I've been helping a man named Kevin write a book.
For the last two months, we've been meeting up in coffee shops across Atlanta to flesh out his stories. I've given him writing homework. He shows up with chapters written and stories half-constructed. We edit his words line by line. We toggle back and forth in Google documents. It's humbling and good work for me. I like being around people when the lightbulbs go off in their heads.
Today we mapped out Kevin's story. We spread index cards across a communal table and we put his story together, piece by piece. If you've ever done the index card method then you know the process is hard work. You're forced to look at all the details of a simple story you've lived, dust them off, examine them from different positions, and extract the gold. This is what the reader wants, whether you make them dig for it or not: gold.
Kevin and I talked for a long time today about the valley. People in the church use this term a lot. You'll find that "valley" language hidden in hymns and scattered across commentaries because we love a God who loves to use the valley. I like to refer to the valley as any "less-than-hoped-for circumstance" you find yourself in. When you're heartbroken-- that's a valley. When you're in a pit of depression that seems endless-- that's a valley. When you're stuck feeling like God's not moving and God's not speaking-- that's a valley.
Maybe you're nodding your head now and saying, "Oh, that's the valley these church people talk about? I'm a regular visitor. I actually have season passes to the valley."
In response to that, I give you a big, fat ME TOO. God basically mails me my valley season passes before the season even begins. He sends me travel brochures for what's to come. It's like a rainstorm I can smell in the air. I expect to mark weeks and months of the valley in my planner.
The reason for so much valley isn't complicated: God grows me there. The more I press into my faith, the more valley I come across.
"I AM LEARNING TO REJOICE IN LOW-TO-THE-GROUND TERRAIN BECAUSE SO MUCH GROWTH WAITS FOR ME THERE. I NEED ONLY LEAN INTO IT."
"I love the valley," Kevin tells me today. There's a smile constantly plastered on his face and he loves to learn and grow so I know he isn't kidding. The man loves valleys. "That's where your heart gets tested."
You see, Kevin believes this whole life is about the heart. The bible talks a lot about the heart and why a healthy heart will affect your whole being. If life is all about the heart then that means we have to take our issues seriously. We have to work through them. We have to find the gold in the hard and painful stuff we walk through. Otherwise, we harden. We grow bitter. We fail to learn. We withhold forgiveness from the very person who needs it most in order to thrive: ourselves.
He gets it. Kevin surely gets that we are valley people living in a mountaintop culture.
"WE ARE FAULTY, MESSY BEINGS TRYING TO NAVIGATE THROUGH A CULTURE ENAMORED WITH HIGHLIGHT REELS."
Hate to break it to you but we are not mountaintop people. We weren't designed to always be front-and-center, curated and in control. Life is far too hard and weird to ever extract the idea from it that we are always meant to be constantly inspired or constantly praised. There's going to be hard, break-your-heart moments. They're guaranteed. They're our rites of passage in this club called humanity.
The question isn't: Gosh, will there be hard stuff to come? The question is: how can I embrace the pain that makes me grow? How can I say "yes" to the tests that make me a better human?
I'm not saying you won't get mountaintop moments from time to time. I want to believe we all get a good-sized stack of them and they shock our shoes off. I'm saying the valley isn't something to ignore, it's not the time to get down on our knees and beam up the "please take this away from me" prayers. Trust me, you're going to want to go through the painful stuff because that's where the gold comes in. That's where your faith becomes gold. That's where your heart becomes gold.
I'm not saying it will be pretty. I'm not telling you to pray for more valleys. In my own experience, going through is better than being teleported out of a valley though. You learn more when you walk through something as opposed to only ever grumbling, "Just take it away. Just take it away."
Mind you, I'm a frequent pray-er of the "take it away" prayer even though I know it rarely works. When I walked through depression in 2014, I was clogging up God's voicemail with "take it away" prayers. At some point, I wised up to what God was doing. I could almost hear him saying, "Can you please stand up for five seconds? Just five seconds. I want to release you but you have to get up and walk through it with me." The valley does not mean you're on lockdown, it means your growth is precious to God.
The prayer is simple though no easier to pray: "Lord, place me where I'll grow the most. Teach me to love the dirt that transforms me. Give me eyes that see the golden threads in my pain. Let me be a lighthouse in this valley. Let it be so."