Discovering Diamonds in the Valley of Suck

Everybody’s valley is so incredibly unique and different.  One of the most humbling things of a being a pastor and spiritual director are the stories told to us and the invitations to enter into the lives of families.  One of the things I have been most convicted by has been my self-centered view of faith and the world.  Clergy are no different from the rest of humanity when it comes to the temptations we face - we are being invited to go off in different directions by the tempter.  The story Heather and I have shared is not the only one.
There is a sad truth I think we writers forget to address.  Our stories are likely not all we make them out to be.  When I take the time to listen, I realize there are some far more moving and heart-wrenching stories being made.  The only difference is we happen to write them down.  We may not be even any good at that but we do it because we can.  

I heard today about a protest at Yale where students are saying the English department is creating an environment ‘hostile to students of color.’  Why? Because there is too much focus on white male poets and authors and not enough focus on minority writers.  I have to confess my first thought was one of disbelief.  Really?  Take other classes then!  There are so many other things going on in the world!  Like I said, that was my first thought.

But when you are in the valley of suck, in the deepest, nastiest places where light barely seems to reach, you see things differently.  New connections between life, faith, politics, family, culture, and more get made (or you become hard hearted and hell-bent on making your home in the valley of suck. Not my plan).  I remembered another realization I had made: maybe the most profound spiritual people through the ages we will never know because they never wrote a book or blog or gave a speech or sermon.  

The loudest voices are not necessarily the holiest voices.  The best crafters of words and phrases may not be the most caring and compassionate people.  The most beautiful people rarely seem to live in ways worth emulating.  I suspect the greatest teachers we could ever know may never publish a single word for us to hear or read.  But their lives have lived lessons worth telling.  We’ll likely never hear though.

As much as the valley of suck, well, sucks; it has the potential to change and rearrange and reinterpret how you view the world.  When you are buried in the crap and mess, you grab hold of any glimpse of beauty and truth!  And the real secret is: in the valley of suck, you can begin to see the difference between a cubic zirconium and a diamond.  You also discover that the beauty of truth is still beauty and the “package” does not really matter.  

I think this is what the Yale students may be trying to say and point out.  It is not about a bunch of old dead white guys - it is that truth and beauty don’t have the same wrapper all the time.  When will we recognize the other voices of truth and beauty (which may also be old and multi-ethnic) have a place at the table?  

But that means change and growth and sometimes suffering. We are averse to suffering.  Our natural wiring is to avoid pain but you also do not grow if there is not some pain.  We forget it happens to us as we grow from children to adults because it happens so slowly in our bodies.  So how do we grow after reaching adulthood?  We live and we hurt and we learn.  You didn’t realize that growing up meant walking through the valley of suck did you?  Surprise!

Jesus dealt with the suck of life.  We sterilize it but it is there again and again.  Jesus dealt with lepers and demon-possessed folk.  He dealt the raw emotions of a people who were oppressed and shamed by a tyrannical government in Rome who couldn’t tolerate the Jewish people and their monotheism and rituals.  Jesus knows the valley of suck all too well, which is why I keep agreeing with it being a book of God’s revelation and not one of human creation.

One of the stories I keep dealing with understanding has been the story of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet because we just don’t do that anymore.  It doesn’t fit our society, our culture, our pattern of life.  Maybe read just this little part...

John 13:3-5  Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.

I mean, I GET IT.  I know the cultural context and the theology, the exegesis, and inductive reflection.  It does not translate well.  But the valley of suck changed it.  I could have missed it if it was not part of the story Heather and I have written with our lives.  Heather needed me.  And before we got to the point we are now; her body failing and lying in a hospital and me writing, she needed me to help her take a shower.  She didn’t want me to see what the cancer had done but she did not have a choice.  She needed my help.  I helped with everything she asked.  And then, after getting to a certain point she said, “Ken, I need you to dry my feet and add lotion.”

As I knelt down, I would have been an idiot to miss it.  The valley of suck already puts you on your knees but this was different.  My wife - Jesus in the flesh -  told me the opportunity to wash the feet of others is still here. NOT figuratively - literally.  Oh wait, are we allowed to take the Bible literally?  Get over it.  In the valley of suck, “servant leadership” rings hollow and empty. It got incredibly stale in light of, you know, the opportunity to actually BE a servant. Keep preaching it if you want - I am not buying it.  Not anymore.  I cannot do it.  The wrapper is off and I can see the difference between the knock-off and genuine article.  

So I say more power to the Yale students for their protest and challenge.  There is truth we’re missing out on and maybe we can hear some more stories from the valley of suck we need to hear.  Honestly, keep your “Ivy League” and your “Ivy Tower,” come down in the valley of suck and discover there are stories Jesus is recreating every day, we just have to get on our knees to see them and live them, if you want.


Unknown said...

Well said, Brother

rhymeswithplague said...

"we just don't do [foot-washing] anymore."

I suppose it depends on what the definition of "we" is. Certainly not the mainline denominations. But I know of at least two groups of Christians who still practice foot-washing, though probably less frequently than a few decades ago. They are the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) which considers it one of three ordinances, and the Primitive Baptists. I think these groups do it to show solidarity with and obedience to Jesus ("If I have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet"), but it might be construed as a "voluntary humility." But you kneeling down to dry and put lotion on Heather's feet is the genuine article, done out of love, not to fulfill a religious obligation.

Ken Hagler said...

Hey rhymeswithplague, yes, thanks for letting me clarify. Many churches, even mainlines, have the service of worship for foot washing. But Jesus' act reflected an actual practice of hospitality for servants to do when guests arrive. A host wouldn't do it and certainly not a rabbi. Our western culture/society is hard pressed to find a comparison.

I might well have missed it myself but thankfully didn't.

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