“in this story, winter can never hold back the spring.”

It’s snowing outside again. So I cry “uncle” to the icy cold knife cuts of the winter wind and sit inside, processing what it is I am longing for each time I wake up and don’t see the sunshine again. In short, I’m longing for the hope that spring brings, that some sign of life brings.

Four years ago, in the spring, we planted our first garden in the generous dirt plot in our back yard. The husband and I put on our brand new gardening gloves, pulled out the shovels we had been hoarding in the garage and made deep cuts inches into the hardened ground. We filled our hands with seeds and we said the same prayer we say each year – “God, we are planting the seed, but only you can make it grow.” Inside, we asked ourselves how it could be. How could God take something that looked so small, dark and dead and transform it into a vibrant, colorful thing that would give us life?

Someone once told husband and I that truly great artists always know what they are going to create. This person implied that these artists operate much like Michelangelo, seeing the form of David inside of a giant slab of marble, and carving away everything else until he “set David free”. I have never been able to create in that way. Maybe someday I will, and the important people who write books and give lectures will call me a great artist, too. But for now, I can’t help but see how my creative process, not just in work but in the dailiness of daily life, is entirely dependent on the One who created me. Each time I go out to create, I feel a bit like the seeds which find their new home in our back yard garden each year.

The trees are bare. The sky has decided to turn a color of white/grey and not deviate from that color palate, and the ground outside is cold and hard. But a fifty degree day last week and a small unopened bud on a tree we passed whispered in my ear and told me that spring has not forgotten us, she is slowly sneaking up on us and every passing day, our little plot of land gets gradually turned more and more towards the sun. The deep parts of the ground, which seemed forever frozen around the start of this year, will begin to thaw. I have to believe in it. I have to believe that we don’t live in a pre-Aslan Narnia, where the white witch has won the battle and it shall be forever winter but never Christmas. I have to believe it even though there are times when I wondered, no, I doubt if the spring will ever come. I watched the leaves, one by one, start to burst into flames of color and then it seemed like they dropped to the ground overnight. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly we would lose them. All over the countryside the green shag carpet had been covered by a new woven pattern of yellow, orange and carnelian red. We raked up the leaves, made a gargantuan pile out of them and stood and watched as our sons jumped and rolled through the most beautiful, colorful pile of death. The widowed trees looked on from above, motionless and barren. Their loss had been our gain and I can’t help but notice how beautifully they mirror their Maker in this act of sacrifice.

The winter came quickly with forceful icy cold gusts and she swept the sad remains of fall away, setting the stage for the next scene. And this scene has a very minimal backdrop. The painters of this particular scene are trying to tell me something . . . and they are using grey-white skies to say it. On the bad days, rain comes turning immediately to ice and transforming the entire world around us into a treacherous skating rink. On the good days the clouds open up and dump millions of perfectly unique snowflakes on top of us and because our children are still free, they immediately run outside quickly to jump and roll in the temporary wonderland. The sky, which looked so flat and empty has given us snowmen and our children a day off of school to go sledding with their friends. I pause in my theater seat and take notes at the directors choice “ . . interesting . . so joy and light can come through the darkness?” How like the Father of lights to delight His children with unexpected gifts, millions and billions of little white crystalized gifts, no two which are the same.

Now, though, I am just longing . . . I am yearning from the deepest places in my gut for the change to come . . .it’s time for spring. And yet it’s not. Not until the director gives the cue. Until then, I look out my window and see the one lone winter bird who must have got left behind in the migration. But soon, he will be joined by his family members and friends and it will be SPRING. Warm, green, lush, budding, new, glorious, refreshing spring. It will be time to put our work clothes on, roll up our sleeves, get out the shovels and begin to break up the earth. It has been sitting for an entire season, rendered completely useless, so we will vindicate it. We will purchase the seeds and we will map out a plot of how we will plant the garden this year. Like diligent architects, we will draw up the plans and go out to our plot to begin. I can feel the shovel in my hand, creating callouses and I almost like the pain it causes . . at least I know I’m still alive. The ground gets cut into. Over and over again, we stab the earth, shocking it back to life. It’s hibernation has come to an end. It will be useful again. We will work the earth until it is opened up enough to hold the seed, we make rows, and then we will plant.

