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I published a book last year called Spiritual Rhythm. It explores a basic idea, though I'd come to it late: for everything there is a season. The idea, of course, isn't mine. It's Solomon's, or whoever it was who wrote Ecclesiastes. But I'd regarded the notion as rhetoric—the lyrical effusions of a chastened but jaded prodigal.

But then my own heart plunged into winter, bleak and cold. For a long season my world turned bitter, and 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 deepness 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.

She started tripping, and walking into walls. She forgot the simplest things. Sometimes she seemed dosed with laughing gas, loopy and giddy. She complained of crushing headaches. Her doctor diagnosed those as migraines, but one day my wife caught Carol nursing a blistering headache in a cascade of sunlight. No one manages a migraine that way. My wife insisted Carol get a CAT scan, whose results worried doctors enough to order an MRI.

And the chase was on. Carol had a lump of cancer 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 this way a terribly long time.

I thought I needed therapy or drugs, or a career change. I wasn't entirely clear what I believed. I kept 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'd posed me a mystery beyond my meager capacities to solve. I was often tongue-tied at these moments, stammering through a tepid prayer, tainted, I'm afraid, by my own doubts and cynicism.

I tried and tried to get out of it, until I realized that 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 the 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 gets cold, goes dormant.

Awful, but normal. That helped, knowing this.

And so did Psalm 88. That is one dark poem. It is a recitation of lifelong suffering, a protest against God's apathy and brutality. It hasn't a shred of daylight in it. It ends with this: "the darkness is my closest friend." The man (actually, ...

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Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church in Duncan, British Columbia, Canada.

Related Topics:Dependence on GodEmotionsFaithPainSilence
From Issue:Dark Nights of the Soul, Fall 2011 | Posted: December 19, 2011

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December 22, 2011  4:33pm

As I read this article, I found myself thinking of a dear friend who severely suffers from a long time ailment. The pain is unrelenting and as I cry out to God on her behalf, my soul writhes, helpless to shelter her from the cruel waves of affliction. This Psalm speaks volumes to those who love these victims of winter's stormy blasts; daily our prayers are lifted up despite our disappointments. Praise God that He permits us full expression of the emotions we feel and are not cast aside or rejected.

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Elise P

December 22, 2011  2:48pm

Thank you for this honest and important article. Somehow we as Christians seem to think that God will never allow us to experience darkness and when we do, it can crush our faith. It is important to remember that darkness is not necessarily something we can or should get out of, but we have to indeed go through. When my father died suddently several years ago, I was fiercely protective of my grief and didn't want to let anyone talk me out of it. I knew not to embrace and experience my grief would be somehow denying my father and his impact on my life. Others wanted me to feel better, because that made them feel better, but I knew if I abbreviated my grief and try to return to "normal" that it would likely surface in other ways. I hope that as a Christian culture we can become more comfortable with being with people in their sadness and grief and understand it as a natural and expected experience that comes with loss.

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Colin W

December 22, 2011  9:59am

Excellent article and one that reminds me of another excellent resource, Kathryn Greene-McCreight's "Darkness Is My Only Companion; A Christian Response to Mental Illness" (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006). Often times some ministers give the impression that when faced with some of life's serious body blows, we should remain superficially spiritual instead of acknowledging our hurts, anger, frustration, confusion, etc. I have learnt that God is not intimidated by our being real about those feelings. I have discovered also that I do not have to pretend when dryness overtakes me as I walk in and through the darkness. That is very liberating indeed.

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