Monday, March 25, 2019

Springtime in New Hampshire

According to the calendar it is springtime. But here in the woods of New Hampshire you won’t see any jonquils or daffodils sprouting. I can’t even see the ground yet. All we see are slowly melting mounds of snow and sap buckets.

Driving the roads of rural New Hampshire in the spring is like traversing a third world country. I can drive a maximum of only twenty-five miles-per-hour on the roads near my house because of the frost heaves. Any faster and my head hits the roof and the bottom of the car hits the tarmac.

To avoid the buckles in the pavement, I will sometimes go out of my way to drive on dirt roads. They are much smoother, but they have their own hazards. As the snow melts, these backroads turn to mud. Mud season we call it, which comes right before Black Fly season and after Maple Sugaring season. They say that the Inuit have fifty words for snow. We have nearly that many for spring.

Because it is also Lent I am trying to find some spiritual significance in this. Lent is a wilderness time, patterned after Jesus’ forty day sojourn in the wilderness. The wilderness is also associated with John the Baptist who was “a voice calling in the wilderness, saying ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!’”

We are told that his ministry fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, who said, “I will go before you and make the rough places smooth; so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.” In other words John worked on the road crew. I need John right about now.

New Hampshire roads in early spring are a spiritual discipline. They are nature’s way to slow us down. They foster mindfulness. I have to pay attention to the moment in order to navigate the moguls in the road. And during the occasional smooth stretches between the frost heaves I notice some other things – like wildlife in the woods and wetlands emerging from the ice.

Lent isn’t easy. It is not meant to be. It is the Way of the Cross. But Lent will pass. Easter is coming, and the vernal green will eventually arrive in New Hampshire. Soon I will be planting my vegetable garden and dreaming of my first dip in the lake. But for now I travel the Lenten road – grateful for the knowledge that the resurrection of life is around the corner. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Plastic Free Lent

Recently I read about Episcopal and Lutheran churches in Pittsburgh that are observing a “Plastic Free Lent.” Instead of giving up chocolate or coffee, pastors are encouraging their parishioners to give up “single-use” plastic for Lent – things like shopping bags, straws, and bottles.

What a great idea, I thought. I can save the earth and still have my chocolate and caffeine! The waitress at the local diner already jokes with me about saving the earth “one straw at a time,” so this should be easy.

Two days later I headed into Walmart to buy a couple of things, but I forgot to bring my reusable grocery bags, and Walmart doesn’t do paper bags. Strike one. We stopped to eat at a BBQ place on the way home. I asked for water to drink. I righteously rejected spring water in a plastic bottle and was served tap water in a plastic cup. I ate my potato salad out of a plastic cup with a plastic fork. Hmmm. This is not going according to plan. 

Last Sunday – the first Sunday of Lent - I was preaching at our local church and decided to present the idea of a “plastic free Lent” to the congregation through the children’s sermon. I felt good about inspiring young people and adults to be eco-friendly. After the service, someone pointed out to me that during my sermon I was sipping water out of a plastic bottle. Strike three … or is that four or five?

I went grocery shopping yesterday – this time with my reusable bags responsibly stuffed under my shopping cart. It was a sobering experience. It turns out that almost everything I eat comes in plastic. Hummus comes in plastic tubs. Blueberries come in a plastic container. Grapes come in plastic bags … with plastic zippers. We pick fresh vegetables out of bins and place them in flimsy plastic bags.

Hamburg comes on Styrofoam plates surrounded by plastic. (Remember when it was wrapped in butcher paper?) English muffins come in plastic bags. Bread comes in plastic bags with little plastic tags stamped with the date. My rooibos tea comes in plastic envelopes wrapped in a paper box wrapped in cellophane. Bathroom tissue comes in big plastic bags. Even potatoes come in a plastic bag.

The only thing that did not come in a plastic bag was my plastic trash bags! They came in a cardboard box. At least the plastic bag company is being responsible. I did succeed in buying eggs in a gray biodegradable egg carton, and I chose milk cartons over plastic jugs. Thank God for small victories.

This Lenten journey is going to be harder than I thought. I am only a week into Lent, but I already see that this is going to be an educational experience as well as a spiritual one. I never realized how plasticized our everyday lives are and how oblivious I was to it. 

My life is wrapped in plastic, and it is hard to unwrap it. It will take a lot of mindfulness, a large dose of confession and repentance … and a lot more reusable bags.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Psalm Wrestling

For Lent I decided to meditate on one psalm each day for forty days, using the Benedictine discipline known as Lectio Divina, which is a contemplative listening to scripture read aloud. I explored Psalm 1 on Ash Wednesday and all went well, but I was stopped in my tracks on the second day by Psalm 2.

What had I gotten myself into? How was I going to endure 38 more days of this? The second psalm has to be one of the most horrid examples of sacred writ ever writ. It is a coronation psalm recited for Israelite kings on the day they ascended the throne. It pictures the king as God’s son with absolute power over his subjects.

It is filled with threats of oppression, violence, anger, terror and wrath. The peoples under the rule of this Hebrew sovereign desire to be freed from their chains and shackles, but God scoffs at their yearning for freedom. God promises that his newly anointed ruler will “break them with a rod of iron and dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Read the psalm for yourself. I listened to it over and over again, and it did not get any better. The only redeeming part was the final verse, which is God’s command to “kiss his son.” That would be fine if applied to a nonviolent Jesus offering unconditional love, but it is not. It is talking about your typical Bronze Age monarch. Then it adds: “or he will be angry.” Sounds more like The Godfather than God.

Psalm 2 is a dreadful piece of sacred literature. Even if you interpret the psalm Christologically, it is still problematic. I tried to spiritualize it to refer to inner spiritual rebellion against God, but it didn’t work. That is clearly not what the psalmist originally meant. You can only twist scripture so much before it breaks. So I gave up, and let the psalm speak for itself.

It is an expression of human sin. It exemplifies all that is wrong with religion. It is what happens when religion wields worldly power and when political leaders act like they are God. It is Kim Jong Un, and Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. It is antichrist, not Christ. God intends for us to reject such demigods and demagoguery.

The harshness of this psalm pushed me into the arms of the merciful Messiah who was crucified by people who took this psalm literally, people who believed that religious violence in the name of God is justified. Like those who fly planes into towers. It also made me confront the violence and arrogance in my own Christian tradition and in my own heart.

In other words, the psalm accomplished its purpose. I wrestled with this sacred text until it yielded its blessing. The ancient practice of Lectio Divina worked. Scripture is meant to lead us to God, and it can do this in many ways. God can even use passages of scripture that repulse us. The second psalm was that for me. As the psalm says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”