I used to brag that I grew up in the suburban hood. I want my life to seem more hardcore than it really was. While the neighborhood I grew up in was government subsidized housing, compared to the housing projects of New York, Chicago or even Kansas City, Missouri, my childhood home was a dream. More importantly, it was safe. Compared to high crime tenements, the police were not regular visitors to my neighborhood. Yet, at the same time, my childhood wasn’t easy, and it had nothing to do with the neighborhood I lived in. Over the years, as I matured, I learned to turn my weeping into refreshment.
Divorce, Poverty + Neighborhood Bullies
My childhood home was a glimpse into my situation. When I was young, my parents divorced. My dad lived 1400 miles away, so I saw him once a year for a few weeks at a time. When I was growing up, this seemed normal, but as a father now, it’s unfathomable. He missed out on my practices and games, school activities, first dates, my high school graduation.
Money was tight too. All of my clothes were hand-me-down or discount store items – especially early in my childhood. Our once-a-week trip to Wendy’s was a splurge. Thank God for the dollar movies. We were so poor, I didn’t realize we were poor until my middle school years. I assumed everyone lived the same way.
While my neighborhood was safe, it didn’t mean their weren’t neighborhood bullies. There was the kid a year or two older – Billy – who rode the school bus with me and my friends. I remember more than a few times of running as fast as my little legs could carry me from the bus stop to my front door. I don’t think I was in as much danger as I perceived, but from my eyes, my life was at risk.
Surviving Childhood: A Valley of Tears
But when it comes to disappointment, fear and pain, perception is just as important as reality. Those feelings are real. I felt a lot of pain growing up. And with pain comes tears. To be honest, there should have been more tears in my life. You have to wonder if I could have cried more. I should have wept over the disappointment, fear, pain.
When I read this passage from Psalms 84, it brought me back to my childhood:
“What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord, who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings. They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” -Psalms 84:5-7 NLT
Trees Tears + Blessing
My childhood flooded back to me when I read the footnote (click the little grey box next to the word/phrase in the Bible App) next to phrase ‘the Valley of Weeping.’ The ‘Valley of Weeping’ literally means:
The Valley of Poplars
This sent me on a research trail. In Hebrew, the word for ‘Poplar’ is ‘Baca.’ Baca can be translated as both a type of tree, which we would consider a poplar tree, and ‘weeping’. So you may wonder, what does this have to do with my childhood?
I grew up on Poplar Street.
We moved to that townhome on Poplar just after my parents divorced. I lived on Poplar until I moved out during my college years. In that neighborhood I made friends and ran from bullies. In that home I excitedly put on brand new clothes, but I more often reluctantly wore hand-me downs from my cousin and friends. I grew up and I learned to bury my feelings of heartache, shame and anger. My home on Poplar was a valley of weeping.
But it was more than hurt and heartache.
The Psalmist writes about the Valley of Poplars leading to Jerusalem, and while traveling through this valley, the travelers would be cleansed by seasonal rains and springs of refreshment. Yes, my home represented heartache, but it also was a place of cleansing. I learned there to turn weeping into refreshment.
All of us have a Valley of Poplars we’ve lived through. It’s possible you are walking through that dark valley right now. Maybe, like me, it was tough times as a child or teenager. The great news is the valley doesn’t have to be a place defined only by darkness. But it can a place or time to travel through to find God, his presence and spiritual abundance. Your Valley of Weeping can actually become a place of refreshment!
In that very passage, it gives a few hints on how to turn the valley of weeping into refreshment. Here is what we can learn from the Psalmist:
1. Find your strength in Jesus.
The Psalmist says,
“What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord…”
When you are in the valley, or if you seem to be stuck dwelling on those dark times in your life, you must find a strength from outside yourself. You need to find strength in Jesus. There are two simple ways to start this practice of finding strength in Jesus.
First, submit your life to him. When I said simple, I didn’t mean easy. Submission is no easy task. Submission is hard work. It’s laying down your own desires, wants and dreams, for Jesus to replace with his own for you. Submission doesn’t happen with one decision or prayer. Submission is daily, never-ending work, but in the end, it’s more than worth it, but difficult none-the-less.
Second, after you’ve submitted (and submitted again) you life to Jesus, then it’s vital to be filled with the Spirit. In Ephesians 5, Paul instructs the church members in Ephesus to imitate God. This is a tall task and impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul says:
“Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit,” -Ephesians 5:18 NLT
We find strength from Jesus by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Both of these, submitting to Jesus and being filled with the Spirit, are simple to begin. Both are a conscious act. Make a statement to Jesus you choose to submit your life or a specific aspect of your life to him. Ask the Holy Spirit to come and fill you. You don’t need a pastor, priest or mentor to do it. You can pray it yourself…right now!
Here’s the great news, as you journey through both the peaks and the valleys, you will find joy. You may not always be happy, but you will find joy by submitting to Jesus and being filled with his Holy Spirit.
