Let The Bad Times Roll

by Michael Usey

Psalm 13 (The Voice Translation)
Matthew 11.28-29, John 16.33, 15.11 (The Message Translation)

I hope you’re wearing red, orange, or yellow as it’s Pentecost today, which marks the birth of the Christian church by God’s wild spirit in Jerusalem two centuries ago.  It’s more central of a Christian holiday than is usually celebrated in the US.  It’s probably underplayed here for several reasons, not the least of which is that typically occurs in late May to early June, an ultra-busy time of testing, transitions, and graduations for students, teachers, professors, and parents.  Our lives shift at the end of the academic year heading into summer, and even more so this year as we emerge from our pandemic cocoons.

This may not be your idea of a typical Pentecost sermon, but I wanted to talk about two different modes of spirituality as we exit the pandemic and head into summer.  Today marks the beginning of our summer sermon series entitled, Are We There Yet? As any parent knows, it’s the question of young kids to the car’s driver, expressing frustration and impatience over the travel time. At this point in our collective faith journeys we are very much travel-weary, still on the way, and have in no way arrived: not about race, or gender, or our post-pandemic identity, or what shape our faith will be in when we are finally able to be together again.  No, we are not there yet, not even close really, and there you have the guiding image for the whole summer series.  We do not engage in what Michael-Ray Mathews calls, Arrivialitis. We’ll look at some of the many travel narratives in our bible as we try to place ourselves on the road again alongside Jesus.

It was Martin Marty, the famous church historian at the University of Chicago, who introduced me to the idea that there are at least two kinds of spirituality: summer spirituality and a “winter sort of spirituality.”  He got the typology from the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner.  Marty had just suffered the death of his beloved wife and was walking through winter.  He wrote about it in his book: A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.  His opening words in his book: Winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season of the weather.

Marty had always seemed a summer type to me, but the death of his wife had thrown him into winter.  He found solace in Rahner’s distinction of the two types of spirituality and Rahner’s affirmation that each type had its own integrity.

Summer spirituality lives in the warm immediacy of God’s presence.  It finds God, sees God everywhere.  Joy and happiness fill its days.  Do some of you remember some of the summer hymns?

There’s within my heart of melody.

Joyful, joyful we adore thee. [Sung at our wedding and always my fav]

Joy to the world [Not the song with the bullfrog, but that one is good too]

I Stand Amazed at the Presence

Morning has broken.

I have felt that deep bubbling happiness, and I bet you have too. Some people have had a summer spirituality all their lives.  They experienced the love and nearness of God from early years, what Dorothy Soëlle has called “childhood mysticism.”  Others have had summer seasons in their lives, when God, Jesus, Spirit have filled their hearts, when every day was shimmering beauty and summery joy.  Love is reverberation.  Can you remember such seasons, or days? Is your spirit summery by natural inclination?

On the other hand, Winter spirituality lives more with a sense of God’s absence than God’s immediate felt presence.  Winter Christians sometimes feel like they are out in a snowstorm, looking through the window into a cabin where people are gathered around a warm fireplace, cuddled, happy and warm, and they wonder why they are on the outside and these others are on the inside.

There are those who by their nature are winter sorts.  They stand a bit at a distance from life, observing, analyzing.  They lead with their brains more than their hearts.  When people talk about Christian experience, Jesus in their hearts, hearts “strangely warmed,” God real and near, they may long for such an experience, but it is not theirs.  And they may wonder if something is wrong with them.

But winter spirituality has its own integrity, and its own gifts to bring the church and the world.  Chicago theologian Joseph Sittler confessed to being such a Christian in a sermon called The View from Mt. Nebo.  You may remember that Moses, for reasons we cannot fathom, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land with the people he had brought out of slavery and led through the wilderness. [I for one am still angry about this.] He could only look upon the Promised Land from a distance, from the top of Mt. Nebo.  Sittler says there are those who never experience what others do – – at least not the same ways – – but who have their own gifts to offer.  In his words: Who knows what goes on in the hearts of those who lack the grace of adoration, of passion, of immediate blessed assurance – – who must live out their lives in hard, dutiful obedience to the cooler graces because their lives are unattended by the hotter ones.

They have their own graces to offer: of intellect, discernment, courage and a dogged, resilient kind of faith.  As the book of Hebrews writes: These all died in the faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it, greeted it from afar (11:13).

Karl Rahner says that as children of the post-Enlightenment West many have inherited a more wintry-kind of spirituality: We bring our questions, our doubts all the way to the altar.  But there is a courageous kind of faith in such people, more born in will than heart or even intellect. Eli Wiesel is an example, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate, writer, humanitarian.  He said to a group of ministers a few years ago: I have my reasons not to believe in God.  I have my reasons not to believe in humanity.  I choose not to use them.  Mother Teresa wrote of long years of spiritual winter even as she gave herself to the poor of India.

To develop winter spirituality a bit further, circumstances of life may have thrown you into winter.  The death of a child, a spouse, a parent, a beloved, a relationship.  A crippling depression.  The loss of job, a career, financial disaster.  An illness which has robbed you of your vitality; an injury that has altered your life forever.

Let’s be honest: Sometimes bad decisions have cast us into winter.  Psalms of confession are a subcategory of psalms of lament.  Sorrow for our own sin, our failures, our regrets cast us into winter.  We have prayers of confession some Sundays as a ministry to those in this kind of winter.  The winter of sin or failure or incapacity, or unrealized potential.  Or, we may find ourselves in what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul,” and we don’t know how we got there or how long we will be there.

So which are you: Winter or Summer?  Which are you todayOf course typologies are always limited.  You may find yourself in some mixture of the two.  One word of hope: Your disposition is not your destiny.  Winter is not forever.  Another: Each kind of spirituality can be deepened by the Spirit of God to a place where something redemptive is going on.  

