Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Hampshire Spring

It is officially the first day of spring, and I woke up to sixteen inches of fresh snow … adding to the couple of feet of snow already covering my yard. I have not been able to climb over the snowbanks to take down the Christmas wreath on our front door and replace it with something more Lenten. The other day we bought a faux forsythia wreath at the Christmas Tree Shop (where else?) to replace it, but it seems out of place at the present time.

I have not been hearing the sweet sound of maple sap dripping into the buckets nailed to our trees. It has not been getting above freezing long enough for the sap to flow.  On Monday I stopped by the town Highway Department to pick up some more sand to coat the ever-present ice on our driveway. I thought that a half a bucket (a five gallon bucket) would suffice until it melted on its own. But I already have to make another trip soon.

Oh, the joys of spring in New Hampshire! I see photos on Facebook of my grandson in western Pennsylvania, and he is playing in the backyard on the grass. I can’t remember what grass looks like.

These are still the final weeks of winter, regardless of what the calendar says. I have decided to enjoy them. There is nothing more beautiful than snow-capped mountains. The air is fresh. The sky is clear. There is a spirit of anticipation in the air. We know the cold can’t last forever. It is supposed to get into the 40’s today! Whoopee!

We have mud season to look forward to. (Where did I put those muck boots?) Then there is black fly season. (Time to buy a new gallon of DEET.) Then we will look back with nostalgia on these fine days of winter when we could walk down the street without getting our feet caked in mud and fending off swarms of bugs by waving our arms like a drunken signalman.

So I will look on the bright side of the first day of spring in New Hampshire. The fresh snow is beautiful. Easter is coming, and that means I will be able to take a vacation to Florida soon. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disappointing Cosmos

I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I was inspired by his books. Sagan’s television series made cosmology into a spiritual experience for me. Therefore I was excited when I heard that a remake was in the works.

I watched the first episode of the new show with great expectations. My initial thought was that the “spaceship of the imagination” idea was cheesy, but otherwise the special effects were great.

Condensing the age of the universe into a one year calendar is old hat. I was hoping for something a little more creative, but it accomplished its purpose in communicating the immensity of the time and space.

Then my mouth dropped open at a segment that I can only describe as a hate-filled rant. For some reason the writers of the show decided to include a segment on the martyrdom of the 16th-century Italian thinker Giordano Bruno. It seems to have no other purpose than church-bashing.

The Christian church – both Catholic and Protestant – is pictured as the villain. Church leaders are cartoonish devils squelching scientific inquiry. Bruno is portrayed as the heroic scientist persecuted by narrow-minded, ignorant, evil Christians.

The problem is that Bruno was not a scientist. He was a philosopher and theologian. Discover Magazine got it right in a review entitled “Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?” What happened to Bruno was wrong – as any champion of religious liberty knows. But it has nothing to do with the birth of modern science. Bruno was a philosopher who ran afoul of the religious authorities.

The segment could have been edited from the script without anyone missing it. That historical side trip had nothing to do with science. Its only purpose was to take a swipe at Christianity. The message was clear: Science is the hero; religion - in particular Christianity - is the villain.

Why do this? What is the point? All it does is deepen the divide between science and religion, which I was hoping this series might seek to breach. If the purpose of Cosmos is to educate and inspire people, you don’t begin by polarizing the majority of your audience.

Sure, the church opposed the heliocentric worldview, as did everyone – Christian and non-Christian - at the time. No one knew any better! We all know the story of Galileo and his struggles with the church authorities. (By the way, he would have been a far better choice for a scientific hero!)

It is also true that the pseudo-science of creationism is presently an embarrassing anti-intellectual sideshow on the Christian scene.  But that branch of Christianity is not representative of the Christian religion. It is certainly not representative of me or any churches I have served.

The historical relationship between science and faith is much more nuanced than this cartoon morality play. It can be argued that that modern science is the brainchild of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is no accident that science was born in Christendom. The biblical worldview provided the intellectual stance to view the physical world as an area of study, rather than an arena of spirits.

The Genesis story of creation is unique in the literature of ancient religions. It pictures the world as composed of physical objects, including the stars, sun, and moon. The heavenly bodies were not gods and goddesses, like in other religions of the time. The earth was not the body of a deity. Nature was not animated by spirits who possessed springs, caves and trees. The universe was seen as an objective reality that could be known by human beings.

The truth is that Christianity set the stage for the birth of science. How wonderful if Cosmos had explored this aspect of history instead of promoting Christophobic stereotypes.  

I will still watch Cosmos. I am still in love with science, and this series promises to be a good show. But I am disappointed in Cosmos’ anti-religious prejudice. This is not the 17th century, and neither the church nor science should act like it is.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Frost Heave Theology

I cannot keep silent any longer. I have been patient all winter. I have to comment on the horrendous crop of frost heaves that we have this year.

Those readers who are flatlanders may not know what frost heaves are. They are not potholes. They are the naturally forming speed bumps produced by the freezing and expanding of the ground under the roads.

