Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding God in the Smell of Mud

(This is a reblog of a post from 2014, originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper.)
   
       I grew up here in Maine, but my wife Rachel is a Pennsylvanian. For those who are “from away,” our version of springtime here in Maine is a difficult one to appreciate. Rachel rhapsodizes about springtime in Pennsylvania as a season of green on every side, of dogwoods blooming, of warm sunshine streaming through forests that have come alive in a concert of birdsong. With such a picture of spring in mind, our version of spring—a couple months of mud and chilly rain, followed immediately by blackflies, does not seem appealing at first glance. But, having grown up in Maine, there is something about springtime here that speaks to me in no uncertain terms about the vibrancy of life. And for me, spring is not so much about the colors of green leaves or blue skies, but about smells—the rich, heavy scent of the frozen earth slowly coming back to life. Even if deprived of the main sense I rely on—sight—I could still tell you it was springtime in Maine simply by breathing in the air, by catching the scent of the ground thawing out.

Faith is a little bit like this. Many of us rely on our rational impulses and gut instincts to make sense of the world—these, like our sense of sight, are our primary way of understanding life. But in certain seasons of our life, seasons of doubt or skepticism, these senses don’t have much to offer us. Like looking for greenery at the beginning of a Maine springtime, looking for clear signs of God’s activity using only our gut instincts and a veneer of rationality might not bring a lot of results. So if you’re in that place where it seems like evidence of God is hard to find, I would encourage you to listen to your other senses. All human beings have certain intuitions placed deep within them, intuitions which we take for granted, but which provide clear signposts of God’s gracious presence in the world. We are all wired to desire justice, for instance—everyone objects when treated unfairly. We are also wired to appreciate beauty—in the natural world around us, in works of art, in the sound of a song: something in our hearts responds to beauty in a way that we wouldn’t expect to find if this were a meaningless world. Intuitions like this—our nature to be predisposed towards justice, goodness, beauty, joy—these are things  which stand as signposts in our own nature that we are created for more than merely ourselves. God is there to be found, but sometimes, like finding springtime in Maine, we find him most clearly when we close our eyes for a moment and breathe deep.

         Let me draw one more parallel between springtime and the life of faith. Some people try to grudgingly keep God at a distance, as if opening our eyes to his truth would primarily mean having to buckle down to the hard and bitter work of trying to be good. This attitude entirely misses the point. It would be as if we Mainers, having sat through a long, bleak winter, said to ourselves, “I really don’t want spring to come, because springtime brings a lot of work—raking, planting, mowing, cleaning—I’d rather just sit inside and let it keep snowing.” Rather, most of us are joyfully ready for the simple and soul-cleansing work of spring when it arrives. It’s the same way with coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ—yes, it will mean a change in some of our habits and ways of living—but just like springtime, it will be a change ushered in by incredible joy and energy and new life. The call to come to faith in God is not a subpoena that forces us into a life of gray drudgery; it is an invitation to leave behind our old, closed-up homes, step out into the spring rain, and dance.

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