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 ~