By JIM NICHOLS
The cartoon was making a wry attempt at humor. The boy said to his father, “It got dark real early. Why is today the shortest day?” The father’s reply was, “I guess 2020 is finally giving up.”
Winter solstice has come and gone recently. This is an event with a long history of meanings. Officially, this marks the time at which one of the earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun. This has fascinating effects on the day length and the positioning of light, for example, as it enters windows of our homes. In addition, it is the driver of our seasons. It is a subtle, but powerful, influencer of our lives. In ways, it is one of the major sources of change and the inevitability of pattern, death, and birth.
The winter solstice is an example of a recurring theme in life, the theme of demise followed by renewal—the theme of death or passing followed by rebirth or reestablishment. This is true not only in the outside world, but in our lives. It is not necessarily pleasant, but it is real.
As the seasons change, we note the basic pattern that sacrifice or loss of something must occur to be followed by some renewal. We pay most attention to this in the spring when green sprouts first appear; the air seems clearer and the sun brighter and even the sounds of nature change. But spring does not make sense without a preceding winter, and the winter solstice identifies that. Winter often seems dark, even foreboding; we know better than to associate it with death, but it still creeps into our minds. It does not stay there since we know that spring will follow. The pattern is clearly that we must sacrifice something to achieve something else. We must sacrifice summer and autumn to achieve spring. Finding depends on first losing something.
Luke chapter 15 contains three stories that have a pattern. A sheep is lost, sought, and found. Rejoicing follows. A coin is lost, sought, and found. Rejoicing follows. A son is lost, sought, and found. Rejoicing follows. The individuals who lost something did not desire that loss. However, in reclaiming what was lost each found something unexpected and significant.
During this winter solstice of 2020 it seems to me that we are all wrestling with this cycle in our lives, the cycle of loss and (we hope) the following rebirth. We deal with the restrictions on our lives; some are, frankly, just irritations. However, others are profound. We miss communication with others; we miss sharing blessings with others; we feel more physically vulnerable and vulnerability is not something we desire. Some people we love have manifested that physical vulnerability to an extreme extent, even to death. We have lost some things and in some cases the loss is so difficult that it obscures the renewal on the horizon. We must continue to remind one another that the pattern is not that the loss is the last event; it is always followed by the rebirth. A seed has no idea what the completed plant will look like.
Making it through this together takes some skills we must share. One skill is to back off evaluating one another so much, to cut each other some spiritual slack. Learning to balance a bike requires the ability to turn slightly to the right and left and right and left. Skaters move forward by moving from side to side. If your car begins to slide on the ice to the right, you turn your wheels to the right, even though it seems counter-intuitive. What we all need in our lives are those who play the roles of prophets and pastors. Sometimes these can be one in the same, but, at other times, they are different individuals. I suspect my prophets and pastors do not know they are playing that role in my life. However, the Spirit can and does take their words and speaks of comfort, correction, and peace to me. They remind me that God created rhythms and that if I am feeling lost, there is still something ahead to be found, even eternally.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain