Every year, in the final months of winter before the warmth and longer daylight of spring fully take hold, my spirit needs renewal, sometimes even revival. For others, this season can be characterized by a general sense of malaise or just feeling blah. Daylight saving time never helps. And for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this season also falls during the solemn season of Lent.
This time of the year can be especially difficult for me and others who suffer from “seasonal affective disorder,” a type of depression caused by a change in the season, often resulting in feelings of fatigue and hopelessness. For many people with SAD, these feelings start in the fall and early winter; in my case, the end of winter is when I most often feel my energy sapped and some of my passion dim. Some years it is quite mild, but when this season coincides with times when I’m feeling overwhelmed, it can be more debilitating and acute. At its worst, it can feel as though I’m living in a fog that suffocates my joy. I’m grateful that I have learned to discern the warning signs so I can try to mitigate its worst effects.
In these seasons of blah, I keep coming back to the apostle Paul’s profound vulnerability in his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul boasts about a mystical experience in which he points to a thorn in his flesh and pleads for God to take it away. God’s response? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then explains in his letter: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10). We know that Paul performed many miracles — exorcisms, healings, even bringing a young man who had fallen out of a window back to life — but instead of boasting in these miracles, Paul boasts in his weakness. Paul doesn’t name the exact nature of his thorn; perhaps it’s a physical condition like malaria or epilepsy or some kind of spiritual affliction. All we know is God’s response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It’s not easy for most of us to embrace weakness. Our culture tends to exalt and idolize strength. To the dreaded job interview question — “What are some of your greatest weaknesses?” — I’ve often dodged by turning one of my strengths, such as working too hard, into a feigned weakness. But while there are useful tools like CliftonStrengths to help us leverage our strengths as leaders and managers, we don’t often talk about how our weaknesses can shape our spiritual and vocational journey.
When I struggle with SAD, I confront the truth that I am vulnerable — and that it’s okay to be vulnerable. For almost two decades, the release of the annual WOW Gospel compilation album was a mid-winter balm for my soul; I own every album since the series began in the ’90s. Sadly, the series was discontinued in 2019, so this year I did my own search and discovered the incredible Maverick City Music, whose song “Its OK” has profoundly lifted my spirits. “It’s okay / To not be okay,” says the chorus, “I won’t try to hide / Love leaves room for me to say / I’m not okay.” I’ve found freedom and even liberation in acknowledging that I won’t always be at my best and that this inevitable reality can also be okay.
Paul takes it a step further: He says he delights in “weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” Admittedly, I don’t know anyone who delights in these things; most of us try our hardest to avoid or minimize them. I think the underlying message is that our weaknesses and hardships deepen our faith and often prepare us for what God has in store, just as Jesus spent 40 days wandering in the desert being tempted by the devil’s thorns of hunger, power, and fame before he begins his public ministry.
When I confront my own weakness and vulnerability, I often have my most intimate encounters with God. I’m forced to more fully lean on God’s grace and rely less on my own will. It’s a pretty countercultural message in our power-hungry culture, even in social justice movements: We organize and plan and work hard to build the Beloved Community, yet our weaknesses make us grapple with the fact that we can’t do this work alone — and we may not see the full fruits of our struggles. The battles we are fighting to combat racism and sexism, end poverty, promote climate justice, protect our democracy, and so much more are not simply our own; they are God’s.
Ultimately, these seasons of blah require us to confess our own limitations and finitude — and take care of ourselves and each other accordingly. Sometimes this also means seeking professional support for our mental health, something which sadly is still often stigmatized or out of reach for so many. One of my favorite books about the imperative for boundaries and self-care is Kirk Byron Jones’ Rest in the Storm: Self Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers. Jones argues that many ministers and caregivers wrestle with the “violence of overload,” which is so often rooted in the seductive temptation that we are invincible and indispensable. Jones prescribes ways in which we can engage in sabbath rest by following the example of Jesus, who took a nap at the back of a boat during a storm. I saw my own pastor, Rev. Howard-John Wesley, model this a few years ago when he made the courageous decision to step away from pastoral ministry for a three-month sabbatical after starting to experience burnout. Drawing inspiration from a mysterious Hebrew word that appears in the psalms which some believe indicates a pause in the text, he transformed his own season of blah into a season of selah: rest. His decision gave permission and inspiration to so many others in our congregation and beyond to also prioritize seeking selah.
For me, the triple combination of the end-of-winter, seasonal affective disorder, and Lent provides a powerful reminder both of my own finitude and the profound way Jesus inverts the very nature of power, using his own weakness for the purpose of our liberation and redemption. By sacrificing his life, Jesus transforms Rome’s symbol of death and brutality into our symbol of salvation and liberation. My prayer is that whatever season of blah you may be feeling now or will feel in the days or months to come, that it can be transformed into a season of pause and rest. God’s grace is indeed sufficient.