Worship in the winter

Several years ago I was surprised and somewhat miffed to find a tree I had recently planted chopped down. The neighbour boy had chopped it down. When his father asked him why, he responded with, “It was dead anyway.” As most of us know, deciduous trees always appear barren and lifeless in winter.

What about us? How should we respond when we feel empty and lifeless and experience winter in our spiritual journey? Worship in the winter looks and sounds a little different than worship in springtime or harvest. It’s more oriented around silence, waiting and trust. It includes expressions of lament. Thankfully we have the ancient book of Psalms leading the way. Its time-tested pattern of orientation, disorientation and reorientation still rings true for the human spiritual journey.  

Winter songs
Psalm 1 speaks of a tree beside the stream bearing fruit in season. All is well for the righteous. Everything is morally black or white. Orientation. Check. (Take a moment to read Psalm 1 in your favourite version. If music helps you connect, listen to the setting of ‘The Way’ by The SHIYR Poets from Songs for the Journey Volume 1.) If only we could stay here. But eventually the winds of change blow, relational conflict bites and we start to see shades of grey. Our souls start to ache from the confusing cold. We have entered winter . . . despite our strongest protests and positive confessions. What to do? I’m so grateful that people who walked this path before us left us a record of their journey of faith. We can pray and sing the words of Psalm 6, Psalm 13 and many more. Forty percent of the Psalms are built on lament. I think of these as winter songs, completely truthful in the moment, yet still leading us to an expression of trust in God, who remains alive even when we feel like a barren winter tree. We lament and cry out to God not because we have no hope, but because we do. (To experience this musically, listen to ‘The SHIYR Poets’ new version of Psalm 13 ‘How Long’ found on Songs for the Journey Volume 2.)

Drawing on the tap root
I believe deeply in the power of singing spiritual songs of worship. Songs plant profound truths into our God-given back up hard drive and help keep us emotionally healthy. However, sometimes singing feels forced and can be unhelpful. It’s OK to not sing. Let those around you carry the song for a season. Stay connected. Don’t feel like you have to say or sing anything. (This is one example of when the ancient words found in our creeds can also be helpful.) And when even the sound of singing becomes too abrasive, it’s alright to retreat into silence. God will be there too. God is present in each of our winters. Worship in the winter is primarily about deep trust. It’s drawing upon the taproot of God’s life and love. At some point, each of our lives will be laid bare through conflict, grief or even simply old age. A healthy response in worship includes expressions of pain. An unhealthy response would attempt to attach fake leaves on the tree of our life, pretending we are no longer in winter. Simply trust and stand. We are loved . . . even in the bleakness of winter.

(For further music on this topic, listen to “Will you love me in the winter?” found on Brian’s album Level Ground.)

  • Brian Doerksen lives in Western Canada, alternating between Three Hills, Alta. where he directs the “Music & Worship Arts” program at Prairie College with a focus on mentoring the next generation of songwriters, and in Abbotsford, B.C., where he is part of a band called The SHIYR Poets (pronounced “Sheer”) who are setting the ancient Psalms in sequence to new folk-rock tunes. He continues to be blessed by his 30 plus year marriage to Joyce and enjoys each of his unique six children, several of whom have Fragile X Syndrome. His songs include “Come Now is the Time to Worship,” “Faithful One.’ “The River” and more recently songs from the Psalms like “Watching Over Me” (Psalm 3) and “Safe” (Psalm 20).

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