A year ago, I was in Israel, studying for 6 weeks with Wheaton in the Holy Lands. The trip began on May 17th and ran through June 28th, and we had to keep a daily journal of what we learned and did as part of the course, so I’ve been reading through each day’s journal entry one year later before I go to bed each night.
And wow. It’s been amazing for a number of reasons, but I’m finding that somehow the things I learned one year ago while in the Holy Lands are encouraging and teaching me each day today. The things I learned one year ago are really poignant for my life today, and as I read through each day’s journal entry from last year, it’s like the lessons from archaeological sites in Israel are casting light on my life at home in Fairview, Texas. Go figure. I think maybe the things I learned impacted me at the time, but since we learned so much and did so much in our typical 10-12 hour days “in the field,” it was hard to process everything, to make sense of it all and its impact on the rest of my life.
I should probably back up and say that a ton has been going on in the past three months during which I was MIA here: I co-led a spring break service trip with Wheaton undergrad students to Toronto, my sister Madelyn got married (first girl in the family, so it was an involved affair!), my grandpa Tutu passed away, I flew to Hawaii and turned down my old teaching job there, I submitted my Master’s capstone project after some last minute changes which had me working 100 hours on it in the final two weeks, I graduated from Wheaton with my Master’s degree the day before Madelyn graduated from Wheaton undergrad, my mom and I celebrated my graduation at Disney World, and I turned 28.
Pretty much, I stayed one step…or maybe a half step…ahead of things over the past three months. But now, my head is above water, I’ve unpacked almost all of my Wheaton life into my bedroom at my parents’ home in Texas, and I’m processing and able to breathe again, just in time to revisit the narrative from last summer.
So much has struck me from what I learned last year, and while I intended to post on all of it while it was happening last summer, I’m actually glad I didn’t because the year’s distance from the trip has given me perspective and helped me reframe it into my everyday life. That’s one of the things I prayed for while I was in Israel, as I wondered what I would do with all of the amazing things we saw and learned—how would this practically impact my life so that I wouldn’t just “have the experience but miss the meaning” (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot)?
The first theme that stood out as I started reading back through is the idea of valleys. Now, I don’t want to be one of those people who says something like, “Well, I can explain it to you, but unless you’ve seen, you won’t really get it,” because those people are the worst. Did it help me to see the landscape and study the physical geography of Jerusalem, the wilderness, and other places in the Holy Lands? Yes, it absolutely did. Was I incapable of understanding salient truths in the Bible until I saw those sites? No, I was not. So it helped me—especially because I’m a highly visual learner—but please don’t think I feel spiritually superior because I’ve been to Galilee or the Mount of Olives. Those people are also the worst.
However, my idea of “valley” imagery was that sometimes we’re led into or through the valley for a season, and then we’re back out again. Memorizing Psalm 23 when I was in second grade probably framed that picture in my mind: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” So valleys were things you reluctantly go into for a time, pray that God meets you in them, and then hope you make it out unscathed to the other, happier side, leaving behind the seasonal valley.
I think imagery in songs contributes to that view—that valleys are something we face, we “go through,” we “journey” into, and so on. When I look at my life, that image works: some seasons have been a struggle—a sort of valley of suffering or darkness—but more often, I would say I’m living outside of the valley, not necessarily on a mountaintop, but maybe on a plateau. The imagery works, and I don’t think it’s wrong.
However, when we made it to the biblical and historical City of David in Jerusalem last year, in which pretty much everywhere you look is “up” because of its situation between mountains and south of the Temple, “valley” imagery took on new meaning.
We talked about Psalm 121:1-8, when David was very literally standing in the valley, looking up to the hills and praying for help and protection. The valley was—and is—a vulnerable position. People can come easily over the hills toward the valley and those down in that valley are like sitting ducks.
Additionally, in Psalm 125:2 David writes: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” David assumed his readers at the time knew the context since it was their own situation of being in the valley, surrounded by mountains. He didn’t have to write, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem on all sides because the City of David is actually low in the valley with the Mount of Olives to the east and the watershed ridge to the west” like I’m explaining. His audience understood that they were in the valley and needed protection. But, good news, David says: as those mountains surround Jerusalem, so God surrounds His people. He is higher than them, He is close to them, and He completely surrounds them on all sides.
Here’s what I wrote while standing in the City of David in Jerusalem last year:
“Valleys were not something people means as temporary, as if journeying through them in seasons, so much as the framing surroundings, the place in which life was physically and daily lived.”
Life for David and those living in the OT city of Jerusalem was literally lived in the valley, not through it seasonally.
While that fact terrifies me a little bit, thinking of the constant fear they had of invading neighbors, it’s also probably a better perspective. When I’m in a valley, I want it to be fast: get in, learn the lesson, get the heck out. Wash the dust off my feet and dirt off my hands and return back to that comfortable plateau life.
And yet, what if OT Israel understood something about the human position and God’s provision in a way that we often miss? What if, because they knew the realities of daily living in the valley, they had to physically rely on God to protect them and provide for them in a way that we miss when we escape to the plateaus? When OT verses mention God as the protector of the city, the provider and security in the valley, they are so much more than a token shoutout to God; they mean it very literally.
As I read back through that lesson from visiting the City of David on May 19th, 2014, I was brought to tears. I was feeling a little bit like I was in a valley—and I still do feel that way—but I was wondering how long I would be in this place and what God wanted to teach me. The sooner I figure it out, the sooner I’m out, right? But what if it’s not so much that God’s leading me through the valley as a reality that I’m already living in the valley? I’ve been in the valley, and I will be in the valley because the reality is that I need God’s protection and provision every day of my life, not just when I have cancer, not just when my world is changing and I cry out to Him about it, and not just now when I have a Master’s degree but no job and few leads for a job.
I believe that life on earth is lived in the valley—in between times, in between Jesus’ resurrection and our being with Him. I can view this season of unknown (more on that in an upcoming post!) with reluctance, a little bit annoyed at being brought into a low valley after having such an amazing two years in grad school, or I can view it as a new adventure of trusting God in this valley in which I’ve been living all along anyway. He is faithful, and I can lift my eyes up to the hills knowing that my Help comes to protect me and provide for me on literally all sides.