I spent my early years in a northern Canadian mill town whose reputation, such as it is, I’ll protect by not naming. It’s the place they make ice in winter and mud in summer, and where they breed mosquitoes so large and hungry, and as loud as war jets, that they seem a species of prehistoric bird.
The winters were memorable only for their endlessness. They were long, dark, despotic seasons. The ground hardened up like marble. Sometimes boulders split from sheer cold. In January or February, a cup of coffee would freeze solid before it hit the ground. Every car’s engine was fitted with a block heater, a device that kept the oil from thickening beyond motion. If you failed to plug it in overnight, you could no more turn that motor over than raise the dead. And touch your tongue to the metal — the piping that suspended the schoolyard swing set, or the aluminum fence post in the neighborhood’s chain link fence (I tried both) — and it fused instantly. The only way out was to tear your tongue away and suffer a week’s healing, or press your mouth closer until the heat of your breath loosened the ice’s death grip, and even then your tongue felt abraded all day, like you have been licking splinters. That iceness worked its way into fingers and toes, even swaddled in thermal wear, like fire works its way into wood or water into cloth. I frostbit my fingers some many times that I lost feeling in their tips for several years, and even today they tingle slightly, and a mildly cold day can turn them numb and white in minutes.
The door and windows on our house grew, around the inside edges, a rind of frost that daily we’d have to chip off with hammer and chisel. Some days it got so cold they closed schools — blissful news, but muted by the fact that we had to stay housebound lest we perish in the outdoors. We’d get cabin fever, go stir crazy, sitting in the house, getting fat from our indolence, the furnaces wheezing to keep up. Whenever the brutal cold wouldbreak, and the temperatures to a balmy minus five or so, we’d spill out of our homes like victors in a great war, giddy in triumph, delirious with relief, glad to be alive.
A few years ago, on a flight to Toronto, I watched a movie March of the Penguins. I found it gripping and moving. But I also found it, with thousands of featherless birds crowding together from freezing to death as an Antartic storm pummeled them half to death, and the temperatures, with wind chill, dipped down to minus eighty, disturbingly reminiscent. My fingers ached with memory.
Spring seemed to never come. Many a May, I, trembling with hope and dread, watched for the first bud to pinprick the branch of a birch tree outside our front window. I’d scour the field for any sign of life, even if only the hieroglyphs of birdclaw in snow. I’d time the number of minutes that we gained over the day before, and the week before that, and every moment of sunshine was an auspice of joy.
And then one day, usually in late May, sometimes in early June, it would appear, suddenly and all at once: spring. The trees frothed with leaf and blossom. The ground had softened to mud, then thickened with an embroidery of flowers. Birds whirled and swooped and sang, and cults and calves tottered or gamboled in farmyards. The back of winter finally broke, and warmth and color came rushing in.
And hope. Always, hope.
Spring is a good season. In the previous two chapters, I talked winter. In the winter of the heart, I said, we experience a wide gap between what we know of God and what we taste and see of God. Our theology says one thing — God is loving, faithful, righteous, bestowing wonders. But our experience says another– that He’s aloof, angry, capricious, dealing bruises. And we feel deeply alone, even when we are with others.. we’re estranged from them. Sadness is a room we can’t find the door out of.
And, worst of all, we feel the encroachment of death. Everything looks dead. We feel dead. Sometimes we wish we were dead.
But Christ, the Man of All Seasons, meets us even here, in the dept of our wintertime. He waits with us. He prunes us. He breaks our self-dependency and deepens our God-dependency. He brings us into a fresh encounter with the God who raises the dead.
And always, the Man for All Seasons leads us out of winter.
And what He leads us into is spring. (Or usually so. The logic of spiritual things is sometimes we skip a season or two, go from winter straight into fall or summer into winter, and the like.)
THE HEART IN SPRNG
Isaiah, best captures the experience of the springtime of the heart. This is Isaiah 35:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; so to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with Devine retribution He will come to save you.” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. They lame will leap like a dear, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where the jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will will be there, no ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
This passage, obviously, doesn’t speak of spring. But it does describe a transformation from a desert into a garden. It’s a suprising springlike flourishing in the waste places, an exultation of flowers and beast and human. The deserts of the Near East and the long winters of the Canadian north are not so unalike. They share this in common: nothing much lives or grows in them. They’re dead zones. Each is a sprawling fastness of barrenness.
Until the day that God chooses otherwise. Until that day, all at once and everywhere, life and life to the full returns.
And with it, hope.
This past year, my family and I spent several Sunday evenings watching the remarkable BBC documentary series Planet Earth. David Attenborough’s measured and dignified voice narrates this sweeping story of forest and ocean, desert and tundra, whales and winged things, polar bears and tree frogs — the infinite intricate strangeness and beauty of this resilient yet fragile planet we inhabit. My favorite parts were the time-lapse sequences: a forest that moves from the bony starkness of winter to the pastel softness in spring to the verdant lushness of summer to the wild mosaic of autumn, all in one minute or less. There were many of them: cacti blooming in the austere landscape of Arizona, mountain meadows blushing with wildflowers before turning sere in the Yukon.
But the time-lapse sequence I like the most was the Kalahari Desert.
It starts in hot and dusty bareness. The few animals out in it are barely surviving. They’re gaunt from hunger, half mad with thirst. A herd of elephants make a desperate journey to find water. Their massive footfalls send plumes of dust hundreds of feet sky high, trailing them for miles. The weak ones lay down and die. The rest walk, day after day, past skeletons of trees and animals.
