Winter Discontent

The view from my bedroom window is dominated by a very large poplar tree, whose roots are firmly planted by a little stream in the gully that slopes down from our house. In the mornings, after Ric has opened the wooden blinds, I can lie in bed and look at this tree and enjoy its different moods. In spring it is a riot of wispy lime green, while in summer the foliage fills out into a rich dark cloak of colour. Autumn brings a slow fading and leafdrop, till the limbs are laced with gold, then in winter the bare branches are stark against the metal clouds. This winter I have often laid in bed of a morning, watching the light steal across the sky and pick out those brown tendrils, reminding me of a time in life when such a branch was given to me at a prayer retreat. The naked bough had become a symbol of a bare and lonely time in my personal life, and God had spoken to me about the need to embrace such seasons as a necessary part of the cycle of human experience. I have had a particular fondness for bare branches since - and mystified my family one day by bursting into tears when the branch I had saved from that retreat got accidentally broken.

There have been other winters that have been a season of spiritual discovery for me too. One June I stayed for a month or so in Dunedin, the coldest of our main cities. I was there to do some theological research, and was staying in a Bed and Breakfast near the Library where I studied each day. So I didn't have a car, and didn't need one either, since I had plenty of time to walk to places like church and the shops. From my home base to the centre of town was about a half hour walk, and I did that walk several times a week for various reasons - exercise, groceries, the university, and just to blow away the mental cobwebs. But it was June, and it was cold. Some days it was raining, hard, and sometimes there was sleet. The wind chill factor was bearable only because I had a decent waterproof coat with a hood. Over time though I learned that the half hour of freezing cold could be mitigated by my finding a warm retreat at the end of the journey - a dress shop on the way downtown, or the centrally heated homestay on my return. I learned to enjoy the bite of the rain on my face, the tug of the wind on my sodden hair and the slap of wet trousers against my stockinged legs. These times became the welcome opportunity for long conversations with God about my home parish and various difficulties that had been weighing down on me. In a strange way, those walks brought a feeling of freedom and exhilaration. I learned to love the contrast of cold and warmth. Winter has been a different experience for me since then.

Another of my winters was spent in an office that looked out onto a historic building being methodically demolished. As I saw it peeled back to the bare bones of the framing, an oak tree alongside was going through an unseasonally verdant stage of lime green foliage. God and I had a number of prayer conversations about that symbolism, and what was being dismantled and rebuilt, dying and growing, for me at that time. The paradox is evocative. Winter is a time for waiting, but there is activity going on underneath the surface. Winter is a time for dying, but life is inexorably at work below the frost and snow. It's a time for bare branches, but the rotting leaves provide mulch for the seeds and stones striving to germinate into something vital and new.

The actors in the drama of the Bible faced many winters of the spirit. They looked around them and asked God "why?" Why do the heathen flourish? Why do the enemies of God win? Why do bad things happen to good people? "O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?" Psalm 13: 1 - 2 is just an example of many such laments. Their spirits flagged, their faith failed, and they bewailed their forsakenness. But God is good, and those who hung in there often found vindication for their faith. "Unless the Lord had helped me, I would soon have settled in the silence of the grave. I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer." (Psalm 94: 17 - 19.)

Bill Bennett has a "Thanksgiving for Winter" in his little book of Kiwi agricultural prayers. In it he gives thanks for grey wet mornings and cold southerly days, for fresh snow and the sun that follows the frost, for silage and electric fences, for dog trials and pony club and time to enjoy the rugby. The prayer concludes thanksgiving for
"raincoats swanndris and gumboots,
for roaring fires and hot soup,
and safe shelter from winters chills."
I say Amen! Winter is essential to the cycle of organic life, and perhaps too in the spiritual realm. It certainly has been for me. Yes, I love my electric blanket and enjoy a roasting fire - but bare branches and sleet on my face can speak more powerfully of God's faithfulness to me.

To Chew Over: What seems dead or dying in your life right now? Can you embrace the experience as part of the multicoloured seasons of the soul?

When winter is around us, we cannot see the spring;
But still we know, despite the snow,
That spring will come one day.

With night-time's darkness round us, we cannot see the sun;
But still we know, as shadows go,
That dawn will break next day.

When seeds are sown in springtime, we cannot see the flowers;
But still we know, prepared below
A flower will greet the day.

Though God is all around us, we cannot see his face;
But still we know, our God says so!
God lives in every day.
Donald Hilton