Jesus walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him. Nobody else could walk it for you or me; we have to walk it by ourselves.
About five years ago, I learned about a debate that had been brewing within the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song. The Presbyterian Church had determined it was time for a new hymnal, and this was the committee charged with deciding which hymns would be included. You can imagine the scope of this undertaking. The song we just sang provoked a debate.
Some people said, this song misses the point of our faith. There is no valley so lonesome that God won’t walk with us. There is no trial we have to stand without Christ. That’s part of the hope of Christ’s journey to the cross; there is no suffering we must go through alone. Singing this is theologically irresponsible said part of the committee, and these people have a point.
On the other side, some people said, right; it is true God can walk with us through any trial. But tell me, have you ever been to this valley? Because if you have, then you know. This song invokes an experience of how life feels sometimes —this same experience is named in the Psalms, mentioned part of the committee, and these people have a point.1https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-04/debating-hymns
Wherever you come down on this debate, what I can tell you is this valley is a legitimate place to find yourself. It may be grief that gets us there. It may be depression. It may be violation that comes when something or someone is taken from us. Whatever happened to get us into this valley, can we just acknowledge, this is an actual place to be. Food doesn’t taste right here. Time elapses differently. It is somehow possible to be both exhausted and unable to sleep. You can look in a mirror and not recognize yourself.
So when it happens that you find yourself left alone in this valley, know that you are not mistaken. You are not being theologically irresponsible or failing at faith. You are not at fault. You are simply in the valley. Please do not mistake your current location for your identity.
We know the truth: Wherever we find ourselves, we might not get to stay. So we who have come to the other side of the valley can testify that it’s not all there is. But what I want to know is how can a person believe that when he is in solitary or when she just had her kids taken away by the court? When it’s you in this lonesome valley, how can you believe there is something more? How can you hear us…
Today we are continuing our Easter series on the pronouncements of blessing and woe from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prayed to God, called the twelve disciples, then he came down the mountain and stood on the flat place. A whole crowd had gathered expecting him to heal them, desperate to hear a word of hope. Right away he shocks them by announcing, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
In our scripture today, the shock intensifies: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for [one day] you will laugh… Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now; [one day] you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21 and 25).
Now it matters that these statements do not tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t just say, “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” He also made it his business to share food and eat with people.
He didn’t just say, “Hey in case anyone out there happens to be mourning, really you should be so happy! Hashtag Blessed.” No. He encountered people who were mourning, and he went right into their house, and see your daughter isn’t dead, she’s just sleeping. Right in their living room, he saw their weeping turn into laughing —they laughed at him! (Luke 8:49-56)
More than just announcing proclamations, Jesus did the work. As though there is something we could do too. As though there is some work to the turning, something in the swinging in between the starving and the eating, in between the weeping and laughing, as though nobody gets stuck on one side or the other.
The unspoken commandment in his pronouncement of blessing and woe is this: be sure to remember. You who are hungry and grieving now, remember you will be eating and laughing one day, remember this dream. You who are full and funny and soaking up the gladness of life, remember those who are hungry because you were hungry once. Remember those who are grieving right now because you will grieve again one day.
And in preaching this promise, it’s like Jesus was remembering Psalm Thirty.
What I love about this song is how it praises God with shimmering intensity, so when the singer mentions being clothed with joy, we can believe her. “Sing praises to the LORD, O You his faithful ones!” Now of course, this unfiltered exultation is not uncommon throughout the Psalms; there are lots of praise songs that take this tone. Psalm Thirty does something more; in this song, the Psalmist also remembers the truth of her despair.
She remembers being scared to death. “To you, O LORD, I cried. What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?!” So sure, right now she is standing on the safe side, a sigh of relief filling her being, but she remembers being terrified. This makes me believe her.
If you have been to the Pit before, if you have walked that lonesome valley, see if you agree with me. The despair is not even the worst part. The crying all night; the food that doesn’t taste like food; the unreliability of time; the being unable to sleep… being alone is not even the worst part. I think the worst part is the terror that seizes us and taunts us asking: What if this will last forever? What if we die inside these walls, or worse, what if we don’t and we never get out…
The Psalmist made it out. She has come to the place of praise where we can join in singing, “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.” The Psalmist is testifying to God’s promise of turning. But of course we can believe this at sunrise. The problem is believing this when the night is relentless.
And I know. The right answer from the textbook says, this is when we need to have faith. Just have more faith; just do a better job of trusting! Okay. I can hear that. It is true that deepening our capacity for trust is part of growing in faith.
But when you’re the one who’s alone in the Pit or in the cell, and you’re telling yourself to trust in Jesus’ promise of turning, when you’re trying to remember, know this: something that could happen is the turning might come and find you.
You don’t have to make yourself believe what you cannot believe right now; but can you hear that? There’s a choir singing on the other side of the wall.
Here in this place, asking for help isn’t giving up. It is precisely the opposite; it’s letting those angels come into the house. Here in this place of grief upon grief, Jesus does not show up saying, “Oh I’m so sorry.” Instead, when he finds you he’s going to say, “Blessed are you! Blessed are you who despair in the dust because we’re about to get up from the dead.”
Right now in our world, there are people in the valley who are hanging on for dear life. There’s a reason why the practice of solitary confinement has been designated as torture, and we still have sisters and brothers in solitary. If I could say anything to someone trapped in prison, or depression, or death, I would tell them this: Sometimes you can hear singing through the wall. Like there’s a choir somewhere nearby who can see the resurrection and can’t stay quiet about it.
Sometimes on the worst day, we can hear them singing through the wall. And sometimes on maybe not worst the day, we’re the ones who need to do the singing, because somebody out there could hear us and believe joy is possible. Or somebody in here could hear us and believe.
I’ve shared this with you before. I have a friend whose son was in first or second grade. He was helping make cards to bring to people living in a nursing home. He drew different pictures on the cards, but on each one, he wrote the same message in large print: “We are coming to get you!”
I love how he thinks. You have to wonder, what exactly did he think they were going to do at this nursing home? I love how his message is both fiercely liberating and kinda threatening.
When you are in that valley that nobody else can walk for you, you are still part of the church, you are part of us, and we’re coming to get you. Listen for the singing. And when you’re not in that valley, when you have gotten up from the dead, please you have got to come help us. Somebody needs to get the dancing started. We will take the food out of the oven, and pour the drinks, and lay out a feast.
We will watch for the turning and praise God when we see it, so even the rocks in the walls will protest their permanence and join in the singing, so we can hear their music from the other side, oh hallelujah!
May it be so.
Footnotes [ + ]