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Sermons

In Appreciation of Winter

January 04, 2004

Bible Reading

Then God said to Noah, "Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you--the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground--so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it."

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons' wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds--everything that moves on the earth--came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart, "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease."

(Genesis 8:13-22)

Read also: John 10:22-30

Reading from Swedenborg

We humans grow warm from deep within even in midwinter, according to our life's loves. The heat of the world's sun has nothing in common with this heat. As our love increases, we grow warm, are enkindled, and get fired up; as it decreases, we grow listless and cold, and become inactive. It is entirely according to the activity of our life's love. The same is true of the animals of earth and birds of the air. They are sometimes warmer in midwinter than in midsummer, their hearts beating, their blood hot, their fiber warm, every part, small and large, engaging in their vital functions. This warmth also does not come from the sun, but from the life of their soul, which is love. (On the Divine Love #20)

Sermon

I hope everyone is making through the winter all right. Winter was a difficult time of the year for us when I worked at the zoo, and especially so for the zookeepers who had to spent all day out in unpleasant weather with a shovel doing something that was pretty unpleasant to begin with. Every year, all the snow along the most traveled paths became compressed under boot and wheel to the point where it became ice. Add a couple of passes with a zamboni and the area in front of our feed barn would have been fit for Olympic figure skaters. The fact that the zoo was only about 5% level ground only compounded the problem.

At home, it's not much different. We have three feet of compressed snow in our front yard, the snow plows have rendered our driveway impregnable and unusable, and our gutters are encased in ice. We've been hearing for two months about how "ice dams" can form at the edges of our roofs and cause leaks. There are guys in northern Indiana who are making over $500 a week removing snow and ice from anxious people's roofs. There is no question that winter can be a harsh time. It is what prompted Garrison Keillor to call winter a "non-fiction time of the year." It's easy to relax and dream when it is warm outside; but winter makes us pay attention by hitting us with some cold, hard truths about life.

Plants and animals know how to prepare for winter. Trees shed their leaves because it becomes too cold for the fragile, exposed tissues in the leaves, and because there is too little daylight for any useful amount of photosynthesis to take place. The water they would normally lose through pores in the leaves' surface is too difficult to replace from the frozen ground, so they cut off those pores. Many animals prepare by putting on a few extra layers of body fat and sleeping through the coldest parts of winter in burrows, dens, and trees sheltered from the wind chill. Many birds migrate to warmer climates, guided by some inner knowledge of when and where to fly. We are only just beginning to understand the subtle cues they go by. Organisms that don't sleep through it or fly away from it alter their behavior in different ways when they feel that winter is coming.

Human beings also prepare. Guided by the wisdom of past experience, we get out our heavy coats from the back of the closet. We check to see if the snow shovels and snow blowers and snowplows are available and in working condition. We fill our pantries with enough food so that when the snow does fall and the mercury does dip below zero, we can enjoy the warmth of a comfortable chair without having to expose ourselves to winter. All across the extreme northern and southern latitudes, winter is seen as something that must be withstood until the arrival of spring. Though they are out there, it is a minority of the people who consider winter their favorite season of the year.

Just as the seasons turn in nature, we experience seasons of the spirit; and regardless of the external temperature, we feel an internal winter from time to time. We feel it when we feel far removed from warmth--when there is more night than light in our meditations. Swedenborg wrote that a life of faith without love, or doctrine without compassion, is a winter of sorts. It is a state of light without warmth--a state in which nothing grows. The long, cold "dark night of the soul" is a period that must be withstood until the healing spring of new inspiration arrives. Very few, if any of us, can look back on a spiritual winter and say it was among the best times of our lives.

Still, winter has its own beauty, both internally and externally. Robert Frost's well-known poem expresses beautifully, I feel, the peacefulness of "watching the woods fill up with snow." There is something about a winter-filled forest. . . . The snow reflects just enough light to prevent any fear of the dark we may feel. It is quiet. Everything around us is so serene that we can't ignore it. We can't help but feel our own serenity come to the surface from deep within, until we don't even notice the cold . . . only the quiet.

I remember the first time I felt this. It was in seventh grade. My classmates and I took a week-long field trip to the Outdoor Education Center at Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Our group leader, a naturalist named Megan, took us on a night hike, and we stopped in a pine forest. We were told to find our own tree and sit under it, doing nothing but listening to the night all around us. I don't think I realized before then how peaceful the world could be.

