Flowers in the valley of death

Flowers don’t grow in the valley of death.

At least, that’s what we believe.

At a recent church gathering, the man leading worship invited the body to take a moment to practice gratitude; “people talk about taking a minute to smell the flowers… I want you to take a minute right now to think of something you’re grateful for.”  Practicing gratitude is vital to our spiritual walks; it allows us to “take thoughts captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5), rather than becoming captive to negative thoughts.  Around me, people embraced the exercise; perhaps their life is currently full of flowers, or they had been thinking of hardship until the prompt reminded them of the goodness around them.

As they closed their eyes and smiled, I thought about the exceptionally rough weekend I had experienced; I knew I couldn’t be alone in feeling like the flowers are sometimes hard to find.  In fact, God prompted many to share that very sentiment in the hour that followed.

It’s easy to stop and smell the flowers when you see them, but what do you do when it seems no flowers are growing?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Philippians 4:6

What we must realize is the spiritual tool of “practicing gratitude” is not simply a nice idea or only for relevant situations, but is expected “in every situation”; “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.”  This must be named because otherwise we won’t press into gratitude when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death; if we accept the mandate of gratitude, we will use our eyes differently.

As I prayed about what to be grateful for, I was reminded of a scene in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”  Gandalf the wizard has gone to a greater wizard, Saruman, for wisdom, not knowing he had aligned himself with evil.  Saruman quickly disarms and defeats Gandalf, casting him to the top of the high tower.  Gandalf — broken and powerless — sees that there is no escape, and knows if he does not, all is lost… not just for him but for all of Middle Earth.

In the midst of hopelessness, he sees a small, insignificant moth, and it changes everything.

We find moths to be an annoyance and think little of them, but for Gandalf the moth represented something greater.  He knew that the tiny insect whose wings had journeyed the full height of the tower was connected to far greater wings that could swoop down to his rescue.

When all hope is lost, the tiniest thing can remind us of something greater.  In my hardest moments — when I was willing to look around the deathly valley — my eyes have fallen on seemingly insignificant things that reminded me that “God is God, and God is good.”  These things did not give me answers, nor free me from hardship, but were all that was needed to restore enough hope to stay at the table.  The moth didn’t save Gandalf, but gave him hope to hold on a little longer.

David understood this when writing Psalm 40.  He gives the visual of a man stuck in a mirey pit; this man could be upset that God didn’t make a way around or protect him from sinking, but instead chooses to patiently wait for Him:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
Psalm 40:1-3

We want God to guide us around the mud and mire, to help us walk over it, or to protect us from sinking, but many of you know the felling of being enveloped in the pit despite your prayers.  There are not flowers, no helpful platitudes… and yet, we are invited to trust that God is there.  He hears our cries, which means things have gotten bad enough that we cry out.  David says he waited patiently, which means God didn’t move when and how he’d hoped, but he hopes nonetheless.  When all seems lost, we are not lost, because God is powerfully with us, though moving in ways that “are not our ways.”  He is a God who saves.

Let’s not miss why: sure, the man was freed from the mud and placed on solid rock, but that result only gets half a sentence.  Here’s the true impact:

He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

What if God is trying to do something greater than address your situation?  What if He is trying to reveal Himself in a new way?  What if He is about to use you and your story to bring hope to others?

Perhaps we need to stop only looking for the flowers we know.  In the darkest valley, life still exists, in ways we haven’t imagined; to see it, we need to believe the God of Life is present everywhere:

“Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 23:23-24

If we believe that, when we cry out “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving“, something incredible happens:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:7

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