Winter Prayers or The Most Awesome Snow Fort Since the Blizzard of ’78

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

“Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me. Let my thoughts go where they will: ease my mind profoundly.”[1] I know most of you are tired of this winter. At this point there is no quiet calm, no profound easing of the mind. I suspect most of you did not come to worship this morning hoping to hear readings with titles like “The Snowman” and “Polar Vision.” I suspect many of you would not care if I said you would never see snow again, ever—not even in a photograph. I suspect many of you resonate with that viral Internet photo of a church sign that reads: “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop!”

I have some ideas about that sign and about the nature and purpose of prayer. Prayer is our theme for February and I want to say a few words about what I call prayers of orientation. But I want to begin with a story. It’s a winter story. A snow story. And I know, through the course of December and January, my sermons and prayers have made reference to snow, ice, storms, cold, shoveling and so on; and a few of you have told me you’re tired of my reflections on these things just as you’ve grown tired of this winter. But I have to ask your indulgence one more time. I want to take you back out into the snow, into this dark season, one more time.

Though the storms all blur together at this point, the one that came a few days after Christmas stands out to me. We were in Pittsfield, MA visiting my wife’s family. I called my neighbor back home whose son drives a snow plow. Could he arrange for his son to plow our driveway? I’d never hired a plow. I’d always cleared my driveway myself. But I didn’t want to come home to two feet of snow and have to shovel before we could get into the house.

We arrived home the day after the storm and there at the bottom of our freshly plowed driveway was a mountain of snow. We all stared. It had to be eight feet at its highest point; maybe twenty-five feet long. Given what we’ve been through this winter, that may not sound so impressive, but this was the first major storm of the season. It was not just a mountain of snow; it was a mountain rangeof snow. Stephany says, “Oh great, he completely covered the back steps,” which was true. But I was thinkin’, “woah, this is going to be the most awesome snow fort since the blizzard of ’78.”

I’m not a winter sports person. Downhill skiing, snowboarding—not remotely interested.   I was forced to take figure skating lessons as a kid. Hated it. Hockey—maybe, but that would involve skating, so pass. The thought of moving at blistering speeds coupled with the distinct and ever-present possibility of colliding with something solid and unforgiving (like a tree or, in the case of ice skating, the ice) just doesn’t appeal to me. Cross country skiing, maybe. Snow-shoeing, maybe. They’re slower, more aerobic, and your fall down less. 

I’m not a winter sports person. But I love winter. Give me a cold, crisp, snowy night and I want to be out in it. Like Elizabeth Tarbox, this love emerges from the instinctively animal part of me. At least it feels that way. There’s nothing rational about it. There aren’t many words for it. It seems low to the earth. I, too, want to be covered with coarse hair and turn my long wolf nose to the moon and howl out my being. So, bundle me up in layers upon layers beneath my winter coat with hood. Scarf, hat—hood over hat—gloves (L.L. Bean). I can be out for hours. Just in it. As Tarbox says: “Take some time to get ice cold this winter out there in some frozen waste or a back lot or beach, or a forest with white branches dipped in homage to the season. Feel the clarity of thoughts sharpened by a blast of truth from winter’s wind. Look up, look down, and feel the throb of your heart, warm and beating. Let go of all illusion, and be at peace.”[2]

I said I was forced to take figure skating lessons as a child. Thirty-five years later, my poor kids: forced to build a fort in an eight-foot high mountain range of snow. It had four rooms in which they could stand straight up. Each room was connected to the others by a network of tunnels. For eight-year-old and four-year-old boys, heaven, right? Hours on end, digging, lost in the winter mind, right? Wrong. They had no interest. “It’s getting dark,  can we go in now?” “My feet are cold.” “Can mommy make hot chocolate?” “Can we play Wii?” My kids do not dream of coarse hair and wolf noses.

