Passing through the Valley of Baca

Joel 2:23-32
2:23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.

2:24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

2:25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.

2:26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

2:27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

2:29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Psalm 84:1-7
84:1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

84:2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

84:3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

84:4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah

84:5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

84:6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

84:7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

When that beautiful Psalm 84 was written, it was talking about a specific place—the Temple in Jerusalem. It was one of the wonders of its time, according to the Bible. This was the place in Israel where God officially lived, where sacrifices were offered daily as a reminder of the covenant between God and God’s people.

The Temple was built of beautifully carved cedar, and the entire building was lined and covered with gold. It was full of gold and  bronze furnishings, and it glittered in the sunlight, and it stood at the top of a hill so you could see it from a long way off. For people who lived in tiny villages in the desert, it must have looked like a preview of heaven.

The Temple was a pilgrimage destination, and going on a pilgrimage was the high point of a believer’s life. These are long journeys, though, so people entertained each other on the way by telling stories or singing together. This psalm was probably one that people sang as they travelled toward the Temple, anticipating the holy splendor they would soon see: “How lovely is thy dwelling place!”

But the psalm also tells us that to  get there, the pilgrims had to pass through a place called the Valley of Baca. This was not a fun part of the journey. It was dry, and rough, and rocky. Bring extra water, and try not to spend a lot of time there.

The Hebrew word “Baca” means tears and weeping, so that valley in Israel was literally the Vale of Tears. Traditional Christian theology sometimes uses this term to describe our earthly existence—an unhappy, meaningless place, full of sorrow and suffering, where we’re forced to wait until we can get to heaven, which is God’s real home.

Even if we don’t actually believe that we were put on earth to suffer, every one of us has passed through Baca. Disappointment, loss, grief, shame, fear, injury—these are a part of all our lives.

If you’ve spent much time in a desert, you know that the Valley of Baca is a great metaphor for those very hard times. I once went camping with a friend in Anza Borrego State Park, which is a hilly, stony desert in southeastern California. We set up camp on a plateau surrounded by enormous boulders, near a dry creek bed, under two dead-looking palm trees. It was hot and dusty, and the hillside was home to thorny plants and enormous snakes. We camped there because the view was magnificent and the thorny plants were in bloom, and we had a cool, shady shelter.

But imagine if your path forced you to walk for days through such a place—the dust rising from the trail, the rocks in your shoes, the thirst, the exhaustion, children whining “Are we there yet?”

We have at least three possible ways to deal with such a situation.

We could rush through the Valley of Tears, try to get that part of the journey over with as fast as possible, try to get back to normal. That often seems to be what our culture wants of us, and we seem to expect it of ourselves too. Really, you’re still grieving? You’re still depressed? It still hurts to walk? It’s been four months!

Or we could try denial or distraction, even as we faint from exhaustion and thirst. Smoking, drinking, drugs, and junk food help us ignore our reality. So do shopping, overwork, video games, social media, even books. Whatever shuts out the pain…

Third, we could yield helplessly to our misery, just sit down in the road. Go on without me. I’m not going to make it out of here. I think about my grandmother here, who, by age ten, had lost her father, then her mother, and then she was abused by her stepfather and his next wife until she was finally able to escape that home in her mid-teens. She told her story to anyone who would listen, for the rest of her life. She was never able to leave the Vale of Tears. She never got out.

So there are three possible ways we can lose our way in the Valley of Baca—rushing through the pain, denying it completely, or succumbing to it.

But there’s also a fourth choice. At Anza Borrego, I discovered that the dry creekbed was cool to the touch, and when I dug down a few inches with my fingers, I found that the sand was damp. If I’d been able to dig deeper, I could have uncovered the little creek that was still running under the sand.

The psalm tells us that when the pilgrims came through that valley, they turned it into a place of springs. For a while, they stopped trying to get back to normal, stopped trying to make progress, quit trying to deny their reality, but they also did not give up. They took a break, to acknowledge their exhaustion, to rest, drink some water, empty the gravel from their shoes, and think about their ultimate goal and how inspiring it was going to be to see the Temple. And then, they looked for the cool, damp sand—maybe by observing where those dead-looking palm trees had chosen to grow. And they began to dig, until they uncovered the hidden springs under the sand. And so they turned the vale of tears into a place of wells—of refreshment and nurture—and not only for themselves, but for future travellers, for future generations. Because those who have passed through Baca have the capacity to nurture and heal others who are making that journey. That’s why we have AA and Al-Anon, and grief support groups.


Over three years ago, we all entered the Valley of Baca at once, with no maps. Between one Sunday and the next, life changed radically. Was it OK to pass strangers on the sidewalk? Was it safe to keep schools open?  Should we keep going to our offices to work? How about gathering in churches? No one really knew. Many of us decided it would be smart to take precautions—after all, it would just be for a few weeks…a couple of months at most. And so we learned to meet each other on Zoom.

But the road through the Valley of Baca turned out to be a lot longer and rockier than anyone had anticipated.

Even in our bewilderment and fear, though, we still dug down to find a way to take care of each other. The hidden springs we found were our love and concern for each other and for others, our need to participate in community even as we knew we had to stay apart, and our creativity.

By now, many churches have created hybrid services and meetings, so those who are able to, those who feel safe, can meet in person. And those who need to protect themselves, or who are ill, or who are far away, can still join in community. The technology that so many of us were forced to learn as fast as possible, is enabling us to truly become a “church without walls.” You don’t have to be in Seattle or even in the United States to participate in the life of this church. God’s lovely dwelling place has expanded to become the whole earth. We are all truly connected, from the neighborhood surrounding our little church, to Everett and Tacoma and Arlington and Port Gamble, to California and Maine and Florida, all the way to Lebanon and Germany and Colombia.


At the same time, as Meighan reminded us last week, we’re looking at the threat of the entire world becoming a Valley of Baca. Global warming is not just about people suffering in faraway places anymore. It’s about a forest fire we could see from Capitol Hill last summer, it’s about salmon runs shrinking, it’s about neighborhoods in West Seattle flooded by king tides last December.

Sometimes it feels like the Valley of Baca is endless. But the springs still run under the sand, and we can still dig down to find creative solutions, passionate commitment, and love. Our work might be writing postcards to government and corporate officials. Or marching and demonstrating near banks that support fossil fuel corporations. Or choosing the least damaging form of transportation, if that is available to us. Or buying locally grown food or planting our own gardens.

And when the Valley of Baca seems too wide and too dry, we can remember that we don’t have to do the work all alone. From across the world to next door, our brothers and sisters are working together to maintain and restore this lovely dwelling place for all of us, including our non-human siblings. The psalm tells us that the rains came and made pools of clear water in the desert, and the prophet Joel also promises us “abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.”


And Joel gives us this promise, too:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions.

Joel makes sure to include all of us in this promise. We are all facing the challenges of expanding our work into the larger world at the same time we are helping each other hold on to the vision of God’s lovely dwelling place. And we put our faith in God’s promises to us. And that mighty Spirit of Love, that inspires and refreshes us, will help us ask and answer these questions, face these problems, and take nourishment from the hidden springs of love. Amen

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