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Spiritual RhythmBeing with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul
By Mark Buchanan
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Mark Buchanan
All right reserved.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
A confession: most my life I've ignored this, that all is seasonal. Maybe I've not even believed it. For everything there is a season. For everything? In the natural world, that's obvious: the earth moves in seasonal rhythm:
Cold, hot Work, play Light, dark Sow, reap Fruitfulness, barrenness
Nothing could be more self-evident.
But Ecclesiastes talks about another kind of seasonality, seasons that define not earth's rhythms, its tilting to and away from the sun, but life's seasons, its inevitable tiltings toward light and away from it. existence is seasonal.
Our hearts know this. Our hearts taste the rapture and leisure of summer, the industry and urgency of fall, the bleakness and loneliness of winter, the busyness and expectancy of spring.
Maybe that, too, is obvious. Only, until lately I had no corresponding spirituality for it. I had ways of adapting my yard and home and habits to the variations of climate and daylight that prevail with each season: I cut my lawn in summer, clean my chimney in fall, stack my wood in spring, wear my boots in winter. But I had no equivalent ways of adapting my spiritual life-my prayer and my worship, my listening and my speaking, my being with God, with others, with self-to the seasonal shifts inside me. Especially, I didn't know what to do with winter. Winter is bleak, and cold, and dark, and fruitless. It is a time of forced inactivity, unwelcome brooding, more night than day. Most things are dead, or appear so. It never seems to end.
I wanted to run from winter with all my might. To disavow its reality. To conduct myself in blatant defiance or outright denial of its existence. I wanted to frolic like it was high summer despite the engulfing darkness and shivering cold inside me.
When my father died in June of 1996, I hardly paused. I came back from his funeral and preached at my church what I'd scheduled to preach. The elders offered me a time of bereavement. I declined it. I didn't alter one thing in my spiritual regimen. I carried on as though a minor interruption, not one of life's hardest and loneliest passages, had just visited me.
In 2001, when three young men in the church died within three months of one another, I did the same. I just carried on. But several months later, I sat in a cabin on a beach and thought I was losing my mind and my faith both, and wasn't sure I wanted to chase either.
That was the start of a slow awareness.
It's foolish to plant corn in January. It's foolish to transplant shrubs in July. Each season has its suitable tasks, its required duties, its necessary constraints.
Concerning earth's cycles, I get that. But it's taken me almost fifty years to grasp this same truth in relation to my own heart. The death of my friend and colleague carol made it a matter of reckoning. That event, and the events surrounding it, plunged me into winter deep and long, and I couldn't f lee it any longer. There was nothing else but to enter it, and dwell in it, and learn from it.
And maybe, just maybe, to grow from it.
But I still don't want to talk about it.
Too raw. Too fresh. Too recent.
Yet in all my conversations with people about these things, it's winter that most intrigues them, and I hazard the guess that it's because it's little understood and often hidden away. Winter shames those in it. It feels like personal failure, something we've caused, or missed, or faltered in. We chide ourselves for being there. We're sure it's our fault. We wonder if we're crazy, lazy, stupid.
And most people around us don't help. They pep-talk us. They serve up warmed-over platitudes. They scold us or offer useless advice. They hold themselves up as examples of how to beat the winter blahs. "I know exactly how you feel. I felt that way last month for two or three days. I just cut back my coffee consumption, got an extra hour's sleep each night, got on the treadmill, and I popped right out of it!"
So we tend to close up in our winter houses and smile a lot to divert attention. We nurse our sadness in aloneness, which is kind of how we want it anyhow. It suits the season.
The assumption many of us labor beneath is this: God can't be in winter. God has abandoned me, or I have wandered from him, but this bleakness-this fruitlessness-can't be blessed by him. If I loved God, if God loved me, I wouldn't be here.
It's an assumption I no longer believe.
THE HEART IN WINTER
What I do believe, now, is that our hearts have seasons, and the longest of them, if not in duration then in intensity, is winter. There's no preventing it, though there are ways to steward it. But before we get there, let me attempt a simple description of what the heart in winter is like.
Ecclesiastes, again, describes winter.
In this case, it's the winter of life-decrepitude-but it hints at the heart's winter, too. Here's the passage:
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him-before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "everything is meaningless!"
Two details here equally describe both life's winter and the heart's. Verse 1: "I find no pleasure...." Both life's winter and the heart's winter have this in common: pleasure is bankrupt. Things we once craved and relished-our sources of delight-we now avoid and disdain. The food we savored, the friendships we treasured, the activities we cherished-none of it gives us anything other than weariness or sourness. It only deepens our aloneness.
And verse 8: "Meaningless! Meaningless! ... everything is meaningless!" Both life's winter and the heart's winter have this in common: meaning is bankrupt. Things we once found captivating and stimulating-rich with meaning-we now find futile and bewildering. The trips we used to go on, the art we once pondered, the books we loved to read, the subjects we delighted to talk over -winter makes it all dreariness and drudgery. We go from the purpose-driven life to the purpose-starved life. Events and accomplishments are leached of significance. Ambition, accomplishment, aspiration, beauty, courage-none of it means anything in wintertime. I once showed during a Sunday ser vice a video of Baptist missionaries martyred in South America. I was hugely inspired by their example of heroic and sacrificial faith. But a woman came up to me afterward who was in a winter of the heart. All she said was, "That was meaningless."
