Looking for God in a Long Winter

Last Wednesday was the breaking point for me. The last straw. The bottom of the iceberg. We were midway through a school vacation in which we had no plans, I was trying to work four or five hours a day as usual, most of our first floor was inaccessible because of a kitchen renovation, and the rest of the house was a wreck—a gritty tableau of construction dust, snowy/salty bootprints, dog and cat hair, and dirty dishes. Cheered by the prospect of getting out of the house for just a few minutes, to drive my daughter to a friend’s house across town, I opened the front door to find….ice. Rain falling on cold sidewalks and driveway left a solid sheet of crackling, slippery ice. I was stuck. I can negotiate snow if I’m careful, but sheets of ice pose too big a threat to my unbalanced, fragile skeleton. I couldn’t safely take a single step outside my front door  (the very place where I fell and broke several ribs back in December).

I was angry. I said, mostly but not entirely under my breath, all kind of things about the stupid ice and gosh darn winter and WHY??? I’m sure I’m not the only person shaking her fist at the weather these days, giving the dirty snow and Polar Vortex and ice dams a piece of our minds.

On a wide-ranging Facebook comment thread, a friend posed this question: “Who do we need to toss into a volcano to make this stop? Why do the weather gods hate us?” It was a joke, obviously. She’s a fellow Christian who doesn’t believe in “weather gods,” and none of us live near a volcano. (If we did, we might not be so COLD.)

In light of this never-ending winter, I’ve been thinking about our tendency to personalize the weather, to relate to it as a living entity capable of making us miserable, to get angry with it, to wonder what we did to make it treat us so poorly.

It’s no wonder that ancient peoples ascribed weather and other unpredictable, troublesome happenings to a god or gods looking to send a message or enact a punishment. It’s no wonder that people turned inward to figure out what they had done so wrong to make “the weather gods hate us.” This long, wet, icy, snowy winter isn’t just uncomfortable and inconvenient. It is disorienting, upsetting, maddening, depressing. This awful winter weather we’ve been having feels personal, as if it has been sent by some mysterious force to shake us up (and then spit us out, cold, pale, lethargic, and five pounds heavier). If I didn’t believe in God, I’d be wondering in all seriousness what I had done to make the powers that be so angry that we deserve this awful winter.

I think we tend to personalize the world around us—to see ice storms as senseless and vindictive punishment, to embrace the first sunny 70 degree day as a gift meant just for us—because the world is, in a sense, personal. I don’t believe that God micromanages the weather, that God sends storms or sunny days for particular reasons. This wouldn’t make much sense, given that the rainy day that answers a farmer’s prayer will ruin someone else’s outdoor wedding. But I do believe that God created weather, because God created this world where sunshine and blizzards and warm rain and thunderstorms are all possible. The world God created is a personal one. As believers, we don’t perceive the earth as a random occurrence of atoms and substances and cosmic explosions, even if we accept theories concerning big bangs and evolution. We believe in a world arising out of God’s impulse toward beauty, God’s desire for relationship, God’s nature as a lover in need of something and someone to love. We rail against the weather in part because we understand that we are living in a world where the feel of sun on one’s face, the smell of damp soil, the sound of pounding waves, and the sight of a blooming hillside are truly gifts of a God who is warmth and growth and strength and beauty, and who, in bestowing such gifts on us, gives us himself.

I expect we’ll continue to rail against winter for a few more weeks, yelling at the snow and ice, wondering what we can do to make it stop. But we’ll get through it. Eventually, all this moisture will seep into the thawing earth and bring forth crocuses and daffodils, azaleas and rhododendrons. We’ll be firmly reminded of another defining aspect of God’s world—the continual possibility of redemption and restoration. The hard truth of God’s world is that even the snow and ice we despise by this time of year is a gift, a necessary part of the stunning, wondrous creation made just for us.

Right now, all I can see is death. The death of color. The death of growth. The death of warmth. For me and my unsteady joints, even the death of freedom. I stand outside, throwing a ball for the dog who is getting too few walks, too little outdoor playtime. The wind creeps into the gaps in my fleece coat. The street is too quiet; no one lingers outside any longer than necessary. All is white, gray, and black. My bones ache more than usual. As the sun sets, I note the slightest hint of pink in the sky—the only color, it seems, for miles. Our God hasn’t sent this awful winter as any sort of punishment, and does not ask us to throw our sacrifices into the volcano. But our God promises life after death. That slight blush in the sky isn’t much to cling to, but I do. It’s no rainbow, but it’s promise enough.

The Perfect Pair of Boots and the Essential Work of Parenting
Surviving January with Help from the Danes, the Japanese, and Jesus
Remembering One of My “Cloud of Witnesses”
A Christian Response to Brittany Maynard’s Decision to Die
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Personalizing weather happens a lot. Tolkien took it one step further in The Lord of the Rings when the fellowship tried to cross over Caradhras and the weather almost killed them as they climbed. As soon as they turned back the way they came the weather let up. It was truly personal in that scene.
    I hope you have found a way outdoors that doesn’t imperil your safety, Ellen!

  • pastordt

    Man, this is gorgeous, Ellen. And I realize that living as I do on the CA coast I have NO RIGHT to complain about the weather, ever. Still, I do it. Too many gray, foggy days do me in. But tonight, I hear music on the roof. It is raining in our terribly drought-stricken state and I gotta tell you – it feels deliciously personal! Thanks for this wonderful reflection – I so appreciate your writing.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I used to think that California had my ideal climate–never too hot or cold, and I used to actually enjoy fog and rain! But in my middle age, I’ve become too reliant on sunshine! The worst part of the cold snap we’re having in the Northeast right now (I think tomorrow’s high temp is 20 degrees?!) is that the sun is bright and beautiful. You walk outside expecting some warmth and instead get hit by an arctic chill. It’s disappointing, to say the least….