I realized the other day just how hopeful it is that the produce we grow and eat starts only as a dried up, dead seed. It’s impossible to look at a carrot seed and say, “That really looks like it’s going to be a delicious carrot!” Same with the seed for planting almost anything. And yet, year after year I have watched as we put these little specks in the ground, cover them with dirt and watch them grow into a plant bearing food for our family. Each spring as we begin to sow the garden, husband and I will look at each other, put our hands up in the air and make a “who knows?” expression. Because truly, we can’t quite believe that it will work. I, the least optimistic of our twosome, am especially doubtful. I can hardly believe that a tiny dead speck is going to turn into something beautiful, alive, vibrant, flavorful and filling. It just seems too good to be true. I’ve seen the earth be killed by the winter. I’m not sure I can trust that spring won’t change her mind. The seeds sit there, day after day, night after night. The sun comes up and warms the earth. We go out every morning and late afternoon, watering the seemingly empty plots of land. And then something miraculous happens. Right before our very eyes, as quickly as the fall leaves vacated their branch homes, little green shoots of life are springing up. They don’t look like carrots or lettuce or beets or tomatoes. They just look like little signs of life, and life brings hope.

Here’s why I take great comfort in those little dried up, dead seeds. When I go out with my camera in hand to work, when I sit down to talk to our kids about the ways God loves them, when I spend eight hours working dough to turn it into bread, I don’t see the David inside the giant cube of marble. I see my own smallness. I see my inadequacy and my brokenness. I see the tools in my hand and the task ahead of capturing life and breath and soul and truth and I think to myself, “How on earth will a person like me create anything beautiful and filled with meaning?” I know that I am the seed. On my own, I’m dead. I’m dried up with no hope of life in and of myself. I have been placed in a ground that has lived through a hard, cold winter and might not be hospitable. I see that I am small and hard and not as open as I could be. And yet, my Gardener, The Playwright, Artist, Director holds me in His hands and He plants me in the soil, just deep enough that the birds won’t snatch me away as their lunch and close enough to the surface so I can feel the Son as He shines His light and beauty all around me. The Gardener waters me with His words and His Spirit hovers around me as I open slowly and untrustingly because He loves me.
He watches me, and unlike my doubtful outlook on our crop, He waits for me because He knows exactly what I am going to be.
He knows what He is making out of me and He has already called it good.
God knows exactly what He is making you to be and He has already called it good.

Four years ago, in the spring, we buried my father in a dirt plot in the middle of a cemetery. Some men I don’t know put on their work gloves, grabbed shovels and made deep cuts in the earth, digging a hole about seven feet deep in the hardened early spring ground. My mother, the widowed, looked on as my father fell to the earth so much sooner than she had prepared for. We filled our hands with dirt and tears and let them fall on top of the casket and we said a prayer – “God, we are planting the seed, but only you can make it grow.” Inside, we asked ourselves how it could be. How could God take something that looked so small, dark and dead and transform it into a glimmering, colorful, resurrected life? I, the least optimistic, can be especially doubtful. And yet, the spring is whispering in my ear. The Artist is whispering in my ear. And he tells me it’s almost time. He’s coming. And He’s already here. He isn’t afraid of the white-grey sky, he is painting in neurtrals on purpose. He wants to teach me about the beauty of contrast, of the death that precedes life.