After a few minutes, I heard a snowball hit the ground about five feet away from me. One of the other boys in the group apparently couldn't accept the silence. I remember feeling, not angry or indignant that he was trying to interrupt this beautiful moment, but rather I felt very sad for him. I felt sad that he had so much woundedness inside of him that he had to lash out at the peacefulness, and everything that was asking him to examine his spirit.

I hope that in the last twenty-five years he has made an effort to embrace moments like that one, and use them for some intense personal reflection. I know a lot of people have to fill their lives with noise so they don't have to face what's inside. It may seem that when we look within, there are all sorts of harsh truths and painful memories; but that is not all that's there. There is also inspiration. Let us not forget that buried deep under that three feet of uncomfortable snow are seeds that fell to the ground in the fall, which are just waiting for a little warmth to reach them so that they can begin to germinate and grow.

Even during the worst winter of our lives there exists beneath the level of our perceptions an intuitive and creative richness--the promise of new development and new growth and new life that will appear when the cold is chased away. Biologically speaking, seeds require a period of dormancy in order to grow and be healthy; and so do we require the quiet of winter to visit our own deepest levels of being, and reflect, and gather our strength so that when we know the time is right, we can enter into a new phase of our spiritual development.

Winter is a time of great beauty. I am sure we would all readily recognize this if it weren't so darned uncomfortable. It's hard to think about anything else when it is so cold for so long. But even the most intense cold cannot freeze our spirit. And we need a period of winter if for no other reason than to remind us of this. We are tougher than we think we are.

Way up in northern Minnesota, where they've grown accustomed to harsh winters, it got so cold in one small town that their water tower froze solid. They thought it was funny! And they coped in spite of it.

I remember hearing that not long ago, there was a national parks employee who came upon a family of Canadian geese standing on a frozen pond, emaciated with hunger. He risked exposure to retrieve those geese and take them many miles to an unfrozen private pond. He provided them with fifty pounds of corn meal to eat. They survived because one man chose to do the uncomfortable thing and reach out to them.

There was a story just last week about a dog who became stranded on an ice floe in the middle of the St. Joseph River in Indiana. Three rescue squads were involved in the tricky task of getting him to dry land.

When the blizzard hit about six weeks ago, there were people walking from door to door checking on their neighbors, seeing if they had enough food and heat in their house. I wonder: without winter, would we ever reach out to another person to make sure they were feeling warm enough? Without a knowledge of how harsh winter can be sometimes, would we ever understand just how much we need each other?

A wise teacher once asked his class, "How many times have you lain awake at night wondering why things went so right?" We normally don't. We need winter to refuel our desire for life. We need winter to remind us that there is great warmth to be found in the company and the caring of others. We need winter to show us that there is a time when it is important for us to be still inside, and thoughtful and serene, and aware of the divine powers that work deep within our souls, untouched by the cold.

Rest assured, no winter can last forever. I chose the story of Noah for our service this morning because Noah spent quite some time wondering when his ordeal would end. I think many of us can relate to Noah on that score. The fortieth day and fortieth night of winter falls in late January, and by that time many of us are getting a little frustrated with the constant cold. I think it is a good time for us to gaze across the waters (which for us is frozen into little white crystals) and meditate on what lies beneath the surface waiting to happen.

I chose our New Testament reading just as deliberately. We don't often imagine Jesus teaching in winter in a part of the world that we normally envision as a desert. But the Lord had his winters as well, and it was during winter that he knew he was one with his Creator.

The seasons change in nature, mirroring the seasons of spirit within us. They all reveal our connectedness with the divine, and they are all beautiful. Especially winter.

Prayer

We give you thanks, O Spirit of Wisdom, for you speak to us in ways that often surprise us. You uncover truths that we keep hidden from ourselves. We give you thanks for this season and all its inherent invitations for reflection and growth, for community and intimacy, for all the things we take for granted when the weather is warmer. We pray that your love will warm our hearts so that we may look upon this world in all its harshness, yet never lose sight of the beauty you breathe into all creation. Even in the midst of the coldest, darkest night, your presence lives and moves within all life. May we never forget this simple truth. Amen.

Rev. Eric Hoffman