Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!
Many of you have told me that your reading has gone up exponentially during the pandemic. I thought I was doing pretty well with my 26 books last year. Until, people like my wife, Amanda, mentioned the hundreds of books they’ve read since the shutdown began. To be fair, about half of those books Amanda read are children’s books and books for the girls’ homeschooling, but Amanda typically reads 60-70 “grown-up” fiction and non-fiction books annually. Recently, she read a new release by Katherine May called “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.” Amanda loved this book and has been reading passages aloud to me and slinging quotes at me left and right. May’s book seems to be really popular at the moment because I also heard her interviewed last week on KERA’s Think with Krys Boyd.
In her memoir, May recounts her own long journey with periods of winter - long, low points in her life, times when things felt lonely, physically painful, and emotionally never-ending. What she found was that, although tedious and tough, over the years she has come to a new understanding of herself and what her suffering represents. You see, for her, experiencing winter is inevitable. Winter returns every single year. Winter comes and goes. Yet, winter will eventually give way to a different season, one with warmer temperatures and blossoming gardens and lighter feelings.
Right now, we are wintering. We are in a long and lonely season of deep reflection, contemplation, isolation, and pain. Yes, we are definitely in winter both seasonally and emotionally. And I would argue that winter began in March of 2020 with the beginning of the coronavirus quarantine. We’ve been hiding and hibernating. We’ve been sheltered and secluded. And I don’t know about you, but after the storm this past week and the loneliness of quarantine, I’ve had plenty of winter to last me for years.
Unfortunately, our collective wintering during this season of our lives, is not yet over. We are still restoring and repairing the damage from the snowstorm, including our church’s children’s and youth spaces that flooded. We still have a little way to go until everyone is vaccinated and the season of disease has run its course. We still have a long way to go with our work to be anti-racist and to lead Christianity towards a season of flourishing equality and blooming justice. We still have a long way to go to help all people become beloved and cherished. No, spring is not here yet. Winter isn’t over.
Since we can’t escape winter, at least not yet, May asks us in her book to pay attention to this season. What might we learn from this season we are in, this wintering? Winter just might be a time to teach us what is needed in our lives to provide rest for and give root to the things that will happen in the spring, when we are thriving once again. Let’s not waste the lessons of winter.
The lessons of wintering continue for us as we journey through Season of Lent. This year during Lent, those forty days before Easter, we will focus on Psalm 130. I hope you will find the Psalm in your Bible and read it daily as a meditation in our wintering. I think, if the terminology was used back when the Psalms were written, Psalm 130 would be a song of wintering, a hymn of lament, grief, guilt, and petition. It is believed that this psalm was probably one of the penitential songs King David wrote after he committed heinous and hurtful acts. You see, David was in the emotional depths, submerged in the sea of grief, dug down deep in the grave of guilt. He was afraid he was so far down in sin and sadness that God wouldn’t be able to hear him or answer him or even love him. And so, he penned this prayer which began with these pleading words: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice!”
One of my former professors at McAfee School of Theology is an Old Testament scholar and she gives a little background on this psalm. Dr. Nancy deClaisse-Walford says that Psalm 130 is the eleventh of the fifteen Songs of Ascents in Book Five of the Psalter, which includes Psalms 120-134. These Songs of Ascents are most likely songs that ancient Israelite pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. As we’ve discussed before, Jerusalem sits on a hill; so, no matter where you come from, one “goes up” to Jerusalem. These Songs of Ascents help the worshipper imagine traveling from their village home, meeting up with others, and joyously anticipating the festive time that they would celebrate together in the city of God. And as the pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem, they would perhaps sing well-loved, well-known traditional songs as they went along. And as one group met another, they would mingle their voices and sing together.
Within these Songs of Ascents are songs of thanksgiving, songs of praise, wisdom songs, and songs of lament. Psalm 130 is a song of lament and is often recited within the Season of Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary, the sequence of biblical texts we use as a church and study as a broader, worldwide church. So, you see, Psalm 130, especially the first verses of desperation and longing, prepare us to winter the season of Lent, not only in our own sufferings and sorrows, but in the repentance and reconciliation we need as a church, a community, and as a nation. We have much to learn in this wintering to be ready for Easter and to be resurrected people in the world.
