Contemplating COVID Winter


 snowy trees in forest with sunlight

In Texas where I grew up we didn’t bother much with winter. The year’s seasons were early summer, hot summer, and late summer. Adapting to a northerly climate where winter gets its due—a full six months of bare trees and gray skies—meant learning a completely different rhythm.

If normal winter challenges some of us, adjusting to COVID winter intensifies the challenge to nearly unspeakable levels. For pastors, COVID winter means keeping abreast of local trends and leading on protocols, doubling down on restrictions and solutions, whether this means worshiping online, in-person, or hybrid, adapting committee meetings and Christian education to Zoom; preparing alternatives and substitutes for leaders who must quarantine. And, of course, feeling the burden of loneliness endured by shut-ins, grandparents, grandkids, the bereaved, working parents, parents without work, and pastors’ own families.

Among the many losses, the unprecedent season of COVID winter does bring some graces: finding new family intimacy; discovering the joys in solitude; slowing the pace of travel, errands, and entertaining; delighting in home; and gaining time for the oft-touted but less often practiced art of contemplation.

The natural world outside our doors, though subtler in winter, continues to invite our connection and contemplation. Through bare trees we can see neighbors’ lights or the hills on distant horizons. We can trace the trees’ own shapes and branches, and observe silhouettes of birds hopping high above us. Wild creatures show themselves as they range further for sustenance. Lacking other company, we may find companionship in the nonhuman beings around us, including individual plant and animal neighbors.

A growing body of research over 25 years has shown that, far from the individualistic competition for resources we have projected on trees, they actually display remarkable properties of cooperation and care. Through roots and mycelial networks, through what has been called the “Wood Wide Web,” trees share food, water, and defense mechanisms with others around them, even between species. Older trees with more developed roots nurture saplings, while healthy shoots sustain ailing individuals, sometimes even keeping stumps alive. What kind of intelligence propels these communications is still a mystery. But the fact of arboreal cooperation should both awe and humble us humans, for whom cooperation and generosity are skills that must be cultivated and are often missed.

It evidently takes a village to raise a tree. What can we learn for our own communities from contemplating worlds like that in our own backyards?

January 3—Second Sunday after Christmas

  • Jeremiah 31:7-14 envisions those God gathers “radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil,” their lives like a watered garden, never languishing again.
  • Sirach 24:1-12 (alt.) describes wisdom coming from the mouth of the Most High, covering the earth like a mist, compassing the vault of heaven and traversing the depths of the abyss.
  • Psalm 147:12-20 celebrates God’s blessing: peace, finest wheat, snow, hail, and flowing water.
  • Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21 (alt.) describes Wisdom as the one who led the people across the Red Sea, becoming a shelter by day and a starry flame throughout the night.
  • Ephesians 1:3-14 continues the wisdom theme, describing God’s making known “the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of time.”
  • John 1:(1-9), 10-18 announces that in the Word, in the beginning with God, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

January 10—Baptism of the Lord

  • Genesis 1:1-5 describes God’s calling light from the darkness that covered the face of the deep. This light was the first thing God called “good.”
  • Psalm 29:1-11 repeatedly announces “the voice of the Lord,” which thunders over the waters, breaks the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire.
  • Mark 1:4-11 shows John the baptizer, drawing people to the wilderness to experience God’s power.

January 17—Second Sunday after Epiphany (Ord. 2B)

  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 celebrates God’s knowledge of the psalmist, saying: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 teaches that the human body is God’s temple.

January 24—Third Sunday after Epiphany (Ord. 3B)

  • Psalm 62:5-12 expresses confidence in God as rock and fortress, and not in human wealth.
  • Mark 1:14-20 describes Jesus’ reaching out to fisherman on the Sea of Galilee with news of God’s reign.

January 31—Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Ord. 4B)

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20 warns prophets against speaking words in God’s name that God has not commanded.
  • Psalm 111 proclaims that God provides food and remembers God’s covenant.
  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 reminds Christians that it matters how we eat.

February 7—Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Ord. 5B)

  • Isaiah 40:21-31 announces God’s creating the stars of heaven and reviving the strength of the powerless.
  • Psalm 147:1-11, 20c proclaims that God heals the brokenhearted and binds their wounds, and names and numbers the stars.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 forecasts woe for those who fail to proclaim the things of God.

February 14—Transfiguration Sunday

  • Psalm 50:1-6 announces God’s judgment, before heaven and earth, of God’s people.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 reminds Christians that it was God who called light to shine out of darkness, both in the world in the human heart.
  • Mark 9:2-9 describes the disciples’ seeing Jesus in his splendor, but still misunderstanding.

February 21—First Sunday of Lent

  • Genesis 9:8-17 emphasizes that God’s covenant pertains to all living creatures on earth.
  • Psalm 25:1-10 pleads that God teach the psalmist God’s own paths of faithfulness to those who keep God’s covenant.
  • Mark 1:9-15 relates Jesus’ baptism in the river and strengthening in the wild.

February 28—Second Sunday of Lent

  • Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 relates God’s promise to Abram of new life.
  • Psalm 22:23-31 celebrates life even in the midst of death.
  • Romans 4:13-25 describes the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
  • Mark 8:31-38 paradoxically observes that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.