Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day

One Good Friday, when I was a child, we attended the Tenebrae service at our Lutheran church, and while we sat in our pews a storm rose outside. The wind began to blow wildly, and while Christ made his way to the accursed tree, every tree on the hills around us was made to bow and bend. Hail, King of the Jews. The sun went dark. The windows shook. The clouds shed tears. Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. From the steeple at the center of the circular sanctuary hung a large wooden cross on a chain, and as the rain lashed the roof, the steeple began to vibrate. As those wind vibrations worked their way down the chain, the cross began to hum. To buzz. To moan. The wood itself seemed to cry from out of the depths—a basso profundo wailing. Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani? I remember the chills I felt as the massive Bible was slammed shut and the lights flicked off, the creak and groan of the wooden pews as we filed wordlessly out of the service, the whip of cold air as it snaked its way through the glass doors, biting at our heels, making me shiver.

Truly this was the Son of God.

That Good Friday storm was one of the more dramatic events of my church-going life. In retrospect I have wondered what physics were behind that mourning cross. More than physics, perhaps. That the storm blew in at the perfect moment, that a cold Canadian front met with a mass of wet southern air at that precise geographical location and sent the wind swirling in just such a way as to communicate grief through the glass, down a chain, and into that heavy wood seems almost unbelievable. As unbelievable as the death of God. But I was there. I was a witness. And I do believe.

Today is Earth Day. Today is Good Friday. On this day, two holidays—two holy days—collide. Today, Evangelical pastors and Greenpeace activists share the same hope: the hope that the earth will be saved.

We Christians and we earth-lovers want this world to be redeemed from destruction. None of us want it to go up sulfer-scented flames. I, for one, would rather not turn the wetlands into a trash heap. I'm all for biodegradable grocery sacks, and I don't mind the green glow of my compact fluorescent bulbs too much either. I do have a mandate to care for creation, but by composting my potato peelings, I am not, ultimately, saving the world. We all want to restore paradise, to bring heaven to earth. But at this point the Good Friday and the Earth Day visions diverge. Today we preach our respective gospels to the dying:
    Christ was crucified.
    Plant a tree for your tomorrow.

And yet, in a twist of irony, the salvation of the earth does, as it turns out, depend upon a tree—a tree that was planted on a hill outside Jerusalem two millennia ago. Creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

There was an earthquake that day on Golgatha. Seismology played a roll at the crucifixion, but something more than plate tectonics was at work; the earth itself was taking part in Christ's passion. There was a storm on that Good Friday of my childhood. Perhaps a meteorologist could explain the peculiar atmospheric fluctuations that arose that dark evening when the earth, again, acted out its passion play. Was climate change behind it? Should we try to prevent those conditions from arising in the future? Somebody, after all, paved paradise to put up that church. But that church—that cross—is where the heavens met the earth that day. And where heaven and earth are joined, paradise is restored.

The cross, that deadly collision of heaven and earth, is where the true lover of the world—He through whom the earth itself was created—bled to save it. If He did not come to restore the earth, then all the neighborhood recycling programs in the world be damned.

Good Friday is Earth Day, this year and every year. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Clouds Ye So Much Dread

Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness 
instead of lightbecause their deeds were evil. 
—John 3:19

From the pink glow behind my eyelids on Tuesday morning, I could see that the sun was shining before I had even opened my eyes. The window to our bedroom faces east, and the warm light leaking through the yellow curtains spoke of crocuses and daffodils and soft, damp grass. Sitting up in bed, I peered through the glass and let my dilated pupils contract. Below me lay a street washed clean by night-rains and sparkling beneath a blinding sunrise.

After months of snow and weeks of drizzle, these bright mornings blast through the gloom with a jolt of energy that no quad-shot latte can rival. Sunshine spills over the yard, puddles on the carpet and trickles into my soul. By the time I pull the living room curtains as wide as they will go, I am already inspired, ready to tackle projects that have lain untouched for months—ready to sew duvet covers, try new recipes, push strollers, plant seeds, pull weeds, get dirt under my fingernails. Goodbye, clouds. Hello, life.

My name is Hannah, and I am addicted to sunlight.

