Sunday, January 08, 2012

Dark of Winter: Reflections

Rev. Kit Ketcham, January 8, 2012

The morning I started to write this homily, I’d just gotten back from a quick half-hour walk up Bush Point Road and home again. We’d come through yet another night of blustery winds and driving rain and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but my yearning to be outside whatever the weather overrode my sensible but boring other option---to go to the gym, ride the bike and work the machines for half an hour.

So I’d bundled up with ear muffs and gloves, zipped up my jacket, and headed out. It was breezy but not too bad, the air was dry, not drizzly, and even though cars whizzed by constantly, it was good for my mood to be outdoors.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my life, the situations that have shaped me, the decisions I’ve made that were regrettable or wonderful. And my walk in the breezy, chilly air that morning found me taking stock of yet another set of circumstances in life that have brought me to the place I am, at age 69 and a half.

Since last March, when I began to change some habits so that I could shed some weight and improve my general health, I’ve spent a lot more time outdoors walking than practically any other time in my life! I’ve had my favorite places to walk----Greenbank Farm, South Whidbey State Park, Double Bluff beach.

But the old standby has, surprisingly, been a walk from my house up to Mutiny Bay road and back, a journey of about half an hour. I don’t have to drive to get there, it’s about a mile and a half round trip, I can do it easily before nearly anything else in the morning, and though it’s busy, I’ve never felt threatened by the traffic---and there’s always that beautiful vista of the Sound and Olympics once you top that first knoll.

But as winter approached and sunrise came later and later, I knew I’d need to make a winter plan. I’d become too fond of the walking and being outdoors to give it up and go exclusively to the gym. I decided I’d walk every day it wasn’t pouring rain or whipping gale force winds. Those days I’d go to the athletic club and do my stint on the bike and machines.

Last spring, when I started my walking regime on Bush Point Road, I expected it to be boring and trafficky, just a way of getting some exercise, not something I would come to crave. But quickly, I became familiar with the sights and sounds of nature alongside the road: a coyote, once, and a couple of deer; the horsetails poking up through the mud, the wild currant and blackberries leafing out, slugs by the millions, streamlets in the barrow pits and eagles and hawks strafing the meadows.

All last spring and summer I enjoyed watching the cycles of growth alongside the road. When the leaves began to fall, I took handfuls of colorful leaves back home to decorate. But I was not looking forward to winter, when the trees would be bare and the leaves crushed into muck.

The time came, however, when sunrise was so late that I decided I’d better go to the gym more often, and I have, but I still longed to be outdoors. I’d go to Greenbank Farm on an occasional free afternoon; those vistas are beautiful too and the traffic is not a problem----just the deposits of large-caliber dogs whose owners forget to clean up after them.

But I needed to be outdoors! And finally I decided that I’d walk the road every possible chance. And doing so has reconnected me with the value of winter in my life.

As Effie and I talked about this service and shaped its design, choosing hymns and readings to create the atmosphere we hoped for, we shared our thoughts about what the winter season has come to mean to each of us spiritually.

We talked about the dark of winter, how we have each feared the dark in our own lives, either as a child for whom darkness meant the scary unknown or as a woman fearful for her safety on a dark street.

During our lives, we each discovered a need to reframe our ideas about the dark, for we found it limited our lives too greatly. In our own ways, we came to see the dark of winter not as a fearful time but as a fertile time.

Effie mentioned that she had come to see the winter dark as warm and cozy, a womb-like place in which we grow until we are ready to emerge into the light.

For what is wintertime but a so-called fallow season, a time in which the earth does its work underground, reintegrating the fallen leaves into the soil, resting as the amalgam of microbes, water, green material, and time replenish the stores of nutrients in the life-giving body of the planet? Mother Earth is not a misnomer, is it?

I remember my time as an expectant mother, from the time my pregnancy was confirmed, right through the long months of waiting and waiting and waiting---many days joyous, many days uncomfortable and emotional. I remember when I first felt my child move; that moment reminds me now of the first shoots of early plants in my garden.

And when he was born, three weeks early, he wasn’t quite ready to come into the light and needed extra time in hospital care where he received some extra support.

Greta Crosby once wrote:
"Let us not wish away the winter.
It is a season to itself, not simply the way to spring.

When trees rest, growing no leaves, gathering no light, they let in
sky and trace themselves delicately against dawns and sunsets.

The clarity and brilliance of the winter sky delights.
The loom of fog softens edges, lulls the eyes and ears of the quiet, awakens by risk the unquiet.
A low dark sky can snow, emblem of individuality, liberality, and aggregate power. Snow invites to contemplation and to sport.

Winter is a table set with ice and starlight.

Winter dark tends to warm light: fire and candle;
winter cold to hugs and huddles;
winter want to gifts and sharing; winter tedium to merrymaking;
winter danger to visions, plans and common endeavoring -- and to the zest of narrow escapes;

Let us therefore praise winter, rich in beauty, challenge, and
pregnant negativities."

I like that! Pregnant negativities! Turning what could be seen as merely harshness of weather and season into warm light, hugs and huddles, gifts and sharing, merrymaking in the face of boredom, vision, plans, and zesty experience.

Living in Denver, where winter started in October and sometimes lasted till May, I was always waiting for spring. My younger life in the PNW had convinced me that spring ought to start in February---because it does begin to peep through the cold then, here. So I’d begin looking for evidence on Groundhog Day but always had to wait until the March Chinooks out of the west thawed the ground enough that the crocuses could start to croak and I could plant the peas.

I still eagerly look forward to the green shoots of daffodils, tulips, and iris as they respond to the warmth of a southern wall; I still lift my face to the faint warmth of a sunny January day. But I’ve learned that winter is not just the warmup act to spring. Winter is a season for being still, for quiet reflectiveness, for lying fallow, for letting the work take place internally.

We are animals, after all, animals who make far too much out of our humanity sometimes, expecting to conquer winter as we have conquered (we think) rivers and mountains. But all our conquest of nature is strictly in our heads; our soft animal bodies respond to the cold and dark in very primal ways. We nest, we hunker down, we huddle around fires and candlelight, we conserve our strength, we rest.

That is the meaning of winter. Spring, with all its resurrection and rebirth and re-energizing, is an exhausting season. Winter is the time of rest before the long hours of labor begin. We need winter. As the late Max Coots has said, “winter is the poor soul’s fertilizer”, and if we avoid its nourishment, we may fail to use much of our creative potential, our ability to bring forth new life, new commitment, new growth.

What does winter do to our spiritual lives? Certainly winter can be a dark time, not just a time of rest but of pain and anguish. It can be hard to stay and rest within that painful season. But when we do, we reap rewards.

For winter clarifies. Between the bright light, the clear air, and the absence of foliage on trees and shrubs, winter lets us see farther and more clearly. The landscape may be bleak and barren, but we can see it better. In winter, our lives, too, show themselves more clearly.

Winter reveals, stripping away fluff. A tree, streamlined and stripped of leaves by the harsh wind, looks stronger, more steadfast than it does when its branches are fluffed by greenery. In winter, we are most conscious of our basic needs---food, shelter, companionship.

Winter covers, whether with snow or ice or vast puddles of water, transforming an ordinary scene into a new place. We respond to that new place with our creative selves, playing in the snow, coping with the ice, splashing in the puddles.

And winter strengthens. We test ourselves against winter wind, ice-glazed roads, snowy ski trails, and our muscles and our brains answer by adding cells, devising new strategies, responding to danger with increased intelligence.

We have such a short time to be here. In winter, we are acutely aware of the fragility of life and of the need to use our lives as fully and as openly as we can. Winter is a time for introspection, for healing our wounds, for hibernating and storing our strength. We come together in this community to share our lives, share our journeys, share our struggles.

Can we, in the interstices, the spaces between the events of our busy lives, find time to be at rest, to be at home with one another? Can we let ourselves be enriched by winter?

Can we move from fear and anxiety about the cold and dark to a new acknowledgement of the spiritual gifts of winter? Can we trust that even in the hardest times---the winters of our discontent, the cold and barren and scary times of life---we can find hope and vision made clearer by the stripping away of the old and the transformation of that old stuff into something new?

This is the challenge of the wintertime as well as its gift, that within each negative, there is a positive. We can’t see it immediately, most of the time. We need time, we need awareness, we need perspective.

We can’t know immediately, upon learning of a tragic event, what that positive might be. When we learned of the death of a beloved child on Christmas Day, a freaky accident of nature, we were stunned into grief at the loss to family and friends.

But enough people believed in the healing power of community that quickly the effort spread to support and give assistance in the time of terrible need. Nothing can replace the loss of a child and this was not the aim of the outpouring of aid. Its intent was to tell the Leonard family and each other that we shared their grief, that we would be present to help as long as needed, and that their pain could be tempered---not quenched, but tempered---by the care of the community.

What do we here offer to each other in the wintertime? When we come together in this room or in each other’s homes, what do we give and receive from each other? For me, it is a listening ear, a chance to laugh together, to share a meal, to offer support and receive encouragement. These quiet mutual needs and offerings are the gifts of this season. May we give and receive them joyfully.

I close with these thoughts from our friend the Rev. Dave Bieniek, who has shared his wisdom with us several times: This is the season of Epiphany, the date in the Christian calendar that celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men at the baby Jesus’ cribside. The Magi had to travel at night, in order to follow the star, a risky venture in the absolute dark of the Asian sky two thousand years ago. They faced huge dangers. And so must we.

“Sometimes we must stand in the dark in order to see the light that is guiding our lives. It is necessary for us to walk through our fears, our grief, our pain in order to find the treasure that lies on the other side. It is true, we need the dark in order to see the stars.”

Let’s sing our closing song, followed by a time of silence, before our benediction.

Closing song: #55, Dark of Winter

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, rejoicing in the gifts of winter, committed to sharing our joy within this community and reaching out to those beyond these walls. May we remember our strength while acknowledging our needs and may we both give and receive in right measure. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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