There is something delectable about the Psalms – something that I’ve been able to delight in of late. They have given me permission to do two things. Firstly, they have given me permission to feel whatever it is that I’m feeling, and secondly they remind me that every soul has its seasons.
Permission for our soul to feel
In sharing on the topic recently with our congregation I played a clip of a conversation with Eugene Peterson (author of the Message and numerous other books) and Bono (watch it here). In the clip, both stress the raw honesty and authenticity of the Psalms. After playing the clip I allowed for some open feedback. A visitor was brave enough to share that she struggled with church, as she hadn’t been able to find many spaces of authentic honesty. I loved her honesty, but lamented that this had been her experience.
Permission for our soul to have its seasons
I’ve learnt that my soul and its spirituality are not static. Enough pastoral ministry has also taught me that I’m not alone in this. One book that has been life giving to me, has been Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. When I’ve allowed my soul the two permissions – permission for our soul to feel and permission for it to have its seasons – there has always followed a sense of my associated guilt dissipating. The healthiest dose of this that I’ve received is this thoroughly inspiring excerpt from the book, on spirituality. It follows a discussion on light and darkness, and how we have begun to associate all that is good with light, and all that is bad with darkness:
“To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it ‘full solar spirituality,’ since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?”
If you have ever belonged to such a church community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, or you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.
The first time you speak of these things in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. But continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, but I don’t think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them, and begged me to come back into the light. And if I could have, I would have.
There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I’ve begun to realise that I’ve been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.
When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some lights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.
After I stopped thinking that all these fluctuations meant something was wrong with me, a great curiosity opened up: what would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?
To say these words were life-giving would be an understatement. They have given life to the fact that my soul has its seasons. That it waxes and wanes, and that it’s OK. That I am ok. The interesting fact here, is that even when it has fully waned, the moon is still there; we just can’t see it. Perhaps that why Simon and Garfunkel were brave enough to borrow the words from the close of Psalm 88: “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
And of course, there’s the tides. Perhaps another way to explore the metaphor would be to look at the nature of the tides. The life of the ocean is not static, but changes. There is some regularity, but occasionally great highs and great lows. And so it is with our soul.
As Taylor says: “What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?”