Thursday, April 30, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Story of a Storm (and Possibly an Angel)

For "Throwback Thursday," I'm posting a story from my life, which took place in the early winter of 2000-2001 (when I was a senior at Caribou High School, in northern Maine).

("Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," by John Everett Millais, 1892, oil on canvas; image in the public domain)

Dad and I were driving to school one morning, and we had picked up another high schooler, Megan (a girl from my youth group), along the way. Because her house was out on a back road, we were driving down an empty wooded stretch before connecting to one of the main roads into Caribou. The weather report for that day had been terrible, and already a wild wind was howling. But, as is the way in northern Maine, school almost never gets canceled by weather reports alone, but only by the weather itself. So we plugged on, watching as the wind screamed through the snow-laden woods around us. 

Then, suddenly, we saw a massive tree down ahead, blocking the entire width of the road. We stopped the car and got out to take a quick look at it. It was like stepping into a wild, strange world--the normally quiet woods around us were groaning and cracking, and tiny snowflakes were driven so hard by the wind that they felt like needlepricks on the skin. While we were standing there, on the point of deciding that we needed to turn around and drive all the way back to the other main road, a pickup truck pulled up behind us. It was a local pastor whom we knew, and he too stepped out to get a look at the fallen tree. Just then the most uncanny thing happened: a hundred yards behind us, another tall tree snapped in the wind and fell all the way across the road. We were blocked in on both sides. We stood there for a few moments, unsure of what to do, and all the while we could hear the creaking and snapping of trunks and limbs all around us. There was a sense of urgency in the air--the longer we waited, the more likely it was that another tree could snap and fall towards the car. Thankfully, though, the pastor who was trapped with us happened to have all the necessary ropes and tow cables in his pickup. So he latched on to the first tree and was able to haul it out of the road, and we were on our way again. 

The story didn’t end with that strange episode, though. By the time we got into Caribou, snow had started to fall thick and fast, and finally the school department decided to cancel school for the students, but still to have an in-service day for teachers. That meant that I, still relatively new at driving, had to drop Dad off at the school and then drive back through a howling blizzard the fifteen or so miles to Megan's house. 

The roads were treacherous, but I took it slow, and we plugged along without incident until we were within a half-mile of home. There we were stopped at the back of a small line of vehicles, unable to move forward. I stepped out of the car to see what was going on, and it was clear that an active power line was down across the road. Megan and I sat there and waited for the repair crew for at least half an hour, listening to the radio to pass the time, but there was no movement in the line. 

Finally I decided that we might be able retrace some of our route and then take the local backroads in order to loop around the fallen power line. So we turned around, and I had gotten about five miles back down the road when the car started to slide out of my control. A gust of wind howled past us, creating a complete whiteout in which I couldn’t see anything at all. All orientation was lost--for all I knew, we were about to tumble into the ditch, or into oncoming traffic on the other side. The whiteout only lasted for a couple seconds, and when it cleared and the car stopped sliding, I saw that we were miraculously still in our own lane. But it scared me enough to convince me to turn back around and wait patiently in the line of cars until the power line had been picked up. It was nearly noon by the time I got Megan and myself back to our homes, but we were safe. 

Years later, I heard Dad give an account of this same day. After we had left him at the school, he was understandably worried about us driving in those conditions. He tried to call the house a couple times during the morning, but of course I wasn’t there yet. And then, out of the blue, someone called the high school and asked to speak to him. A man’s voice, whom he did not recognize, came on and told him not to worry, that I was safe, waiting behind a downed power line. The remarkable thing was that, in looking back, I don’t recall anyone coming up to the car and talking to us or checking on us while we were there—no one, to my knowledge, even knew we were there—certainly I never asked anyone to call Dad. This is one of just a small handful of instances in my life where I'm openly willing to put forward the thought of angels as the most reasonable explanation of what happened. In any case, we all got home safe, and we also got a pretty good story to tell from it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Poesy Post: Springtime in Eastern Maine

Here in eastern Maine, it’s not uncommon to hear many of us, myself included, complaining about the weather in springtime. We lose the first few weeks of spring to the death throes of winter, and then we get a couple months of mud, cold rain, and, finally, blackflies. Anyone attempting to live a philosophical life, however, must examine the attitude with which we treat these months. And so I asked myself, “What would Epictetus say about this?” (Incidentally, this is a good question to apply to just about anything.) The result is a Stoic-Christian poem in nine stanzas. Enjoy.

Springtime in Eastern Maine: A Stoic Dialogue in Poetic Form

Think not on what you’d have the weather be;

        Rejoice in what it is.


But we have skies of unrelenting gray, you say!

I say we have blankets of life-giving dew

        O’erwrapping our rocky hideaway—

Skies for which many a land

        Would trade their cloudless azure domes,

        Which lift the spirit for a day,

        Then render desolate what they have charmed.


But the rain is cold, you say, and miserable!

No more cold, say I,

        Than the snow two-fortnight past;

        And a good deal less miserable besides.