Nope. They dream of Pokemon and Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Super Mario, Lego Batman and Lego Star Wars, Nintendo DS and Wii, and Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit, Wii Carnival Games Mini Golf, Wii Lego Harry Potter, Wii Epic Mickey and Wii Lego Batman. It had been the Christmas of Wii, but it’s all a blur: Wii Harry Lego Mario Epic Percy Bat Mickey Man. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this: One relative gives my four-year old, Max, a Lego Batman set for Christmas. Legos—the small plastic blocks. Another gives him Wii Lego Batman. Virtual small plastic blocks. Still another gives him a DVD of some Batman cartoons. Max has no idea which came first: the television show, the movies, the Lego version, or the Wii version. He has no sense of the correct order in which these things emerged into our popular culture. For all he knows they made a television show about a movie about a Wii game about Legos. But even more confounding is this: He grows bored playing with Lego Batman. I repeat:  He’s bored of Lego Batman. He says “I’m bored.” “OK honey, what do you want to do now?” “Can I play Wii Lego Batman?” He’s bored of playing with the Lego version of the movie remake of the television show. But now he wants to play the virtual Lego version of the movie remake of the television show. Same characters. Same narrative. Some line is blurring here. But it’s not the line between fantasy and reality—that’s long gone. But what is blurring? I have no idea.

Why do I have no idea? Because in my fantasy world, which is, as far as I can tell, very real, I’m outside building a fort in the snow. A fort with four rooms—rooms with ice ceilings three feet thick! In these rooms I built shelves and cubby holes where they could hide their ice treasures. Four rooms. They could each have two rooms to themselves. Snow suites. I even put a smoke hole in one of the rooms. If we had to, we could cook a meal in this fort. If we had to—or if we wanted to—we could sleep in this fort in our sleeping bags and listen all night to the gusting wind—though we would not feel its bite because we’re in a fort with three-foot ceilings, that we built—out of snow—outside! And all my eight year old wants to know is how much time he has to play Wii. How has it come to this? This child reads voraciously, mysteriously excels in math, loves to hike, doesn’t even watch television. He falls asleep to Mozart, Bach, James Taylor and the Beatles. “Can we go in now?”

They go in. Maybe tomorrow? Mason’s having a friend over. Maybe the friend will like it. He’s not blown away. They use it as part of their defenses in a snow ball fight with me (which I won handily, by the way). But the fort never caught on. How sweet, how redemptive even, might it have been, if my four-year old had asked, out of the blue, to play in the fort; or if my eight-year old and his friend had placed the fort at the center of their play. There is a temptation—I feel it now—to lament and criticize the change in the inner lives of suburban American children, to talk about the good old days when we stayed outside for hours at a time, when no adult needed to watch us because every neighbor knew us—the good old days before home computers, when a stick could serve more than adequately as a toy for outdoor play. There is a temptation to say it outright: we must get back to those good old days. Yet whether they were truly good, or not, which is often the case when we look closely, I don’t think our society is moving back in that direction. My kids could be those “good old days” kids. They have many opportunities to be those kids. It’s not in them. They’re having good childhoods, but the substance of theirs is clearly different than the substance of mine.

Dark of winter sets in. I stand in the driveway, admiring my fort in the moonlight. The wind is beginning to blow. I’ve been out for a long time. I have the mind of winter. My body is covered with coarse hair. My wolf nose is turned toward the moon. To reference Wallace Stevens, I do not think of any misery in the sound of the wind, or in the sound of a few leaves, which is the sound of the land, full of the same wind that is blowing in the same bare place. I look at this fort and with my mind of winter, as Wallace Stevens promises, I—the one listening to the wind—the one who himself is nothing—behold in the spaces of those four rooms and thick ice ceilings and networks of tunnels, nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.[3] This is the clarity and the peace that Rev. Tarbox speaks of, the vanishing of illusion.

A prayer begins to take shape. Yes, I want my children to live a certain way, but I see now there are limits to what I can expect. I don’t expect some divine power to make it so. My prayer is a reminder that I am who I am and I can only do what is within my power to do; and my boys are who they are and will do what they will do. My prayer orients me to this truth: May I always find ways to invite my children into my world. May they not leave their lives without having some understanding of my inner life, my imagination—and may they find some value and even joy in it. And as their father may I strive to understand their inner lives; not to resist, not to fight, but to understand their imaginations and this new world that shapes them and blurs lines I don’t quite comprehend. May I discover in time some other kind of animal fur covering their bodies, some other kind of nose, pointing in some other direction on a cold winter night.

