Overcoming the Cold

The cold seems to make things quiet.

Outside, the evergreens are weighed down by snow that doesn’t melt; the maples and oaks each stand with arms outstretched and still as if in silent sentry. The only trees left with leaves to chatter when the wind blows are the beeches; they keep gripping them, even all curled and brown. The world is white on top of white with splashes of gray and glimpses of pine green. The chickens stay huddled in the coop and the only tracks we see near the house belong to the dog and the occasional rabbit. Most things are settled down somewhere, quiet.

We’re huddled down, too.  Sometimes we push through and layer and cover and trudge out. But we don’t stay long when it’s below ten degrees and the wind is picking up. The littlest one puts on someone’s boots and a hat on crooked, along with one mitten, and he pats my leg and points to the door. But I scoop him up and try to distract him with a book or a snack or something to make a mess with. The older kids sit near the fire. Two boys sit side by side on the rock hearth. One holds ‘The Return of the King’ and the other holds ‘Prince Caspian’. I think of Tolkien and Lewis an ocean and an epoch away, and something in me is proud of my boys. They are the type that could wear magic rings and do battle or walk through wardrobes and live in castles. We’re huddled together and dreaming bigger.

Something in me is quieter, too. This is what I dreaded in the fall; a cold, snowy winter with cancelled appointments and visits and church. And somehow it’s okay. Maybe because the seed catalogs are appearing in the mailbox every other day. Maybe because I’ve started planning and making sure we have everything we need for making maple syrup. Maybe just because something in me, deep down, has settled like the layers of snow from half a dozen storms.

Yesterday we woke to another foot of snow and an email saying church was cancelled. Before clearing the driveway, my husband helped me bundle little ones and put boots on the right feet. We strapped on snowshoes and loaded up the ice fishing sled with the ones too short to walk in the deep snow. It was bitter. In the woods the cold was biting but when we would come into the open it sliced through the layers with brutality. We made it only as far as the children’s Falkonhurst, a town they’ve created out of sticks and branches and forks in tree trunks. We peeked in each of their ‘cabins’ to see how well they were holding up, and then retreated back to the house to stand by the fire and thaw.

Today, I saw on the news that a woman just a little younger than me was hiking in the mountains not far away yesterday. By 3:30 in the afternoon she was somewhere on the ridgeline and knew she was in trouble. They tried to reach her but with temperatures reaching 30 below last night and unbelievable winds, they couldn’t. It’s one of those news stories that leave you aching.

We are all so much more fragile than we want to believe.

Maybe that’s a strange thing about a cold winter. It shows us things about ourselves. We see how dependent we are on that shrinking firewood pile next to the house. But then, we feel tough as we rush out to grab the next armload. We’re kind of dipping back and forth between feeling like dependents and conquerors.

Sometimes faith feels like that, too.

Another news story made my heart ache today. Twenty one men lined up along a distant shore. In the photographs, you can see the waves rolling in behind them. Twenty one men on their knees, the only words on their lips being, “Help me, Jesus.”

And they were conquerors.

Somewhere inside something has settled in me. It makes me quiet. Prayerful.

This world is cold. There is such a thing as evil and it wants to kill and destroy. It wants to whisper lies. It wants to numb us to what is true and put fear and hate in our bones. It wants to make our temperature the same as that of the world in a winter chill.

But that’s not all there is.

Last night I woke up and heard the wind battering the house. My husband and I were nestled close under the weight of wool blankets. I knew the woodstoves were probably getting low as it had been several hours since they had been loaded and the dampers shut. I thought of my little ones upstairs and downstairs and my husband asleep next to me, all waking up in a few hours. I took the plunge into the cold air and tended the fires.

This winter I’m getting more settled in my need to tend those fires.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:8-9)

The cold of this world wants to creep not just through the walls of our house, but wants to creep into my mind and my heart.

The cold wants to numb my affections for Christ; to have me doubt that my faith will be sight someday. The cold wants to chill my marriage with little resentments here and there that go unspoken and unforgiven. It wants to bury my joy as a mother in the mundane tasks that seem more important than snuggling and listening and speaking kindness into little hearts. The cold of this world can make me weary.

But Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The cold doesn’t have to numb and chill and bury and weary. He has overcome the cold.

