Friends of this blog will remember my reflection from January titled “Noticing.” Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night introduced me to this idea—a spiritual practice inviting us into greater communion with God through our paying attention to the mercy and beauty of Creation. Warren writes that becoming a “master of noticing” requires “not just our attention but our yearning and our hope.” In response to this idea Warren introduced me to, I invited friends to join me in a week of trying to become “masters of noticing,” too. Interestingly enough, three days after I issued that invitation, a violent mob descended on the Capitol.
Admittedly, much of my attention that week was drawn away from the beauty of creation and to the chaos of news reports, Twitter reactions, and cell phone videos. Despite the disturbing images impressed upon my mind, I decided to share my post about noticing anyway. I shared because I had things to share: beautiful images and good celebrations. And ultimately, I shared because doing so felt like an act of hope—an affirmation of the yearning to see and show that Jesus was even here, even now. I had a deep conviction that the spirit of noticing was not just for good times when pretty pictures show up in front of us, but for weeks when the chaos of creation cries out, demanding to be heard and overwhelming all the rest of our senses.
I said that I felt like the practice of noticing was God’s way of drawing my pessimistic, traumatized, distracted self back to him as a new year began. I no longer just feel that sentiment: I know it. A person who knows this, too, is Hannah Anderson, author of Turning of Days.
I was invited to read Anderson’s new book in the weeks that followed the events at our nation’s Capitol; it could not have come at a better time. Anderson is a master of noticing and is able to communicate truths about God and Scripture through the familiar yet fresh frame of the natural world, inviting us to see God’s mercy and the beauty of his creation even in a world where darkness and disaster can envelop us. The introduction of Turning of Days makes this point right away, asking:
“What might I observe were I to crouch down low and turn my eyes and tune my ears? What might I discover of pain and pain and loss, of beauty and truth? What might I find were I to drop my shoulders, lift my head, and keep watch in this world? What might I learn if I asked the earth to teach me?”
Through her use of poetic prose and a thoughtful incorporation of Scripture, Anderson writes about all these questions through the framework of the four seasons, exploring how spiritual and theological truths are woven deep within the natural world. Each season is broken up into a collection of devotional essays and illustrations, bookended by an introductory verse and references to other related passages.
If the premise Turning of Days is making you think this is just a fluffy book for women to read and smile at, I am here to tell you that you are wrong. Sure, this book is certainly a pleasant one with much loveliness within, but it does not gloss over topics like death, decay, and disaster. Anderson is no lightweight trying to punch above her class; her knowledge and command of Scripture and theology is thoughtfully incorporated throughout the book. A close read will be a rich read.
As both a lover of nature and someone who can be deeply pained by the harsh realities of creation, Anderson’s Turning of Days was an inspiring and deeply needed read for me. It shares much of a similar sentiment that is woven throughout Warren’s Prayer in the Night, one taken from the book of Hebrews: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Such is true when the darkness of grief overwhelms us (Warren) and so it is, too, when the seasons and all their variability cause us to doubt that spring’s promises will ever break through the frozen ground of our fallow faith (Anderson).
Anderson writes descriptively and, at times, deliciously! My senses were always engaged. I moved through the book quickly, yet long after each reading session, I still felt like I could still hear the echoes of the cicadas ringing in my ears or taste the ripened raspberries on my lips or feel the morning dew on my shoes or smell the crispness of the autumn air.
I especially related to the fifth devotional in the winter section, about birds. This devotional opens with a verse from the book of Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Recently, we have had a lot of snow where I live. “Kent, Ohio’s hottest club is the bird feeder outside my kitchen window!” (Please read that sentence with Stefon’s voice in your head…IYKYK). I have spent many minutes observing the sparrows, my most frequent customers. Watching them inspired me to write this haiku:
Alone, I talk to
the birds outside my window.
“Are you cold today?”
They peck at the seeds
While snow falls on their feathers.
They cheerfully chirp.
They do not worry
where the seeds come from or if
there will be enough.
They come and eat and
have their fill. I imagine
their chirps mean “Thank you.”
It would be easy to simply extol the sparrows at their lack of worry—what faith!—but I like where Anderson takes the devotional. She remarks about how her prowling cat has eaten (!!) some of the birds on their property, a grisly end to these innocent creatures who were simply there to enjoy some seeds. But what Anderson draws from that observation was especially provoking. She writes:
“By heaven’s accounting, the fact that birds eat the finest seed is not testament to my care for them, but to the Father’s. And the fact that He provides for them means that He will provide for me too. Just as He uses me to lay a feast in the presence of their enemies, He’ll use a multitude of means to lay one for me in the presence of mine. And if the birds of the air don’t worry, why should I? Aren’t I worth more than they?
But then I think, it’s one thing to trust the Father with your life; it’s another to trust Him with your death. It’s one thing to trust that He’ll set up feeders on which you can feast; it’s another thing to remember that your enemy waits, crouching low and silent beneath them. But again, Jesus calls us to give attention to the birds: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. . . . So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
As Anderson writes early on in the book, the natural world is more than a metaphor, it is “a living, pulsating experience of truth that surrounds and enfolds us, teaching us deep realities without words.” But when we do read the words of Scripture, Anderson reminds us that they are a “stable source of truth standing outside and apart from us, teaching us those realities that exist beyond nature’s shifts and time’s evolutions. Together, both [nature and Scripture] reveal the Divine.”
As Anderson reflects, we cannot look at the birds and their blissful, unworried lives or their grisly end and conclude nature has taught us all we need to know about what is true about this life. Instead, nature and God’s truth work in tandem to tell the redemptive story of Creation: one that involves and enfolds us in all its mysteries and will appear before us again, bathed in the light of the new heavens and new earth.
I really enjoyed my experience of reading Hannah Anderson’s Turning of Days. Her sparkling prose accompanied by her husband’s lovely illustrations made for a compelling and edifying reading experience. I only wish I could have read this book in the company of others. I would love to have seasonal book club centered around Turning of Days with time spent meandering through each season’s corresponding devotionals.
At the end of each season, I imagine a gathering involving a cozy evening in someone’s den or around their firepit or sitting on the porch swing on a summer’s night. We could share about passages we liked, things we observed and gathered in the world and nature around us, and a time to enjoy seasonal food, of course. I imagine: Spring—a bouquet of daffodils and a ramp relish to eat on baguettes. Summer—a jar of strawberry jam and another jar of fireflies. Autumn—a sunflower stem and some roasted pumpkin seeds to pass around. And Winter—a photo of a sparrow on a snowy day and a box of tea bags to share.
However, as Anderson finishes Turning of Days by saying: “Today is not that day. Today, it is still winter.” It is literally still winter, and we are still in a pandemic. We yearn and wait for the day when we can gather again for a cozy book club meeting. Until then, I leave us with Anderson’s words. They are good and true, a comfort and a hope:
“Today, the wind and rain blow cold. So what are you to do? What are you to do while you wait? This is what you do in winter: you plan for spring. This is what you do when the earth lies dark: you plan for dawn. This is what you do when death seems to reign: you plan for resurrection.”