“To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.” Isaiah 61:3
“I smell snow”, I said, channeling my inner Lorelai Gilmore, as I await tomorrow’s possible storm. Snow always evokes a sense of wonder for me. It coats the dead brown grass with a white blanket that sparkles with the sun’s reflections. It outlines the tree branches, more starkly defining their shapes. It muffles all the noise, creating serenity with a bit of magic. Lewis Carroll asks, ‘“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up so snug, you know, with a white quilt, and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”’ Like Carroll’s description, snow conjures a sleepiness with the hope of summer flitting through my dreams.
A few days ago, two little girls and I made paper snowflakes. As we folded the paper, cut out the intricate patterns, and decorated them, I shared with them that God made every snowflake unique. I later read to them the Caldecott Medal Award picture book, “Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. The book tells the story of Wilson Bentley, a young Vermont farm boy who loved snow. He later grew up wanting to document individual snowflakes through photography. After many failed attempts, he is credited with the first photographs of individual snowflakes. He also discovered, over the course of years, that no two snowflakes were alike, despite most having six branches. He believed that wind, temperature and humidity all shaped the design of each individual snowflake. He spent his whole life trying to document snow because he “found that snowflakes were masterpieces of design. No design was ever repeated. When a snowflake is melted…just that much beauty was gone without leaving any record behind.”
Wilson Bentley’s beautiful photographs of snow didn’t happen by luck. He studied his craft, learning to use a knife to cut away all the dark parts of the negative. He also recognized that his own breath could destroy the perfect snowflake he was trying to document. He was devoted to his art, telling friends he couldn’t miss a storm because “he never knew what treasures he would miss.” He also didn’t count the cost, spending almost $15,000 on his craft, while only earning about $4,000 from the sales of his book and slides. Yet, his work has endured, influencing future photographers and naturalists.
Bentley chose storms over comfort. His life ended after walking six miles in a blizzard to capture more snowflakes and later developing pneumonia. Storms were not his enemy, but rather opportunities to see something beautiful and unique. Considering how Wilson Bentley lived his life, I doubt he would have regretted that final walk.
All too often, I fail to live my life like that. Yes, a cataclysmic storm of abuse and trauma raged through my childhood. But after becoming a Christian, I believed I would face only minor storms. I planned and had contingencies protecting me and my loved ones from any major storms. I falsely concluded that if I did A and B, then C would automatically result. Yet, as carefully as I planned and as rigidly as I controlled, major storms have happened. My only options were to let the storms destroy me, or let God, through the storms, create something unique and beautiful. Ultimately, the type of change they made in me was my choice.
Isaiah prophesies about the Messiah in chapter 61, foretelling that Jesus would heal those who are oppressed. He then tells what Jesus would do with that oppression, exchanging beauty for ashes, joyous blessing for mourning, and festive praise for despair. He also talks about rebuilding, reviving, and possessing “a double portion of prosperity in your land and everlasting joy”. The chapter is full of the good news of Jesus despite storms and oppression.
Mary, a friend of mine, was diagnosed with breast cancer last October. By all accounts, she would be the first to testify that she had the best-case scenario for a positive outcome. Yet, this storm has caused her discomfort, pain, and unbelievable fatigue when going through radiation. She is in her final days of radiation, but still faces a few hard weeks of side effects along with a new medicine with its own potential side effects. Despite all the pain, Mary shows up for church and life group with a smile on her face. She and her husband, Dave, worship God with “festive praise”, trusting in God’s goodness. Neither of them would ever have chosen this journey, yet, they believe it has increased their faith and trust. The design of this intricate snowflake they are allowing God to create in the midst of this storm is a testimony to their daughters, grandchildren, and friends. They can truly tell others about the goodness of God!
But in the case of my mother-in-law, Eva Jane, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, her outcome was not a best-case scenario. After a double mastectomy and radiation, my mother-in-law died under hospice care five years ago this February. I vividly remember my last phone call with her. I was about to let her go, thinking she was too weak to carry on, but she asked me to stay on the line. Whispering, she asked me to talk about God. I shared with her the impact her prayers had on my life and on my children. I thanked her for raising her son, my husband, to be a kind and generous man of God. I reminded her about how she had remained strong in all of this, believing in God’s faithfulness. I told her that this wasn’t goodbye but see you later. In her rasping voice, she started repeating her signature phrase that every family member can remember her speak in her distinctive tone, “Thank you, Jesus.” She, too, was a beautiful snowflake created during her storm through this simple phrase. It is reflected in those of us who loved her by leaving us with a joyous blessing instead of mourning.
I am hoping for snow tomorrow. I look forward to going outside, walking in the crunchy snow, catching a flake or two on my tongue. As I shovel our driveway, I am going to thank God for his goodness, his ability to create beauty in storms. And I am also going to thank God for both Mary and Eva Jane, and so many more, who allowed God to create beauty in their storms.