2. Set your mind on finding God.
The very next line of the Psalm says,
“…who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”
After you’ve found strength through Jesus, you need to set your mind on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey toward a location associated with respect, reverence and honor. You could make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of a famous president or the museum holding important documents. In Jewish literature, Jerusalem represents the place God dwells. It was a place of great respect. To travel to Jerusalem was to find and worship God in his dwelling place, the temple.
A pilgrimage to the place of God looks different today. Since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus into heaven, God doesn’t dwell in ONE place. The Spirit of God lives in those who follow Jesus – you, me. To set your mind on finding God means daily searching both scripture and God’s word for your life. And you will find him!
“I love all who love me. Those who search will surely find me.” -Proverbs 8:17 NLT
This pilgrimage is one we are to take every day. Sometimes the journey will take you to and through dark places – both memories and lived events. What you do next, may be the most important key to finding and experiencing all God has for you.
3. Don’t avoid your valley.
The Psalmist says those on the journey,
“…walk through the Valley of Weeping…”
Those on a pilgrimage to find God don’t avoid the valley. They don’t find a way around the valley. Pilgrims don’t stop short. They walk through the valley of weeping. But take heart! God’s plan for your journey isn’t to do this alone. In the most famous Psalm in the Bible, David says,
“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” -Psalms 23:4 NLT
Not walking alone is more than God at your side though.
In fact, if we are walking with God (in the Light), then we are walking with others too. This is how the apostle John put it in his letter to the church:
“But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” -1 John 1:7 NLT
Looking back at Psalms 84, notice how the writer always refers to travelers in the plural. You aren’t designed to live life alone, so don’t try. Most of us avoid the valley because in the past, before we found strength in Jesus and worked diligently to find God, our experience with the valley of weeping was made more painful by being in the valley alone. When you are on the mountain top or the valley below, do it with others.
Travel with God, but travel with friends too.
4. Find sweet water.
The Psalmist continues on with this next phrase,
“it will become a place of refreshing springs.”
Years ago, my wife’s grandmother lived on a farm with a natural, fresh water spring. I visited it only once or twice, but the memory was etched in my mind. The spring, literally bubbled out of the ground. Inside a little shed built over the spring was a tin cup meant to be dipped into the spring.
I first visited the spring after gathering field stone for a small retaining wall in our front yard. After gathering a truckload of rock, I went into the shed and dipped my cup into that spring. The water needed no filter; it was the coldest, sweetest water I have ever tasted. It completely refreshed me.
The valley(s) of you life that holds so many dark memories can become a place of refreshing. Remember you aren’t alone. You are finding strength in Jesus. Others are traveling this journey with you. Now, look back.
Evil intentions but blessed results
The book of Genesis tells the story of Joseph. When he was a teenager, he was sold into slavery…by his brothers! Years pass, and he miraculously rises from an imprisoned slave to second in all the nation of Egypt. In fact, he’s able to save his entire family (including the brothers who sold him into slavery) from a region-wide famine. Joseph was a model of how to turn weeping to refreshement. But when their father passed away, Joseph’s brothers are afraid of reprisals from Joseph. This is how Joseph responds to them about their dark past:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” -Genesis 50:20 NLT
In your dark places, do you also see where God remained faithful to you? Do you see how and where he protected you? Can you see how God fed and cared for you? Is it possible God intended it for good?
My mother wasn’t perfect, but she loved and introduced me to Jesus. When we lived in that townhome on Poplar, she led me to “Jerusalem” – the place God resides. Though I grew up in dark times and places, I also have sweet, refreshing memories God has used over and again for good. Those memories serve as a source of refreshment – a well or spring that I can remind myself of when I think of the hard and difficult times.
Weeping to Refreshment: A Valley of Blessing
I will close with the three lines this small section of the Psalm ends with:
“The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings. They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.”
A valley is a natural pathway. Without a trail blazed, it is the easiest way down or around a mountain range. Though it may be shrouded in weeping, it is also a place of blessing. We tend to be very black and white, either or in our thinking. But can’t it be that the very valley that you pass through in tears is also a blessing? In this case, the blessing is two-fold.
First, the valley will make you stronger. Learning to travel through dark times, connecting with your God and your people, finding refreshing springs, all of these make you stronger. Yes, there is pain, but pain can lead to growth. Your pain doesn’t need to be in vain.
Second, you will see God. Again, the valley is a natural pathway. In other words, it is not unusual to go through difficult times in your journey with and to God. If you are in a valley right now, know this, God is with you. You may not always sense him, but he is with you. When you make it through this valley, you will see him clearly. Then you will be in his presence; true blessing.
This has been the reality of my life. I’ve been through multiple valleys – not just my childhood ones. It’s in walking through those valleys that I’ve found growth. It’s also because of those valleys that I’ve truly found God; I’ve seen my weeping turn to refreshment. You can have the same thing. The next valley you encounter, don’t be afraid. I assure you, you will experience blessing and growth – weeping to refreshment.