Frost heaves are giant dips and peaks in the surface of the road, which cause vehicles to hit bottom and passengers to hit roofs. They form in the winter and subside in spring, just in time for mud season. 

They force drivers to go ten or twenty mph on roads that we would normally cruise at forty or fifty. Consequently they make any trip twice as long and ten times more uncomfortable.

Most would say that frost heaves are a natural phenomenon. Others put a metaphysical slant on the bumpy roads, calling them the Yankee equivalent of the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” The apostle writes, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

Many commentators think that his “thorn” was an illness. I think the apostle was describing Roman roads in winter. His words certainly describe my experience of frost heaves very accurately.  (Except for the “conceited" part.)

Another possibility is that frost heaves are the work of God, sent by the Creator to slow me down. God knows I do not need any more speeding tickets. That officer was very nice to let me off with a warning the other week when I was on a smooth stretch of road, but I should not tempt God or local law enforcement too often.

Yes, that is what it is. God is forcing me to “slow down and smell the roses” as they say in rose country. Here it is “slow down and smell the wood smoke.” Therefore I have heeded the call of God. I now slowly jostle over the country roads, appreciating God’s plan in every bump in the road of life.

If I were a country singer I would write a song about the frost heaves. But as it is, I will sing praises to God for the free chiropractic adjustment of my spinal column I have received while traveling the roads of Sandwich, New Hampshire. But I am still praying for spring to come quickly.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Surprised by Lent

Easter is late this year. I am ready. I am tired of winter, and looking forward to spring. Yet Lent surprised me. I knew it was coming. It was on my calendar, and I made the requisite plans to observe it in my church. But emotionally it did not become real to me until Ash Wednesday evening.

I participated in a small Ash Wednesday service in the neighboring town. It was a union service shared by three congregations, but the small sanctuary was only a quarter full. There was no pianist, and so we sang a cappella. The unaccompanied voices added another level of sparseness.

Then came time for the ashes. Since none of the three clergy present were of “high church” pedigree, we opted for a revision of the forehead smudge that our Catholic and Episcopalian friends had received that day. We accepted ashes in the palms of our hands.

I am not sure it was well-planned out. It made for a messy handling of the hymnals during the final song, and it made the parting handshake a bit awkward. I held my steering wheel by my fingertips on the way home.

But it was a powerful moment. I held my future in my hands. I am dust and to dust I will return. In a decade or two - possibly less (who really knows?) - these ashes will be all that is left of me. We received news this week of our neighbor in Pennsylvania who died suddenly and unexpectedly. She went to school that morning and died. She was 54.

I recall a funeral I conducted for a young woman years ago. As we buried her ashes in a small hillside graveyard, the distraught mother became vocally angry. She cried out, “This is all that is left of her! Just these *$#% ashes!”

It surprised everyone present. We are not used to honesty at funerals - especially from such a dignified and proper lady. But sometimes it is what we need. Ash Wednesday is honest. Perhaps that is why so few attend.

We mortals are nothing more than ashes in the end. Yet in Christ we are promised an impossible sequel. We are promised resurrection. At the end of forty days, Lent blossoms into resurrection. Death is swallowed up by life. Sorrow is eclipsed by joy. I was surprised by Lent. I am surprised even more by Easter. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hitler’s Birthday

I am reading the bestselling novel The Book Thief written by Australian author Markus Zusak. The book had me from the opening words. It is narrated by Death (a very interesting approach), set in Nazi Germany, and is about the redemptive power of words.

The chapter I read yesterday was entitled “Hitler’s Birthday, 1940.” It tells the story of how the young heroine of the story attended a book burning held in honor of the Führer’s birthday and ended up rescuing a book from the ashes. Hidden in her Hitler youth jacket, the book, still hot from the fire, burns her flesh.

The date was April 20. I thought to myself, “That is Easter!” When the author wrote this novel a decade ago, he never could have known that I would be reading this chapter in 2014 as Lent begins. I have Easter on my mind, but this book has forced me to put it in the context of the arch-villain of the twentieth century.

Führer means leader. Everything depends on whom you follow. The first hymn I will sing on Easter morning will include the words “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!”

Another character in the story, a young boy, covers himself with ashes and runs around a track celebrating Jesse Owen’s Olympic victory in 1936 in Berlin. Ashes, ashes everywhere. 

Thinking of book-burnings and the Holocaust on Ash Wednesday is a powerful experience. It brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer to mind. He was the Lutheran pastor executed in Germany for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Next month is also the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death.

In his Letters & Papers From Prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “Good Friday and Easter free us to think about other things far beyond our own personal fate, about the ultimate meaning of all life, suffering, and events; and we lay hold of a great hope.”

We have a great hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But evil is still with us. It did not die in Hitler’s bunker. The headlines inform us that innocents are still being slaughtered. Ethnic, tribal, and racial hatred still thrives. The forces that crucified Jesus still kill the righteous.

In a world where Death narrates the news, we remember the words of the apostle Paul. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Now the sting of death is sin: and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”