When I was in seminary I served a small church in the small town of Evans, Colorado which was some sixty miles north of where I lived in Denver.
I didn’t mind the long drive because it gave me plenty of time to review my sermon in my head. One day, almost by accident, I discovered that if I started playing my favorite song, Billy Joel’s The River of Dreams, when I reached the La Salle city limits sign, I had just enough time to listen to the song in full before arriving at the Evans United Methodist Church.
So each Sunday I made the bulk of the trip in silence, thinking about my sermon notes and meditating on what I would be saying later that morning. But when I reached La Salle, I hit the play button on my CD player and lost myself in the beat of the drums and Billy Joel’s crooning of a song which alway sounded to me to be a mini-thesis on the renewing power of baptism.
The trip from Denver to Evans became my weekly pilgrimage and The River of Dreams became my pilgrimage hymn.
It’s no wonder I was so drawn to Psalm 84, which is in itself, a pilgrimage hymn.
The Psalm writer marvels at the beauty of the temple as he draws closer to Mount Zion. He marvels at the fact that even the smallest and frailest of creatures, the sparrow and the swallow, find safety in God’s dwelling place. He rejoices in the pure joy and happiness of his soul as he draws closer and closer to God.
In The River of Dreams, Joel sings about journeying “through a valley of fear, to a river so deep.” In Psalm 84, the writer sings about the Baca Valley becoming a “spring of water” and that the “early rains overs it with blessings.”
The Hebrew word of the Baca Valley literally translates into “the valley of the Baka tree”, however a similiar sounding Greek word is translated as “crying” making it “the valley of mourning.”
Fear and mourning are important aspects of a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage often takes us through difficult terrain and hard places. We struggle at times on the journey… and there are places where we don’t know how much further we can go. But a pilgrimage always ends at a holy place. We go through the wilderness, the valley of fear, the valley of mourning, and we reach a place so close to the perfection of God that we can feel God’s presence.
It is through that journey that those difficult places, those valleys of fear and sorrow, become springs of water and life. In God’s presence, even the ugliest of places blossom with blessings. Even our fear and sorrows become rich fruits which sustain us for the journey.
Almighty God, you have traveled with us through the lush valleys full of good things and you are with us in the dark valleys full of sorrows and fear. But you are with us! We praise you for your endless faithfulness. And we cherish your presence in our lives. Amen.