Even in the Valley

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How do you view valleys? Geographically they can be beautiful, desolate, or anything in between. When we think of valleys in our lives, most of us would not associate them with anything positive.

As we move through this week to finish the 3-week series using Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard as the focus, you may recall our main character, Much Afraid, lived in the Valley of Humiliation before the Chief Shepherd had invited her to go with him to the High Places that she had often longed to go. The valley for her was not desolate in terrain, but devoid of love and healthy relational connection and she had sought to escape it for quite some time. Her lame feet, crooked mouth, and lack of skills and courage held her in bondage to stay where she had been born.

Trusting the Chief Shepherd had always been a challenge as she moved up each tier of slopes with the support of Sorrow and Suffering. The path to the High Places was sometimes barely a trail and took them over precipices that were steep and dangerous, across deserts that seemed to be going in the wrong direction, and through foreboding forests and storms. Each of these brought them further into steeper mountain ranges leading to the High Places despite appearing to have detours.

Our lives can be much that way as well. Over and over again we may face detours that seem to be taking us in the opposite direction of where we want to go or feel we are called to go. We, too, can struggle with doubt and trust because of what our eyes tell us about the direction we appear to be headed.

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Much Afraid thought surely, they had reached a point on the journey that it would no longer have a point that seemed to take them away from the High Places, but when the Chief Shepherd gave them directions to the next part of the journey Much Afraid was deeply discouraged.

“Now instead of that the path was leading them down into a valley as low as the Valley of Humiliation itself. All the height which they had gained after their long and toilsome journey must now be lost and they would have to begin all over again. Just as though they had never made a start so long ago and endured so many difficulties and tests.”

Hannah Hurnard

It was easy to recall all the tormenting fearful voices once again from her own valley that warned her about trusting the Chief Shepherd to lead her to the places she longed to go. Recalling his promises, she wondered again if she could trust them or choose her own path instead that would not take her to this fearsome valley that lay ahead. She was certain she did not have the strength to follow the Chief Shepherd down to this valley He pointed to and then try to retrace her steps up the treacherous slopes she had just managed.

“During that awful moment or two it seemed to Much Afraid that she was actually looking into an abyss of horror, into an existence in which there was no Shepherd to follow or to trust or to love – no Shepherd at all, nothing but her own horrible self. Ever after, it seemed that she had looked straight down into Hell. At the end of that moment Much Afraid shrieked – there is no other word for it.

‘Shepherd,’ she shrieked, ‘Shepherd! Shepherd! Help me! Where are you? Don’t leave me!”

Hannah Hurnard

To choose our own way and refuse the path God sets before us opens each one of us to consider what it would be like to travel through life without Him. I wonder if we were to consider that and experience the horror of what it would be like as Much Afraid did if we would be quicker to follow in obedience and trust that wherever He calls us, He will be there. It reminds me of a passage of scripture that looks at what we can rely on when we are in between a rock and a hard place.

“But now, God’s Message,

    the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,

    the One who got you started, Israel:

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.

    I’ve called your name. You’re mine.

When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.

    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.

When you’re between a rock and a hard place,

    it won’t be a dead end—

Because I am God, your personal God,

    The Holy of Israel, your Savior.

I paid a huge price for you:

    all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!

That’s how much you mean to me!

    That’s how much I love you!

I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,

    trade the creation just for you.”

Isaiah 43:1-4 (MSG)

Perhaps the Chief Shepherd had those very historical memories in mind when he heard Much Afraid crying out for help. His response to her should encourage our own hearts whether we are facing a deep valley, a dry desert, or desolate mountains to climb.

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“He lifted her up, supported her by his arm, and with his own hand wiped the tears from her cheeks, then said in his strong cheery voice, ‘ There is no question of your turning back, Much Afraid. No one, not even your own shrinking heart, can pluck you out of my hand. Don’t you remember what I told you before? This delay is not unto death but for the glory of God.'”

Hannah Hurnard

And at the top of the path before descending into the valley, Much Afraid stopped to build another altar and then chose another memorial stone to carry with the other stones she had kept from each altar she built.

Much Afraid knew now that nothing could satisfy her except to be with the Chief Shepherd no matter how hard the journey or how much trembling it might evoke within her.

“Nothing else really matters,” she said to herself, “only to love him and to do what he tells me. I don’t know quite why it should be so, but it is. All the time it is suffering to love and sorrow to love, but it is lovely to love him in spite of this, and if I should cease to do so, I should cease to exist.”

