“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 4:1
We all pulled on our snow boots, too warm for this March thaw, but the only appropriate footwear for the inches upon inches of snow still matted down in our backyard. I handed the kids their snow shovels – this has been the year where everyone pitches in – and we marched around back to survey the place, sized up our load.
While there may be other areas around here that look as the snow was just a memory, a dim shadow of this winter, our yard is the perpetual winter wonderland. Though our grass and flowers may wilt under the strong sun of summer, most other times of the year we see the light more refracted through the trees, reflected off the hill than experienced directly. Because of this, the daffodils fight to sprout their green blades up through the gritted gray of old snow. Across the street, on the hill that turns its face up to the sun, the snow is merely an accent, a piece of cloth thrown out onto the table. But on our side it is not an exaggeration to say that we still have a good six or eight inches of snow in some, or most, parts of our yard.
In-like-a-lion-out-like-a-lamb March is here, and true to her word, the beginning was fierce and cold bringing a final crust to the snow-cake. The relief I have felt with the warming temperatures and the sun’s full presence is felt collectively. We’ve all endured this tough winter, and like many I began to think we’d been forgotten about, that this winter would be eternal. But I know after feeling the warmth of that sun on my skin: the promise of spring is here.
Mark began, again, the trail running series that he competed in last year. A race each month, February through June, through some unbelievable terrain. Remarkably, the February one and this past weekend’s March race were delightful days in which the kids continued to exclaim: “It’s Summer!” because of course 50* and sunny feels like summer by comparison. Mark ran hard through all sorts of snow, ice and mud and we all came home happy, and ready to get back outside. One look out the book door though, and we were reminded of our plight: snow still knee deep with nowhere to play, nowhere to run or climb, the swing-set still hedged in by winter.
I have been delivered from this long winter. We made it through, and we came out the other side. The sun is shining, the earth is warming, the air is thick with the smell of mud, of the promise of new life. But I am not yet living in the freedom I’ve been promised. I need to pick up my shovel, do the hard work of cleaning up this yard, clearing a place for us to play, for the new growth of spring to emerge.
I recently heard Christine Caine preach on the book of Joshua, chapters 5 and 6. The thing that sticks with me the most is this: God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The journey to the Promised Land could be expected to take 11 days. And yet. A whole generation died in the wilderness, and it took them 40 years to make it to freedom. The people of God had been delivered out of slavery and captivity. They had been set free, but they weren’t yet living freely. They had not walked into the promised land, but instead were lost in the wilderness. The Israelites were getting in their own way, letting their fear and doubt, their grumbling and complaining, lead them in circles instead of following God into life abundant.
And just like the Isrealites needed to lay aside their weights and sins, the things that were holding them back from the freedom and joy that was waiting for them, so too, do I need to do the hard work of walking into freedom.
Which brings me to the snow shovels.
Out in our backyard, we slowly chipped away at the snow. The layers of ice were thick and jagged, and the grit scratched the shovel loudly with every jab. The heat of the sun and the work of the muscles quickly added up and one by one we each shook our arms out of our jacket sleeves, laying them baking and crusting on the picnic table. I stopped to sip my coffee for a moment, and chuckled to myself at the absurdity of this: shoveling out our backyard. But the kids, who had quickly abandoned their work once a path was cleared to the swings, were now set off on rocket ships, and fending off crocodiles, and whatever else they could discover out there. And it’s watching them play, in fresh air, in spring’s promise, with such palpable joy, that I know that this is the absurd work of coming out of this long, hard winter. Of making our way through the wilderness and entering into our promised land. Mark and I continued shoveling, clearing a landing at the bottom of the slide, scraping down to the layer of ice that encrusts it all, making room for the sun to melt the rest. We coordinated our movements, shoveling patterns around each other, discerning a landscape that has been hidden from sight.
The promise is there: of Spring joy, this life abundant.
As we shoveled, the wreckage from this winter becomes more clear. The debris laid buried under this snow, but slowly with the thaw the outlines of downed branches and broken limbs became more clear. As we continued to clear paths and made a way through the snow it became apparent that our job this spring brings with it the work of cleaning up, of repair and restoring. The ice storms in February brought down more trees than I realized. Mark and I hefted our weight onto a piece of tree caught in the vines and branches of others, pulling and twisting to set it free, and then dragged it away, into the woods. There were twigs to gather, branches to cut clean. The work of pruning will take time. There are whole bushes, even, that need to be sacrificed to this long winter.
This spring will bring mud. The snow will melt, and when it does there will more water than our yard can absorb, especially for a ground that is itself still thawing. It will be a dirty spring, with mud caking our boots, clinging to our hands and feet, marking our clothes. There will be muddy footprints tracked into the kitchen, and there will be the daily, sometimes hourly, work of wiping it clean again.
Hungry, then, from all that hard work of shoveling and playing, we came inside. Leaning my shovel against the side of the house, I noticed a swath of ground already exposed to the sun. Sticking straight as an arrow up through that dirt, there was a burst of green blades. The daffodils are on the rise. I sloughed off my boots, and washed my hands to make lunch. The house that was cozy and warm earlier seems stale and static, so we threw open windows wide, airing out the winter’s ills, and felt the fresh crisp air sweep our cheeks. I heard birds bustling around, finding their voice again, singing it back to each other to remember.
I am walking through the wilderness and straight into that promised land.