Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. A holy time. A time of light, amazement, and a time to celebrate God’s gift of the New Age.
How then do I shake off all my un-holy thoughts and afflictions?
Our oldest Border Collie, Nell, who came to us fresh off her performance at the Scottish Nursery Finals, is now almost 16 years of age. That is ancient for a sheepdog. And I am full of worry for her, skeptical that she will be able to survive this winter. Arthritis weakens her legs and keeps her from raising her head. When I open her kennel door she stands and stares at the floor. She poops in her bed. And when it is raining, or snowing, or especially windy and dark, she meanders in the garage and refuses to come out with the other dogs for a walk—something she rejoiced at doing just months ago.
We have had an exceptionally warm, strong El Nino, late fall and early winter. It was close to sixty degrees on Christmas. But this day there is an inch of new snow on the ground and around 17 inches expected this coming week—along with high winds and nighttime temperatures down below zero. That means Nell will certainly balk at coming out of her shelter at all, and the dog-running trails around the farm will be piled with huge drifts that the ATV will be no match for.
So what will happen to Nell?
And what will happen to Connie and me? For eight months now Connie has been trying to get her farm legs back in order after ankle surgery and other foot problems. She has graduated from cast and wheelchair but still relies on her rollator and cane. She is always desperate to do chores to relieve me; but how can she be safe after 17 inches of snow?
And then there is me. I am thankful that I am able to walk and lift and do those chores; but lately getting a healthy night’s sleep has been a frustrating ordeal. My history of shoulder surgeries have confined me to a recliner; and coping with sleep apnea confines me to a C-Pap machine. But it is come-and-go head congestion that keeps me up or interrupts my sleep so that a third to half of my nights I toss and turn and adjust the recliner and blow my nose and adjust the covers, and spray and spray, just to get a few hours sleep.
So I am not looking forward to this winter at all, and all of the holiness and light and amazement of this Epiphany season is hard for me to appreciate.
Now, I suppose what haunts me this time of my life and this time of my year is the apparent shortening of the day—the feeling that time itself is working against us all. And as I languish in the dark of the night, unable to sleep, I fret: “Am I running out of time? Am I sliding downhill fast, along with Nell and the other dogs—only one of five of them able to run and jump as Border Collies are meant?”
But there is still part of me that will not allow myself to dissolve into self pity and regret. I still have time as a gift, but how have I been using it? And there is a verse from Psalm 51 that looms large in my psyche:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
That word, “willing” (naDEEV in Hebrew), can also be translated as “generous.” It is associated with those who are enthusiastic about worship and sacrifice, and, indeed with those whose nobility and wealth make it easy for them to give to others. They know they have lots to give, and they give of it.
So, the confluence of all these things means one thing: I must fight a spiritual battle. My ability to work and serve and run and jump and enjoy life came not simply from having a young and ailment free body; but also from spiritual discipline, and the way I use my time. My vigor came, and always comes, from prayer—not just prayer at meals and bedtime, but at waking and at stoplights and rest-time. It came from a constant habit of prayer.
Psalm 51 is a winner. Not just for Ash Wednesday when we say it liturgically, but for winter as well. For the sake of life on the farm with Nell and arthritic Hector, and the other dogs, and Connie and myself, I must be do the spiritual work of prayer that the psalmist did as she sang,
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right(enduring) spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
And if prayer is anything, it is conversation. It’s not just telling God what we want. It’s listening to God most of all. And listening means listening both to Scripture and to the world around us—what we have come to know as the “natural world,” or the “untouched by human hands” world–but also the vibrant part of Creation that is human as well.
I once canoed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by myself. It was probably a bit foolish, because anything can happen; and without a companion lots can go wrong. Well on my last day it did go wrong. It was October, which was marginal weather-time in the BWCAW. The winds kicked up, and soloing in a canoe built for two made the craft lighter and higher in the water where it caught the wind easily. I was making it, but had to round the tip of an island where the wind was blowing big time, wanting to kick me into the rocks. I paddled hard, and at the same time, with each urgent J-stroke, chanted, “The wind is my friend! The wind is my friend!”
I made it. The ill wind was my friend. The spray from the water was my friend. The Creator of it all and the challenge, and the work we did together, were all my friends. The conversation I had with God and the elements was salutary to the soul. And I lived another day.
Of course, prayerful conversation is also listening to God speaking through other people. We speculate as to whether there are angel/messengers among us, but, in fact, each set of eyes and each voice is part of God’s creation and potentially part of God’s speaking to us. For my life to be full of life–for my time to be full of eternity–I must listen for the words of God in the most contrary voices I hear around me. Truly an antidote to the poison of polarization that darkens days more than winter can ever.
I resolve to do the spiritual work I need to welcome the joy of salvation. It is a joy we need for long, snowbound, dark winters, and for aging with vigor and a willing and generous spirit tuned to the New Age given us in Christ…here and now and every day.