The Winter Forest Gives Us a Clue About How to Experience God


Photo by Robert Gottfried

Many of us long to experience God's presence in our lives but find it difficult to do. I think the woods may offer us a clue.

The forest here on the Cumberland Plateau has hunkered down for the winter. The racket of the katydids, crickets, frogs, and songbirds is gone, replaced instead by an occasional rustle of a squirrel searching for nuts in the leaves. Stripped bare, the oaks and wild blueberries are waiting for things to turn around, looking for signs of spring. They watch for the light and warmth that signal the start of the new season. But will they notice when the change begins? Will they realize it when the days start to get longer? Will we? If it weren't for my calendar telling me that the first day of winter occurs on December 22 this year, I know I wouldn't. I'd have to be looking for it and notice, somehow, the imperceptible change in the length of the day from the 21st to the 22nd. The hope the forest, and we, wait for shows up in something so ordinary that we don't even perceive it when it happens. I suspect this tell us something about God.

I also like this winter season because I can see the bones of the earth. Sinkholes and cliffs normally hidden by the leaves now show up. I see things differently. I suspect this reveals to us something about seeing God.

Many Christians celebrate the season of Advent at this time of year. During Advent Christians prepare for the feast of Christmas, a feast commemorating the advent of a new world order when, they believe, God became a human being (still remaining God) and entered the world -- as an infant born to what appeared to be an ordinary poor couple from a nondescript town in a backwater of Palestine -- and when God will come again at the end of the world as we know it.

Christmas occurs right after the winter solstice. When Jesus was born, how many of the people walking by the manger where Jesus lay realized that something beyond the ordinary was happening? The shepherds wouldn't have paid the slightest attention if angels hadn't burst on the scene and shaken them up. Only the magi seem to have noticed. These Gentile wise men, aware of the prophecies about a Jewish messiah, watched the stars, saw an unusual conjunction, and headed for Israel. Somehow, when they landed in Bethlehem, they were able to appreciate what they saw, to see what really was happening in the stable when no one else did. Why were they the only ones able to see without angels clueing them in? Unlike everyone else, they were searching with "eyes that see" and "ears that hear."

I suspect this story tries to convey to us that wise people looking for God know that they find her in the ordinary.* I think God prefers to work through, and reveal himself, in the ordinary, unspectacular events of everyday life. To use "theospeak," I think God exercises a preferential option for the ordinary -- ordinary people, ordinary events, ordinary relationships, ordinary nature. If we learn how to look for God in the ordinary world around us, God sometimes breaks through to us and reveals herself to us: in the smile of an infant, the sorrow of a friend, the falling of a leaf, the color of the winter dusk.

So, whatever our faith, for us Advent and the bleak forest can serve as a wake-up call to strip ourselves bare of all those things that get in the way of our noticing and appreciating the hidden ordinary in our lives. How ironic that, in the midst of all the religious holidays we celebrate at this time of year we find ourselves busier and often more stressed out then ever. Not a good recipe for wakeful noticing. Yet, nature encourages us to simplify and to watchfully wait for God to reveal herself to us. I often hope for God to show up in my life in obvious ways. Angels would be nice. However, when I finally stop thinking about what I'm going to do next or what I'm going to write, and appreciate the woods where I live, I often see God peeking out at me. May we all come to recognize God when he comes to us this holiday season. Have a blessed Advent.

*Although God is neither male nor female, God possesses both female and male characteristics -- the all-powerful God nurtures and cares for us. So, I'll use both genders to describe God. Most of us don't experience God as an "it," so this will have to do!

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