The view outside Winnipeg windows these last few weeks has been anything but spring-like. Winter has lasted a month longer than usual. Usually by March, we begin to welcome the blossoming of color but instead, falling temperatures and even snowfall was the norm. News reports said that depression had increased as we more than earned our nickname of “Winterpeg”.
Part of my wake-up routine includes a bit of yoga stretching. The window overlooks our garage and every morning I watched the progress of snow melting on the roof. It seemed almost imperceptible at first, but it was hard to deny that the longer hours of sunlight were having an effect, despite the cool temperatures. Not only that, but more and more of the yard began to show through. Spirits tired of winter gravitate toward these signs of spring, small as they are.
Lately, I’ve begun to muse on the deeper signs of hope that we reach for when consolation feels far from our hearts. During these last few weeks, when headaches have seemed relentless and I felt mired in the “slough of despond”, as John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress, it occurred to me so look instead for signs of God’s presence. Here’s a few places that have kept me going in tough times.
I have begun reading a book called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle. Boyle is an American Jesuit priest who has worked with gang members for over 20 years. His book is filled with stories of people at the bottom, who find their lives stitched back together by the power of love.
The stories have had the power to turn my inner eye away from whatever problems I’ve been grappling with, reminding me of the bigger picture. Sometimes our education in the “university of hard knocks” makes us imagine that God is out to get us. In one of my favorite quotes, Boyle reminds us that it’s “not the ‘one false move’ God but the ‘no matter whatness’ of God” that we can hope in. No matter what or where we find ourselves, God has our back and is working overtime to restore us to love and hope.
Mostly, his stories have been melting my heart. They remind me of what our pastor calls the “basement of grace”; of the God who “looks beyond our fault and sees our need,” an old black spiritual that Boyle refers to. My students in Winnipeg’s inner city have so many needs and many days I am left exhausted. If I’m not careful, I can start to think I’m doing it all wrong just because it’s hard. It’s enough to get my heart a bit calloused, but I’ve been reminded that God meets us where we are, often in the basement, and tells us we are infinitely loved. His poetic writing has been inspiring me. Someday I hope to write that well.
Another book God has used to melt my inner winter is Present Perfect by Gregory A. Boyd. Each chapter of this wise book has exercises to practice “finding God in the now”. I have been repeating a sentence like a mantra in recent weeks, “We will never be more loved than we are in this moment.” It is a powerful sentence to marinate in. My natural bent is towards getting it right before I think I’m “ok”, but this mantra tells me otherwise. There’s nothing I can do to keep away God’s love, like one of my favorite verses says, “If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there. If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.” (Psalm 139:8 Contemporary English Version)
Another helpful exercise has been what he calls “observing your mind and heart”. We all tend to so completely identify with our thoughts, feelings and urges that we can become slaves to them. I myself do this with my emotions, thinking that I am what I am feeling. Boyd suggests an experiment: recall a harsh or judgmental thought we’ve had recently like “I’m stupid” or “That person is a jerk.” Now, Boyd suggests that instead of just thinking it, observe yourself thinking that thought. As you observe the thought, imagine yourself engulfed by God’s ever-present love. “The real “you” is the “you” that is defined by God’s love, not the indicting thought.”
I have been practicing this habit all week and find it helpful. My deepest hope is that I will continue to let God’s love define me, not my often negative emotions. Like the old commercial says, “Relax, you’re soaking in it!”
This weekend, spring has finally begun to arrive fully. I spotted a mourning cloak butterfly yesterday, encouraged out of its winter frozen state by the warmth. This morning, I’ve noticed the migration of junco birds in my yard. What has been hidden is now becoming plain to see. My prayer is that in hard or easy times, in desolation or consolation, we may all practice seeing what is always there, no matter the weather. May we all look for the “no matter whatness” of God.