On that occasion when leading the time of “worshipful lament” that I mentioned last time, I shared the following true story which I had read in an article in a Leadership Journal (Fall 2011). It was written by Mark Buchanan, a pastor in Canada. He wrote:
“My heart plunged into winter, bleak and cold. For a long season my world turned bitter, and [I was] desperately lonely. Death brought it on. Carol was my wife’s best friend and my trusted colleague. She was a pastor of extraordinary gifts. Even more, she had a depth and closeness with God that made you want these things too. Her prayers stormed heaven. Her preaching opened its gates. Her ways invited you in.
But, she started tripping, and walking into walls. She forgot the simplest things…she complained of crushing headaches…and an MRI revealed a tumour in her head the size of a baseball. What followed was an ordeal of surgeries and therapies that ended, 15 months later, with a funeral.
Up until then, and even during, I was stout-hearted. I stood week after week in the pulpit, preaching, praying, exhorting. I gave all the updates on Carol’s condition, in a calming voice.
And then I buried her. Even this I did with strength and conviction. But I woke up a week or so later tired and sad, and I stayed that way a terribly long time.
I thought I needed therapy or medications or a career change. I wasn’t entirely sure what I believed. I kept on preaching, kept leading, but some days I could barely rouse myself. When people asked me to pray for them, I did, but felt stumped, as if they had posed me a mystery beyond my meagre capacities to solve…
I tried and tried to get out of it, until I realised there was nothing doing except going through it. I was in winter. It was a season of my heart no more unnatural or preventable – or tolerable – than the winters of the town where I grew up, a place in northern Canada that went dead with cold for half a year. Winter is what happens when the earth tilts away from the sun; it’s still there just slantwise. A winter of the heart is similar. Something tilts, something shifts, the light diminishes, and everything goes cold, goes dormant. Awful, but normal. That helped, knowing this.
And so did Psalm 88.
[Here are some verses from this psalm:
“Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry to you…I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go to the pit; I am like one without strength…
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 …
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?… 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 neighbour— darkness is my closest friend.”
That is one dark poem. It is a recitation of lifelong suffering, a protest against [what seems to be] God’s apathy and brutality. It hasn’t a shed of daylight in it. It ends with the words: “darkness is my closest friend.” The psalmist has crouched down in the pit so long, it seems homey. He’s in deepest misery and isn’t going to be coaxed out with easy [answers].
I grew to love him, this psalmist, his stark honesty, his fierce lament, his see-sawing between wild anger and passive resignation, his willingness to almost taunt God to action. All that provided a way, not out of winter, but through it. The psalm is a prayer. That was my first clue – after all he’s been through, he’s still talking to God. And my second clue: he confesses, without restraint, his disappointment in God, but asks God to act anyway.
This became the shape of my own prayers in my winter. I told God exactly how I felt [nothing kept back], but I didn’t stop talking to him. And I kept reminding him, bluntly, of what he could and should do. Those prayers were raw and real. They were their own acts of faith.
I don’t romanticize this time. It was hard and bleak, and I was happy to bid it good riddance. But it taught me something I’ll need again, [that] ‘even the darkness is not dark to [God]’ (Psalm 139:12)” (references: # 22)
Having read this story, I (Rod) followed this up with the following prayer before sharing more about psalms of lament:
Father, none of us are exempt from tough times, dark times. All of us have been through seasons in our lives that we have not really appreciated. In fact, as Mark Buchanan says, we have been happy to bid them good riddance. Happy to see them finished and again come into the light. But, we wonder why? What purpose, if any, could there be in these winter seasons in our lives? Sometimes it’s a mystery to me. But, just maybe, in your wisdom and love and grace, you are wanting to teach us things during these times, wanting to bring us into a more intimate relationship with you, wanting to use these times to change us, to make us more like Jesus. Maybe, it’s really only in these times that we can know our hearts and what we really believe, what our real values in life actually are. If so, then we want to be willing to learn, to talk to you about these things honestly and openly, just as the psalmists so often did. To trust you, and allow you to walk with us through these hard times and in and through these times to testify of your unfailing love. In the all-powerful name of Jesus. Amen.