Hannah Hurnard
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Amid Storms

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Storms are dangerous for many reasons and so often can be unpredictable. Some of us may enjoy watching them from the safety of shelter, but others of us are not keen on that and would be more prone to pull a blanket over our heads until the storm passes and we feel surer we are safe from its destructive power. I am one of those who is not a fan of storms. There are several specific occasions when a storm has unexpectedly developed (once while driving and another at a stadium on a 4th of July) that seemed perilous and left me feeling exposed.

When I think of storms, I recall the story in 1 Kings 19:9-18 when Elijah faced a trial. King Ahab tells the fearsome Jezebel all the things Elijah has done and Jezebel vows to destroy him. Despite all the times God had proven himself to Elijah, this powerful prophet ran into the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that God met him, fed him, and encouraged him to rest. After he had done that, he went to Mt. Horeb and hid in a cave.

This man of faith, used powerfully by God, faltered and then God speaks to him and asks him a question.

“There Elijah went into a cave and stayed all night. Then the Lord spoke his word to him: “Elijah! Why are you here?”

1 Kings 19:9 (NCV)
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In other versions of the text, God asks Elijah why he is hiding. Not unlike God, we know He already knows the answer to that. He often asks a question for us to own the truth of something so we (He and we) can address it. So, Elijah pours out his lament to God and He tells Elijah to go stand at the entrance to the cave.

If I were Elijah, I would be trembling more than ever, uncertain of what God would do.

In the text God shows up in powerful ways that would grab Elijah’s attention as well as any of ours. First there is a terrible windstorm that tears up the mountain rocks and shatters them. Next an earthquake shakes the mountain and everything in the area and then fire, but those are not when God speaks. They are what He uses to get Elijah’s attention so he can hear God’s voice above his fear and circumstances and be reminded of the truth Elijah lost track of with the other voices shouting at him and creating intense fear.

God longs to speak to us, but often He needs to first get our attention.

In this series about Much Afraid in Hannah Hurnard’s epic book, Hinds Feet on High Places, Much Afraid must learn to hear and know the voice of the Chief Shepherd to overcome the voices of her fearing relatives that have become a part of her, so she hears their messages even when they are not with her. She faces many storms on the journey to the High Places. She learns to hold more tightly to the strong hands of Sorrow and Suffering. She also sees how they respond to the difficulties and danger of the trek.

In one scene, the storm has passed and still the mist and clouds shroud the mountain slopes and paths ahead. All three are aware there is no turning back as they have come too far now. The voices of her relatives continue to pursue her reminding her of how foolish it is to trust the Chief Shepherd, telling her that he will leave her in danger and never take her to that place to give her hinds feet and the new name he promised.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

On the trip Much Afraid has heard the sound of rushing waters in streams and powerful waterfalls. Often, they have sounded like singing to Much Afraid and she has heard Sorrow and Suffering sometimes singing, but she had never joined them because she believed she had a very “unmelodious voice.”

But one day when Much Afraid would have said she was more crawling and slithering along the path the the voices of fear were repeating in her thoughts, she recalled there were a couple of times she had risked singing when the Chief Shepherd had done so because he was able to keep her more in tune, so her voice was not so awful to hear. Much Afraid felt as if she could not handle the taunts of her relatives any longer so she made a decision.

“It was not pleasant to think of her relatives now having the opportunity to entertain themselves at the expense of her very unmelodious voice, but she decided to risk their ribald comments. ‘If I sing quite loudly,’ she told herself, ‘I shall not be able to hear what they say.’ The only song she could think of at the moment was the one which Sorrow had taught her in the hut, and though it seemed singularly inappropriate she lifted up her voice and sang quaveringly…

There was perfect silence as she sang. The loud sneering voices of her enemies had died away altogether.”

Hannah Hurnard

How very much like God as He seeks to remind us of the power of praise and worship. Here is just one example:

“When they began to sing and praise, the Lord set traps against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah. So they were destroyed.”

2 Chronicles 20:22 (NLV)

Some of you also know the worship song taken from Psalm 68:1:

“Let God arise,

Let His enemies be scattered;

Let those also who hate Him flee before Him.”

Psalm 68:1 (NKJV)

Our own Chief Shepherd might remind us as well that our singing of praise and worship can drown out the fearsome voices that can assault us and the challenges we all face on our journey to the High Places.

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The Importance of Altars

Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada

Most of us associate altars with the place at the front of the room in our church where we often see candlesticks and a Bible and sometimes a vase of flowers. There is usually a cloth covering it and everything looks lovely and clean. It is where many of us came to pledge our vows in marriage or dedicated our children to God. We know or sense it is a sacred place that should result in our respect. And from time to time we may pause and recall how often the Israelites built altars, how often Abraham and other heroes did.

Some of us who have seen the Narnia series of movies recall the scene of the stone table altar in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe where Aslan was bound and slain. This scene perhaps gives us a truer reminder of the altar’s place and purpose. It was not nearly so pretty or pristine. The scene is one of anguish that can pierce our hearts.

As we continue to follow Much Afraid in Hinds Feet on High Places, we see altars again. When Much Afraid discovered that the Chief Shepherd would not accompany her in person each step of the journey to the High Places, but rather that Sorrow and Suffering would be the companions chosen she feared he would not fulfill his promises to her. As their trek progressed and took paths which seemed to lead away from the High Places, Much Afraid was more uncertain. Her interaction with the Chief Shepherd brought a question to her from him asking if she trusted him enough to follow him wherever he would lead her.

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It would be then that Much Afraid grappled with her fear and pledged to follow the Chief Shepherd wherever he led (even when it appeared to be going in the opposite direction of the High Places). And as she did so, she gathered together a little pile of rocks and made a small altar. What she placed on the altar was “her trembling, rebelling will.” How great a sacrifice that would be for her.

“A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was lying on the altar. That is to say, she thought at first there was only ashes, but the Shepherd told her to look closer, and there among the ashes she saw a little stone of some kind, a dark-colored, common-looking pebble.”

Hannah Hurnard

And in the story the Shepherd would tell Much Afraid to pick up the pebble and take it with her “as a memorial of the altar which you built, and all that it stands for.”

The poignant scene is one that nudges us to linger and consider the meaning of altars and look at what we may have seen about them in the Old Testament stories. More than the altar Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac upon gives us testimony of God’s purposes for them even though we may not pause often to consider their meaning or importance.

What would it mean for you, for me, to build an altar upon which to lay our “rebelling will?

To consider the meaning of altars Jack Hayford wrote:

“Altars are a memorial of the places where God meets us.

Altars represent the occasion and place where we have had a personal encounter with God. We may not always be able to make a physical altar, but there can be one established in our hearts. When we celebrate communion, we are celebrating the grandest altar of all, the Cross of Calvary. The Son of God was the ultimate sacrifice, and His work on the Cross reconciled all humankind to God, made possible for our lives to be infused with meaning, for our sins to be forgiven and to give us the promise of eternal life.”

Jack Hayford

Hayford goes on to make note of some of the different forms of altars we discover as we read in the Bible. These include: “a place of encounter, a place of forgiveness, a place of worship, a place of covenant, a place of intercession, and a place of ‘altering’ us.” That was certainly evident in the example of the first altar Much Afraid was asked to build.

Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada

But it would not be the only time Much Afraid would need to stop on the way to the High Places and build an altar and offer something on it. Despite her promise to follow the Chief Shepherd wherever he would lead, progressing up the slopes would challenge her lame feet, willing heart, and fearful spirit many times over.

“Oh, no! no! No!” Much Afraid almost shrieked. “That path is utterly impossible. The deer may be able to manage it, but no human being could. I could never get up there. I would fall headlong and be broken in pieces on those awful rocks.”

Hannah Hurnard

How much are we like Much Afraid when the path before us appears foreboding and treacherous? How often do we commit to follow Christ and then shrink back again when the endurance we need weakens and the courage we must gain seems beyond our reach to attain?

So much was sacrificed for us when we deserved nothing.

“There is a place of ‘altaring’ and a price of altering. Altars have a price–God intends that something be ‘altered’ in us when we come to altars. To receive the promise means we make way for the transformation.”

Jack Hayford

What do we, you, and I, need to lay on the altar we are asked to build?

Are we willing to pay the price for the “altaring” to bring transformation, so our life and love look more like God’s?

“At the altar, the price is paid for renewal when we’ve been at a distance, for securing hope we may have thought was lost and for receiving promise, even if it’s in an unpleasant environment.”

