When I was a boy, my Dad would often say to me “Rusty…life is full of both mountains and valleys.” And what he was trying to teach me was that life would have ups and downs at various times. To teach me that in life, I would experience some magnificent mountain top moments, and some really difficult days in valleys of adversity, loneliness, and pain. And the reason he was teaching me this was to prepare me to handle both of these high points and low points of life with courage, integrity, and faith. So that I could fully enjoy the ups without becoming cocky, and I could endure the downs without becoming discouraged.
But what my Dad forgot to mention was that there might be situations when I would experience both mountains and valleys on the same day…when I would have to negotiate both mountains and valleys at the same time! Because that is precisely what happened today for me, and the team, here in Lebanon!
Today was always meant to be a pinnacle of sorts. Today was the day when all those theme projects I told you about yesterday that we were behind on had to be completed, and then brought together. Today was the day when a school wide assembly was planned where each class would share what they had learned about ecology this week. Today was the day when parents and the community were invited to come to the school and, not only participate in the assembly, but also attend an exhibition of all the work and projects that had been done. And it happened! Even though there were moments this week that I wandered in the valley of doubt (and so did some of the rest of our team!), it all happened and came together in a magnificent way. And there was joy! In the voices of the children, on the faces of the parents, and in the hearts of the staff, faculty, and our team…there was joy as we stood on that mountain top together!!!
But then…we went to the valley…
We traveled to the Beqaa Valley (sometimes transliterated as “Bekaa”) near the Syrian border, to visit a refugee camp for Muslims who have been displaced because of the Syrian war. The people in these camps have lost virtually everything. They have lost their homes, lost their lands, and lost many of their family and loved ones to the war. They take shelter in make-shift tents, and get work to make a living anyway they can find it. They don’t just literally live in a valley …they actually live in one of “those valleys” that my Dad once warned me about.
But the reason we went to this particular camp is because some of their children are in the school we have been serving this week. It is their children that we have gotten to know. And it is their children that we have come to love. So we were invited to come to this camp because they wanted to express their gratitude for what we were doing for their children.
I guess what I am trying to help you understand is that we were not there simply to observe the difficulty of life as a refugee, and feel sorry for them. We did not go so that we could assess their situation, and figure out a way to fix things. We went because they invited us. We went to be their guests. We went to connect with them, to get to know each other, and to experience the gift of their love, gratitude, and hospitality. And we did!
I wish I could really describe for you just how significant and life-changing this moment was for me. I wish I could adequately share with you the genuineness of their gratitude, the warmth of their hospitality, the joy with which they greeted us, and the authenticity with which they offered their friendship…but I can’t seem to find words big enough to convey the fullness of my heart! In a word, it was nothing short of a holy moment, and a gift from God.
And that is what surprised me. I guess that is what my Dad didn’t fully prepare me for. You see, joy was what I was supposed to feel on mountain tops, not valleys. Blessed was something I was supposed to feel when something had been accomplished, not when so much had been lost. And yet, here I was feeling both joyful and blessed while eating, drinking, sharing, and laughing with people whose situation is difficult and challenging. In other words, I had “mountain top feelings” in the midst of a “valley situation”.
To be honest I didn’t know what to do with that at first. My first instinct was to feel guilty both for the feelings that I had, and because I simply can’t imagine the kind of life that this kind of displacement really dictates. But as the night wore on God began to do a new thing in me (I told you it was a “holy moment"). He began to open my eyes not only to the difficulty, suffering, and challenge that I could plainly see… but also to the power of his presence and provision that was just as plain to see but often gets overlooked when we are in the valleys of life.
You see, the sin of this world had taken away these people’s homes, but it had not taken away their hope… because God had preserved it. It had significantly altered their life, yet they still lived life to the fullest…because God was still providing. And in that moment, I understood in a more profound and powerful way the truth of Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me
Your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in
the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Isn’t it interesting, ironic, and dare I say “providential” that our all inclusive God used a group of Muslims, to open my Christian eyes, in order to teach me a new truth about an old Hebrew Scripture! Isn’t it just like our amazing, loving, and always surprising God to lead me from the mountains into the valley in a single day…just to assure me that he is with us…all of us…in both!
Thank you, Church! For sending me to Lebanon so that God could make me a more complete follower of Christ, and a better pastor for you. I will see you soon!