meant nothing.

To quote an old song, “I’m tired of living, and scared of dying.”

Even so, I’m a decent faker and I often feel the need to fake it. I show up and smile and do what I’m supposed to do. Sometimes that feels like its own burden; like I’m simultaneously trying to hide my troubles and get permission to have a meltdown. Sometimes I wish that I had a monitor on my shoulder – something like the temperature gauge on my car. People could see how I’m really feeling and…what? Back away? Duck? I guess my mistake is in thinking that my mood should determine how everyone else responds to me. What about their moods? What about the business of life that needs to go on regardless of how any of us are feeling?

Stop being such a narcissistic baby, Sharon.  You are a pastor! The joy of the Lord is your strength! What is wrong with you?

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, exactly, and the guilt that comes with thinking that my faith should be enough to fix me is just another big rock on the pile I’m already carrying. Please! No more rocks!

All of that is what it’s like when things are at their worst. It’s what it was like when I wrote the post a few months ago, announcing my intention to go to counseling for the first time ever.

But things are not at their worst now:  I’m feeling a bit better. I’ve managed to accomplish a few things lately, spent time with friends and enjoyed it, feel some hope for the future. The counseling has been a big part of this, I think. I joked in my earlier post about counselors having some wizardry by which they make people talk, and I wasn’t far off. My counselor has managed to get me talking in depth, at length, about some things that I have never talked to anyone about. Ever. Not horrible, shameful secrets. Not that man I shot in Reno, or anything like that. Just the deep, sad, confused places in myself that I need help sorting out. And counseling is allowing me to do that without my counselor telling me I’m a narcissist, or that I just need to rejoice in the Lord and my troubles will go away.

When I first mentioned counseling I had a number of friends tell me that I needed to find a “biblical” counselor. Let me say clearly that I have no problem with counseling that is informed by scripture. “Nouthetic” counseling is another matter, and I was determined to avoid any counselor who was going to boil everything down to finding my sin and helping me repent. I’m a sinner: I know that. I’m just not sure it’s the only reason my life is hellacious sometimes. I was also concerned with going to a counselor who would see my call to ministry as a mistake, and considering how many of the Christian counselors around here operate out of Southern Baptist churches, my choices were narrowed. I asked my friend the priest and she referred me to an agency that does a lot of clergy care – but not “biblical counseling”. My experience has been wonderful, even if my counselor has never used scripture in a session, even if he uses “secular” therapeutic models.  What I’m experiencing feels like a gift from God, and I give thanks for it.

But where else is God in all of this? Why doesn’t he take the darkness away? Why doesn’t he turn my mourning into dancing? Why doesn’t the Valley of Tears just become the Place of Springs already?

I don’t know. I have thoughts, but no clear answers. The Psalms are full of laments alongside praise:  grief, anger and fear are expressed in the same prayers as hope, joy and gratitude. If I follow the examples of the psalmists (and of the prophets, disciples, Paul, Jesus himself), I’m led to believe that my life in God encompasses all of it: the droughts and the floods, every emotion, every joy, every failure. It’s all welcomed by God.

As for why it happens in the first place, why certain people seem to spend so much time in the place of tears,  I turn to John Wesley’s distinction between “sins of volition” and the “numberless infirmities, wherewith the corruptible body more or less presses down the soul.”  We are a broken creation, and I’ve personally got lots of fissures and chipped places that may not be healed until I am face to face with Jesus.

Sometimes I worry that telling the truth about my struggles will undermine my credibility as a pastor. I mean, church search committees rarely put “battles depression” on the list of qualities they are seeking. But I decided some time ago that if God has called me, there’s no sense trying to pretend to God or anyone else that I’m something other than what I am.  Perhaps I can minister to someone else who is going through the Valley of Baka; perhaps God can use my chips and fissures.

There is one more thing I’d like to say about this time in the Valley, and about my previous journeys through.  I once wrote a post about my marriage, and told the story of the birth of my youngest child.  It was very painful, as childbirth often is, and the only thing that penetrated the pain was my husband’s steady, loving gaze – his eyes locked onto my eyes.  This is how the grace of God operates when I pass through the Valley of Baka.  My  prayers fall flat, doubts rise like a tide, God seems very far away.  And yet, even across that distance I see the gaze of the One who loved me enough to die for me.  In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced grace so keenly as I have when I’ve gone through the dark places.  All of my confidence in myself is stripped away and what’s left is an awareness of how much I need a Savior.

