The storm rages outside. It looks like I won’t be leaving camp tonight. Rations are getting meager. Morale is low. The last tendrils of sunlight would have died away in the mid afternoon, for another night twice as long as the day, if the sun had been visible today. Predators close in on the eastern flank, tracking across the tundra –
Wait, my bad – that’s from an Antarctic explorer’s journal, not mine.
Okay, I’m dramatic. Winter in Corinth isn’t that bad. I’ve been in cold weather before – I grew up with snowball fights and sledding, survived Snowmaggedon, and had college classes canceled for negative thirty degree wind chills. But…Corinth is cold. And winter is long.
I’m not anti-winter. I prefer fall or summer, but there are plenty of things I like about winter. I’d convince friends to go sledding on cafeteria trays to distract ourselves from final exams, and being cooped up indoors gave great excuses for board games at college or a book by my fireplace in Rhode Island. If all else failed, New England’s freakish weather would usually eventually offer a random 70 degree day to hold me over.
Winter in Corinth has been a bit different. Two feet of snow and two degrees below zero meant no more outdoor hobbies. No dorm full of friends meant no board games to distract them from the final exams which distracted us from the frigid temperatures. No fireplace, with a candle a halfhearted substitute, and no more cafeteria trays to slide down hills on…though there are more than enough hills to factor in when driving.
Winter in Corinth isn’t killing me. I’m on the uphill climb from the plunge into an icy bath of graduating school, leaving home, becoming an adult and becoming a pastor. There’s a little less of the shock of transition and questioning if I’m going to survive. I’m making friends, I’m finding a rhythm, I’m bouncing back from the first couple months of change. God has been faithful to me, and there are many ways I can see him at work – in me, in my church, in my town. And certainly, winter hasn’t been all bad. Winter’s beautiful and snowy; winter meant Christmas, travel , and family; it’s meant more time with new friends; it’s meant receiving countless holiday blessings from kind congregation members. Winter, however, has made the uphill climb much more slippery, and I’ve sometimes skidded back down the hill a ways.
Winter in Corinth has been emblematic of my transition into a new life: though it comes with its joys, it’s different than I’m used to, lonelier than I’m used to, and at times unexpectedly difficult. And winter in Corinth is emblematic of the way I’ve treated that transition – as an enemy to defeat, a puzzle to solve, a mission to accomplish. “Summer is coming” has become my frequent internal refrain – because this time, summer means more than warm weather and no school.
Summer means marrying my long-distance fiancée, instead of me spending another night snowed into a 3-bed, 3-bath house by myself. Summer means deeper friendships, since I’ll have been in New York a full year. Summer means more activities to explore and company to explore them with. Summer means the first-year anniversary of my ordination, which means I won’t be a “first-year pastor” anymore. No more starting from scratch for baptisms, installation of officers, new member classes. Summer means less loneliness, less incompetency, and less cold; summer means more progress on the uphill climb.
All those things are good, and likely true to some degree. But though it’s brought some hope, the “summer is coming” refrain also has a consequence: it’s made winter the enemy. Rather than look for ways to enjoy the winter, I’ve mostly bemoaned the cold; rather than look for what God is teaching me in a season of transition, I’ve pined for more friendships or activities; rather than appreciate the joy of a season of engagement, I sometimes hope the wedding day will hurry up and get here. Winter – both in the literal sense of the cold and snow, and in the metaphorical sense of the rebuilding of community and the developing of competency – has been an adversary to thwart, a thing to outlast, to defeat, to survive.
“Summer is coming,” though true and exciting, has turned gratitude into longing, appreciation into discontent, and awareness of God’s presence into frustration he won’t get a move on. It’s made summer my Savior, instead of Jesus. It’s made has made me full of ingratitude, instead of full of the Holy Spirit. It’s made me try to discover coping mechanisms like Netflix or coffee shops, instead of try to discover what God might be teaching me in this winter season like trust or contentment.
I was reading 1 John last Thursday evening, and came across chapter 5, verse 13: “I write these things to you who believe in the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” What a beautiful assurance – heaven is coming! No matter what happens, I have an eternal life with Christ to look forward to. And I do look forward to it, God! Just…not yet. I look forward to the new heavens and new earth – but I also love the present earth, and want to be useful on it! I’m not just an escapist who wants to get to heaven and doesn’t care about earth, but I’m committed to enjoying and making the most of my earthly life, using this temporary season for the most good I can. “Heaven is coming” is a true and good refrain that brings good hope – but earth is here! Isn’t that worth making the most of?
Wait. Shoot. My theology doesn’t match my life again. I immediately had a sense of what God was getting at, and I brought up the weather forecast for the following morning.
I’d played with the thought of hiking the next day, but I’d been reluctant – it was going to be cold. I had been wisely advised that, if I was going to survive a New York winter, I needed to find a way to enjoy it; quite contrary to my winter-as-enemy approach thus far. And if I was going to choose to appreciate what I had now, instead of just wishing for something different…a cold day probably was the way to start.
