It was a beautiful moment. A triumph.
We stood on the platform waiting for our respective trains, buzzing from the evening’s festivities. Only three months after first arriving on the field, I had managed to clean myself up (leaving my normal mommy uniform of jeans and a Kansas Jayhawks t-shirt at home), get myself to the train and find my way through the city centre, guided by Georgian doors and the brisk, independent European gait. It was my coming-out party; or at least, it felt that way to me. My first act of service, volunteering at an esteemed lecture, diving deeper into the culture I wanted so desperately to understand.
Four hours later, my feet were killing me, but I felt alive. So alive, I knew what was coming.
“You’re doing so great, all of you,” my new friend and trusted colleague said to me. “How do feel about it, now that it’s been a few months? Do you feel like you’re doing great?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think it’s been really great. But I’m afraid,” I paused, uncertain of her response, but knowing my rhythms and the patterns that have followed me all my life.
“I’m afraid,” I began again, “I’m about to be not so great.”
The Wicklow Mountains aren’t all that tall, but gently sloping peaks offer views of the sea on one side, a beautiful evergreen valley below. You can walk these hills and find yourself in a clearing where the earth unfolds around you, revealing places you never knew existed. A monastery. A sandy beach. Twin lakes like mirrors to the sky. You don’t realize how high you are until you see what lies below: this valley, so cleverly hidden by mountaintops, waiting for you all the while.
The valley whispers to me; white static noise, the soundtrack to even the happiest of moments. It is the valley of the shadow of depression, anxiety and fear. From the mountaintop I can see it, feel it waiting for me. No matter how beautiful or triumphant the moment, I find myself waiting for the fall, looking for the valley that will enfold me.
I was right that night. I was about to be not so great, slowly descending into the shadows of anxiety till I found myself in tears, a shaky hand holding a positive pregnancy test. Surprise!, the valley said. Half a year into our first term overseas and we were expecting baby number three. Another beautiful moment, leading to an excruciating year in the valley of depression.
Here is where I could very well insert the Spiritual Lesson you might be hoping for. But the truth is, when you are in that valley – surrounded by peaks you are so sure you’ll never set foot on again, wondering if God is hiding behind those very mountains that betray you – you simply don’t want to hear it. Maybe even God is the very last thing on your mind.
The valley keeps us entrenched in ourselves, our circumstances, running in circles to escape our doubts and our fears. God’s purposes for that time run a distant second to surviving it. We find ourselves isolated in our host culture, emotionally and geographically distanced from our families, trying to maintain ministry when the fact is we are lost and God’s steady hand in our life has slipped from view.
Even then, especially then, He brings mercy. A cool drink of water, a parting of the clouds, a fresh wind from beyond the hills that surround you, that surround me.
Can you see it? Feel it? Recognize it?
I stood on the train platform that day and shared a part of myself I was so used to hiding. God knew more and knew better than I did; He knew what the valley would entail. And He encouraged a moment of vulnerability and accountability that remains even now, six years later.
He wants us to let Him in, and He wants us to let others in when we are facing a valley. We simply must allow a friend, a mentor or a counselor to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of depression. He, too, waits for us, calls to us, whispering the name He has graven on His hands. Our wandering, homeless Saviour Jesus waits for us all the while. Even in the valley, and beyond.
What mercies have been extended to you in the valley?