I think the most important thing we can learn right now is to not fight the winter, not fight the transformation that is happening within us. Katherine May says, “Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
We are in the depths. We are in a long winter. We are covered up by the weight of isolation and suffering. We don’t need Psalm 130 or this Lenten Season to remind us of that fact. But here we are, in a moment of waiting. And I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a time when my emotions are deep and I yearn for God to hear me. We yearn for God to hear us, to hear our cries in this pandemic isolation; hear our cries in this economic volatility; hear our cries for racial reconciliation and relief from civil unrest; hear our cries amidst medical and health complications; and hear our cries with our job insecurities and family responsibilities. It sure feels as if we don’t need Lent to bring us to a place of penitence and prayer… we’ve been “in the depths” for a very long time.
And yet, as if to drive the point home, we are in a physical wintering in Texas. We are in a time of introspection and sorrow. We are in the depths and we look to Psalm 130, this ancient poem and song of lament to guide us in these uncertain times and in this season of Lent. We look to Psalm 130 to remind us to wait patiently and with hope on the Lord. We look to Psalm 130 to reveal to us, even in the depths of our pain and doubt, well-known and beautiful words that speak of our dependence on the God of forgiveness and love. We are in the depths, but spring is coming, church! Spring is coming!
Rev. Dr. Jerome Creach of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary told of an experience he had with Psalm 130. He said, “Once while leading a study tour of the Middle East, my group visited the chapel of the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. The attraction of the chapel was a set of stained-glass windows created by the artist Marc Chegal. The windows are set within a domed ceiling so as to direct the worshipper heavenward. As we gazed at the windows, however, a member of our group noticed another feature of the chapel. Directly below the windows the floor was sunken, and in the middle of the depressed area was a pulpit. Curious about this design, we asked about this architectural feature. The hospital representative explained, ‘The floor beneath the windows was made this way because we believe all prayer should be offered out of the depths.’”
We all seem to have a “depressed” area in our lives right now. We are wintering right now. We have heavy burdens, lost dreams, and unhealed brokenness from which we’re having a difficult time recovering. We’re in the depths. But, it is in those depressed areas of our lives, that we have a pulpit, a place where God’s word and the life of Jesus takes center stage and provides hope in the midst of heartache. In our depressed areas of depth and wintering are pulpits of love and understanding, passion and promise, joy and justice, places where we know God hears us and desires the best for us, even though we are covered up in grief and sorrow.
Katherine May agrees. She says, “This is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”
Yes, we feel the wintering right now. Yes, we are covered in the depths. But I don’t want to leave us with that word on this first Sunday in Lent. What we are to remember this morning, as we open up and learn from this song of lament, is that waiting and hoping are both words used to describe hearing God’s voice. Waiting and hoping hibernate side by side in the wintering of our lives and in this season of Lent.
Hopefully, this Lenten season will help us wait on the Lord and hear the voice of God in new and powerful ways as we follow Jesus to the cross and as we pause in our own sorrow and guilt. Hopefully, we continue to take this time as individuals and as a church to learn and to grow and to sit and wait in this personal, communal, and national winter. How might we be sprouting roots in this time to give us stability and strength to do the hard work of inclusion, racial equity, and blooming justice? How might we winter, together, in these depths?
We winter together by remembering that the waiting of Lent is not a dead time. We are transforming into a resurrected people if we can but hold on in the wintering. Because we can be assured through the good news of the gospel story, the life and journey of Jesus, that spring is coming, that resurrection is coming, that new life is coming. And it is my prayer that in this time of wintering, especially over the next several months, in the hopeful waiting of Lent, that we know that God hears our deepest cries, hears our deepest concerns, hears our deepest cares, wherever we might be, even in the depths.