Winter in Tennessee has been a season of stark contrasts and startling shifts. We’ve had days clear and frigid enough to burst pipes; days of mellow sunlight and fresh breezes; days dark enough to light flickering candles; days of sharp sleet or glittering frost. Black buzzards circle above the hills; squirrels bustle in the bare trees, whisking their tails; golden daffodils and green leaf buds unfold in the woods.
This is an awkward time of year, meteorologically and culturally. The merriment and busyness of Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany pass away into January that can be fresh and quiet and still – or dreary and dull and lonely. In February, the crimson, heart-shaped candy boxes and pink balloons that appear in Walmart are not a pleasant sight for everyone.
I expected a gray and sluggish January and early February. Instead, I found myself in a whirlwind of good, fascinating, exhausting things:
The Lion on the Mountain: Studying Exegesis through Amos
A few weeks ago, I attended a Bible-teaching workshop that illuminated God’s leonine majesty and abundant mercy in the Book of Amos. The workshop focused on the practice of Scriptural exegesis, or drawing meaning out of the text rather than using it as a platform for your own assumptions. It was humbling and awe-inspiring. We learned more about determining contexts, stepping into the dusty world of the first audience; identifying the bones of structure to find the author’s points of emphasis; seeing the glimmers of gospel justice, mercy, sin, and grace in a particular passage; tuning your interpretation of the promises, warnings, and principles of the text to the ears of a modern audience.
I felt, as I have never felt before, how much help we believers have in understanding the nature and will of God. The text itself leads you by the hand; the Holy Spirit overshadows you; the church walks beside you. The book of Amos uses multiple literary techniques to press its message on our hearts: the concrete images of a lion roaring, threshing sledges and plumb lines, summer fruit and mountains dripping with sweet wine; the repetition and rhythm of poetic lines; the command of imperatives, forceful verbs, and evocative nouns to call Israel to repentance. The very fierceness of the warnings testifies to the fierceness of divine love.
The workshop reminded me to listen, and listen wisely. Listen to the voice of God in His Word, the Spirit, and the true Church, and measure the trustworthiness of all other voices – family or friend, influencer or news source – by its integrity to His plumb line of truth.
Goodness in Story and Song
It has been a month of stories. A few weeks ago, I sat in a high balcony seat with a partly-obstructed view and watched an incredible cast singing of candlesticks and barricades, rain, stars, black and red, love, grace, suffering, and heaven-longing in a performance of Les Miserables. At home, I’ve been delighting in the sonorous images of gold rings, glass hills, nightingales, wells, fawns, and ravens in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I have never read all the way through.
For a book study, I’ve explored a narrative of ravenous swamps, a light twinkling through the fields, a terrible burden, and a shining city in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As part of that study, I’m researching the mysterious, controversial, oft-misunderstood wayfarers known as the Puritans. There is so much to read and know about them, but in my research so far, they are defined by zeal: passion, earnestness, ardor, sincerity, boldness, perseverance, and painstaking care in all they did.
These stories inspire and intimidate me as a storyteller. As an artist and a person, I want to be known for zeal, for gentleness, and for excellent craftsmanship: for creating story-worlds that resonate because they testify to the truth without being preachy or simplistic. Somehow, despite being extremely and unapologetically preachy, and using a form criticized for its simplicity – allegory – John Bunyan created a story that has shaped thousands of imaginations for more than three centuries. Les Miserables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales also meditate on justice, goodness, mercy, honor, and self-sacrifice in plain prose as well as poetic images. I hope I can learn to write well enough to write tales of goodness and wisdom, joy and courage without oversimplifying or making truth seem boring.
Hearth Fires and Hospitality
Last weekend, I held an 80,000-word manuscript in my hands – my own manuscript, my own work, the first novel-length writing I have actually finished. A friend lovingly printed the copy for me. We sat in a room full of laughter, stories, and the smell of hot apple cider and woodsmoke at a writer’s retreat.
The weekend gave me much to reflect on in the mystery of hospitality and fellowship. Since childhood, I’ve struggled to understand how the deep friendships portrayed in books like The Lord of the Rings are hard to establish in real life. We all crave intimacy, to be welcomed into cozy rooms and laughing circles, but it is so difficult to find. Learning and remembering people’s names; asking the right questions; drawing out the quiet people or launching into a monologue to give them a break; introducing people to each other; setting up board games, walks, meals, or other gatherings; asking “how are you?” casually or seriously; it is all a dance, a pattern of wit and discernment and perseverance and sometimes chance. It is so delicate, but worth every careful step and cautious leap.
All this winter busyness was good – beautiful, encouraging, and thought-provoking. It has also been exhausting. After years of seeking good things like fellowship, adventure, and opportunities, I have to remind myself that I need to seek rest, too. Maybe that’s why February is gray – not just the gray of drabness, but the gray of quiet.