This past weekend, I spent some time in New Jersey—first on Long Beach Island and then in the Pine Barrens. It was cloudy and rainy when we walked along the shore, one of those days where the sky and sea form a canvass of gray. Our hike through the Pine Barrens benefited from lots of sunshine and a crisp cool morning—optimum conditions for walking. Yet, along the trail, we hardly saw any evidence of wildlife. A lone bird (perhaps a pine warbler?) and a small green snake were the extent of our encounters. As I walked along the flat, sandy trail, noting that the vista of pines and occasional cedars never changed, I thought about how life isn’t always a series of grandiose panoramas or mountaintop experiences. In fact, most of the time, we are walking in the valley, where life seems fairly mundane and predictable. But it’s in those valley moments that we have time to meditate on our mountaintop experiences, put into practice what we’ve learned and examine life a little closer for clues of diversity and change.
The weekend before my trip to New Jersey, I was at Greensville Correctional Center for a Kairos 4-Day Weekend. Kairos is a prison ministry program that I’ve participated in since 2011. Kairos weekends are without a doubt mountaintop experiences. In the days following a Kairos weekend, most of us on the team are still on a spiritual high. It’s hard to go back to work and focus on routine matters. When you drink from a fire hose, the trickle of a water fountain seems entirely inadequate. You want more.
Walking through the Pine Barrens with my brother Barry and our friend Jim, I joked that the trees would soon thin out and we would find ourselves on the edge of a spectacular view. Of course, that did not happen. Each bend in the trail brought us closer to more pines, and more pines. I thought about one of the talks from our Kairos weekend called “Walking in God’s Grace.” The talk reminds us of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountaintop. While on the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him, and Jesus is called “son” by a voice in the sky. For Peter, James and John, who are with Jesus, it is the ultimate mountaintop experience. Peter is thinking, “I don’t want this to end,” so he volunteers to put up three shelters—one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. But before Peter can do anything, the experience is over. Jesus has returned to normal and is leading them down the mountain, back to their everyday world.
As we tell the residents of Greensville, “A mountaintop experience prepares us for valley duty.” It’s not easy to walk in the valley, especially when that valley is a penitentiary and your time there might be measured in decades. Nor is it easy for those of us on the outside to return to our lives, which are filled with a multitude of obligations and little time for the things that we know from our mountaintop experience are important.
When I got home from Kairos and was going through the mail, I noticed a letter from Greensville. It was from one of the residents who sat at my table last October. I put it aside and thought, “I will read this when I’ve come down from my mountain.” Returning home from New Jersey, I was ready for the letter. After 25 years of incarceration, this man will be released in a few months. During his Kairos weekend, he shared his fears about starting anew. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a dramatic change for the better in his demeanor.
In his letter, he wrote, “I don’t fear going forward, I don’t dread going forward, I steadfastly look forward. Most of all, I’m not alone, and as long as I hold strong to Jesus and remain in the care of God, He won’t allow me to fail. Oh, I know it won’t be easy, but I’m alright with that now.”
The valley is where the real work is done. It’s the crucible that forges our souls and tests our resolve. I have no doubt my Kairos brother will persevere. He will walk through the valley and out of those gates with a smile on his face. And when I find myself down in the valley, in a really low place, I’ll return to his letter and reread it, a smile on my face, too.