My husband and I just relocated to our third country in the last two years. Each time we move, we get to travel once again on that lovely cultural-adjustment curve with its high honeymoon mountaintop that plunges down into the low culture-shock valley.
From the mountaintop, the rainy season is a beautiful bringer of new life. But in the valley, the days upon days of rain make my clothes moldy and a fire so much harder to start. When I’m in the valley, I am tempted to look back to the last time I felt near to God, thinking if only I could return there, then my joy would be restored.
Each time I sense myself starting to fall down that slope, I beg God to let me return to the mountaintop where life is exciting, God feels near and every day is an adventure. As I was wrestling with this, God reminded me of a sermon my husband preached once about Jesus’ transfiguration. He said that Peter wanted to build homes for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus because Peter wanted to live on the mountaintop. But Jesus refused to let Peter do that because he knew that true faith is formed and strengthened in the valley.
My husband’s sermon taught me that striving to stay on the mountaintop is not the answer. His words assured me that finding myself in the valley didn’t mean that I made a wrong turn. However, his sermon left me wondering how to navigate this valley time faithfully. So I returned to the transfiguration story to look for an answer. Right after Peter says he wants to make houses on the mountain, Matthew tells us: “While he [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5).
Right before Peter is kicked off the mountaintop, God gives him a clue about how to live well in the valley: listen. On the mountaintop, it is easy to listen to God because we are expecting to hear from him, and the mundane realities of life stop loudly demanding our attention. There’s a reason why retreats are often mountaintop moments: we put ourselves in a position to hear from God when we are physically removed from our normal tasks, when we come with expectant hearts and let someone else take care of our daily needs. But how can we take time to clear our heads and listen to God when the laundry needs to be done, the charcoal supply is dwindling and the tenth person of the day is knocking on our door?
I can look back on my life and see that each time I’ve found myself in a valley moment, God has met me. The methods may be different, but the actor is the same. This time God has been teaching me to listen through a daily gratitude meditation before bed. In the recording, a woman with a soothing voice prompts me to calm my breath and body and then slowly relive three moments of that day that I was grateful for.
Sometimes my mind is flooded with things I’m grateful for and it’s hard to just pick three. Other evenings I have to fall back on remembering that my heart was beating all day in order to get to three items. But the biggest change I’ve noticed since starting this routine is that I make mental notes throughout the day: “Oh that was nice! I’ll have to remember it for my gratitude list tonight.” The practice is compelling me to slow down, look, listen and really soak in the mini-mountaintop moments of each day.
Every time I finish this short practice, I have proof that God is with me in the valley. My moments of gratitude serve as guideposts for how God is working in and around me Slowly God is teaching me how to not let the valley fog disturb me or waste my energies trying to get back to the mountaintop, but to trust him wherever I find myself.
I am learning to follow the advice of Frederick Buechner: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
So I listen. Every day. Even when God seems silent. I count my blessings. Even when I would rather enumerate my frustrations. I wait in expectant trust. Even when I wish I could run back to the last mountaintop. God has asked me to listen, and I am so very grateful that I can rely on him to speak.
What are your favorite ways to listen to God? What do you do to sustain yourself when the valley times grow long?