February 4, 2024

Frozen: Winter of the Soul

Photo Credit - Natalie Duncan Riddell

An old friend of mine took this photo. That picture is what actually inspired me to write this, even though in the moment that I first saw it, I had no idea what I would be writing about. I just knew that I had to write… something.

Now, if you’re from the south, like both of us (although she long ago went objectively insane and decided to move to the frozen wastes of Montana, where she just recently snapped this shot), this photo might look like harvest-time cotton, at least at first glance. But if you look at it a moment longer, you will notice that it’s not cotton at all, but rather snow collecting on the bare, spindly little branches of some type of tree or bush that I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it.

It’s a lovely shot, really; yet there’s something about it that makes me feel sad.

This being other than the fact that my friend now lives so far away in terrible, yucky, cold Montana. Oh, I tease. Montana, I’m sure, is a wonderful place (it’s certainly filled with beautiful countryside), but I cannot resist teasing my friend about the weather there. I can’t stand the cold. Not even a little bit. Give me the brutal summer of Arkansas in August anytime over that double-digits-below-zero nonsense.

I will admit that I do love a good snowfall in the winter. They are so rare here in the south. Snow blanketing the ground, the trees, the streets… icicles growing from the eaves of houses, snowmen, snow cream (yes the kind that uses raw eggs, USDA and USFDA regulations can take a long walk off a short pier)… these are the joys of winter that I absolutely love.

From inside my home, snuggled in a warm blankey with one or two cats sitting in my lap for extra cuddly insulation.

Many poets have expressed the coldness of winter far more eloquently than I could hope to do. Often, winter is described as a time of death; a forlorn and desolate time of year.  The bare branches seen in the photo do clearly indicate that all the leaves have died and fallen, likely several months ago. The photographer even captured snowflakes frozen in time. Crystals of ice hang suspended in midair, devoid of the dynamic motion of life. I’m certain that the moment was beautiful when she took the photo: snow gently falling against a forested backdrop, her breath surely freezing in the air before her eyes. But in the photo, there is none of that. It’s all just frozen.


Dead.


Readers of this blog may have noticed that I’ve been on an extended hiatus. I don’t make money for writing, though I dream that someday, I might. “Real life” has taken me away from writing, both blogging and music. In case you didn’t know, my college degrees were in music, and I was, in a different life, a band director and a composer.

But no more.

Readers of this blog may also notice that this post isn’t really like any of the others. I typically spend little to no time talking about myself or my personal life. I also tend to spend a good bit of time doing research for my posts, both in studying the Bible and whatever extra-biblical comparisons may be appropriate for the topic at hand. But this one?

Nope. Just writing. Probably some editing.

(There was, in fact, a good bit of editing!)

Meandering back to my point: from a certain point of view, the photo seems lifeless. My own life, for quite some time now, has seemed to be much the same. Suspended. Frozen.

 

Dead.

 

This is a Christian blog, about living out Biblical teachings, and I haven’t written here for such a long time because I’ve been stuck in the dead of winter for years. It’s not what one would perhaps call writer’s block. I’ve had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ideas come and go since I last sat down and typed anything meaningful. But those ideas, like the snowflakes in the photo, just hovered there, still and lifeless.

COVID-19 is said to have killed millions of people. I don’t know the numbers - only that it was a lot. Perhaps worse than the death it brought is the lack of life among the living which it left in its wake. I fought and ostensibly defeated the virus in my body twice, but the pandemic took a different kind of toll on my life. Everyone remembers the lockdowns. We weren’t allowed to go much of anywhere. Businesses were shuttered, many of which never reopened. Schools closed, hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed, and churches… even churches… were barred from holding services, at least traditional, in-person services.

It was during the lockdowns that I quit going to church. I saw no point in going to the few parking lot services that my church held, but once they got the hang of live-streaming on Facebook, my wife and I watched the services remotely for a while. Months, if I recall correctly. But slowly, ever so slowly, my desire to keep up with it all dwindled, withered, and died. God bless my wife for trying to get me to go back, but her efforts, thus far, have proven fruitless.

They say that COVID was more dangerous to those with underlying health problems. Comorbidities, they called them. A person who was otherwise healthy had a good chance of fighting off the virus, but if you had some other health problems (heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc.), you were far more likely to die. And so it was with my spiritual life. You see, I’d been slowly drifting away from God for a number of years before the pandemic hit. COVID was just the final nail in my coffin.

My excuse, if I’m honest.

The reasons for that are too many to go into here, and would lead to even greater meandering in this post, were I to pursue a discussion of them. Suffice to say that I carried, and carry to this day, a burden which I have been unable to let go of. As a result, I have been living in the depths of winter for quite some time. Cold. Frozen.

 

Dead?

 

It’s not like I wanted things to end up this way, but I’ve come to understand the parable of the sower perhaps a little too well. I thought that I was fertile soil for the seed - for the word. And yet here I am, barren and fruitless. The weeds arose and strangled the life right out of me. Is this the way it’s going to be from now on? Am I just stuck here in the midst of a desolate plain of lifeless existence? What do you do when you’ve found yourself in the winter of your soul? The parable of the sower just ends with the description of the four kinds of soil - the four kinds of hearts. Is that it? Is it over for me? Am I just a withered, lifeless husk now, waiting for the wind to blow me away?

My father-in-law is a retired farmer. I never really wanted to be particularly involved in farming, but if you marry into a farm family, you’re going to pick things up, whether you intend to or not. In fact, I chose to work on the farm a few years back, for a couple of seasons.

Seasons!

Now there’s an important word to a farmer! There’s the planting season, the growing season, and the harvest season. There are rainy seasons and dry seasons. The book of Ecclesiastes tell us that for everything, there is a season. The one thing you don’t see in the parable of the sower is the turning of seasons. This is a great example of why you should never focus too closely on a single verse of scripture, or even a specific book of the Bible, without studying all of the word to keep everything in context.

Here’s the situation: winter is a season of cold, when many things have come to an end. Plants obviously die off, many insects live only during the warmer parts of the year, birds fly away to less forsaken climes, and even some mammals spend the winter in a deep, near-lifeless state of hibernation. While many poets have indeed compared winter to death itself, there is another point of view.

In its proper context, winter is more appropriately viewed as a time of sleep, rest, and recovery. Nature spends the season recuperating from a busy year of growth. Many seeds are triggered by the cold weather to sprout when the temperatures climb. Sap rises and trees awaken each spring to produce new buds, new leaves, new fruit. Fields which have lied fallow during the winter erupt into a sea of green as the seasons follow their natural courses. 

During even the coldest of winters, life remains. My dear friend’s photograph is literally a single moment which properly belongs within a dynamic and vibrant series of moments. The still life is an illusion. No single moment can exist in isolation, because the arrow of time is always flying, never to stop.

During the winter, nature waits. Spring will come, and when it does, new life spreads faster than any contagion. Perhaps, like nature, I have been waiting. Warmer temperatures are the signal for creation to shrug off the sleep of winter and return to a life of building, growing, and multiplying. Perhaps this photograph is a signal for me to do the same.

 

It’s a lovely shot, really.

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