And then, one day, a trickle of water, flowing from seasonal rains in the highlands of Angola, threads down to the desert floor. In time lapse, we watch a miracle unfold: the thread of water becomes a stream, and then a river; the river carves a bed, then spills it, sprawling over parched earth. Grass springs up beneath its kiss, then trees, seemingly dead, burst into bloom. Great reeds flourish. It becomes a lake, a vast glinting wetland surrounding an archipelago of lush ground.
Everywhere and all at once, death turns to life.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35:6-7)
The cameras take us back to what’s happening in the Kalahari. It’s become an aqua playground. Amphibious things teem along reedy shores. Baboons wade through lagoons like fastidious old women in their Sunday best trying to stone-step a creek. Spindly-legged birds with their scizzorlike beaks wait still and watchful in the shallows, then, lightning quick, plunge their heads In the water and come up with fish (where did they come from?) bejeweling their mouths.
But the best of all are those elephants. They play in that water like otters. They dive and torpedo, splash and dance. They gallop along the bottom., and they thrust there huge heads up, trumpeting water through their trunks in a fanfare of joy. The long desperate March through desolation could not be father behind them, even though — implausibly — the place they now frolic, only weeks ago, was that very wasteland
I can’t think of a more vivid picture of hope flooding where hope had died.
Isn’t that spring?
The beauty of Isaiah 35 is that it captures both a reality and a hope. Isaiah prophesies an actual desert place springing forth in Edenic abundance. It’s a reality: this, indeed, will happen, just as the Kalahari will bloom. But Isaiah also uses the desert-into-garden image to portray a hope filled, a spiritual longing coming to fruition. In essence, he tells us what it feels like when God is on the move. God changes everything and utterly, and with breathtaking swiftness. The impossible becomes the inevitable. Desert turns into garden. Where death reigned, life triumphs.
I wonder if C.S. Lewis was thinking of Isaiah 35, and transposing the desrt imagery into winter imagery, when he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you have read the book (or seen the movie), you know that when the Pevensie children first arrive in Narnia, they learn that a curse is over the land. The curse has a very real manifestation: it’s always winter, never Christmas. Winter is the perreneal season. The whole land is in its icy grip. All toil beneth its bleak prospects. Winter never ends,and no festivals makes it bearable, no robbin singing or crocus blooming promises its subversion.
But the children begin to hear mysterious, thrilling, earthshaking news. Aslan is on the move. The Great King is back. He’s already at work, and what he’s planned will change everything.
The sign and symbol of that promise is that winter’s despotic reign ends. The snows melt. The ice breaks. The cold lifts. The tree blossom. And out of bleakness, spring;
Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off robes of snow. Soon, every where you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beaches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down to the forest floor and overhead you could see blue sky between the tree tops.
Soon there were more wonderful things happening. . . . The ground [was] covered in all directions with little yellow flowers — celandines. The noise of water grew louder. . . .
Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirpedchu from the branch of a tree. It was answered by a chuckle of another bird a little farther off. And then, as if it had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, an then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with bird’s music.
(C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950)
Everywhere and all at once, spring. And with it, hope.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
As I read this for the first time, I was taken back to the moment I prayed when I was the American version of an adult, when I was just a new adult facing a lifetime of independence only to be cut short eighteen days after eighteenth birthday. See, what happened just shortly after my eighteenth birthday was I in a major car accident. A car accident that left me with a skull-shattering traumatic brain injury, a right broken index finger, little scars that wouldn’t let me forget, and a month long coma.
I woke from the coma in a 2-3 week haze in a rehabilitation hospital that specialized in stroke/brain injury victims. I remember one dusky evening I prayed to God: “Lord, this is enough,” thinking I was in a dreamlike state. I “I want to wake up from this dream. Please, Lord, get me out of this dream/nightmare by tomorrow morning when I wake up. Just in case this situation in my life is real, I will serve You no matter what.” Being confident that it was only a dream, I went to bed in that hospital room.
When I woke up the next morning, instantly I knew that the Lord not waken me up from the dream/nightmare as I tried to gather what my life would be like from this point forward. Then, after a few seconds, I further went on with my promise to God thinking that I was in the ride of my life.
The moment I said that prayer was the moment that God started to do a miracle in my physical life. In speech therapy, I went from not saying any words to blabbering out full sentences within the matter of eight weeks or less; in physical therapy, I went from being bed- bound to walking out with limp in the same amount of time; and occupational therapy, I went from pointing out colors on a chalk board to performing simple work related tasks. At the Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital, at least for the time I was there, I was the miracle patient putting the head psychologist to shame since he said that I had little to no chance of recovery.
Isn’t like that when the dark, gloomy winter never seems to end? Yet, like the massive elephants trudge their way across the Kalahari Desert sending puffs of dust upward in search of water, passing by carcasses from heat exhaustion, there comes a little sprinkle which turns into rain. So much rain that it forms a pool. There is so much rain that it carved out a river bed where fish, birds of all sorts, and even elephants come to play. It’s like a miracle. Where death reigns, look out for a little springtime miracle.
In fact, why are we so shocked by miracles and the speed at which they happen? It is just a simple progression of time like winter into spring. Spiritually you may see or go through weeks upon weeks, months upon months, and yes, years upon years before you hit the miracle of springtime, but it will come just like when will rise up to meet the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:3-12 says:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
Yes, indeed, all True Life Christians are waiting for the rapture, sort of wintertime yet over the horizon we see springtime. Each of us has a story of wintertime heading into springtime (how little or big), a foreshadowing of the rapture.Let the True Life Christian come out in you as we attempt to fulfill the Lord Jesus Christ’s greatest command: “Go Into All The World” and make followers of Jesus! (Matthew 28:18-20)
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~