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 little 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 of 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 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 sounds of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when the people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags along and desire is no longer stirred.
Remember Him — before the silver cord severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel is 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!” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 TNIV)
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 foods we once savored, the friendships we treasured, the activities we cherished — none of it gives us anything other than weariness and sourness. It only deepens our aloneness.
And verse 8: “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless!” Both life’s winter and 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 school service a video of a 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 the 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 quite 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 from a close friend.
Lord, You are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry 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 will call 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 if darkness, are 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. (TNIV)
Scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this psalm ” an embarrassment to convential faith.” He even asks, “What is a psalm like this doing in our Bible?” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Message of the Psalms“, 1984). His answer in my words: Psalm 88 gives us the 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 of 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, detatch 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 of 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 a doorway within ourselves, whereas with winter we enter in a doorway outside ourselves. What I mean is that depression 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, it’s 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 fountains are in You,” just as before Psalm 88, the bleakest psalm, which ends, “Darkness is my closest friend.” The tenor of most of the Sons of Korah’s repetoire 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 a 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 dyspetic. 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 the they never found Him. It’s as though they they 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 the power to eclipse all the good we’ve srored up, and to plunge us deep into 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 the 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 truth 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 righteousness (vv. 10-12). That 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 confessesand proclaims about God. 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 overtakes 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.
“Darkness is my closest friend”~My life was like this – “The Heart In Winter” – ever since the horrific day of the morning of June 28, 1989. It turn out to be the hottest, most humid day that summer; however, my heart was about to feel extremely cold as in wintertime. Once I became semi-conscious (for I was in a one month coma where my mother – (I decided to call her that out of respect at a young age) – told me that my life was on edge for the first 72 hours of that coma), I was transported from the general hospital to a rehabilatation hospital. I thought I was still in that absolutly horribly horrific dream that I suffered from on May 19th. See, after going through an experience like I had, your memory doesn’t come back all at once, so it’s perfectly natural for me to think that I was in a dream (a never-ending dream or nightmare). The kind of dream in which the head psychiatrist of Northeast Rehabilatation Hospital says to my mother that I would be better off at another rehabilatation facility because of the severity of my injuries. I thought this was all part of a cruel dream, only thing it turned out to be real.
Darkness is my closest friend. There’s no telling what a coma feels like except I am going to try and explain what I went through for a month. Truly, during that period of time, darkness was my closest friend. See, what I thought was a horribly horrific dream turned out to be a reality – a reality that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (if I had one). Imagine yourself pierced by darkness with periodic relief of visions of yourself in the hospital unable to move and not being able to communicate at all. The Elliot Hospital is where I stayed during the coma, and I could not technically remember except being carted off by the ambulance with the EMT’s to a rehabilatation hospital. However, I recall a couple of times I was outside my body. Whether or not I technically, physically died or not, I am not sure. Yet my physical life was in danger of me losing it during the first three days.
Dr. Lyon’s had the undistinguishable pleasure of telling my mother of his findings as soon as he came out of the surgery room. He and my mother professionally knew each other, so what he had to tell my mother must have not been pleasant as he told her that my situation was grave. Three days passed by, and my situation didn’t improve and Dr. Lyon’s suggested that I be taken off the ventilalator, but my mother refused saying that God called me into the ministry, and she wouldn’t take me off because she knew that the Almighty Hand of God was working in my life. So there I laid in the hospital bed, in a coma that would last about a month. But, wait a second! I was starting to come out of that dreadfully long sleep!
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~
The long dark season of everything stripped to nothing began so sudden, overnight, with the gust of one phone call, then never left. The only miracle here is waiting to see how much night can a day hold and still be called day.-Mark Buchanan
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. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 TNIV)
A confession: most of 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:
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 tilting toward the 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 the summer, clean my chimney in the 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 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 blatent 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 1996, I hardly paused. I came back from his funeral and preached at my church what I was 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 interuption, 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 the 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 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 to my own heart. The death of my friend and colleague Carolmade it a matter of reckoning. That event, and events surrounding it, plunged me into winter deep and long, and I couldn’t flee 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 a 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 from 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 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– the 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.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
Depending on where you live, you might not feel so conscious the truest effects of winter; however, I live in the northeast up near Canada where the beginning of winter comes in fast and hard. The long, hard, and personal alonesomeness of physical winter can be draining since in winter you experience all kinds of depressing situations. Like you feel abandoned once winter finally has its lock on you. For example, the sun is almost down at 4:30 p.m. which spells doom and gloom for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder. This proves to be the one season that now I look on with hesitancy: I had to get my snowblower serviced in late fall for the coming winter snow which can fall significantly from now till the end of March; I take on the duty of snow removal with the snowblower and depending upon which types of snow fall and its rapidity of the snow storm I usually have to fit it in between work; I am going tomorrow to put my winter tires on because I usually schedule my change over in the middle of November; and for fun in this depressing season, my family is limited to the factors that don’t include skiing or snowboarding because none of my immediate family does both. We have to find our enjoyment elsewhere.