Jack Hayford
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Some Things Can Only Be Learned…

Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada

Last week I started a series featuring the story found in Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard written more than 40 years ago. The story of Much Afraid and her journey to the High Places offer truth for us even today.

The journey we might take to the high places in the mountains may well feature the varied terrain Much Afraid faced with her companions Sorrow and Suffering. The higher elevations do not offer the more pristine easier paths of the lower portions of the mountain areas. The higher you go the path will seem to disappear many times, covered by rocky areas of boulders torn from the mountain over time by the storms that can happen unexpectedly in those heights. Other times the paths can be interrupted by streams or even a waterfall that requires you to adjust your journey and find a new path around the obstacle. Oddly enough you may even discover small areas that are worn down by endless glaciers that can seem more like desert terrain.

Our lives (wherever we may live) are much like that, filled with unexpected things we could not have planned for and challenges beyond our ability. It is at such times that our own journey can include sorrow and suffering. We would never choose those companions and yet they teach us much about ourselves and the Chief Shepherd (Christ) who promises to be with us through everything we face. Our task is to follow Him, even when it isn’t easy.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)
Photo by Pam Ecrement

One of the tests we must face is whether we will follow Christ and obey Him, when we do not see the path or the way He is leading, when it appears impossible, and we want another way. To know or risk believing He loves us when He chooses that we pass through a desert or need to climb mountains when we too are crippled in our faith and trust, raises questions and uncertainty of what his love is like. But perhaps one of the things Christ wants us to see is that our human love is unlike the love He wants us to know and develop within us.

Much Afraid began to see that early in her journey to the High Places. Time and again she pleaded with the Chief Shepherd to choose a different path, but then began to learn to submit to the path set before her.

“Even if you cannot tell me why it has to be, I will go with you, for you know I love you, and you have the right to choose for me anything that you please.”

Hannah Hurnard

Not unlike the Israelites who had to detour through the desert, we and Much Afraidlearn many things which otherwise they would have known nothing about.”

When we are children, we struggle with how many things we must learn (often painfully) through obedience. We don’t know that we are in dangerous situations or that what we want may harm us. We just want what we want. We eventually learn not to touch hot things, run into the street without looking, and a great many other things, but somehow that old desire to ‘want what we want when we want it’ still leaves its footprint in us so that all through life obedience that is required of us can challenge that desire. Even Christ faced the challenge to obey.

“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”

Hebrews 5:8 (ESV)

The Chief Shepherd offered these words to Much Afraid in the midst of loneliness and uncertainty:

“Whenever you are willing to obey me, Much Afraid, and to follow the path of my choice, you will always be able to hear and recognize my voice, and when you hear it, you must always obey. Remember also that it is always safe to obey my voice, even if it seems to call you to paths which look impossible or even crazy.”

Hannah Hurnard
Photo by Pam Ecrement

“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”

Job 23:10

And each day as the climb grew more difficult for Much Afraid, she held more tightly to the companions the Chief Shepherd had chosen for her. She grew to learn their strength and care for her as learned obedience and grew in acceptance. At each spot where she faced a challenge, she picked up a small stone and placed them in a small pouch she carried around her neck so she could remember what she was learning along the path. And she also built an altar at each of those places as she laid down something and offered it to the Chief Shepherd as she came to know sacrifice.

It wasn’t the sacrifice (though significant) that most mattered to the Chief Shepherd, but rather the obedience that the sacrifice represented.

“But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

1 Samuel 15:22 (NIV)

How difficult lessons of obedience are for us even as they were for Much Afraid. Look at this glimpse of how Hannah Hurnard portrays the lessons Much Afraid begins to learn:

“There Much Afraid built her first altar on the mountain, a little pile of broken rocks, and then, with the Shepherd standing close beside her, she laid down on the altar her trembling, rebelling will. A little spurt of flame came from somewhere, and in an instant nothing but a heap of ashes was lying on the altar. That is to say, she thought at first there was only ashes, but the Shepherd told her to look closer, and there among the ashes she saw a little stone of some kind, a dark-colored, common-looking pebble.

“Pick it up and take it with you,” said the Shepherd gently, ” as a memorial of this altar which you built, and all that it stands for.”

Hannah Hurnard
Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada

Why Go to the High Places?

Rocky Mts., Alberta, Canada
Photo by Pam Ecrement Rocky Mts., Alberta, Canada

If you are located in a valley with lush green open space where you can enjoy the mountains from afar, why go up into the mountains and the challenge that creates? They are lovely to look at even when you can’t see all of them due to clouds, fog, or heavy mist. But it can almost feel like an unspoken invitation that the mountains give to come closer and get to know them better. And in Hinds Feet on High Places, we know that Much Afraid has been invited by the Chief Shepherd to go there and surely, he knows the way better than anyone.

Much Afraid looked at the mountains every day and longed to go there to escape the fear that haunted her in the valley and the people around her that added to her fear. For her whole life she had never been able to ignore the things these people said to her or the fears that came upon her. Despite having a crooked mouth, lame feet, and a timidity that brought her to a place of being immobile, she could not consider what impediments might be there if the Chief Shepherd made the invitation and promised good companions to be with her all along the way.

Mountain trails and hikes always guarantee an adventure. You can study all the trails on a map and get guidance from those who have traveled there before but the day you start the trek will not be the same as it was for anyone else. That is what our journey with the Lord is like as well. He invites each of us to know Him and journey with Him, but he doesn’t give us a map of the whole route and even when we talk with others who have journeyed with Him for a longer time, we discover that our journey will be unique to us.

How well I recall when we were hiking on a trail in Alberta, Canada, with no one else around and suddenly coming upon a muddy patch in the path that showed the clear imprint of a bear’s paw! We kept moving and tried to make plenty of noise since we had no idea where or when the bear had crossed that path.

Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada

That was one day that I didn’t meander slowly searching for the wildflowers that I sought to discover whenever we were in the mountains.

As I mentioned in a previous post, wildflowers in the mountains can teach us things for our own journey. Look at what the Chief Shepherd told Much Afraid about wildflowers: “Nothing my Father and I made is ever wasted, and the little wildflowers have a wonderful lesson to teach. They offer themselves so sweetly and confidently and willingly, even if it seems that there is no one to appreciate them. Just as though they sang a joyous little song to themselves, that it is happy to love, even though one is not loved in return”

What a challenge there is in that statement. They offer themselves even if no one is there to appreciate them. Think how often people may trek along that trail and never notice the wildflowers scattered near their feet in banks of old leaves or tucked in between rocky crevices.

But the Chief Shepherd doesn’t stop there as he shares with Much Afraid. His next words speak directly to her but also to us: “All the fairest beauties in the human soul, its greatest victories, and its most splendid achievements are always those which no one else knows anything about, or can only dimly guess at.”

We live in an age and time when being noticed and applauded is more often sought after than ever before. Yet this understanding the Chief Shepherd offers us is key to growing in him and developing humility.

One of the hardest parts of the journey at the outset for Much Afraid was when the Chief Shepherd introduced the two companions he had chosen to guide and be with her on the journey to the High Places. When she met them, she noticed they were tall and appeared very strong, but they were veiled, silent, and offered her no greeting. Certainly, these were not the ones he had chosen for her.

How much like us that can be. We are in a hard place, and we are sure we could feel comfort and encouragement if only this person or that person would call us, send a card, visit us, and offer to pray with us. But in the real world, in the midst of tragedy and crisis we are often surprised at those who come because they are not always those we expect and yet they are God’s means of grace to us.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

So why go to the High Places? What can these mysterious guides and companions teach Much Afraid? What can be learned along the way and what have we learned from the companions for our journey that we did not expect?

We need to climb to the High Places because that is how we develop hinds’ feet to be able to go to the highest peaks and leap forward with the Chief Shepherd after as he heals our lame feet along the way and transforms us through the journey.

And it is then we learn what the Chief Shepherd told Much Afraid about the High Places:

“The High Places are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again. You will be able to mount to the High Places swifter than eagles, for it is only up on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive power to pour themselves down in utter abandonment of self-giving.”

After these tender but powerful words, the Chief Shepherd tells Much Afraid the names of the companions he has chosen especially for her on the trip to the High Places. As she watched the mysterious figures with trembling, she became truly frightened when she learned their names were Sorrow and Suffering.

Much Afraid wondered as we often do why the Chief Shepherd who spoke of his love for her and a promise to take her to the High Places and give her a new name would now give her such companions as these. Why not Joy and Peace? But the way of the Chief Shepherd is not hers and the way the Lord often takes us is not what we would choose or what makes any sense to us.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.

 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,

    so are my ways higher than your ways

    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)
Photo by Pam Ecrement from Alberta, Canada