We all came down the stairs this morning comparing the temperature readings on the weather apps on our phones: -1, -4, and -6 degrees, depending on the app. Though the numbers varied, the conclusions were the same: it was cold. Really cold. We ate breakfast and bundled up for the fifty foot walk from the front door of the parsonage to the side door of the church, the closest one to us. We all made it safely. Even for lifelong New Englanders the temperature was a topic of discussion this morning. It was obvious that some had chosen to stay home, but by and large people got themselves out of the house and into the cold to warm our hearts together.
After church, Ginger and I bundled up and walked across the Green to Centro Pizza, an Italian restaurant where we have been frequently enough to be recognized. Even without much wind, we could feel the cold all the way to the bone by the time we walked back home after brunch. I built a fire and Ginger built a palette of blankets where she and the pups settled in for a Sunday afternoon snooze while I postponed my nap to go run my usual Sunday afternoon errands. As I walked back out into the glorious contradiction of a crystal blue sky and the frigid temperatures, I missed my parents once again because talking about the severity of our weather was one of their favorite pastimes. The wish that I could call them unearthed a memory of a story my father used to tell about one of his heroes, Sadhu Sundar Singh, an Indian mystic. Thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, I found the account my father used to reference in Singh’s own words:
The great gift of service is that it also helps the one who serves. Once when traveling in Tibet, I was crossing a high mountain pass with my Tibetan guide. The weather had suddenly turned bitterly cold, and my companion and I feared that we might not make it to the next village—still several miles away—before succumbing to the frost.
Suddenly, we stumbled upon a man who had slipped from the path and was lying in the snow. Looking more closely, I discovered that the man was still alive, though barely. “Come,” I said to my companion, ‘help me try to bring this unfortunate man to safety.” But my companion was upset and frightened for his life. He answered: ‘”If we try to carry that man, none of us will ever reach the village. We will all freeze. Our only hope is to go on as quickly as possible, and that is what I intend to do. You will come with me if you value your life.” Without another word and without looking back, he set off down the path.
I could not bring myself to abandon the helpless traveler while life remained in him, so I lifted him on my back and threw my blanket around us both as best I could. Slowly and painstakingly, I picked my way along the steep, slippery path with my heavy load. Soon it began to snow, and I could make out the way forward only with great difficulty.
How we made it, I do not know. But just as daylight was beginning to fade, the snow cleared and I could see houses a few hundred yards ahead. Near me, on the ground, I saw the frozen body of my guide. Nearly within shouting distance of the village, he had succumbed to the cold and died, while the unfortunate traveler and I made it to safety. The exertion of carrying him and the contact of our bodies had created enough heat to save us both. This is the way of service. No one can live without the help of others, and in helping others, we receive help ourselves.
Though we are just days away from pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training, that it is the middle of February means our winter is far from over. As Phil Connors says in Groundhog Day, “You want a prediction? I’ll give you a winter prediction: it’s gonna be cold and it’s gonna be grey and it’s gonna last the rest of your life.” Even in the dead of summer there are days when his forecast feels true. What Singh discovered as he carried the stranger through the mountain pass is what came back to me—again—today: the only sustaining warmth I know is found in those whom I love and who love me.
The more I think about the story in the snow, however, the more I think about all the characters. In a way, Singh’s realization that he and the man he carried had warmed each other is both profound and obvious. When I read the parables of Jesus, I often approach them in the same way I was taught to think about a dream: put myself in the place of each character. Singh explains his role well, and when I think of the stranger whom they stumbled upon I can only imagine his surprise and gratitude. When I put myself in the guide’s place—the one who went on because he chose to take care of himself at the expense of the man in the road, I wonder about the story that isn’t told. I wonder if the man realized he was within shouting distance of safety and didn’t have the strength to shout, or if he gave in to the cold without knowing he was so close to home. Either way, he incarnates a lesson that comes around again and again: I cannot stand against the cold on my own. I need to be carried; I need to do the carrying. As U2 sings, we’ve got to carry each other.
It’s cold out there. Look for me on the road, and I’ll look for you.