But we are all Israel in the desert,

        Forgetting the lessons of miseries past

        In the face of new discomforts.

And besides, cold gray rain is better matched

        With sipping tea, and playing piano,

        And writing poetry from inchoate thoughts

        Than any other weather I know.


But what of spring in warmer climes,

        Where the earth responds to winter’s death

        In a riot of resurrection,

        Of verdure and birdsong and flowering trees?

First, comparisons do no service for the truth:

        Our Maker is more artist than machine,

        And what he makes of you

        Is not what he makes of another.

        To compare yourself, your homeland,

        To another self, another land,

        Is to miss the splendor of his craftsmanship,

        Which spins a billion different worlds

        Whose greatest glory is to be themselves,

        Just as he has made them.


Second, an admission:

        Our spring may not be sublime, it’s true.

It’s rather more like prayer than paradise:

        Inviting us to step out and breathe deep,

        To wait in grateful patience

        Through short, infrequent glimpses

        Of the blessings yet to come;

To build up perseverant virtue

        In the crucible of time;

Learning to walk in step with what is now

        And leaning hopeward

        Toward what is yet to come:

        This is prayer, and this is Maine.


And further, while other climes rejoice

        In paradisiacal spring,

There awaits for them a passage

        Through Hades’ outer humidor,

        Known as summer in the southward lands.

And while they sweat and toil

        In heavy, sultry air,

Or retreat into the false refrigeration of their homes,

        Then we shall have our paradise!


But still, you protest, when leaves do come,

        We still must endure, every year,

        The third and fourth plagues on Egypt!

And here it’s fit to teach ourselves

        That we are neighbors in a land

        Not meant for us alone.

If you want a land that’s been designed

        To cater to human whims alone,

Then what you want

        Is the unmitigated tedium of concrete suburbs,

        Where chastened nature is tamed

        Toward whatever pleases us.

But here, where we must persevere

        Through blackflies and mosquitoes,

We also share a quiet invitation

        To rejoice with brother warbler, sister trout,

        In the flood of God’s beneficence,

        Which descends in buzzing clouds

        Like holy manna every May and June.

I would not wish these plagues away

        If I must also say farewell

        To the warbler and the trout,

        The swallow and the spider,

        The quiet bat and croaking frog.

        For them, and for my love of them,

        I gladly bear the burden

        Of our communal life.


In all these things, spring teaches us

        To be more than we are now,

        To reduce not this great world

        To our delights alone.

The secret of spring is in walking slow,

        In letting our world

        Simply be herself,

        And to learn her wiser ways.

We cannot forget to speak our thanks

        To this slow and rugged corner of the earth,

And to love her for what she is

        And for what she was made to be,

Rather than asking her to be less

        Than the glory of what Providence grants her.


So bring on the mud and rain and gray-cast skies,

And teach me the grace,

        As Maine knows it,

        Of waking up slowly, patiently,

        And breathing deep

        Before paradise returns.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Photo for the Week - Tundra Swan in Migration

In order to make a regular schedule for my blog, I'm going to follow up my Monday "Quote of the Week" with one of my own nature photos every Tuesday, along with a Scripture verse for reflection. I hope you enjoy it.

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
To receive glory and honor and power,
For you created all things,
And by your will they were created
And have their being.
              (Revelation 4:11, NIV)

(Photo of a Tundra Swan taken during the spring migration at Middle Creek, Pennsylvania)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Quote of the Week: Isaac of Nineveh

"As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God's providence and mercy. As a copious spring could not be stopped up with a handful of dust, so the Creator's compassion cannot be conquered by the wickedness of creatures."

Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Be Twice Struck, and Still to Love

One of the most challenging parts of doing ministry where I am, in an area where there are few social services reaching out to the poor, is that we happen to be one of the only churches who offer emergency assistance for the homeless and the needy. And part of the difficulty is in learning to continue loving even when the occasional person goes out of their way to take advantage of your generosity. Here's a poem/prayer I wrote after a particularly difficult interaction.

How to Be Twice Struck, and Still to Love

Lord, I have need of Thy compassion,
A heart to serve the poor.
But they, like all of us,
Are deceitful and unjust,
And my callused heart can't see beyond
Their bare mendacity of soul.
Let me see, as You do,
That vice like this is cause
For compassion, not offence,
The symptom of a brokenness
That calls for pity unchagrined.
Teach me, Lord,
How to be twice struck,
And still to love.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fatherhood (or, What It's Like to Be God)

