2 Timothy 2:12-13 ICB If we accept suffering, then we will also rule with him. If we say we don’t know him, then he will say he doesn’t know us. If we are not faithful, he will still be faithful, because he must be true to who he is.
The Gift of Winter
As I write this looking out my home office window onto dormant icy grass and fluffed-out birds on the bird feeders, I am reminded yet again of the gift of winter in the lives of plants and people alike. Most people don’t like winter with shorter days, longer nights, cold temperatures, and seemingly lifeless trees stripped bare of foliage. All seems gray, dead, and without hope except for the bright spots of Christmas and a new year. Yet even those times of gifts and goodies can also be unwelcome if grief, pain, and loss is fresh or lasting…
Culture wants me to avoid grief, pain, and loss at any cost and honestly, so do I. In the past, if I couldn’t avoid pain, grief, or loss, I used to often try and hide my response to them because I believed that if I gave into them, I was considered weak. My arrogance, disguised as insecurity, once deceived me that anything I couldn’t control (or have the appearance of controlling), I would reject as unwanted because I thought my inability to control it showed me as inept or incapable. No I know this is a lie that has, can, and will rob me of much joy in life if I believe it. And this lie is a sharp contrast to how I see truth modeled through a plant’s response to winter…
Perennial plants, such as trees and shrubs that grow for more than one year, welcome winter by slowly shutting down their active growth mechanisms, including photosynthesis, as the days shorten and temperatures fall. As photosynthesis slows, plants change their emphasis in resource allocation from their leaves to their roots. Thus, the production of chlorophyll, the cell structure where the processes of photosynthesis occur primarily in the leaf tissues, also declines. The decline in chlorophyll concentrations allows for the colorful tannin leaf pigments to shine through in the brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows of fall foliage of non-evergreen trees. Even fir, spruce, and other evergreen trees who don’t lose their leaves in fall slow their photosynthesis, metabolism, and growth cycles in winter. Therefore, more and more energy is diverted from the plant’s leaves to the roots for denser tissue development to protect the roots during the colder, drier, less nutrient available soil environment present in winter.
Transport of water and dissolved nutrients up from the roots through xylem tissue and glucose solution down from the leaves through phloem tissue is also gradually slowed as plants prepare for the deep sleep of winter. As these liquids thicken in both directions in the plant’s conductive tissues, sap forms as another important buffering mechanism to help protect the trees during winter. Hence, sap harvest for maple syrup production occurs in the winter months.
When the plants are allowed to harden off gently through periodic and gradual temperature declines in fall and early winter, they are protected from damage unlike a sharp early frost that can bruise or frost-burn, if not kill, tender plant tissues not yet ready for winter. This is why weather forecasters often give an early hard frost warning with instructions to cover outside garden or flower bed plants overnight. Even classic late-summer or early-fall planted cold-crops as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, and other greens are vulnerable to such frosts without proper protection. In contrast, a light frost can mellow the flavor of the cold-crops (especially the greens) because the frost partially freezes the cells and causes release of stored sugars which will sweeten the greens, especially if they have grown in a drier, hotter fall than expected. Along with the release of stored sugars, a partial breaking of the plant’s cell walls from a light freeze can soften the cold crops and make them a little easier to cook, chew, and digest.
Winter is a rest time for plants in preparation for the flurry of growth in spring and summer. During winter’s rest time, the process of vernalization is activated in plants. Vernalization is required for new growth in seed, fruit, and flower production in perennial plants when spring comes. Plants will auto-pilot to vegetative growth if they don’t undergo the stresses of winter to activate vernalization. In the process of vernalization, the natural stop mechanism for the reproductive growth of seed, fruit, and flower production is reset so that when the warmer temperatures and longer days of spring occur, reproductive growth will resume along with the normal vegetative growth of leaves and roots. The importance of vernalization is best seen in regions (or in years) without extended cold periods. In these regions or years without sustained winter weather conditions, reproductive growth can be stunted or absent because only vegetative growth occurs without activation of reproductive growth from vernalization.. This principle of plants preferring vegetative growth also applies in the timing of fertilizer application and a crop’s grain or fruit production. If fertilizer is applied too late in the growing season of annual plants which only grow for that one growing season, the crop will keep growing rapidly in vegetation and not convert to grain or fruit production. Without the stress of lower nutrient levels acting like winter’s vernalization of perennial plants, the crop plants keep putting all their energies into vegetative growth, from not having been activated by the need to prepare for the next generation through grain or fruit production. The reproductive growth required for grain or fruit production demands more energy resources than vegetative growth so it is not chosen by plants unless stressors activate the cycle of senescence leading to possible or eventual death of the annual crop plants.
So when spring does come after winter’s rest, perennial plants are ready to burst into the abundant beauty of both reproductive and vegetative growth. They are eager to resume water and nutrient uptake through vigorous new root growth and photosynthesis in new leaves ripe with new chlorophyll. Soon, plump buds bloom into flowers and then fruit as summer approaches followed by the harvest of fall which wouldn’t have been present if not for the previous winter’s work of preparing the plants through vernalization.