This horribly long, cold, dead winter will give way to spring. And spring is yet further proof to me that my dad, already a planted seed, will live through the winter. One day, the Son will come, the trumpet will sound, the trees of the fields will clap their hands, and we will watch all of the seeds we’ve buried turn into vibrant, jubilant, perfect shoots of life springing up right before our very eyes. And they will be so glorious. So we must keep planting! We must grab our shovels, make deep and purposeful cuts in this earth, and then drop our seeds in the ground and trust that the Gardener will tend to them and the Sun will shine on them. I don’t exactly know how the Gardener, the Master Creator, does it. But He does. And I am being compelled to look at the figurative and literal death outside my window and take it as a sign that I can trust in the mystery of it all, because year after year the death of fall brings winter, winter turns to spring, and spring seeds shoot up from the ground bearing life all summer long. And life brings hope.

or in the oh-so brilliant words of N.D. Wilson:

“The world is no photograph. Evil is not a fixed shadow hiding
a branch, it is not the wind pulling forever at life.
In this story, the sun moves. In this story, every night meets
a dawn and burns away in the bright joy of morning.
In this story, Winter can never hold back the Spring.”

(images made of us harvesting our last crop of 2013, much thanks to the lovely molly flanagan for making them!)

show hide 7 comments

a p I wish you knew how much your words inspire and heal and plant and sow in others, darling friend. I wish you knew how much they do just that in me.

I’ve been on the verge of tears, crying at the drop of a hat, since just after the new year and I couldn’t put my finger on why until today. Until I woke to yet another morning in the double digits below zero. Until I saw another dreary grey morning. Until I drove through more heavy snow and saw car after car after car lose control. This time of year drains me. Leaves me fallow. Empty. Barren. I can’t create. I can’t dream. I can’t make or do or believe that I’m ever going to amount to anything at all. And this year is the worst.

I’m breaking.

So I’m turning my face toward God, even though I have no idea how to, and I’m putting one imperfect and unworthy little foot in front of the other and I’m DOING. As much and as best as I can. I’m living with love, so much love for others, even though I can’t seem to find any for myself. And I’m trying, Ash. I’m trying so very hard to beat this season.

I’m so tired of not feeling good enough.

So I’m going to plant myself in the garden of faith and let Him sow my soul until I come to terms with all that I am not and I can finally let it go.

And maybe then my spring will come, and the sun will shine warm upon my face once again. And I will get in my car and turn the music up loud and drive as fast as I can your direction. Because you are beauty and light and love and an amazing soul. Because you love like no other and you dream like a motherf*ker and you believe, darling friend. And that’s contagious. Infectious. I’d like to catch some of it.

xoMarch 1, 2014 – 1:44 am

sharon such beautiful, true words! thanks for the encouragement and all the good books to read friend!March 1, 2014 – 12:07 am

Jami Nato now who needs to write a book?February 28, 2014 – 2:37 am

Sarah Robertson Ash, this is beautiful! I read recently that the church in America is becoming “third seed” followers. The worries of this life and deceitfulness of wealth are choking the word and making it unfruitful. In part because we forget to wait for spring!

And I’m so glad you are reading Nate Wilson. I felt like Death by Living influenced my life and work more than anything I’ve read in a while. such good news!February 26, 2014 – 9:07 pm

Kristin Oh Ashley! What beautiful words. Thank you for sharing and for your heart. You are such a treasure and I’m so thankful for you and all the Lord has done and is doing with the seeds you are planting.February 26, 2014 – 7:30 pm

Charis Warrell If ever there was a reason to wake up early & read a post on my phone!
Thank you so much! Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair. What a joy & relief to know that spring will come again. This week so many of my friends are sad. I hope & pray that their spring will one day come. I hope the seeds I plant make a difference in their revealing of a beautiful life & hope of newness. XxxxFebruary 26, 2014 – 7:13 am

Amelia Sutton Ashley, God has given you such a beautiful mind, spirit, and gift with words & images! The beauty He creates through you is so awe and worship inspiring! Thank you so very much for your realness and for being so genuine in all things. These words are really resonating with me (these midwestern winters seem to worsen every year!) and with the re-telling & re-minding of the Gospel that the Spirit spoke to me again tonight. I’m so thankful to be able to follow along with your lives and to feel like I know you. If it (meeting you Parsons!) doesn’t happen on this side of heaven—I’m excited to share eternity with you, praising Him for His mercy & grace! Lots of love and hugs:)February 26, 2014 – 4:21 am

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