The Nature of Winter and the Nature of God
In Minnesota, November is the month of waiting for ice. Starting around Thanksgiving in the land of 10,000 lakes, we wait for lakes to fully freeze, keeping count of the days below 32 degrees and measuring the thickness of the ice. It can take several weeks as the edges harden first and, over time, ice slowly creeps into the center until that too is frozen. Layer upon glassy layer. Four and a half inches to walk on, 15 to drive a car. The animals sense the change before we do and use this time to arrange for winter. Outside with my children I point out how the squirrels gather, birds migrate, turtles dig. Soon the waterways will be completely frozen and winter will be here. Icy winds will whip up the river. Moose will cross the lake again, walking on solid water.
With my eyes on nature, I see a season of preparation. November hosts signs of impending winter, the hard frost, the dark nights. To survive, animals in these harsh climates must hibernate, migrate, or adapt. I watch swans on the river, flying down from Canada headed to South America. I think, Take me with you to the swans. The bear print in the glistening hard-packed mud makes me long for rest too.
For us humans, the winter season starts with the same November cold, but our focus is different. We do not focus on preparing or adapting. Neither hibernating nor migrating is much of an option either, no matter how much we may want to. For us, autumn and winter traditions mostly focus on the holidays—so much that we often rename the beginning of the winter season entirely, calling it the “holiday season.” I look forward to this season with great anticipation, excitement, and joy. Usually, I love sharing these times with my family, husband, and five children, but this year I find that I am simply tired.
It has been a year of disarray and confusion, turmoil and heartbreak for the world and our nation, and now after all these months of continuous readjustment and isolation, I pause to ask myself, how do we adapt now? How do we change during autumn and thrive through the winter?
The first frost on the pumpkins signals harvest, and we pause to give thanks to God our provider and sustainer. And here is how we begin to adapt. Scripture is full of examples of giving thanks to God, celebrating his holy name, his good deeds, and generosity—tying our offering of thanks to prayer and praise. The early church is encouraged to begin by praising and thanking God. After Paul, Silas, and Timothy brought the message of the Messiah to the city of Thessalonica, they were run out of town in a riot. Yet Paul writes to the church there to embolden them and teach them. In his final words to a weary church, Paul encourages them, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).
Thanksgiving and gratitude anchor our lives in all seasons, not just in seasons of plenty. Paul instructs the thrilled-but-weary early church with actions to bolster and preserve them during difficult days. He tells them how to adapt to their trials and tribulations. They are to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. In these practices, we learn to turn to our Creator again. God has equipped us with what we need to trust him, even as circumstances appear bleak. He beckons me to remember his faithfulness. He will hold. So I prepare my heart in a posture of thanks—first, before anything else. Before the shopping and gift-giving, before the expectations and disappointments. Before teaching my children about kindness and thoughtfulness and even generosity, I seek to practice thankfulness as intentionally as nature prepares for winter.
This year I prepare my heart not by just giving thanks for the blessings in front of me today but by going back through the year and recounting the Lord’s faithfulness to me. As he provides for creation, he has provided for my family and me. Last Thanksgiving looked different from the traditions we have had in the past. It was the first time we celebrated as a family of seven, having completed our second adoption a few weeks before. My husband and I had just returned to the U.S. with our new son, a little boy with a bright and brave smile. Jet-lagged and new-parent tired, we gathered our family for the meal. We were hungry. We were hopeful. I had just learned to sign “thank you” in American Sign Language, and we did it together that day as I fed my son and nervously smiled. He was as skittish as a dry leaf. I didn’t want him to scatter or blow away. He made eye contact with me three times that day. Lord, hear our praise.
This truth will start on the edge of your life. But soon, if it gets cold enough, it will get to the middle. Layer upon layer, it will hold up a moose. It will last through the cold. It will be a new way to travel in the darkest of times.
In January he received a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome. His paperwork had listed cerebral palsy and intellectual disability, but not FAS. We began to grieve his irrevocable brain trauma and on the periphery, my world became fuzzy. But there in the car after the appointment, one of his new brothers reached across his seatbelt. He placed his arm around him. “We love you. We got you, buddy,” he said. His brother smiled. Lord, hear our praise.
In February my daughter played the violin for the first time. She shone like the northern lights. Lord, hear our praise.
In March, schools closed. We have two sons with severe intellectual disabilities. We have two small businesses, which are heavily seasonal from March through October. We tried virtual school for all five kids. By April all supports were gone: physical therapy, occupational therapy, paraprofessionals, speech, babysitters. One day I cried and my sons sat with me. They could not offer words. They offered their presence. It was enough.
In June we were able to hire personal caregiver assistance again. Lord, hear our deepest praise. The summer and fall brought changes, new schedules, and navigating individual education plans. We adapt with praise and thanksgiving.
This past year has stripped us bare. We cling only to that which matters. Tired, but entering the next season preparing with praise and thanksgiving. This is enough. This Thanksgiving we will remember and celebrate God’s goodness.
God is our sustainer, I say not to my children, but over them. This truth will start on the edge of your life. But soon, if it gets cold enough, it will get to the middle. Layer upon layer, it will hold up a moose. It will last through the cold. It will be a new way to travel in the darkest of times. The living Water still sustains us, holds us. God comes to us in every season. This is his promise. He will be with us. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Jesus is with us in feast and in famine, in summer and in winter. For all of this, we humbly lift our thanksgiving. Lord, hear our praise.