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January 30, 2016

The pile of week-old snow  covered with black grim by the side of a large parking lot was a reminder of last week’s snow fall.

By all accounts, Jonas was one of the most severe winter storms on record. Nineteen states were affected by the storm last week as it moved across the south and up the eastern seaboard. More than a quarter of a million homes lost power. Major cities, some with up to thirty-one inches of snow accumulation, were paralyzed. At least thirty-one people died as a direct result of the storm.

Here in the Carolinas the impact was minimal by comparison. One young man told me, “We had planned a trip to Charlotte and were afraid we might have to cancel. Friends in the Queen City told us, ‘The Panthers have a championship football game so everything is clear.’ We went on our trip and had no problems.”

The month of January ushers into our lives, not only the promise of a new year, but also the prospect of winter weather.  Meteorologists know that forecasting weather for the Upstate is always a challenge. Winter accuracy in their work becomes high risk.  With advanced technology at their fingertips, and instruments of their trade close at hand, most weather professionals would agree with Jack Roper, the legendary Spartanburg weatherman.  The tool that would be most helpful to them is the one usually absent in their weather room.  They probably would be more accurate in their predictions if they only had a window.  They could at least look outside to see for themselves what the weather was actually doing.

Country folks have their time-honored ways of determining the long-range forecast.  The length of hair on a horse’s back or the colors of the fuzz on a wooly worm are indicators of the winter ahead.  The relative scarcity or abundance of acorns, pecans, hickory nuts, and beechnuts are portents of the severity of winter.

In our part of the world, ice is the most dreaded winter weather event.  A forecast of sleet and freezing rain is reason for concern.  While ice-covered trees have a crystalline beauty, the popping of breaking limbs and the cracking of splitting trunks are sounds of nature’s agony.   Frozen roads and sidewalks, ice-laden power lines, contribute to human agony of broken limbs and splitting headaches.  During an especially severe ice storm several years ago, electric power at our house was out for several days.

A friend called to add his unique brand of humor to the cold and dark.  “This is the devil,” he announced.  “It’s frozen over down here, too.”

On the other hand, many people in the South, especially school children and schoolteachers, greet the prospect of snow with wild excitement.   When the seven-day forecast held the promise of snow last winter, I asked a school principal, “Is it supposed to snow?”

“It’s always supposed to snow!” came the ready reply.

A snow that sticks, that is, a snowfall with accumulation, creates a delightful playground.  Snow angels, snowmen, snowballs, snow ice cream, and sledding are all fun, though fleeting, possibilities.

Some of our Northern transplants are baffled by our enthusiastic reaction to snow.  Enough is enough for them.  Snow is a detestable nuisance.  They are annoyed that a few inches of snow can bring life to a screeching halt for so many of us here is the South.

The truth is that people of the South do behave in strange ways when snow is impending.  Grocery store shelves are quickly depleted of milk and bread.  It was always difficult for me to understand why.  “Do hundreds of people sit in their homes eating bread and drinking milk because we have snow?”  I posed the question while standing in the express line at a grocery store.  Snow was in the forecast.

The woman ahead of me made sense out of what seemed like nonsense.  “If my power goes out, I can give my three children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a glass of milk.  The peanut butter and milk give them complete protein.”  I was glad to have a reasonable answer as I stepped forward to purchase my own bread and milk.

Dr. Alastair Walker had a favorite sermon for just such an occasion.  His text was Job 38:22 where the Lord asked Job, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?”  As I recall, Dr. Walker had three points to his sermon.

(1) No two snowflakes are alike.  As the Creator fashioned each snowflake uniquely, so, too, has He created us.

(2) Snowflakes are small and delicate, inconsequential as individuals. When many snowflakes accumulate, the world is altered by their combined power.  So, too, can individuals, ineffective when acting alone, do marvelous things when working together.

(3) Snow is instant urban renewal.  A blanket of snow makes a dark, drab landscape bright and beautiful.  Lives that are darkened by despair can become whiter than snow through God’s mercy.

These are treasures of the snow.

My experience is that for children and adults alike, winter weather provides for many of us a day of grace, the unexpected blessing of a day off.  It can be a day to enjoy our families.  Last weekend Clare and I had five grandchildren in our home at various times during the storm.

My mother always fixed a big pot of vegetable soup on snow days.  Though the roads were too bad to go to school, her grandchildren found a way to go “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” Even if the power goes out, a day of grace can be a time to sit by a hearth with a warm fire and read a book.

This day of grace is a time to think of others.  As a pastor, when winter weather was approaching, I reminded church members to check on family and friends, especially those who live alone.

One year, a man in our church made a special gift to our benevolent fund.  “When I served in World War II, I was so cold I didn’t think I would ever be warm again,” he explained.  His gift was used that very week to provide heating oil for a family five, including three small children.

Some years ago, I was visiting the hospital during an ice storm when I came upon a homeless man sleeping in the stairwell.  Winter weather is not a delight for everybody.  It can be a reminder to those of us who have food and warmth to share.  Organizations such as Miracle Life Ministries, The Haven, the Soup Kitchen, Mobile Meals, Total Ministries, and the Interfaith Hospitality Network provide service to our most needy citizens.

Winter weather can be a call to prayer for people of faith.  If we receive a day of grace, some of that time can be spent in prayer.  Remember those who are working while others have the day off.  Medical personnel, paramedics, firefighters, law enforcement officers, utility employees, road crews, and tow truck drivers are but a few examples of those who labor long hours in the cold and damp.  To remember them in prayer with petitions for their safety and gratitude for their service is our privilege.

The treasures of the snow come to all of us as gifts.  When our twenty-seven year old son, Erik, died fifteen years ago last November, our grief was profound. Spartanburg received a surprise snowfall with slight accumulation on the day of Erik’s funeral.  Some expressed sadness that we had to have his burial in the snow.  We felt differently.  We when first saw the flakes falling gently from heaven, Clare said, “I think maybe Erik asked God for a favor.  “Lord, you know this will be a difficult day for my family.  Could you please surprise them?’”

For many winter weather is an inconvenience: for others a difficult burden. But for many in the South, snow is a blessing; a symbol of God’s grace.

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