Each night after I crawl in bed and the lights are out, I recite Psalm 23 in my head. Night after night, I say the words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Over the years, I’ve read that psalm at more than one funeral, and even used it as the text. The valley of the shadow of death is a powerful image for what faces each of us when our lives here on earth come to an end.
As I write this column, I am preparing, not for that ultimate valley of the shadow of death, but for a trip to Death Valley in California. Now, honestly, going to Death Valley is not a trip that I’ve ever dreamed of. It sounds forbidding and dangerous. But Doug and I are going to Las Vegas to attend a wedding reception for my nephew Alex, and I said to him, “as long as we are going there, let’s extend our trip to a National Park in the southwest.” I was thinking of perhaps Bryce or the Grand Canyon. But those parks are fairly high in elevation and mid-February did not sound like a good time to visit. So we thought of Death Valley, the lowest place in the USA. I certainly do not want to go there in the heat of summer when temperatures soar well above 100 degrees, but in February the average temperature is in the mid-70’s.
More on Death Valley itself when I get back. Today I am reflecting on the spiritual lessons involved in even deciding to go.
First is the openness to a new idea and the willingness to let go of prior assumptions. I have learned a lot about Death Valley as we prepare for this trip and now I am really looking forward to going there. I had to give up my belief that it was always a forbidding place. I had to investigate the possibilities that exist. It turns out there are natural bridges, amazing colors, even canyons with creeks and streams.
There are pupfish which live in those streams. Depending on the weather, there may even be an explosion of flowers. My sister who lives in Las Vegas tells me there has been rain so flowers are a possibility. Once I stopped thinking of Death Valley as too hot, too dangerous and ugly, I could begin to imagine it as a place of beauty and life.
As always with travel to a new place, it is important to be prepared. I wasn’t a Girl Scout for nothing! Part of the preparation is advance study. Because of the information I have learned, I plan to take both hot and cool weather clothing, sturdy boots, lots of water bottles (even in February it is critical to drink plenty of water), and tweezers (in case of close encounters with cactus.)
I have learned over the years to look for the beauty in each place. In Southwest Washington our beauty tends to involve green and water, from moss and ferns to rivers and waterfalls. In the Desert Southwest I will be looking for reds, oranges and browns from the various colors of the rocks, for dramatic uplift of rocks, and for things I don’t yet know how to name.
As I reflect on these lessons, my thoughts move to the Season of Lent when we will commit to spiritual renewal and eventually to Holy Week when we walk with Jesus on his path to the Valley of Death. I hope that I can apply lessons of openness to the new, preparation, and looking for beauty to that journey as well.