It’s okay to grow quieter; to be stilled by the cold. But it needs to drive me to tend the fires.

I tend the fires of my faith by drawing near to God; to have a heart that is not quiet toward Him but quiet before Him. It’s opening up the damper when I pray with honesty and rawness. It’s placing seasoned fuel in the fire when I open up the Word and read it until it is saturating my soul more than the drafts that come from circumstance. It’s stirring the coals and blowing fresh oxygen onto the flames when I don’t let snowy roads or a chilled heart keep me from reaching out to loved ones however I’m able. And, as I obey, I can watch the flames leap up and warm my heart so that I don’t give up and so that I can pour the warm harvest of the Holy Spirit into the cold world, starting with those closest to me.

Father,

Thank You for the reality of life beyond this cold world. I know this season of separation is so brief… Only You know when we each will breathe our last breath and what our first moments in the reality of eternity will be. Please let us live our lives close to You so that when that moment comes, it is just a continuation and increase in the intimacy we have grown to experience here. Let us not grow weary in doing good while we have the opportunity. Please let me love my husband and children well while we’re close together in this small house in the middle of winter. And let the love that You grow here, in the quiet and stillness of these woods and of our hearts, overflow into the lives of those we love in other places, and those who we don’t know yet but will love Someday.

Amen

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The Cow Lady’s Gift

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Yesterday I shelled our dry beans. I cracked the brown, crinkling pods and dropped the large, purple speckled dry beans into a basin. As I did one after another, my thoughts turned to the cow lady.

We told her we were in the process of moving but that she could keep her two Jersey calves in our barn temporarily. Only the black and white Belted Galloways were left in our pasture and they would be leaving soon. The sheep, and horse and our own little family of Jersey cows had all been sold. We’d already signed papers and knew we were leaving the farm ourselves. It was an aching time of packing and waiting and living in an ending.

Our own two Jersey cows were named Daisy and Buttercup. They were half sisters and the farmer was willing to give us a good deal if we took them both during a January cold spell. We brought them home and fussed and worried and I sewed them fleecy jackets. When that week the temperature hit nearly twenty below, my husband talked about sleeping in the barn with a space heater. Bottles three times a day had us out in the cold. We trudged out through the sharp dawn, later, the sun high and reflecting on crusty snow and still again in the evening to notice each gradual change in the moon’s shape. I remember cabin fever didn’t hit that year like it usually did in February.

Daisy was mine because she was sweet and Buttercup was my daughter’s because she was frisky. Spring brought halter training and romps through the pastures. It must have been the bottles of milk when they were young that helped, but while the beef cows were usually pretty content to keep to themselves, the Jerseys would follow in our tracks as we did chores. To my daughter, Buttercup was a confidant and playmate. For a few precious years the fawn colored girls were part of our family and our future plans.

This was a golden age of our brief stint as farmers and then things changed suddenly. A day came when someone drove in the barnyard and loaded Daisy, Buttercup and their calves onto a trailer. They looked through the bars and money exchanged hands and somehow they weren’t ours any longer. Even though a little girl cried herself to sleep night after night, they were gone.

It was a few months after that when a neighbor called saying that a friend was coming to town and needed a place to keep two Jersey calves. Two little heifers just under a year old. I wanted to say no, and yet, we didn’t have a good reason. It wouldn’t be easy to find a place to board them in our little town and we had the space. So, in a few days, two calves showed up in Daisy and Buttercup’s pole barn again.

I really don’t remember the lady’s name. The kids all called her the cow lady and that’s how I remember her. She’d come twice a day to do chores and sometimes my daughter would join her and walk the calves with her up and down the road. It was bittersweet to see a sight so familiar and yet know that this was a chapter of our lives that had ended. We were just experiencing a long, drawn out goodbye while we waited for everything to be settled and to leave the farm for good.

It was the cow lady that gave my daughter the bean seeds. In February, for her tenth birthday, the cow lady gave her a little box and inside were five large seeds and a note with planting instructions.

By Spring, the cow lady had moved on and so had we. We turned the soil in our little garden patch in the woods and my daughter found a stout pole and planted her seeds around it. Unfortunately, the chickens (who besides the dog were the only animals that made the move from the farm), managed to break into the garden and scratch in the soil until only two bean seeds remained. These two weren’t even left by the pole but managed to grow along the garden fence where they had been flung by the chickens.

