We could celebrate spring, but we really haven’t had much winter. That’s partly a function of living in this area generally, but it’s also connected to our current drought. The flowers that bloom in the spring are doing just that and have been for some time – too soon for some. The Sierra snowpack is dismal which means extended drought and mandatory rationing in the forecast. It’s safe to say that the “winter of our discontent” is not in the beauty of the climate but in the sparseness of water. Water is life and the lack of it can most certainly become a “valley of our shadow.” At some time or other in our lives, each of us will walk through a “valley of shadow.” It may be death; it may be drought; it may be depression; it may be destruction, but as surely as we are alive we will face difficulties.
As Lent draws to a close and we look to Easter, I am reminded of the ways in which Easter is a much more powerful experience when it rises from the agony and pain of the Passion. What do we learn, must we learn, from this time of Lent? Baptist News Global published an article yesterday on Baptists and Good Friday. The gist of the article is to encourage Baptists, for whom this has not always been a part of their tradition, to learn the value of Lenten practice, particularly the commemoration of Good Friday. In the article, Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, argues that ignoring Good Friday robs Easter of its meaning. He says, “We have to reckon with ruin and death to fully celebrate the power and liberation of life that we encounter in Christ’s resurrection.”
This road we walk is a complete journey with peaks and valleys, sweeping vistas of consummate inspiration and a shadowy vales of pervading pain. The old song sings that Jesus “walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself. O nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” There is a sense in which this is true for each of us as we travel through life. It sometimes feels just plain lonely. We may even cry out, with Christ on the cross, “Why, O God, have you forsaken me?” The abyss before us appears impassable.
Be clear that I am not suggesting that anyone actively seek suffering. Lent and Good Friday are not necessarily to be desired or sought out, yet they inevitably come. Note that the old song takes a twist when it sings, “Nobody else could walk it for him.” That’s where the real truth lies. No one else can walk our way “for us,” but surely someone else can walk it with is. This is does not mean we won’t experience the loneliness, the pain, the suffering but we do not have to face it alone. Accompaniment is one of the characteristics we teach in pastoral care and counseling, but you don’t have to be a trained professional to walk alongside someone in need.
God walks the dark hills
The ways, the byways
He walks through the billows
Of lifeʹs troubled sea
He walks through the cold dark night
The shadows of midnight
God walks the dark hills
Just to guide you and me
My sister had Iris DeMent’s haunting version of this song sung at my nephew, Jack’s, memorial service several years ago. At 21 he died of an overdose of heroin on Thanksgiving Day. The loss, the pain for her, for us all, was indescribable. And still, somewhere there was a sense, a haunting hope, that we do not walk dark hills or lonesome valleys alone. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”
We don’t seek suffering to prove this point. Suffering, pain, death – they come on their own. But, amazing grace! in the depths of the journey we discover that we are not alone. We are accompanied every step of the way. I know it may be hard to feel the presence at times and we move toward despair. Even Jesus agonizes in the garden and cries from the cross – and still he moves steadily, faithfully on to fulfill God’s call. Even through death, all the way down to the depths of “hell,” Love lures him on to the promise of resurrection and new life in the One who created life and holds it dear.
It’s both Good Friday and Easter. You really can’t have one without the other. The upcoming concerts for the Choral Project are organized around the theme, “Chiaroscuro,” that great Italian term for the interplay of light and darkness. The artist knows that somehow each enhances the other. At the end of the concert, we sing a text drawn in part from The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. In resurrection language the finale proclaims, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with the beloved, transforming the beloved in the Lover.” Strange language, perhaps, from an ancient mystic. Still, does it not speak of our resurrection hope, to be united in the Lover, to be joined with Christ, to linger in the healing grace of God? To have experienced the fullness of the journey can only enrich the joy of reaching the destination. Christ is risen, indeed!