Our family loves the musical “A Year with Frog and Toad” based on a series of stories by Arnold Lobel. Frog is tall, green and easy-going. Toad is short, brown and more of a worrier. The story begins in the late winter. Frog and Toad, who are still hibernating, visit each other’s dreams. Once they wake up, Toad plants seeds. He watches them obsessively, expecting immediate results. He shouts at them and then he’s filled with regret, fearing they are too frightened to grow. In the summer season, Toad agonizes because he looks funny in a bathing suit, while Frog sits in the sun thinking about how happy he is. They fly a kite. They make cookies and can’t stop eating them, even after they put them away in a box tied with string. In the fall, the friends rake each other’s yards as a surprise but then as they each walk home, the squirrels scatter the leaves again and neither discovers the gift the other has left. Finally, as snow falls and winter sets in again, Frog is late to celebrate Christmas Eve. Toad images something terrible has happened to his friend and he prepares to set out on a rescue mission.
The stories about Frog and Toad are silly, sweet, and wise. Hidden in the deceptively simple narrative is an invitation to be part of a continual process of discovery as Frog and Toad learn about themselves, about friendship and about the cycles of the earth. I’ve been pondering how the circling seasons of the year and our lives are also central to who we are as followers as of Jesus.
Now I must say, it’s difficult to preach convincingly about winter in the middle of July. But I’m trying—to feel the cold wind on my face and in my bones; to remember the beauty of those first crystal flakes in the air; the heft of the wet snow on the shovel; the frustration and fear that icy sidewalks bring; the longing for light that fills me on those short, dark November and December days; the crisp sparkle of mid-day sun in January; and the frozen ground in which all growing things sleep dormant or die. I’ve been reflecting on particularly on the fact that winter, and the death it brings, seems especially important in our spiritual journey. I don’t mean death as just an end-of-life experience. I mean the continual pattern of death and resurrection embedded in the seasons of the earth and reality itself.
In today’s Gospel passage, some folks ask to “see” Jesus. In John, this is not the language of a casual request. To see Jesus means know him, to understand who he is and what he’s about. And seeing Jesus does not mean studying him from a distance. Those who see Jesus are willing to engage with him. They are ready to seriously consider his invitation to walk the path he walks. Framing their request this way, we can better understand Jesus’ response. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In other words, to see, know, and follow Jesus means to give up our singleness and separateness and to recognize that we belong to a greater whole. The metaphor of the grain of wheat teaches us that though death feels like a threat, the real danger is that we will grasp life as it is too tightly. It is only through letting go that we can receive the life of freedom, abundance and fruitfulness that God intends for creation.
I just finished reading The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. Rohr differentiates the person of Jesus from the concept of Christ. Christ, in Rohr’s view, is another name for all that is—the incarnation of God in the world, the loving union of matter and spirit. Jesus is a concrete embodiment of this hidden truth. Rohr argues that the pattern of death and resurrection we encounter in the story of Jesus is present in many other world religions and it is the path to union with the divine. Rohr writes this:
Christianity—as well as Buddhism, other religions, and natural systems—suggests that the pattern of transformation, the pattern that connects, the life that Reality offers us is not death avoided, but death transformed. . . . Each time you surrender, each time you trust the dying, your faith is led to a deeper level and you discover a Larger Self underneath. You decide not to push yourself to the front of the line, and something much better happens in the back of the line. You let go of your narcissistic anger, and you find that you start feeling much happier. You surrender your need to control your partner, and finally the relationship blossoms or ends.
Things change and grow by dying to their present state, but each time it is a risk. We always wonder, “Will it work this time?” So many academic disciplines are coming together, each in their own way, to say that there’s a constant movement of loss and renewal at work in this world at every level. It seems to be the pattern of all growth and evolution. To be alive means to surrender to this inevitable flow. It’s the same pattern in every atom, in every human relationship, and in every galaxy. Indigenous peoples, Hindu gurus, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus all saw it clearly in human history and named it as a kind of “necessary dying.
In A Year with Frog and Toad, there is a thread that weaves the whole year together— the delivery of a special letter. Toad is sad because he never gets any mail. So Frog writes Toad a letter in the Spring and asks Snail to deliver it. Snail is thrilled to get the job. He sings:
I’m the snail with the mail, I’ll deliver without fail
Whether rain or sleet or snow
No snail has feet more fleet-ah
Why, I’m practically a cheetah!
I put the “go” in “escargot!”
In reality; however, snail is very very very slow. Throughout the show, he pops up periodically, still traveling laboriously between Frog’s house and Toad’s house. The snow flies and he’s still on his way, singing:
In this snowy frosting,
Running is exhausting
So maybe I’ll slow to a jog
I’m the snail with the mail
I’ll deliver without fail
In the ice and snow and slush
But since it’s getting dusky, I’m pretending I’m a husky
Mush, mush, mush, mush, mush, mush, mush. Arf!
When Snail finally reaches Toad’s house, he reflects on the journey:
I was always timid
I guess it was because
I may have been ashamed of who I am
Or what I was
I thought, “I’m just a snail.
A lot of shell. A little goo.”
But all of that has changed,
As now the following is true
I got something I do
Something I’m proud of
Because I do it pretty well.
There were slugs who doubted me
I guess that made me nervous
I never even dared to dream of life in civil service
They said I wasn’t fast enough,
They said, “Hey, you’re too gooey!”
But then I turned around and told them “Phooey!
That’s all hooey!”
I was nothing but goo under the surface
Then everything began to gel.
Snail’s journey teaches us to embrace winter, as a time not only of death, but also of culmination, a season of clarity, wisdom and acceptance, a moment in which we become more fully ourselves.
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” When Jesus refers to “this world” he does not mean creation, or our existence in the here and now. “This world” is a reference to the social, economic and political rule of the Roman empire. Jesus’ resurrection, following his death at the hands of the world’s rulers is a repudiation of their ways. The dying and rising Christ shows us that the empire’s whole framework of meaning is absurd, that its oppressive patterns are not the “real world” and that its understandings of power are delusional.
Like these earliest followers of Jesus, we live in empire’s world. This world tells us pervasive lies about our own worth and that of our neighbors. It thrives on systematic violence. It assumes the only way for society to operate is for the few to dominate the many. This harmful reality is not something we can ignore. And at the same time, we can’t let it define us. Jesus teaches us that what is real is the abundant life revealed in the transformation of seed into fruit. What is truly powerful is the continual process of renewal offered to us by earth’s Creator. What matters is that we walk together, lovingly and faithfully on the journey of death and resurrection, loss and restoration, risk and growth.
It’s all there in the pair of images on the bulletin cover, in the friendship and sense of discovery that animates the two children exploring the woods in the Spring of their lives and the elders in their wintry years, walking hand in hand at the mall. Even as we embrace the death that winter brings, we can trust that Spring will come again.