By August, the vines had wrapped themselves high and the plants were in blossom. They were a deep orange-red against the green in the garden and bees and hummingbirds were drawn steadily to their blossoms. In the fall, the long pods had browned and dried and my daughter excitedly picked and shelled them and found that she had a jar full of beans identical to the ones she had planted in the spring. From those two, misplaced, dropped in the earth, purple seeds a bounty of a harvest had grown. Each new season, we find at harvest time that they have multiplied again and this year we had a row planted all along one side of the garden, growing tall and winding around the fence and sunflowers.

So, yesterday I stood shelling bean after bean.

We’ll use some for soup but I’ll be sure to set some aside for planting in the Spring. These beans, falling out of the dried and brown pods, are just resting. What seems dead and dry and lifeless, is holding all the potential for tall green vines and the brightest flowers in the garden.

While I stood shelling those beans, I had other thoughts. With my hands busy my mind could wander to situations that needed sorting and loved ones that needed prayer. I turned over the words of a friend dealing with heartbreak and brokenness.  I thought of so many who are dealing with painful, dark days. Days of prayers that don’t get answered in ways that make sense to our hearts and minds. Days when the first thoughts of the day are painful and it’s hard to get to sleep at night.

But as these thoughts and names passed through my mind, my hands held the cow lady’s gift; the gift of remembering grief and death and leaving and the gift of seeing hope and new life and revealed purpose. The gift of seeing with renewed thankfulness the joy of today and the blessing and goodness that came from hard changes. The gift of my daughter’s happiness. The gift of remembering seasons and that spring always follows winter and that what is sown in the ground doesn’t stay there.

After I cast the last of the brown pods into the compost, I took the basin of seeds in my arms and carried it into the house. Before I reached for a jar, I counted out five, large, purple speckled seeds. With a prayer, I placed them in an envelope for a friend.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Woman at the Well

We don’t even know her name. Ironically, she dreaded the walk to get water and now, even millennia later, we know her as ‘the woman at the well’. One day, close to noon and after the morning crowd had left, she picked up her jar and made her way to the deep well. As she came near, she saw a man sitting alone. He was obviously Jewish and a traveller weary from his journey. Perhaps she hesitated before approaching, knowing that as both a woman and a Samaritan it would be distasteful to a Jewish man to have her near. She was taken by surprise when he spoke.

Someone once asked me, “How do you do it? How can you be content staying home and scrubbing the toilet?” I don’t remember how I answered at the time. It was an honest question from a mother struggling to feel significant when she was home with little children all day. I think of her question often. Sometimes I think of it when I’m kissing the sweet smelling head of a sleeping baby curled up against my chest. Other times, it’s when one of my older children says something beyond their years and we share a smile. Today, it was when an old song came on the radio and my husband danced with me in the kitchen while seven little faces looked on with eyes wide open and laughed when we danced silly. I often think of it and wonder, “How could I want to be anywhere else?” But, I also think of her question when I’m washing the same dishes day after night after day; when I’m folding the same load after load of laundry that may or may not make it to bureau drawers; when I’m mopping the floors a few minutes before a troop of firewood gatherers come out of the muddy woods into the kitchen for cool drinks. Each day has repetitive tasks that could become drudgery. Each night I can fall into bed and think of little that I accomplished that won’t have to be done again tomorrow.

But, he meets me at the well. Whatever our labor is in this life, he doesn’t hold himself aloft. He humbles himself to whatever work we’re called to do and wants to commune with us there.

Right there, in the midst of washing dishes or cleaning bathrooms or reading the same story book or mediating the same squabble between siblings, he meets me. The truth read in the Word in the quiet of the morning is fleshed out in my attitude while I mop the floor or change a diaper in the afternoon. The mundane becomes sacred when I’m aware of his constant presence and intentionality.

Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. She looked at her own jar and realized that to a Jew it would be unclean. She said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”

Once I woke up in the middle of the night with a new thought running through my head. I was thinking of some friends that we’ve gone to church with for years and who are going into pastoral ministry. They are taking seminary classes and preparing sermons. The thought was, “…the difference between you and them is that you are a woman. You can think about God and the church but no one will notice or care. You are seen as irrelevant.” Out of nowhere it seemed I was flooded with thoughts about life being unfair. ‘If I were a man, people would see me as significant and want to disciple me and think it was worthwhile for me to study theology.’ I fell back asleep feeling like a second class citizen in the kingdom of God. A few hours later, I woke to a little blonde head peaking over the side of his bed next to ours. When he saw that my eyes had opened, he gave me a huge ‘just for Mommy’ grin. What had I been thinking in the night? How had I been slighted? How could I have thought for a minute that God had made me something lesser when he made me a woman and a wife and a mother?

God calls us all deeper. Deeper into the Word, deeper into theology, deeper into understanding. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3) There are no second class children. He wants us all to feast.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  Her thoughts were racing. Who is this man? He has nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where would he get living water? What water could be better than that springing deep from tradition? Does this man think he is greater than Jacob? Who can this be?

“Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”

Her mind still racing, she remembers her thirst. She remembers the dread she feels as she carries her water jar to this place where all the women come with their jars and tongues wagging.

“Please… give me this water…”

Last week someone told me prayer doesn’t really matter all that much. “It’s not like magic. You pray and circumstances don’t change. Things will probably still  be hard.”

But I don’t pray to change circumstances.

I’m thirsty.

The news comes on the radio and I hear about rockets in Gaza and Ebola in Africa. An email from church shares the news that a friend and brother in Christ went home at forty-nine years old. A text message brings news of the red thread bringing a baby ‘home’ to foster parents who love her as their own and will only get to hold her close again for a few weeks before another heart-wrenching goodbye. A friend says she is losing the hope of ever carrying a baby in her womb as her heart has hungered for. My body is tired and the house is a mess and the moment comes when I lose my patience with a child and yell instead of parent.

I’m so thirsty.

I don’t pray to change circumstances. I pray to drink the water. I pray to let the truth flow into me and through me and well up into something that is life and satisfies and quenches the throat parched by the dirt of the fallen world. I pray because I thirst for Him. As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for the living God. (Psalm 42)

Jesus looks at the woman holding the empty jar and asking for water. She doesn’t want to come to this well again with her water jar and her thirst. He looks at her and he knows her. She doesn’t yet understand. He cuts through her desire for comfort and reaches into her heart. “Bring your husband.”

I decide I’m tired of being introspective. It’s not healthy. I’m going to pray for other people and I’m going to think about God and who He is. I don’t need to look at myself anymore. Isn’t that humility? To not even think about yourself?

But then, just as Jesus identified her deepest pain in order to reach deeper into her soul, God seems to want to reveal first, “This is what is keeping you from me.” He cuts deeper into the hidden places; using my own darkness to reveal his light. He shakes false humility by letting me know myself more and then with my heart aware raises my eyes to the light of the glory of Christ.

She’s lived with six men. She has tried to satisfy her thirst and found the drink bitter over and over again. And this Jew is telling her everything she’s ever done. He’s not jeering or throwing stones or trying to use her. He’s talking to her. She grasps in her mind for a response. How does he know these things? He must be a prophet. What can she say to this man?

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 

She knows she’s thirsty but she’s afraid. Maybe he won’t mention the men again.

And he doesn’t.

He tells her mountains don’t matter. The time is here and the Father is seeking not to dwell on a mountain but in a people. He looks into her face and answers the question she didn’t dare ask. ‘You can drink. The Father is seeking you; a Samaritan outsider, a woman, a sinner. Come to me, and drink.”

She dropped the empty jar at the well and returned to town with a fountain welling up inside, overflowing with the news of the man who told her all she ever did and let her drink and be satisfied.

How do I do it? How am I content when dinner needs to be made (again) and the news reporter just said someone shot babies in an elementary school and there are floods and tornadoes and crying fathers and seven people that grew in my womb and into my heart are breathing the air of a broken world?

There are times I don’t do it well. I’m anxious and depressed and parched. But he still seeks those who are thirsty. He meets me at the well again. And as I look at him, my grip on the empty jar loosens and it falls to the ground. There’s a peace that surpasses understanding as I leave the still water and drink the water that flows from a place that isn’t broken; a place where a Lamb sits as both King and Shepherd guiding his people to springs of living water. I drink from the river of comfort that flows out of a place where God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his children.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”                 Revelation 22:17