I don’t remember when I first noticed that a lack of sun was resulting in painful withdrawals, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that the weather can hold more than a little sway over my mood. When the sky is gray, my thoughts tend to be gray as well. I struggle to get myself going in the mornings. I drink one too many cups of coffee. I stare blankly at the monochromatic blandness, and I sometimes wonder what on earth possessed us to leave Texas: I could be driving past sun-warmed fields of bluebonnets right now, and instead I’m going numb scraping ice off my windshield.

Short, dark days find me fighting against a short, dark temper, and by the time we give up on saving daylight near the end of the year—when our clocks “fall back” with a dull thud—the loss of sunlit hours starts to rankle.

When the elderly choose to flee the frozen north and spend their winters in Scottsdale or Miami, I do not laugh. I sympathize. Maybe I am merely a snowbird who has not yet learned to fly. Why shouldn’t blue horizons and pink hibiscus brighten the winter of life? With our hair and teeth turning gray, why should we stay to watch the sky and earth do the same?

There’s a reason you’ve never heard the word “bleak” used to describe a mid-summer’s day. Warmth and light need no defense. Light was the very first created thing. And it was good. Does a “cold” shoulder or a “dark” glance ever describe friendliness and joy? Does not the very nature of things tell us what cold and darkness ought to communicate to our poetic sensibilities?

I have friends who claim to love winter. This I do not understand. Not in the least. Nay, not even a little tiny bit. Winter is cold. Winter is dark. Winter is colorless and confining. Winter kills. When people say they look forward to winter, it strikes me with the same discordant note as when churchy people say they look forward to death. Yes, by all means, look forward to what’s on the other side, but do not look forward to death. Death itself is the curse. And I cannot help but think of winter in the same way—as a thing that must be overcome. Winter is a good only insofar as it is a means to arriving at spring.

In order to be enjoyed, winter must be conquered and subdued. We war against it with down parkas, with fiberglass insulation, with UV lamps, with tanning beds, with vitamin D capsules, with tropical beach screensavers, with wood fires, with hot cider. From November to March, my home can feel like a castle under siege; we may not escape its walls without wool hats and snow shovels—the shields and weapons of our hibernal battle.

When I was 13, my family spent the winter in Warsaw, Poland, where the color of virtually everything we saw was a cold gray—clouds, ground, snow, trees, buildings, and even clothing. The sun rose at 10:00 and set at 4:00. There were days when the sun itself seemed to have had the life sucked from it, days when color film seemed a superfluous commodity. Countless pitiable souls had given themselves over to fifths of cheap vodka in their pursuit of a remedy to the chill without and the darkness within. We felt the oppression of that winter ourselves. It was the only time I can remember ever seeing my mother give way to inexplicable tears.

Snow, I grant, is beautiful in its way, but I always feel that it’s at its best when viewed from indoors while it gleams fresh under a clear blue sky and tries for all the world to mimic the white sands of a subtropical beach. I, for one, am dreaming of a green Christmas. I’d trade a thousand soggy snowmen for one sun-drenched sandcastle.

During the season of Epiphany when the days are dim and the nights long, we sing the hymn “As With Gladness Men of Old,” and the final verse always makes my heart swell with longing:

In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its light, its joy, its crown,
Thou its sun which goes not down…

Sun which goes not down. Meditate on that. I think I know why my stalwart ancestors settled in Norway; it was surely summer when they arrived, and that midnight sun must have seemed very near to the heavenly country bright. The very thought leaves me pining for the fjords. Little did those pre-Viking hoards know what awaited them come November. Maybe those dark, tiresome winters were behind all the pent up aggression that my distant forebears eventually unleashed on the rest of Europe. And while I may not feel the urge to ransack a village at the end of a long, drab season, I'm certainly tempted to be unreasonably irritable with my family.

When sun finally does break through the gray, as it did this Tuesday morning, the effect is glorious, and I need little other help to embrace the morning. On those days, it's easy to love whatever I meet, and you may even find me humming a tune before I reach the coffee pot. But I cannot spend nine months of the year in fetal position waiting for those sun-days to arrive.

This succession of gray days is trying. But I also know that it has been good for me. When the sun retreats for days on end, it tests my patience and my hope. When that created light grows dim, it drives me to seek a light that endures in spite of thick clouds and short days and winter winds; it drives me back to that sun which goes not down. Light—unchanging, unwavering, unerring Light—shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it: good news that should make for a very good morning indeed.

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