We savor little or nothing in winter. Pleasure is bankrupt. Meaning is bankrupt.
A Song in the Night
There's another passage of Scripture that, even more than Ecclesiastes 12, describes the wintertime of the heart. It's Psalm 88. As with the passage from Ecclesiastes, this one is lengthy. I'll quote the psalm in full since it renders unflinchingly the experience I'm trying to describe. As you read it, linger over it like a note left to you from a close friend.
Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.
I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor- darkness is my closest friend.
Scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this psalm "an embarrassment to conventional faith." He even asks, "What is a psalm like this doing in our Bible?" His answer in my words: Psalm 88 gives us language that transposes agony into prayer. Sorrow seeks to render us mute. Psalm 88 gives voice to what is most angry and grief-stricken and frightened inside us. It shapes brokenheartedness into sacrament. It allows us to break our silence even when God refuses to break his.
And it does that, first, by describing what winter in the heart feels like. This psalm is no cool, clinical, dispassionate, detached listing of symptoms; it erupts, wild and raw. It's a diary of disappointment, a soliloquy of complaint, a testimony of anguish. It's the howl of a man in the grip of heartache.
The experience this psalm evokes bears a close resemblance to clinical depression. Winter is not exactly that, and not exactly not that. Winter shares a landscape with depression, but I think it has a different doorway: with depression, we enter through a door within ourselves, whereas with winter we enter through a door outside ourselves. What I mean is that depression is triggered mostly by something internal, whereas winter is triggered mostly by circumstances. But maybe the difference is inconsequential. For the record, I have never been clinically depressed. But I've attempted, clumsily I think, to pastor many people in clinical depression. At the least, I've learned a little of depression's tyranny, its whims and wiles and heavy, heavy hand. I don't think it's amiss to read Psalm 88, or my thoughts on it, as equally a description of both winter and depression. But my counsel on stewarding wintertime, in the chapter that follows this one, might not apply equally.
But I'll let you be the judge of that.
Absence of Light
What does Psalm 88 tell us and show us?
To begin, this: winter feels all-consuming and never-ending. It's worth noting the authors of this psalm: the Sons of Korah. These are the same composers who collaborated on many psalms, such as 84 and 87. "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere," they effuse in Psalm 84, and celebrate God's intimate protection even of sparrows. Psalm 87 ends, "All my fountains are in you," just before Psalm 88, the bleakest psalm, which ends, "Darkness is my closest friend." The tenor of most of the Sons of Korah's repertoire is upbeat, gladsome, celebrative. They write, mostly, dance tunes, love ballads, patriotic anthems, not blues songs. Psalm 88 is out of character for them. These men have given little sign till now of disappointment with God (though Psalm 85:5 sounds the mood that might have triggered Psalm 88). They are not perpetually gloomy. They are not habitually dyspeptic. They do not chronically murmur. They do not appear to nurse grudges, or keep company with the disgruntled, or rehearse the lament of the victim. These brothers, most of the time, deeply experience God's goodness, and gladly declare it. They know God in the light.
Psalm 88 is a record that, at least once, they lost God in the dark.
Yet to read Psalm 88, it's as though they never found him. It's as though they've never stood in the light of God's favor, never tasted his blessing. It's as though darkness and sadness have marked their existence from the womb and will plague it till the grave. Winter is like that: it has power to eclipse all the good we've stored up, and to plunge us into a nighttime that seems all we've ever known and, worse, all we'll ever know.
Winter seems all-consuming and never-ending.
Absence of God
Winter hides God. It has power to sever my knowledge about God from my experience of him, and to hold the two apart, so that my theology and my reality become irreconcilable.
The psalmist affirms at many points-starting right at the beginning-some of the most exquisite and enduring theological truths about God. He is the God who saves me (v. 1). What follows is a steady drumbeat of God's attributes: "your wonders" (twice), "your love," "your faithfulness," "your righteous ness" (vv. 10-12). This is what this man (the psalm, though composed by a collective, individualizes the lament, so I will as well) knows about God. He gets an A+ for orthodoxy. There's nothing shaky, vague, or half-baked in his doctrine.
It's just that his experience and his doctrine bear no resemblance to each other. What he tastes and sees of God (or doesn't taste and see) mocks what he confesses and proclaims about God. His everyday reality taunts his everlasting creed. He talks about God's wonders and love and faithfulness, but experiences only God's rejection and anger and indifference. At every turn, he's met with more bad news -sorrow upon sorrow, trouble upon trouble, loss upon loss. Darkness eclipses light. Sadness consumes joy. Despair overtakes hope. He experiences a God who simultaneously abandons him and punishes him, a God of apathy and wrath, a God who hides himself and shows up only to vent himself.
This is winter. It's when God seems either too far or too near-aloof in his heavens, or afoot with a stick. Either way, it's as though there is no refuge.
Winter hides God.
Absence of Friends
Winter is friendless. In it, we experience a terrible, terrifying aloneness.
You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them; I am confined and cannot escape.... You have taken from me friend and neighbor- darkness is my closest friend.
Abandonment. Rejection. Isolation. This is the shape of the soul in winter. It feels friendless. And it feels this way even, maybe most, in a crowd. At church. In Bible study. At weddings and reunions. even when many surround us, the heart's winter makes us feel estranged. It makes us feel unloved and unlovable.
Excerpted from Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan Copyright © 2010 by Mark Buchanan. Excerpted by permission.
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