Just as we look after our bodies in the cold winter months with warm clothes and food, so we need to care for our souls, when our faith is weak, says Jill Rattle
I hope you’re enjoying a pleasant warm day as you read this. I’m not! As I write it’s winter: the sumac tree in the garden bares its antler branches, the few hellebores hang their modest heads in otherwise empty flowerbeds, the colours of autumn have fled, the sky is an unrelenting grey blanket, it’s wet (again) and it’s cold. Bleak. Sigh.
Indoors, I’m snapping Facebook shut – a friend keeps posting pictures of his children on the beach in Australia, laughing in the sun. Oh please – stop it! You’re making me feel worse.
Be honest – do you ever feel like that in church? The jubilant worship songs or hymns are ringing out, the hearty singing crescendos, the spoken words are full of faith and promise, and you feel … ‘bleurgh’!
“How are you?” asks the smiling fellow worshipper. “Fine,” you say. Not.
And it’s not just in church: maybe you’ve dragged yourself to a place of private prayer, opened your Bible, and – sigh, all you can think of is the ironing, the meeting you don’t want to attend, unanswered emails, shopping, the same daily grind ahead. Bleurgh!
Sometimes it seems as if winter has entered our souls. There is a bleakness, a greyness, no colour in our relationship with God. We feel cold.
It’s not a nice feeling and it’s not a nice spiritual place to be in. But know this, not one of your fellow travellers in the faith has escaped a winter season of the soul, sometimes short, sometimes long. Some of the Christian mystics of the past have described extended periods of feeling spiritually dead and alienated: they called it “The Long Dark Night of the Soul”.
However, what is so important to grasp is that once we’ve committed our lives to following Jesus, we are never ever spiritually dead, but we might for a shorter or longer period be spiritually dormant. I look at my rather sad garden. Nothing seems to be happening. No fruit, no outward growth, no life. No life? Rubbish! Seeds, plants, trees are alive – dormant yes, but the chill of winter is preparing them for the spring that will inevitably come.
As many Christians have discovered, a period of spiritual dormancy is often the prelude to a new understanding of God’s love, of renewed purpose and spiritual vigour.
My eight-year-old grandson was learning in kids’ church about the gifts of the Spirit. During the session, he shared a picture in his mind: he’d seen two trees, one totally bare, the other covered in leaves. The bare one looked dead, he said, but the gardener kept working on it and gradually leaf after leaf appeared until it was as full as the other.
No matter how dead or cold we feel, the gardener hasn’t abandoned us. He is nurturing, watering, feeding, pruning us – and the spiritual fruit will appear. Hold on. Wait.
Having said that, I think there is a difference between waiting patiently for God to restore us, and just inertly wallowing in our current, cold, spiritual state.
In winter we sensibly do things to protect us from the cold. We seek warmth. For a start, we put on warm clothes. I think the spiritual equivalent is seeking out fellowship. There are people in your church who you can be honest with; who will understand, who will wrap you with their love. When winter is in your soul it is not the time to ‘go it alone’. Please don’t be too proud to let someone pray with you. It will warm you.
In winter we take in hot drinks and hot food to give us energy. Spiritually, when we’re in the grey period, we need to feed on what will energise us. That might include a conference, retreat, books, tapes, DVDs, worship albums. And we persist in reading our Bibles and in prayer. We do not starve ourselves: we allow the Holy Spirit to feed us and build up our flagging strength.
Some people who can afford it take winter holidays to find the sun. Over 50 years ago, I heard a preacher use a simple pun: “What a difference the sun/son makes.” If spiritual winter assails us, we need to seek the son. One of the best places to find him is in John’s Gospel chapter 20. Read it again. (I just have.) His glorious shining aliveness will thaw our souls and rekindle hope.
I’m looking out at the winter garden – actually it’s beautiful. His hand is all over it.
+ Jill Rattle is joint editor, with her daughter Ali Herbert, of the Bible notes Day by Day with God and was one of our speakers at our Seasons of the Spirit conference in June 2016.
(For details of our 2017 Women of Peace conference visit www.brfonline.org.uk/womenofpeace2017 or call 01865 319700).