Winter is not my season. I live for the warmth and beauty of summer. June, when everything is in full bloom and the earth is full of color and life—that is the month that fills my soul. However, trees have fascinated me this winter. There is a stark beauty to them, stripped of their leaves, with their branches and trunks in full view. No hiding of the faults and blemishes. No missing the gnarling that has occurred over the years. You can also see clearly see how trees have supported life with nests visible in their branches. The strength, and height, and majesty of trees is all there in the winter months.
Science is not my strong suit, but my understanding is that in order to survive winter, trees shed everything non-essential. The leaves that are so critical to its life in the spring, summer, and fall must go, otherwise no new buds can be formed. Everything is stripped away, and we see the tree in its essence.
Life feels like that to me right now on several levels. Personally, receiving a diagnosis of cancer has forced me to make choices about where I put my energy. I find myself impatient with things that feel like a waste of time when the days are so precious. I am clearing out the clutter in my house and in my life, asking what will help me to survive and thrive in these days, and committing to give myself to those things. Sometimes I wonder how that looks to others. Do they see me more raw, more sad, a bit more impatient, not as polished or polite, perhaps? The marks of what I have been going through are there in full view, and I have no desire to cover them up. I am learning where I am strong, and what is true for me. And this winter work is important if I am going to find my way to spring.
As a denomination, well, well, well, it seems we are indeed in winter also. The shape of the tree that we call United Methodism is becoming clear, as is evidence that the way we have ordered ourselves as a global church is no longer working. We need to examine this tree closely to see where it still has life, where it needs to be pruned, and whether the tree as it is can still stand. I have often said as I work with local churches that perhaps it is time to take out a blank piece of paper and start over. If we were starting a new faith community today, what we would be doing?
So many of our churches have so much stuff…committees, activities, patterns of behavior…that we are attached to, and they are keeping us stuck from seeing the new thing God wants to do in our midst. Ditto for the denomination. What would it look like to start from scratch and ask, “What really is essential to our Wesleyan way of life?” and let go of the all rest. If we don’t, I do not see how we survive this winter season we are in.
Then, of course, it is Lent, a season where we are called to remember that from dust we came, and to dust we will return. To die to ourselves so that we can rise with Christ. All three of these events—my personal health challenges, the denominational unraveling, and Lent—are landing into my life at the same time. And it is March, and my yard is buried under 17 inches of snow. Winter indeed! It would be so easy to succumb to weariness and just give up.
Parker Palmer has said that winter is a demanding season. Oh my, it is that. But there is also something very clarifying about it as well. I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Sycamore.” He describes a tree that has had so much happen to it over its life…and he says this about that tree: “It bears the gnarls of its dark history. It has risen to a strange perfection in the warp and bending of its long growth. It has gathered all accidents into its purpose. It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate. It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable. In all the country there is no other like it.”
God is working in me this winter season. Some days I shiver and just try to hang on. Other days I stand tall, telling myself I can and will do this. Mostly though, I am trying to let go, lean more deeply on God who is the source of life, and trust that something beautiful is being revealed in this winter season that is shaping my life to be sublime, mystical, and unassailable. May it be so for me, for you, and for the people called United Methodist.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church