The report came up. 8 degrees! And that was without summit wind? Yikes; not exactly my gentle intro to winter hiking I hoped for. But I had the gear for it. Over Christmas I’d been showered with microspikes, snowshoes, winter socks and a face covering. And staying inside day after day, besides my 15 step walk from my house to the church or the short drive to the gym, was going to make my soul wither.
Oh well. You gotta start somewhere.
The next morning, I checked the labels on every pair of pants I owned, till I found three non-cotton pairs I could layer over each other, I ensconced my torso in as much polyester as I could find, and I threw snowshoes, microspikes, hand warmers, extra socks, extra gloves and an extra hat into a bag. Already, the “Summer is coming” refrain was starting – thirty minutes to get ready! Two trips to pack stuff in the car! In the summer I would just be in a t-shirt! I stuffed the refrain back down, stuffed more warm things in my pack and drove to the mountain.
Along the way, the image of a frozen Stevesicle lost on a featureless white blanket crossed my mind, and I texted my fiancée to send help if she didn’t hear from me by evening. My hands nearly numbed as I put my microspikes on inside out, upside down, and backwards till I finally was fully winterized. More than once I thought I should turn around, but well, I was already at the trailhead, so I might as well give it a shot…
Then I fell in love.
I flew up the trail. The light blanket of snow covered all the roots and rocks, making it easy and smooth to traverse. My correctly attached microspikes made walking on ice like walking on pavement. Eight degree weather meant less sweat, which meant less exhaustion and less water consumption. Dead trees meant no leaves to block the gorgeous views. The trail was empty and silent, besides the occasional highly distressed bird who clearly forgot his microspikes. And the snow clinging to tree branches, the white dusting like powdered sugar sprinkled over rolling hills, the winter sun gleaming off the Sacandaga – it was euphoric.
Worries melted away, unlike the snow. Sure, my toes were still half-frozen; if I stopped moving for too long, the rest of me would join suit; and when I reached the summit, bitter winds blew ice crystals into my eyes, froze any droplet of sweat it could find, and made climbing the fire-tower feel like flirting with death. But in the 90 minutes it took me to summit, I absolutely fell in love with winter hiking.
Something magical happened. Instead of feeling like the winter sun was mocking me, shining beautifully while I was cooped up inside, the winter sun became a partner, illuminating my gorgeous adventure. Instead of the snow being a blockade to one of my life-giving hobbies, it became a gateway to the brand-new experience of hiking in the winter. Instead of winter being an enemy to conquer, it suddenly became a friend to enjoy.
Yeah, summer is still coming. And it’ll be awesome! Marriage, friendships, sunshine, warmth – so many good things are on their way. Summer is coming – but winter is here. And winter’s worth enjoying and embracing, instead of wishing away.
It got me wondering, as I careened back down the mountain, fleeing for the warmth of my car to revive my toes back to life. Maybe this isn’t the only part of winter I should embrace. Maybe other parts of the winter could be partners and friends, too, instead of enemies.
Maybe loneliness is less of an enemy than I’ve made it out to be; perhaps God has some lessons to teach me in solitude. I’ve never been the type of person to drown sorrows in alcohol or addictions, but I certainly have drowned sorrows in friends and games and laughter and distractions. Could it be that this season of solitude might be one inviting me to being filled with God’s Spirit, instead of filled with distractions?
Maybe a season of feeling incompetent is exactly what I need. I’ve spent a lot of life feeling competent – I did well in school, I was comfortable leading the youth ministry I’d grown up in, and I thrived on college and seminary community. Being forced to admit uncertainty has forced me to my knees in prayer. Could it be that a season of incompetency is inviting me to depend more than ever before on my sufficiency in Jesus, rather than my sufficiency in self?
I’m probably not the only one who’s had a “summer is coming” refrain – literally or metaphorically. I wonder if Christians sometimes either over-emphasize or under-emphasize heaven. Not that it won’t be impressive and beyond our wildest dreams; like summer, it is something to be excited for, to look forward to, to cling to through wintry times on earth. Summer is coming! Winter won’t last forever. Eternity is a glorious, joyous thing to look forward to. But at the very same time – it shouldn’t cause us to overlook the life on earth God’s given us, to treat it as something to escape or merely survive. There’s a beauty God is working in this season, too; a reason he has us here on earth; and it’s not just as a holding tank till we get the real deal. Nor is earth the real deal, and heaven some consolation prize. Yes, heaven will be a joyful, glorious, wonderful future – but there’s something good, really good, about this present world God’s put us in. Something worth cherishing.
Maybe you, brave reader who has made it this far into my soul-searching, are in some sort of winter season like me – actual winter, or a metaphorical winter of loss, loneliness, emptiness, whatever the case may be. And may I remind you – yes, summer is coming! Perhaps an earthly summer, and certainly a glorious, wonderful heavenly summer, for any and all who are believers in Jesus Christ, like 1 John 5 tells us. But, I wonder, if maybe there’s something for us to cherish and embrace about the winter. Though summer’s coming, perhaps winter has a lesson only winter can teach us. Summer’s coming, but maybe winter has a memory, a story, a gift that might make summer even more remarkable. Summer’s coming, but maybe there’s something beautiful in winter, if we look closely enough. Summer is coming – but winter is here, and perhaps it’s more of a friend than we ever imagined.
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