Another: We need each other.  Winter siblings need summer siblings and vice versa.  We need not think of summer types as superficial or winter types as depressing. Let us grasp each other’s hands on our journey of faith. Let’s continue to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

John Calvin called the Psalms: “The anatomy of all parts of the soul.”  It is full of wintry and summery psalms, because both have a place in the heart.  Winter psalms have phrases like these:

Out of the depths I cry to you.(130:1)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (22:1)

My tears have been my food day and night. (42:3) 

How long, O Lord, will you forget me? How long must I bear grief in my soul? (13:1-2)

And there are summer psalms:

Sing to the Lord a new song.(149:1)

O clap your hands all people.(47:1)

I was glad when they said unto me: “Let us go into the house of the Lord.”(122:1)

I am in love with you, Yahweh, my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer. (18:1)

Christians with summer spirituality are the ones often talking about their joy in Jesus. We look to them as examples of great faith. By contrast, winter spirituality people are seldom asked to share their experience because who wants to hear about all that doubt and not knowing? Those with winter spirituality may wonder if they really do believe because the mountaintop is never a part of their faith journeys. And yet, Marty argues, their faith is just as real and valid as any other, just sung in a different key. He finds their kin in the psalms of lament.

When we model and teach only one season of faith in our congregational life and worship, we give the implicit message that only one season is acceptable. The result is that some Christians feel forced to put on a happy face in order to participate – or they choose not to attend at all.

The problem comes when we read only summer psalms, or sing only summer hymns and anthems.  The hymn books of most major denominations have thrown out all the wintry hymns, such as: “Come ye Disconsolate.”  Or the spiritual: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

Where did these songs, these laments go when the church banished them as too depressing?  They went into folk music, the blues, country music, as in Hank Williams’ perfect lyric: “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

I’ve been listening on repeat (to Ann’s chagrin) to The Offspring’s new album, Let the Bad Times Roll.  The title track is a mocking parody of the 1946 song, Let the Good Times Roll.  Dexter Holland, the lead singer of The Offspring who wrote this song is now a professor, with a doctorate in molecular biology, and co-author of the PLUS One published paper identifying genetic sequencing of HIV.  So we’re not in Taylor Swift territory here. Roving through real-life dystopian settings, Let the Bad Times Roll settles somewhere dark in order to shed lighter sides. It’s a sage punk lament on where we find ourselves these days in the US. The album cover depicts the Indian god Shiva holding a gun and a handful of pills and Let the Bad Times Roll sounds more pessimistic on its surface but is ultimately threaded in hope, a mixture just maybe of winter and summer spirituality. 

Some church growth experts have counseled stupidly: Never sing a song in a minor key.  Where then do all the winter people go?  Can they not bring their sadness to church?  Their winter?  Of course we can go to the other extreme:  “Let’s not get too happy in church or get carried away.  What do we do with our joy, our exultation, our exuberance? Are these summery emotions not also worship?  How, then can we bring our happiest, fullest summer to church?

All of this is to say again: We need each other in all our spiritual seasons.  And worship can help us bring all we need to bring to God, to church.

Psalms of trust are a help to us in this.  Psalms of trust help us move like icebergs from winter to summer, or help us survive the winter until summer comes.  Some of our most beloved psalms are psalms of trust, like Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd: feeding us, leading us besides still waters.  Also with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, blessing us, providing for us in the presence of our enemies, attending us with God’s goodness and mercy.  Goodness and Mercy like two sheep dogs always by our side.  And lifting our faces to the hope, if not our present experience: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Our Psalm for today, Psalm 13 begins as lament:  

How long O Lord, will you forget me? How long will you hide your face?

How long must I bear grief in my soul?

Then it moves by trust into a summer psalm: 

As for me, I trust in your merciful love … Let my heart rejoice in your saving help

Let me sing to you, O Lord, for your goodness to me.

Jesus ministered to both winter and summer types: Come onto me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am gentle and humble in heart. The very words on the front of our building.

I have said this, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will find tribulation [the word literally means a “grinding”].  Isn’t that a great verse for the post pandemic: in the world you will have a grinding. But be of good courage, good cheer, I have overcome the world. These words I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full (Mt 11.28-29; John 16.33;15:11).

Sometimes I preach more than I know, more than my experience, but I cannot whittle the gospel down to my own experience, my own understanding.  I carry summer and winter in my soul, both summer and winter having their way with me from time to time, moment to moment.  Maybe this is true for you, too.  God can make every season a season where our lives are deepened, made better, truer and more useful to others.

Two endings: one wintry, the other summery. There was a young rabbinical student who had traveled far from home to go to rabbinical school.  One day he came to his master rabbi and said:

Rabbi, back home everything was simple, everything was clear.  I studied, I prayed.  But now nothing is simple, nothing is clear.  I am lost.  I cannot study, I cannot pray.  All I have is my sorrow and my tears. The rabbi paused and said: Perhaps God does not want your study and your prayers.  Perhaps God prefers your sorrow and your tears. Of course on one level this is not true.  God would never prefer us to be in sorrow and tears.  But if tears and sorrow are all we have to offer, God wants us to offer these. No parent wants their child to only talk with them, to only come to them when they are happy, bouncy, when everything is right.

The other story, from a memoir of an illiterate 19th century British evangelist named Billy Bray: I can’t help praising the Lord.  As I go along the streets, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say “Glory”; and I lift up the other, and it seems to say “Amen.” Are we there yet?  No, not yet. So let us keep walking, keep walking together til one foot says “Glory” and the other foot says “Amen.”  Amen?  Amen!