It’s been a nearly snowless winter so far in East Tennessee. The stark landscape and bare branches seem to be caught awkwardly between one beauty and another, wanting either to be clothed in greenery or blanketed by snow and adorned with ice. Growing up in Michigan I never thought I would find myself missing snow as I do now. We were typically at its mercy from November to March or April, and soon after the quickly-forgotten magic of the first soft snowfall, its surface melted and refroze to a sort of granulated icy crust, abrasive to the touch. Tires churned mud into it on the roads and turned the snow a dingy grey-brown. After a few colorless months, held between a sunless grey sky and an earth scabbed-over with pale frigid crust, winter felt oppressive and unforgiving.
But more than the long dim months I’m remembering now the wonder of early-season snowfalls. Those first arrivals of winter we anticipated and joyfully welcomed. I used to walk through the old woods behind my childhood home, every trail and tree familiar, yet transformed by the soft coating of pure white. The weedy ground, previously crowded with the detail of innumerable stalks and blades and leaves, was smoothed to gentle contours under that bright and endless blanket. Usually the sun wouldn’t be shining – it was still a Midwest winter, after all – but there was so much diffuse light that the air almost glowed faintly between white sky and white ground. Only the dark grey pillars of the oaks, like columns in a cathedral, broke the enveloping white, and even their branches and twigs were limned with a thick glaze of it.
Or maybe the feeling of a cathedral came from the special quiet that always followed a heavy snowfall. The birds and animals were still nestled away in whatever places they could make for themselves, and the stillness was absolute. The snow muffled and absorbed all sounds. My booted footsteps, creaking and clumphing through the soft blanket, felt too loud, a transgression. They were the only thing competing with that breathless, living quiet. When the noise of my walking became unbearable, I’d fall still and listen to the stillness. It felt pregnant with meaning. The only silence more full, more perfect and complete than that morning-after-the-snowfall quiet, was being out in the snow as it fell. The sound of a hundred million crystal flakes, drifting down in utter soundlessness, in every direction as far as could be seen. The world was perfectly still and yet full of motion, and the silence was a holy hush.
Sometimes in our walk with God, we encounter silences that seem not full, but empty. Our pleas for answers or help are met with a quiet from God that feels like absence. We beg for relief from a painful situation, and our prayers seem cast into a void. Nothing around us changes. Maybe we call out just for an answer: What should I do? Or: Are you even there? Even a single word from Him would satisfy us, we think. We listen for it till the lack of it rings in our ears.
For a long time these silences frustrated and discouraged me greatly. I had half accepted that maybe I just wasn’t the sort of person that God talks to. The desire for a perceived something, a clear instruction, a word of encouragement, delivered as plainly as if from a telegram or walkie-talkie, was all the sharper because of those rare occasions when God had spoken to me that way. But instead of growing more and more frequent, in an increasingly intimate conversational back-and-forth with the Lord, those dramatic moments came if anything, more seldom, and remain the exception even now.
Gradually, I’m learning to listen for Him differently in those times of waiting, the times I feel “between”, like the trees standing bare with neither snow nor leaves to dress them.
Instead of the point of the listening being to just receive the asked-for message so I can go on – as if God were a fortune cookie or one of those magic eight balls – I think now that the very act of listening is for my benefit. That sometimes I’m meant to sit with a prayer and keep company with it until it starts a change inside me, rather than bringing a change from outside, to affect my exterior situation. I couldn’t tell you just how that happens. But I certainly see that if I always got quick answers or help on demand, very soon it wouldn’t be the Lord that I was seeking – just the answers and help. I’d lose sight of the perfect truth that He, He Himself, is the Answer.
When I can remember to, I try to listen to God like listening to snowfall. When you witness the falling snow, you glimpse only a tiny fraction of the flakes, only those in your immediate vicinity. Miles beyond you in a vast swath, trillions more that you cannot perceive are falling. You see the activity only in those falling on you just this moment, not in those that have already settled, or in those that will follow after them when you have gone inside. And you do not hear a single one of them, even when a snowflake’s path from heaven brings it to rest right upon your eyelashes. But silently, when you are not watching, each one joins another and another, building upon each other, until the world is transformed. And just so, the Lord; His spirit always active, unseen but bringing forth a trillion delicate changes near and far, pervasive and accumulating – a foundation already laid long before the moment of our prayer and continuously built upon, and still at work when we have risen from our knees and gone away, until His work is accomplished.
The beautiful featured image is from Julie Jablonski for The Cultivating Project!
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.
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