(Below is a devotional column I recently wrote for my hometown newspaper, the Calais Advertiser.)
My children are infuriating. They are also, quite possibly, the three most adorable people on the entire planet. (I have three kids, at 5 years old, 3, and 1). Every parent, I suspect, knows this dynamic. Our children become the center of outpourings of love that we didn’t even know we had within us. Not only do they change our lives, they change us. Before I had kids, I was a pretty stolid guy—I never let down my guard in public to dance, make silly faces, or act out impromptu scenes. Now that I’m a parent, I do all those things. My love for my kids draws me out and makes me join in their games, because they shimmer with delight when I chase them, or dance with them, or pretend I’m a dinosaur.
But, at the same time, our kids still drive us crazy. They’re experts at running our emotional reserves down to empty while maintaining just enough spectacular cuteness to keep us from throwing in the towel. Our kids have no emotional boundaries and a tremendously forgetful grasp of the house rules. They find it perfectly rational to draw on the walls or splash their hands in the toilet or stand on the table and spin the light fixtures as fast as they can go. And they can’t understand why we don’t see the appeal of those delightful activities.
I suspect that our relationship with God is something like this. Those of us who have accepted Christ as Lord have been adopted into God’s family. But many of us may have grown up with an idea of God that saw him as a glowering judge, keeping meticulous track of our every transgression. Or, even if we knew that he was a “Father,” he was at least a stern sort of father, the kind of father that expected perfection, was never impressed with our efforts, and was always disappointed at our failings. A lot of Christians have lived a lot of their lives with a guilt complex, because they have this view of God.
But that’s not actually what God is like. If we could see our faith-relationship the way God sees it, it would look a lot like what we feel about our own children. Just like my kids, you and I do a lot of things that go against God’s “house rules”—rules put in place not to keep us from having fun, but simply to keep us safe. Just like my kids, you and I have trouble putting into practice the good lessons we’ve learned a hundred times over, and instead keep repeating our old mistakes. If God were a human father, no doubt we would drive him crazy. But, thankfully for us, God is infinite, and his emotional reserves can never be depleted. He cannot be worn out by our sins, because no amount of sin can even come close to matching the endless supply of his love. Even when my kids have worn me out by the end of a day, I have never ceased to love them, not for a moment. Even in my occasional disappointment at their errors, I know that they are young and prone to such mistakes—indeed, it would be impossible to expect perfection of them. And each day, even on the tough days, I never question my love for them. That’s how God sees us. He understands that we are weak and fallible and prone to selfish sins. He understands that it would be impossible for us in our present condition to be completely without sin. And so, despite our errors and failings, God loves us. In Christ, his love has even absolved our sins. His love is as far beyond my simple fatherly love as the universe is bigger than the earth. There is nothing that we could possibly do that would make God stop loving us, or even to detract one small mark from the measure of his love for us. As the songwriter Michael Card put it, “He cannot love more, and He will not love less.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Back to Blogging!

I think I'm going to try to resurrect "The Peace and the Passion" after several years of neglect (which were preceded by several years of obscurity and irrelevancy). I can't promise my followers (whom I can count on one hand) that this will become a blog of titanic popularity and life-revolutionizing insights, but I'll at least try to be thoughtful and occasionally witty. Probably the most likely outcome is that I could raise some eyebrows for writing down theological thoughts that may be unfamiliar to most evangelicals, so stay tuned for those. But, since I'm already here making this earth-shattering announcement, I'm going to offer a few thoughts on the topic of the Internet while I'm at it.

The truth is, I don't much like the Internet. Of course, I would miss it if it were gone, but I think I would actually be a better person if I had come of age in a time without the lure of online connectivity. Think of how many more books I could have read! Or written! For me, who has dragged my feet in joining the digital age, the Internet has not yet entirely subsumed my consciousness, and so I can still imagine a happy and industrious life without it. My relationship with the Internet is rather like my relationship with Doritos. I would be a better person without them. But still, they're just so darn tasty! On days when my willpower is low, it's easy to crunch through a few handfuls of synthetic orange cheese crisps. And it's just as easy to spend a thoughtless hour surfing the Internet and reading a few dozen unconnected articles and blogs. I feel about the same afterwards as if I'd just cruised through a bag of Doritos--sort of mindless and numb, and too eviscerated by unsated boredom to do much of any value afterwards. Maybe it would be better if I was one of those people who actually follow particular blogs and forward them on, who interact (in a manner of speaking) with other people on social media, or who find some joy in manipulating digital pixels in a pointless game. But I'm not--the only blog I regularly check in on is the Celebrated Magazine of H. Albertus Boli, which is not so much a blog as a running satire on the whole digital age. I do occasionally find something interesting to think about from the Internet, but usually it's in such rapid-consumption nugget form that it isn't easy to find a way to make it the sort of idea that one can savor, percolate, and infuse into the pattern of one's life.

So, if that's how I feel about the Internet's blogosphere, why on earth would I want to bring back my old blog? Well, I'm humble enough to recognize that not everyone out there is a crotchety Luddite, and so some hypothetical person living in some possible world may actually enjoy and benefit from a little bit of winsome theologizing. And it would probably be good for me to remake my relationship with the Internet into something a bit more creative and a bit less consumptive. So, with that in mind, I'm ready to join the millions of opinionated ideologues shouting out lines of unread text into the recesses of the world's computer servers!

(Now stop reading the Internet, and go read a book.)