A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 5, 2014
Psalm 147 (selected verses)
Those of you who are familiar with Shakespeare or American writer John Steinbeck may have thought there was a sermon title misprint in today’s bulletin. The familiar phrase is “The Winter of Our Discontent,” not Content. The phrase’s origin is William Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, and that phrase constitutes, in fact, the opening line of that play. John Steinbeck picked up on the phrase and used it as the title of his 1961 novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck’s novel is a story of Ethan Hawley, a descendant of proud New England sea captains who works for someone else as a grocery store clerk. Hawley becomes completely discontent with the life he is living. The novel is about the course Ethan Hawley takes as he struggles with his discontent.
I, however, chose to pick up on the phrase and turn it into “The Winter of Our Content.” The question you may be asking is, Why would I do that? Here is the reason: For most of my life I did not like winter. After Christmas and New Year’s Day, I was ready for spring. My feeling was it was nice to have a white Christmas. But after Christmas week, I did not like the cold weather. I did not like snow. I did not like the stark, bare trees. I did not like the short days and long, dark nights. Why can’t we just jump from New Year’s Day to spring flowers and warm sunshine? was my attitude for so long. In the same spirit as Marcina Wiederkehr, I found “myself dreaming of spring before I embraced winter’s gift.”1
But in recent years I have come to have a greater appreciation for the season of winter. I have come to realize that winter has a beauty all its own and blessings peculiar to this season of the year.
My minister friend, Lawrence Clark, who lives in Smyrna (southeast of Nashville) and who receives my Monday Meditative Moments, gave me a tip about a book I have been enjoying these past few weeks. It is titled The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons. The authors—Joyce Rupp and Marcina Wiederkehr– divide the book into four sections, of course, one for each season of the year. It is a collection of poetry, prose and prayers that celebrate the peculiar blessings of each season, but also relates the characteristics of each season to the different seasons of the heart or soul. Well, these past few weeks, I have been enjoying the section on winter.
The authors note, “the four seasons are a universal archetype for the soul. They are metaphors for the cycles of spiritual growth.”2 They go on to point out that winter has many lessons to teach us: “to be silent and hopeful as you wait . . . the immense need for slowing down, for silence and resting. . . time for solitude.”3 The authors suggest “The human spirit needs dormancy and rest, silence and solitude. Winter provides this opportunity so we can slow down and refocus our direction and purpose in life. . . The extended darkness of our inner winter can be an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our relationship with God.” “Winter has much to teach us about the inner journey. It suggests a time of resting and deepening, a time to gather the resources needed in other seasons.”4
Both the responsive reading we shared from Job and the passage I read from Psalm 147 speak of a vital connection between God, or the Sacred, and creation. We might even stretch that a bit to say a connection between God and the seasons. In Job, there is the emphasis upon the mysteries of the universe that are known only to God. Likewise in Psalm 147, where the psalmist forms an intimate connection between God and the universe. God is portrayed as One who numbers the stars and is responsible for natural events: formation of clouds, sending rain to the earth, making grass to grow, giving snow to the earth, scattering frost on the ground, tossing hail down as a sower would sow seed upon the earth, and sending warm weather to melt the snow and the ice.
Now, most of us don’t think of God in such anthropomorphic terms; that God is like a giant somewhere up in the heavens pouring out rain, or sending snow, or scattering frost, or tossing hail to the earth. But it makes for beautiful poetry. We are “Weather Channel” people and weather savvy, and we realize that rain, snow, frost, and hail are natural phenomena that result from the forces of nature. But I think we are at a great loss if we fail to see a connection between God or the Sacred and creation altogether. A big piece of our Judeo-Christian heritage is founded upon the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), in whatever way we choose to define God and in whatever fashion we believe creation came about.
There is what I am wont to call “a miraculous sacredness” to every season of the year—including winter—for those who have eyes to see it. A few weeks ago, we attended the Pilot Club craft fair that is held every year at the Civic Center. We ran into Kris Light, who is renowned in these parts for her knowledge of wildflowers. But on this day, Kris was selling photographs she had taken of snowflakes. In the winter time, Kris has a black felt cloth out back of her house. And when it snows, she captures images of the snowflakes the second they hit the black felt, and then she enlarges them. She showed us several examples. Every one was completely different, proving true that old saying that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.
I think I have shared how that the first winter we moved to Albany, New York, we had 108 inches of snow. That is a total accumulation of 9 feet of snow! Then the second winter we only got 68 inches, but we had a cold snap in January and it didn’t get above 5 degrees for three straight weeks. It was so cold, when you went out to start your car, it sounded like the engine was going to fall right out onto the ground. But on the other hand, the sky was the prettiest during that cold snap than it was the rest of the six years we were there. We would go out in the morning and the sky would be a gorgeous, radiant blue. The sun would be shining and glistening on the snow. And there were occasions when there were tiny snowflakes falling when the sky was blue and the sun was shining, something that sometimes happens when the temperature is in the single digits. It was simply breathtaking.
So, in contrast to the way I used to be, I now look at winter from a whole different perspective. I concur with Joyce Rupp who concludes, “I now lean into winter with a certain relish. It never used to be that way, but as I have grown older, I have returned to quiet moments like those of being in the winter chair by my father’s side. I see the value of ‘being’ and the purpose of silence. . . I have learned to welcome the evenings of darkness as a cozy time for my own silent space of renewal and relaxation.”5
I, too, now am able to welcome and enjoy the cool winter days; the beautiful blue winter sky; the big, full winter moon shining through the trees; the short winter days that give opportunity to grab that favorite quilt and favorite spot and enjoy a good book; the gray days brightened by my favorite birds visiting my birdfeeder; and the frosty mornings that leave a glossy glaze on bare trees and fields. And in these winter miracles, I have come to see a touch of the Sacred. Oh, I am well aware that all of these things are natural phenomena. But why can’t natural phenomena also have a touch of the Sacred?
And so, perhaps it is evident why I chose “The Winter of Our Content” as today’s sermon title. I no longer have the discontent I used to have during the winter months of January, February, and March. I have learned to embrace the beauties and blessings peculiar to winter days, and also find there—as did the author of Job and the 147th Psalm—a touch of the Sacred. I hope you can too. Amen.
1Joyce Rupp and Marcina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005, 2009. P. 251.
2Ibid, p. 28.
3Ibid, p. 35.
5Ibid, p. 239.