A couple of weeks into January, and the excitement of Christmas and new beginnings has died away. Darkness comes early, the skies are often overcast, it’s cold, the landscape seems barren with no hope of any new blooms or growth for months yet. Our family makes a big deal of Valentine’s Day, so we have that to look forward to as well a few birthdays before spring. But otherwise this time of year seems bleak and colorless. I feel I’m just longing for that first warm breeze and green shoot indicating spring.
John Updike’s poem “November,” from A Child’s Calendar, seems more suited to January for me except for the last verse and the line about the year being old:
The striped and shapely
The loss of her
The ground is hard
As hard as stone.
The year is old.
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
Displays a certain loveliness–
The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod.
Give thanks: we do,
Each in his place
Around the table
The first time I ever read this, the quote I was reading stopped at “the beauty of the bone,” and that phrase arrested me. (This, by the way, is not a total endorsement of Updike: I’m not familiar with his other work.)
Leafless trees do have “a certain loveliness.” You see the structure, the symmetry, the basic form that is usually hidden underneath the leaves. Artist Andrew Wyeth is quoted as saying, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
The lack of foliage also allows other sights to come into view. On the “scenic route” to church, there’s a stretch where trees line the road. But in the wintertime, when the leaves are gone, I can see what was hidden before: a pond with various animals coming to drink from it. Mountains covered in varying leaves most of the year display houses and meadows I would never have known of without the missing leaves.
These observations led to reflections about winter times of the soul, when everything (financially, relationally, or otherwise) seems stripped down to the bone. My own salvation was like that. Everything in my life that I had ever leaned on was no longer available: my parents divorced; my mom, with whom I had always been very close, was distant for a while; we moved from a very small town of less than 200 to Houston, a city of over a million, causing a major culture shock, especially when I started school; I had no contact with friends or relatives for a time. I never felt so totally alone in my life. I had not grown up in a church-going family, but I had heard enough in going occasionally with friends and relatives to know where to turn. I had made a profession as a child that I struggled with, but at this point I desperately needed to know God was there and He cared for me. Through a series of events and seeming “coincidences,” God led me to a Christian school and then a church where I was regularly under solid teaching and eventually made sure of my salvation.
When life seems like a barren winter landscape, we can see and understand spiritual truths we never realized before, or at least not in the same depth. In a different metaphor, Hebrews speaks of ” the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (12:27, ESV). Spurgeon said in the June 22 reading of Morning and Evening:
We have many things in our possession at the present moment which can be shaken, and it ill becomes a Christian man to set much store by them, for there is nothing stable beneath these rolling skies; change is written upon all things. Yet, we have certain “things which cannot be shaken,” and I invite you this evening to think of them, that if the things which can be shaken should all be taken away, you may derive real comfort from the things that cannot be shaken, which will remain. Whatever your losses have been, or may be, you enjoy present salvation. You are standing at the foot of his cross, trusting alone in the merit of Jesus’ precious blood, and no rise or fall of the markets can interfere with your salvation in him; no breaking of banks, no failures and bankruptcies can touch that. Then you are a child of God this evening. God is your Father. No change of circumstances can ever rob you of that. Although by losses brought to poverty, and stripped bare, you can say, “He is my Father still. In my Father’s house are many mansions; therefore will I not be troubled.” You have another permanent blessing, namely, the love of Jesus Christ. He who is God and Man loves you with all the strength of his affectionate nature–nothing can affect that. The fig tree may not blossom, and the flocks may cease from the field, it matters not to the man who can sing, “My Beloved is mine, and I am his.” Our best portion and richest heritage we cannot lose. Whatever troubles come, let us play the man; let us show that we are not such little children as to be cast down by what may happen in this poor fleeting state of time. Our country is Immanuel’s land, our hope is above the sky, and therefore, calm as the summer’s ocean; we will see the wreck of everything earthborn, and yet rejoice in the God of our salvation.
Sometimes when things are shaken to their core, we see the strength of that core of God’s truth; we see what really matters. Corrie ten Boom said, ” “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Or, taken in reverse, when Christ is all you have, you find He is all you need.
Nancy Guthrie wrote in Holding on to Hope. “Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all. This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken. “
Our winters shall not frown for ever; summer shall soon smile. The tide will not eternally ebb out; the floods retrace their march. The night shall not hang its darkness for ever over our souls; the sun shall yet arise with healing beneath his wings. – ‘The Lord turned again to the captivity of Job.’ Our sorrows shall have an end when God has gotten his end in them. ~ Spurgeon
Glory follows afflictions, not as the day follows the night but as the spring follows the winter; for the winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions sanctified prepare the soul for glory. ~ Richard Sibbes
The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer. I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and the blood. ~ John Burroughs
So winter is still not my favorite season, but I have learned it has its purposes. I almost never see a bare tree any more without thinking of that phrase, “the beauty of the bone.” Sometimes winter is a time of rest or preparing for new growth. A friend who describes herself as a homesteader loves winter for catching up on reading and knitting and planning for her garden, things she can’t do when planting, weeding, harvesting, and tending animals are all in full swing. Hard freezes kill bugs. And if nothing else, winter helps us appreciate spring and summer all the more. So in spiritual “winters,” we can “hunker down” with the bedrock of God’s truth, nourish our souls with it, and trust that spring will come.
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter. Psalm 74:17.