So I wouldn’t take back my trips through the Valley of Tears.  They are difficult, but there’s also something beautiful about feeling that everything is gone but my hope in God.  I don’t want to stay there forever (hence the counseling!), but the Valley has its unique gifts to offer.

Author and priest-turned-food critic Robert Farrar Capon died last week.   I’ve read more about him than by him, and I’m not sure that I’d be in agreement with all of Capon’s theology.  But what he writes about grace packs a wallop, and I’ll leave you with a passage from his book Between Noon & Three:  Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace.  It describes for me what it’s like to lean on grace in the Valley of Baka.

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

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About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian Ministry, Christianity, mental illness, religion, spirituality and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Grace in the Valley of Baka

  1. Janice S says:

    I really like your thought process about biblical vs “less” biblical counselor! I think that was a very sound decision. Glad it’s helping smooth some of the fissures.

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  2. Tina Horth says:

    you my friend are a brave soul and i applaud you for your transparency…. xoxoxo no matter how sunny it seems on the outside of my world i struggle with the same things as I know many of my friends do as well…

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    • Thanks, Tina. It’s funny how those things can exist alongside each other sometimes – the sunniness and the suckiness. 🙂 But personally, it’s helped me to be so well loved by good friends – even if they live in Indiana. It keeps me encouraged.

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  3. The only comment I will make about counseling is this: what took you so long?! 🙂 I know that the Holy Spirit is my best Counselor, but there are times that I could not function lest I had that counseling gift with a voice that was not just in my head. From my past, to being a pastor’s wife, to people that I thought were friends and gave the worst of betrayals, to issues with children that I love deeply, it has been a trusted counselor that has helped me through my own Valley of the Shadow of Death. My most recent counselor had to take a sabbatical last year. Fifteen years of counseling free-as a ministry-I don’t blame her, but just when I thought I was making progress 🙂 And I am so glad you didn’t go the “biblical counseling” route. It did more damage than good especially to some of my kids. We thought we were doing the right thing. If had to “put on and put off” one more time! Bravo, Sharon! I will not be a cricket. It is God who shines light in the darkness and sometimes that darkness is long for the soul, but what a sweet reward to know He will not leave, even in the darkness.

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  4. Margie Z says:

    Sharon, I just might print this one out and keep it forever. As someone who has often struggled with feeling “terrible for no discernible reason,” this post really resonated with me. And it helped me to read it. Thank you. (PS Your friendship has meant an awful lot to me and my family, just fyi.)

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  5. “If you say instead, ‘I feel terrible for no discernible reason,’ it’s much harder for people to know what to say. Buck up? Count your blessings? Don’t be such a narcissistic baby? I’ve directed all of that advice at myself, without it doing much good.”

    This stands out to me as a likely reason (although not necessarily the only reason) you and I and lots of other people have been allowed to feel exactly this way: because people who haven’t don’t have a clue what to say to people who have. I watched everybody in my life floundering – but obviously trying very hard – in attempts to deal constructively with a depressed teenager for the four hardest years of my life. I also formed a fast friendship with another depressed kid in my high school, and here we both are a decade later, more functional than not. He didn’t have the kind of support I did, but he had me, because I got it when nobody else did.
    And you have this blog, where you can let other people like us know they’re not alone and encourage them from your own experience, with regard to counseling for instance.
    So there’s one discernible reason.

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    • Oh, Kate. That’s actually a really kind and encouraging thing to say, that last sentence. It also serves as a balm to the whole “my life will have meant nothing” anxiety.

      I’m glad your friend had you, and that you had each other. And that you had support, even if it was from people who didn’t know what to say. And I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to know you! The Imaginarium is the gift that just keeps on giving. 🙂

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  7. Kathleen Lundquist says:

    So brave of you to share your experience here, Sharon – thank you so much. Speaking as one who (and whose family)’s had more than my share of counseling/psychological treatment, it really is worth putting in the time to discern the temporal problems from the spiritual ones – and I’m glad you found someone with that discernment.

    And that RFC quote is amazing! Totally stealing and sharing. 🙂 Love and prayers to you.

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  8. jubilare says:

    “Buck up? Count your blessings? Don’t be such a narcissistic baby?” Conjure the mental image of me thumping you over the head with a stick every time you say something like that to yourself. There may be times for the latter two, but they are certainly not right for times of depression.

