This 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.