Eventually I go inside. I’m sitting at my computer and one of you has emailed that photo of the church sign: “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop!” I laugh, not because it’s good theology—in my view it’s not, and I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be—but because this winter has been so difficult that there’s a part of me, and I suspect a part of all of us, that will take any theology—even flawed theology—if it will help. The sign plays around with a classic conception of prayer, namely that prayer is the act of requesting that God do something on our behalf; or that an angel, saint, ancestor, spirit, or some other divine being intervene in the world to make our lives better in some way. This is petitionary prayer. One petitions God in the hope that God will cause a desired outcome. I know people—and I suspect you do too—who have been petitioning God for a break in this winter. Prayer after prayer after prayer, but the storms keep coming—if not here, then in other parts of the country. Snow keeps falling; roofs keep leaking;  buildings keep collapsing; schools keep closing. If petitionary prayer really works, then why isn’t God responding to the hundreds of millions of petitions requesting an end to the storms?  This is the flaw: clearly, someone really special to God—someone God must love more than the rest of us—is praying for the snow to continue! Hence the message on the sign.

I don’t place much value on petitionary prayer. Far too often it assumes—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—that God has favorites, God takes sides, God cares about some people more than others. If some pray for snow, and some pray for the snow to stop, how does God decide? Does God make some calculation based on the righteousness of those praying? When we view it this way, the whole concept seems ludicrous. If two teams are playing against each other in the big game, and players on both teams pray for victory, how does God decide? Are the Green Bay Packers more beloved of God than the Pittsburgh Steelers? If two countries are preparing for war, and their political leaders petition God that they might prevail in the conflict, how does God decide? Does one side slaughter the other because God wants it that way? If two patients lay dying of cancer in adjacent hospital beds and the same minister prays over both that the cancer might go into remission, and then one lives and one dies, what does it mean? Does God love the one who lived more than the one who died? And worse, it can all become so trivialized: If one asks God for a new car or for help in winning the lottery—which happens all the time—if one gets these things, is God responsible? “You are my beloved child, thus you shall receive a car?” And if these things are not forthcoming, does that mean God thinks “you are not worthy of material benefits?” I don’t think I’m creating a straw man. I think the theology underlying petitionary prayer is flawed.

I don’t believe in a God who hears and responds to such prayers. I can’t imagine such a God, constantly playing favorites, constantly weighing the relative righteousness of one group of people in relation to another, constantly responding—or not—to every uttered word of longing, constantly deciding the merits of petition after petition. I see no evidence for such a God.

But I notice—this is part of my faith—that whether or not one believes in gods, goddesses, angels, saints, ancestors, spirits, or other divine beings—whether or not these entities exist in some form—prayer does have efficacy. It can help us when we are in need. In my experience, prayer practiced with intention and discipline, has the power to orient us: to orient us toward overcoming the challenges we face: May I find within myself the strength, the endurance, the calm, the grace, to deal well with my illness or may I find the courage to say those hard words I am so afraid to say. May I be able to ask for help when I need it. Prayer can orient us toward achieving the goals we set for ourselves: May I find the resolve to be more assertive in my life, to speak the words that are in my heart. May I do the things I know I must do to overcome this depression, this frustration, this anger. Prayer can orient us toward the character we aspire to manifest: May I be a person of integrity; may I be kind; may I respond well to those who are suffering and in need. May I be generous. Prayer can orient us toward living the values we hold dear: As I go through this day, may I remember to respect the inherent worth and dignity of each person I encounter; may I remember the interdependence of all living things and live accordingly. May I have the courage to respond to injustice. Prayer can orient us to the unknown: May I stay open even in those moments of fear and panic. May I stay calm and collected in those times of agitation and anxiety. May I receive the blessings of this day as gifts. May I see my children for who they are, not who I think I need them to be.

I call these ‘prayers of orientation.’ I could address such prayers to God, but I don’t expect that God will do something on my behalf. Rather, with such prayers I remind myself that how I get through this day depends primarily on me; that I will get through this day well if I can tap reservoirs of strength and endurance rather than wallow in misery; if I can approach whatever I have to do with grace, rather than anxiety; if I can find a way to laugh at the situation rather than let it overwhelm me. None of this is easy. But if I put my best intentions into prayer; if I pronounce the words; if I hear the words on my own tonge; if I take the words into my body; if I, with intention and discipline, remind myself of the life I want to live, the person I want to be, the values I hold dear, then it becomes easier. I believe this is the true power of prayer: to orient us to the life we long to live.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Denham, Shelley Jackson, “Dark of Winter” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #55.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Polar Vision” Evening Tide: Meditations by Elizabeth Tarbox  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 47.

[3] Here I have integrated images and language from Wallace Steven’s “The Snowman.” See: