Winter’s Work

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

For the first 65 years of my life, I have found it difficult to “be still.” Most of my life I have been a doer, with multiple projects going at once. I must be entering some kind of winter “season” because it seems I am better if I only do one thing at a time, these days. And my favorite time of the day is nap time. Most of you know that I grew up in northern Florida, where the lack of any real seasons doesn’t provide what one might think of as a natural time for slowing down. Much of what we might think of as “winter’s work” is slowing down. 

Yes, there is lying on the beach with the sun beating down. But you learn not to stay still there for too long. My experience of Florida is something needing to be done. There is always something needing to be done, moving about, going this way and that. Only old people have time to slow down and sit still (that’s a joke!).

Most of you also know I didn’t become a UU minister until about 20+ years ago, first serving as an Associate Minister in my hometown in Jacksonville, Florida, where I already been the DRE for a couple of years. Then I was called to be the sole minister with a small historically Universalist congregation in north central Pennsylvania, an hour south of Ithaca, NY. 

Three little towns, Athens and Sayre, PA, and Waverly, NY, very close together, are where I served. Those little towns are surrounding by farms, in the rolling hills between the Endless Mountains and the Finger Lakes. It is where long ago, those pushing westward from the colonies settled in the frontier along the Susquehanna River. Those who came there included Baptists, who became Universalists who built churches and gathered people in warm spaces heated by woodburning stoves in wooden frame buildings to hear the good news. It was sometimes dangerous if the stove got too hot. There were lots of stories about when the stove would get too hot. It was hard to cool it down unless the water buckets were very close.

Just before I began to serve the UU Church in Athens, PA, my then-partner and I moved into a three-story wooden frame house in Sayre, a block from the river. When we arrived with all our belongings, the gay neighbor ran out to greet us and ask us for a cup of sugar. We were so glad to see him! Over the next few months, which were August and September, he became our friend. We see him nearly every day; our house and his family’s house were just steps from each other. He’d lived other places but was back at that time living with his family in the family home. It got to be mid-October, and we realized we hadn’t seen him for a few weeks. One day he happened to be outside gathering firewood to bring inside for the family and I asked about his absence from the outdoors—was he sick? He seemed puzzled, eventually explaining the many, many projects that were taking place inside his home.

I still didn’t get it. 

It wasn’t until spring, when he and the rest of his family came outside again, that I started to understand the culture of that small town. Most folks stayed inside while it was cold. For months they stayed inside, until the weather was warm again, doing whatever they did in there. I wasn’t used to that. When it was cold and snow covered the ground, when it rested in the bare trees, when the snowing and snowing made for an incredible silence outdoors like I had never heard before, I couldn’t wait to get out there in the splendor, even if it was just to walk around the block. But I was always alone. None of the neighbors were walking the block. I learned to love winter hiking; there you might find a few others. Or taking long drives through the rolling hills of the Southern Tier, finding icy spots and wonder if we were going to flip off and into the lovely vistas below. But we didn’t!

I was struck by how this part of Pennsylvania and upstate New York, this new home for me, could be so beautiful in the spring, summer, and fall, and yet as soon as the trees lost their leaves, so ugly, so much exposed rural poverty in the winter. So many houses with just insulation on the exterior. No siding covering the insulation. I was there for a couple of years and those houses didn’t change much. It was strange to me. Here we are in a really cold part of the world, and you’re not finished with your insulation or the covering that goes over it. I used to tell visitors to look up, not straight ahead.

Yet, just as soon as the trees lost their leaves and the snow started, the vistas were absolutely beautiful, probably the most beautiful season. I used to tell visitors to look up at the hills, at the trees. Don’t look straight ahead at the human mess, what they have done and left undone. Don’t let your eyes see the homes, how the people there lived. Look at the vistas when it snowed, which was a lot that first year. When it was snowing, it was not only silent, but so beautiful. I had to get out and enjoy the wonder of a place transformed.

You wake upon a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to take in last fall. All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is not the snow of Narnia but the snow of home, which is no less shimmering and white as it falls. The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence. It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at, but unless the child in you is entirely dead, it is snow, too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way, before your defenses are up. It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever knew or dreamed.

Sudden Snow by Frederick Buechner

Glorious snow!

Having grown up in Florida, and never before living anywhere except the Southeast, I found that the snow and cold that lasted for months brought out my inner child. She awakened to the wonderful winter I hadn’t known before, and also, there was my inner cranky self, wanting to be under the covers warm and toasty again, maybe for months.

Many writers have suggested that the winter season is not only on the calendar, and of course usually more impressive in more northerly climates, yet it is can also be a season of the soul wherever you happen to be. It may be for you to go into retreat, to go indoors, and meet it with a cup of hot chocolate and a look out the window, and go back to your book, or an indoor project, or for a long winter’s nap. It may be a time when you walk or hike in the silence with only the crunching sound of your boots along the path covered in snow, not knowing what you will found out there around the bend, preparing in the nearly silent stillness.

It can be the season to ready yourself for what is to come. A time to do the interior work that requires stillness. Time to listen for what has left with the turning of the season, what has died and is gone. Time to listen to what remains, and try to anticipate what is coming, and what is yet to be.

The Rev. Josh Pawelek, in his sermon Spiritual Winter, says this:

     I assign spiritual qualities to the seasons. I imagine winter as the season for the sustained, inward look, the honest self-examination, the probing self-reflection. I imagine winter as the womb season, the floating, sleeping, dreaming season, the season for gestation, for growth beneath the surface, for growth in the nurturing darkness. I imagine winter as the season for preparation, for getting ready—ready for new selves, new commitments, new directions to emerge, just as the physical, earthly winter season is the time when life gets ready—slowly—to emerge green and glorious and new in spring.

     The spiritual winters of our lives, which can come at any time of year, are rarely easy, but they come with promises, with opportunities for growth. Sometimes they come because we invite them—because we resolve, finally, to make a change, and we believe we are ready to do the work change requires…. How do we prepare for change? How do we welcome the new? These are the questions of our spiritual winters.

‘Getting ready’ is winter’s work.

Perhaps, it does have to do with letting something go, or saying goodbye, in order to move on when the time is right to do so.

How do you winter? How do you welcome “the new?” With curiosity? With ease, or perhaps with dread? How do you prepare for what is to come?

My grandmother became a master gardener during her life. She grew up in southern Alabama with farmers and gardeners, actually a place she couldn’t wait to leave, being the youngest of 13 children. Even when she found and became comfortable with what she called “the big city” of Jacksonville, Florida, she never lost her love of growing plants. When my grandfather’s typewriter repair business was not paying the bills, she found a job at a gardening store. There she shared her gardening tips with anyone and everyone. I remember when I was a child, or perhaps a preteen, looking for something to eat in her freezer and finding the bulbs that would grow flowers, which she had put there in the freezer to “rest” during the Florida “winter.” I remember how she told me that flowers that grew from bulbs needed the cold and the dark to do their best in spring.  They needed to hibernate, just like bears! Just like teens who take long naps.

Perhaps it is no wonder why I can’t sleep at night year-round if there is any light on. I need the deep darkness to prepare, to rest, to do my best, the next day. Stephanie Noble writes, in Do Not Be Afraid of the Darkness:

Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours.
There is magic in the darkness.
     Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
     Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
     So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

I like her image of “unravel and reweave.” That is what we are called to do in winter, in the winter of the life of our souls. Maybe some of us do the unraveling and reweaving every night. Maybe we take whole seasons of our soul’s winter walking in the cold silence where everything is white and colorless and cold.

The winter season is the time for preparing for what is to come.

I think we hear a new message from Unitarian Universalism these days. But it also an old message from Universalism. And that is each of us, just as we are, are perfect, are whole, just as we should be. It is the community, the society, the world that we live in that needs to change. And it is hard when we can’t make that world change the way we would like it to change fast enough. It is hard. And there are reasons for despair and confoundment. The winter season is for preparing for what is to come.

May the unraveling and reweaving bring joy. May we find joy in each other. Joy in the stillness. Joy in the snow. May we approach this season with curiosity and trust that this time is needed, is important. May we revel in the wonder of all that is revealed. May our ears and hearts be opened for what is to come.

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