Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Winter is Coming

Winter is coming. In the mountains just west of Denver where I live, fall is usually the most beautiful season, but it is gravid with the appraoching, unwelcome hardships of winter. Right now, the air is gold as the sun shines through the changing Aspen leaves and the temperature is crisp and pleasant. It is a delight to sit in the sun and breathe in the earthy smells, relishing these last warm days. But this year seems to be different. It is supposed to snow tomorrow and a wintery cold is on its way. This year, the change of seasons is just a bit early. As I sit at my kitchen table looking out at the Aspen grove just outside my window, you can see the chill. The leaves fall like rain with every gust of wind. A little chickadee flits about looking for bugs in the bark of the trees. It doesn't seem to notice that a change is coming. The Rocky Mountains are beautiful, but they can be harsh as well.

There's a fire in the wood stove. My kitchen is a warm refuge against those harsh and unpredictable elements. I sit in a cocoon, looking out at the world and feeling safe and protected. I appreciate this moment of safety with the knowledge that it is transitory gift. It won't be long before I must engage the world and all the elements that come along with it.

Winter is coming and there is nothing that we can do to keep it at bay. If we want to live, we are compelled to engage it. This change of seasons warns of cold and death - there is desolation just around the bend in the road. Cocoons don't last long. We move about in a world that can be harsh at times: life brings us an unexpected illness, someone we love is suffering, a job is lost, our hearts break with the breaking of a relationship. Safety seems impossible, it cannot last. The journey of the soul has similar bends in the road; we can sense a spiritual chill in the breath of a season. Our spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved. God seems distant or absent entirely. These are the long dark nights, the times of desolations and sufferings and it is a reality of the spiritual life. Suffering is not something one would seek but it is something that cannot be avoided. No matter how hard we try to deny it, suffering is part of life. One contemporary statement of this reality is "shit happens." Yes, it does, and to deny it is foolish.

It seems, however, that we often do everything we can to deny the reality of suffering, to stave off the winter and hold back the snows. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this denial is how segments of our culture handle death. Most people don't even like to say that someone has died. We use all sorts of euphemisms such as "passed on," "went to a better place," or even "kicked the bucket." We don't have funerals anymore, only "celebrations of life." I suppose that's OK, but truly, I think we need to have both. Life and death are inextricably one. If we want to engage in the fullness of life, we are compelled to engage the fullness of death.

Even when the spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved, when the winter of the soul is coming, we are creatures of hope. We endure the winter, knowing that spring and summer inevitably follow. Somewhere, somehow, new life will spring up. The winter snows provide the nourishment of the spring waters. The cold earth shelters the seeds of growth. The barren Aspen branches give birth to buds and shimmering new leaves. Sometimes our souls are covered with snow or buried in cold earth or waiting to give birth. But this season of death inevitably yields to the season of life.

Yes, winter is coming. But it harbors new life. To know God is to know the springtime promise, even when it seems that there is no evidence for it. The truth is, we may not see the gift of new life for a long time to come, but if we can trust that it is there, we are more likely to recognize it sooner rather than later.

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