CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter For the Years of Winter…
[I wrote this when we lived in Iron Mountain, MI, 2007-2015]
In the Upper Peninsula in winter, which comprises 13 months each year, you can’t tell who is good-looking and who is not, because everyone looks the same in boots, Duluth Fire Hose pants [stronger than a giant angry beaver], a parka, and a ski mask.
So the UP is a great place for old people to live. Our bodies are no saggier or lumpy-looking than those of young people, and gray hair and wrinkles just look like they’re part of a plaid muffler.
You would think, thus, that all old people would move to the UP, since declining pulchritude is a concern for the aging, as teeth go yellow, skin goes gray, and hair goes blue—not a good color combination. Nonetheless, most senior citizens continue to live places where they have to worry about whether they can go out in public without frightening children and other small beasts. It’s a very embarrassing walk back to your Desoto when a Wal-Mart greeter turns you away at the door after you failed the “You must be this pretty to enter” test, which involves standing next to a composite photo that includes Donald Trump’s hair, Chris Christie’s body, and Phyllis Diller’s face.
One of the advantages, though, of being so old that no amount of money can make you look good, is that you learn that looking good isn’t a matter of being good looking.
We worry about that when we’re younger. My first theological mentor, D. J. Bowden, the Director of The Indiana School of Religion at IU, used to call me “Handsome,” as in “Hi, Handsome.” Since I definitely did not think of myself as handsome, I thought maybe he was making some cruel joke. But he was never unkind to me or anyone else, in any way, so I had to wonder what he meant.
Many years ago I read a novel by Lin Yutang called A LEAF IN THE STORM. It included a young woman who was very concerned with her beauty. Her world was turned upside down, from riches to poverty, to being a leaf in the storm, as China went through a revolution. As she fled from trouble, blown from one place to another, she passed a peasant woman working in a sloping field. The woman was not good looking. Her feet were in mud. Her unshapely legs strained as she toiled. “There is beauty,” the protagonist said. “Those muddy ugly legs are doing what they have to do. It’s not what they look like that makes the beauty. It’s what they do.” [This is a memory, not a direct quote.]
When our granddaughter was small, she stroked her grandmother’s face one day and said, “I love your wrinkles.” “Why would you love wrinkles?” asked Grandma. “Because they’re on you,” said Brigid.
Being old gives us a chance to understand what beauty really is. When I was a long-distance runner, when we met another runner on the road, we called out “Lookin’ good,” as a word of encouragement. We were not good looking, though. We were sweaty and smelly. But we were doing what we had to do to get to the finish line. I think D. J. Bowden was giving me a word of encouragement when he called me Handsome. He was acknowledging that even though I wasn’t very pretty, I was doing what I was called to do.
I don’t worry much anymore about whether I’m good looking. I understand beauty in a different way. When I see Jesus’ broken body on the cross, I call out, “Lookin’ good.”
John Robert McFarland
The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!