Snow and ice covered Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama today. An already frigid winter brings its heaviest blast of the season in the middle of February. The frustration of spring’s delay escalates when large bands of white and pink appear on radars above our towns and cities. This particular winter has been disorienting for southerners unaccustomed to severe winter weather. We’re not always ourselves in these conditions. How do we find God on harsh winter days? What is God speaking when winter’s gray skies and frigid temperatures continually delay spring’s arrival?
The Book of Winter
Through the centuries, Christian tradition calls us to read two ‘books’ when seeking God: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation. Church fathers looked at creation in all its vast and varied beauty as a ‘book’ to be read. Yet it is a book that stands underneath the authority of Scripture. That said, these two ‘books’ aren’t opposed to one another. The psalmist’s words convey the unity of the two books: ’The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19.1).
Later in the Psalms, we hear the psalmist meditating on the Creator God while he ‘reads’ the Book of Winter. ‘He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes…who can stand before his cold?’ Every Southerner can add, ‘Amen!’ to that truth this year.
It’s important to read the Book of Winter because this season teaches us a different way of seeking God. The psalmist calls us to meditate on the ways God made snow, frost, and ice in all of creation to reveal his power and beauty.
Winter’s Glory (Despite Our Best-Laid Plans)
A mild, gentle storm that lays a few inches of wet snow on the ground is awe-inspiring, beautiful, and downright fun. It’s beautiful in the morning and perfect material for sledding and snowmen later in the day. The sight from your living room should inspire worship to the Creator God who covers the ground with ‘snow like wool.’
It’s a mild inconvenience for those who have to cancel their plans, but it’s a momentary frustration that soon passes. When we’re frustrated by canceled plans, it might say more about how wedded we are to our schedules and plans; how little we contemplate the Book of Creation in worship of our Creator. Our lives are too hurried. A good snowfall reminds us we were made for wonder, not unceasing productivity.
That kind of meditation is possible when conditions are favorable. But not when the power goes out. Not when a winter storm bears down with a few inches of ice, snapping towering oak trees in two. Not when people sleep on interstates and children in their schools.
But that doesn’t mean God cannot be found in winter’s severe and harsh days. As with the birth of his Son in humility and danger, God’s glory might be hidden in unexpected places. Remember the Son was born in humility and vulnerability, born ‘in the bleak midwinter,’ as Christina Rosetti penned. Jesus’ own life shows us the glory of God breaks through in the midst of vulnerable and dangerous circumstances.
Winter’s Lesson: You Aren’t in Control
Winter teaches us we are not in control. We are frail and winter reveals our vulnerability. We learn that everything we have is a gift of God’s mercy. We rarely learn this lesson in times of joy. Most often we learn this truth in loss and want. Like when winter strips the world of her color and light.
When trees lose their leaves in October and autumn skies become winter’s gray heavens, we lose our bearings. Late sunrises and early sunsets, especially for people in northern regions of the world, can be just as oppressive as a severe snowstorm that knocks the power out of one’s home. The light of the soul can diminish to a faintly burning wick in winter.
Winter’s Grace: The Sacrament of Your Neighbor
But Christ will not quench a ‘faintly burning wick.’ (Isaiah 42.3) He comes near the discouraged soul who cannot find her way out of darkness. He comes near with a sign of hope that winter will come to an end. Christ also appears in times of emergency, in the mercy of men and women who help friends, families, and even strangers. Christ comes near in the sacrament of our neighbor.
My first semester attending Duke Divinity School was very difficult. I didn’t make friends as quickly as I hoped. And then an ice storm came raging across the Piedmont in early December. In a matter of hours, North Carolina entered a state of emergency. I lived in a house with three other guys and our power went out early in the storm. It would be three days before the power returned. There was nothing I could control.
And then I discovered the sacrament of my neighbor. Unexpectedly, the guys in our house received an invitation to stay at another student’s apartment where the power was still working. It was our best option to stay in a warm place. When the four of us turned up, we discovered another half-dozen divinity students arrived at the same apartment. About 10-12 Duke students stayed in an apartment no larger than 800 sq. ft. Like I said, this was a state of emergency. It was the only warm place we could stay.
Those two nights showed me the grace of God in a vulnerable time. Not only did I receive the gift of hospitality in a time of crisis, I received the unexpected opportunity for conversation and friendship. The students with whom I braved the ice storm became my closest friends during my Divinity School years.
Christ taught me the sacrament of my neighbor in the middle of an ice storm, in the middle of a situation I could not control. In the depth of my vulnerability as a human being, his grace came near in the sacrament of my neighbor. In unexpected seasons, in unexpected ways, Christ reveals his glory–even in the dead of harsh and cruel winters.