    I’m glad you are starting to feel better. If you’re like me, some days you fall backwards, and some days you stride forward. It’s frustrating, but not pointless. I think, as Christians (not that other people don’t do this too) we sometimes look too hard for reasons. Why is this happening to me? Why does God allow this? Natural enough questions, I guess, but what if the answer is “there’s no answer you can understand yet?” What if the answer given to one of us is only for that one, and not for all who face similar struggles? That’s my current perspective, anyway. Asking the questions is ok, but beware those offering “answers.”

    Have you asked your counselor if Obsessive Compulsive behavior might be a factor? The over-analysis, the persistent self-critique, the inability to get away from that angsty head-voice all sound like the internal side of that problem. If it is a factor, recognizing it for what it is can help you overcome it. It could be worth a question. Counselors don’t always consider it if there are no clear external manifestations (I had both), but the internal manifestations can be at least as damaging and are, from what I’ve seen, quite common.

    “But I decided some time ago that if God has called me, there’s no sense trying to pretend to God or anyone else that I’m something other than what I am.” Amen to that! Ingenuousness is dishonesty, and that dishonesty is glaring when it shows and dangerous when it doesn’t. We don’t need false idols of “perfect people” in church leadership, we need people who are willing to be as open and honest with us as humanly possible in order to perpetuate honesty and the patience to love in spite of faults that we all need from one another.

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    • There is so much wisdom in this comment that it really should be its very own blog post. You are very smart for one so young! 🙂

      You know, I’ve been thinking about printing that post off and letting my counselor read it – because I’m actually better at describing how I feel in print than in person. Maybe I’ll take that opportunity to ask him the question you suggest. Thank you!

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      • jubilare says:

        It would be a somewhat dis-jointed blog post. Bunnytrailoricious. Ooo, new word! In any case, wisdom is a tricky thing, don’t you think? You seem to have your share of it, whether you will admit it or not, and no doubt you’ve tripped in some of its pitfalls, as I have.

        I think showing the post to your counselor is an excellent idea. I, too, often express myself better in print than verbally. I wonder why that is.
        The O.C. thing may not be relevant, of course, but if it is, I’ve found it helpful to know. Whatever our issues are, I’ve always found it helpful to pull mine out of the shadows and name them. Knowing what they are, how they work, and that they are Not Me, has helped me survive and combat them, and most of all, not be ashamed that I struggle. *internet hugs*

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  9. jmhernando says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m studying to be in ministry and walk out this very melancholic, often depressive patch you describe here every couple of months. It seems unending and always comes back somehow. Reading this makes me feel less alone. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me. Yes, counseling (beyond the biblical) has certainly helped me. So thankful for it! Also, this bible passage and much of psalms means so much to me. Doesn’t make everything better but certainly helps me walk it out. Thanks again for sharing!

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    • I’m so glad this is helpful to you! You are certainly not alone, we just don’t have a lot of avenues in the church to “find” others who are going through the valley. Thank you for reading and commenting, and for staying on the path of your calling even through the difficult times.

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  10. Jerry Sizemore says:

    Sharon,
    I am new to your blog. I was just researching the valley of Baka and you were number 2 on Google. Congratulations. But, what a blessing to read your thoughts. I am a Pastor who also has gone through much counseling. Others have questioned my calling. I found great help from both Christian and secular sources and accepted them all as gifts from God. Now God has allowed me to minister to others on the same journey passing through the same valley. He is using your experiences to be a blessing to many. In spite of hearing crickets I pray you will continue to be open and transparent. It is a great encouragement to folks like me.

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  12. LadyOwl says:

    I enjoyed your post, however the Psalms of Ascent begin at 120 and go through to 134. Psalm 84, as lovely as it is , is not one of the Ascent songs

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  13. LadyOwl says:

    Thanks Sharon. You know, you are NOT a sinner
    ROMANS 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
    The key word here is “were” , once you are saved you are no longer a sinner. You still have a sinful nature but unless you are ruled by sin you are no longer a sinner
    LOL, sorry, I seem to be in a ‘correcting’ mood tonight, I don’t mean to sound self righteous, I just want you to take comfort in the fact that you aren’t a sinner now and will never be so again!
    Of course we all still do the wrong thing now and then, we are only human after all, but nothing will ever separate you from Gods love X

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