As with the last line of of Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm talking about an assumption I believe no longer, listen to the beginning of my major testimony, a true story that happened in my life: Spiritual Rhythm likens each season of the year to each season of your physical life. Jesus Christ’s life did also. Many Christians come up with the excuse that underneath it all, He was divine leaving us mortals are trying to find our way into this physical life. Paul said when writing to the Philipians that Christ Jesus emptied Himself of all that He was heavenly endowed (Philipians 2:7). Now, just think about that. The reason He wouldn’t save Himself from the cross was because in order to fulfill His Father’s command (remember when He prayed so earnestly that He was pouring down as sweat in the form of blood just before His deathly trial [Luke 22:39-53], the Father denied His request on behalf for all of humanity). Christ Jesus “emptied Himself” from all the power that was afforded to Him in heaven. He is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipotent (all powerful), but He chose to empty Himself completely, so He had NO advantage even though He was God. So Christ Jesus had seasons of His soul too.
Again, that Holy advice coming from Mark Buchanan (just like Ezekiel continually warned the Israelites-The Book of Ezekiel) would have helped me shortly after my eighteenth birthday. See, I graduated from Calvary Christian School on June 3rd, 1989; a week later, I turned eighteen (June 10th); and meanwhile I was preparing to start my training to be a youth pastor (for it would be near the end of August that I was scheduled to be a freshman at Southeastern College of the Assembly of God, Lakeland, Florida). All was looking well for me: I had a new pre-owned 1985 grey and black Dodge Charger Turbo I bought with my new car loan, I was graduated 7th in my class, I was on the National Honor Society, I was set where I thought God wanted to take me (to be a youth pastor), I visited that college on winter break that I later went to, I had been well spoken of by the top brass of the Northern New England Assembly of God, I participated in several youth preaching competitions in which I won one of them in summer camp in 1986, etc. I just wanted to see how God was going to use me next as the miracles that took place in the book The Cross and the Switchblade. All was set, except the dream I had that I couldn’t wake up out of, for another miracle of God would happen slowly.
Speaking from my own perspective the most frightening dream that one could have had is fortelling the future. That occurred to me the night of May 19th. God informed me through a dream just five weeks before it was to happen something catastrophic would happen to me since in my dream I was paralyzed to a hospital bed unable to move. I was all alone, seemingly no one to help me. In fact the morning of June 28, 1989 was a morning that changed my life in all sorts of ways. I mark it like this: twenty-five days after I graduated, eighteen days after my 18th birthday, I was in the most severely horrific car accident, a sort of late birthday present that would affect me for the rest of my life and a l birthday present that I can’t return. So as the morning mist was rising on June 28th, 1989 (the hottest day that year), it was about 6 in the morning going up the highway on my way home.
As I said it was early morning when the sun is just about risen for the day, when I was headed home in my 1985 Dodge Charger on the interstate highway. Lining on each side of the highway traffic were beautiful, majestic, granite ledges as apparently I was so tired that I fell asleep and hit one of those granite ledges. The ambulance came, as well as the police and the fire personnel came to the site, all were astonished that I lived. My mother received the bad news as the chief of police in the town we lived in was coming up the driveway. Instead of the usual expectation of her son, my mother received the bad news of her son’s accident. Yet I don’t remember anything at all what happened when I sped off the highway into one of those ledges sending me into an instantaneous coma, for I hear the grim reaper knocking on my door to let him in and death would overtake me.
However, God in His ultimate purpose (Roman’s 8:28) wouldn’t allow Satan to take my life (Job 2:6) as one of the cars followed close behind me as he noticed the erratic driving of a particular 1985 Dodge Charger. That driver that followed close behind me, it turns out, was a medical doctor. My new preowned sports car held up well given the conditions: travelling about 70 mph on the highway. I apparently fell asleep after being up over 24 hours, and was the subject of over correction due to me being so tired. I apparently veered to one side of the highway, and I tried to correct my swerving car and the over correction made me crash into a granite ledge rock (one of the hardest stones out there).
Fortunately or unfortunately, due to memory loss of the horrific car accident and the incidents surrounding it, I was forced to rely on credible sources (my mother who practiced being in the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital for 15 years, and the doctors who were in charge of my case). Memory loss is normal for everyone, but you tend to remember the days leading up to a major incident; however, that is not the case for me. Unlike a major incident like the person that is subject to the abuse may lock it away in the files of their head, I’ve begged and pleaded with God to reveal to me those things that happened. Yet God has not chosen to reveal those days to me, and I have to trust it is for my own protection. There are days missing from June 18th to the 28th like a little puppy dog gone missing. Stay tuned in to see the next issue of Spiritual Rhythm: Winter as I tell you of my experiences during my hospitalization in Darren’s Comments.
Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger