In my childhood, it was reserved for the back of funeral cards. Over the past 26 months, the 23rd psalm has breathed life-giving comfort into me. Especially the part about being in the valley. Since first hearing the words “heart failure,” my husband and I have felt as if we’ve bought a house in the valley. Everyone has taken up residence there from time to time. As much as we plan and worry and try to avoid the valleys, they come, and necessarily so. Life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, of victory and defeat, of joy and grief, of mountaintops and valleys. According to an old Arab parable: “All sunshine and no rain makes a desert.” Likewise, all mountaintop and no valley makes a plain.
I grew up in the flat plains of south central Kansas. No mountains, so no valleys. But we have ditches, which are smaller but similar. And when you run off the road you’re traveling, you find yourself in the ditch. Sometimes that’s your own fault for being a careless teenage driver; sometimes it’s not. It could be a deer, or ice, or a blowout. But in the ditch is where you get rescued. Even if you get stalled on the road itself, you push your car off into the ditch before you fix it. And inevitably, someone comes by to help, even in pre-cell-phone days. Those years growing up on a Kansas farm run deep. So in my family, when we find ourselves in trouble, we usually say we’re in the “ditch,” but “valley” sounds much better.
This notable valley psalm is actually full of hope and understanding. Even the valley metaphor is a rich one for the suffering believer:
- A valley is a depression, longer than it is wide. We tend to travel it lonely and long.
- Fog settles in the valley. Most times it’s difficult to see what’s ahead.
- A valley often has a river running through it. Life’s constant busyness continues through the pain.
- Erosion creates a fertile valley floor. Amazing growth inevitably comes from the challenges.
It also seems significant that the word “shadow” is included in the 23rd psalm. It doesn’t say “valley of death” but “valley of the shadow of death.” A light must be present somewhere in order to cast a shadow. Total darkness cannot produce a shadow. God, the source of all light, has chosen to actually be in this valley with us. Rather than orchestrate from afar, he walks with us through the peril. Light is present in the valley, and help comes in the ditch.
Years ago my husband and I were traveling through some back roads on our way to a cabin we had rented when the kids were small. We passed by a little country church that had this message on the marquee: “Mountaintops are great for views and inspiration, but the fruit is grown in the valley.” We have quoted that to each other many times when we have found ourselves in a valley (ditch). Over the last two years, through hospitalizations, medication side effects, and daily complications of heart failure, we have become seasoned fruit farmers.
Recently, my interest was piqued by an organization called Hungry Harvest. Their mission is to reduce food waste by rescuing imperfect produce to feed the hungry. They take fruit that is fresh and good to eat, but is discarded before it is sold and eaten. Often the fruit is rejected because it is not perfectly shaped or uniformly colored. Since my diagnosis, I have often felt this way about my circumstance. Sometimes I’m not very hopeful. In fact, days come when my attitude and health may not be pretty and may even look quite useless. But God promises He can redeem even the parts of our lives that seem like failures, or misses. So as I continue to grasp His hand in mine, I am confident that God will use my harvest for good. After all, He’s been right there with me in the valley while I was growing it.