Similarly, my heart and life are prepared for the potentially abundant growth of a Matthew 13:23 100-fold harvest by a winter of grief and loss. Many times, God uses a time of mourning to activate joy to sprout and bloom and likewise, weeping to precede the harvest of dancing, as seen in Psalm 30:11. As well as I know these truths in my head, my heart still wants to refuse them because I don’t want to go through winter in my life. I want the abundance of joy, hope, and happiness of spring and summer days of blessing followed by a fall full of the harvest of maturity in my life, without the grief, pain, or loss of winter. Yet the unrecognized, and sometimes rejected, blessings of a winter of grief, pain, and loss with their many demands on my life are those gifts which focus my attention and resources on that which is vital for life, Christ Jesus.
The fall of my tears, the weight of my pain, and the slowing of my activities in response to a winter of grief or loss removes the stop mechanism of arrogance in my life and makes way for the reproductive growth of the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). My auto-pilot response of the vegetative growth of my arrogance in making things happen for me in my time and my strength for those things that make me look good would take over if it was not reset by a winter of grief and loss. Winter’s pain resets my natural inclinations so that fruit will be borne in and from my life to nourish others, both for now and generations to come. If I try and do everything possible to escape (or quicken) this necessary vernalization process for fruit growth and development, then I can lose the full benefit of a winter in my life. This principle is best seen in Romans 5:3-5 NASB And not only this, but we also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. I want the harvest of character and hope without the winter of tribulation(s) but that’s not how the growth process occurs.
Tribulation activates the necessary process of loss of self and replacement of my agendas with the essential and eternal treasure of Christ, the One who is the bringer and bearer of fruit. Trials create the growing environment necessary for the learning the truth that only that which is done for and through Him is that fruit which lasts for all seasons and all time (see Matthew 6:19-21). And yes, these are words far easier said than done! Far easier said than done is also true for many of the truths Christ has for me to learn, including that of “your weaknesses and limitations are a perfect match for God’s power” (L. Pryor)1. But thankfully, my longsuffering God continues to faithfully teach me such truths as I live though a long winter.
Just when I’d deceived myself that I’d finally learned to value winter after nine years of pain, grief, and loss from chronic illnesses, I find myself starting almost all over again in the gray, cold days of a new storm of this same long winter. One of my mentors through books and tapes is Elisabeth Elliot who’s oft-taught truth of “with acceptance comes peace”2 rings through my head over and again most days. She held hard to this principle of the discipline of acceptance of God’s will through many long hard winters of loss and grief. And her response, along with others, such as Joni Eareckson Tada, clearly display the importance of accepting winter in my life as the gift that it is. The constant choosing to allocate resources of life choices of discipline, obedience, and trust for abiding quietly in the roots of humility and obedience during the winter(s) of life does produces a rich, ripe, abundant harvest of hope when spring finally does come. Abiding in the quietness and trust shown in John 15:1-11 confirms that humility’s roots are watered by grief while obedience’s roots glean nutrients of self-control and patience buried deep in the hard but fertile soil of loss. Growth is not easy, be it in a plant’s life or mine. Yet all of these truths working together are required to produce the chlorophyll of joy that displays the bright, fresh, sturdy, spring-green hope of the completed resurrection and coming return of our Christ.
No matter how I may feel, I know this hope is “for sure and for certain” as the Amish would say (see Colossians 1:27). And I know this hope remains “for sure and for certain”, even if I falter in hoping and believing during the long winter. The surety of this hope has put steel into my spine during the past nine years and continues to do so today. This hope also protects me from the hard frost of doubts and defeat which tries to come and to stay and to harden a tender heart planted here in winter… Yet this hope allows just enough pain to break apart more of my arrogance and release a sweeter faith that helps me to deeper taste and see that my God is my refuge and forever good in all He does (see Psalm 34:8).
Winter is a gift I never wanted but has become a gift I’d never exchange because of what I’ve learned about God in these past nine years. The faith that grows in winter is sharper, deeper, richer, and distinctive just like early daffodils poking up through snow. Even now as more stripping of my life’s foliage continues as winter deepens, I pray to be able to see evidence of faith growing hidden beneath the snow as I plead morning by morning in expectation of His answer for this request (see Psalm 5:3). Such things as greater loss of independence from no longer being able to drive and a continual tethering to a smartwatch with emergency auto-dial in event of a fall try to choke out joy’s bloom with the chill of worry as winter’s grip tightens its hold on my body. Yet even here, or in the deepest of winters that might come, I hold hard to the truth that nothing can ever come between Christ and his unfailing love for me (see Romans 8:31-39). Similarly, I can rest in the truth that no pain, no grief, no loss is able to keep those springs of joy from abounding when the fullness of time has come for Christ’s appearing as described in Revelation 21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And likewise, no pain, no grief, no loss is able to keep the spring of joy from blooming in me today and every day because He has already conquered death and hell, once and forever (see Revelation 3:21)! These gifts of truth are constant and sure, no matter the time, day, or season, including that of a very long winter.
1 Pryor, Lynn. 2019. Bible Studies for Life, Senior Adults Personal Bible Study Guide. Winter 2020-21, “Created for a Purpose” week of January 17, 2020, p.92. LifeWay, Nashville, TN.
2 Elliot, Elisabeth. 2019. Suffering is Never for Nothing. B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN.