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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Cabin Fever Cure

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The ancients knew what they were about making February shorter than other months. Short as it is, it still seems the longest. Since Christmas with its reds and greens, all we’ve seen are somber browns and grays and blacks and blinding whites. The snow has lost its charm, and all of us, cooped up together for the past two months, have too often lost our tempers. We needed to get out. We needed to renew our faith in the coming of spring with its lush growth and wanton colors.

Saint Paul mercifully provides a place where those weary of winter’s doldrums can refresh their souls. The Como Park Conservatory operates year around, but in February, it’s like water in a desert. We all went yesterday to marinate ourselves in the tropical weather under its glass dome. We breathed the drenched air of the fern room. We saw the stately Christmas palms and the not-so-stately bottle palms. We saw oranges on an orange tree and cacao pods on a chocolate tree and coffee berries on a coffee tree. We saw allspice and red ginger and black pepper. We saw a Panama hat tree, so called because its young leaves are used to make Panama hats.

We always save the best for last, of course, and the best is the Sunken Garden with all the flowers. I like flowers, but I’m not very good with their names. I do fine with marigolds, daffodils, and tulips, but I can never seem to remember cyclamens, rhododendrons, or bromeliads. So, to my chagrin, I can’t remember most of what we saw. All I know is that they were beautiful. There were crimson blossoms sprung from drooping heads that twisted their petals upward as they unfurled. There were star lilies as big as my hand. There were blossoms shaped like tiny vases.

And there were carp in the pond. When the children were young, they would race past the flowers to see the fish, to touch the fish. Certainly, the carp are fascinating: their glittering scales, whiskered faces, and round toothless mouths. Lithe and slippery, they glide over and under one another looking shamelessly for a handout.

After walking through the garden, I sat down on a bench where the winter sun dazzled me. I relaxed. For, lo, the winter is past. The rains are over and gone. Flowers appear in the earth, and the time of singing has come.

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Blessed

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On a recent Facebook post, I asked if there was any difference between blessing and good luck. I got different answers depending on what the respondent believed about the nature of the universe. They fell into three camps:

  1. The material universe is all there is. It is ruled by the laws of physics. Blessing is just a religious name for good luck.
  2. The material universe was created by God, who established the laws of physics to order it. Blessing comes from God. Good luck just happens at random.
  3. The material universe was created by God, who orders even apparently random events. Good luck is just a secular name for blessing.

I think the common understanding of most Christians is that some events are truly random, but other apparently random events are sent or caused by God. In fact, most responses were in the second camp. For example, if I tithe faithfully and give cheerfully, according to some, my life will be blessed in tangible, material ways. My good deeds will be rewarded with unexpected opportunities to make more money or to be more successful or to have greater influence. In this view, an unexpected promotion is from God, but a sudden illness is just a random event (or, possibly, from the devil—I didn’t want to include the devil, but, true to his nature, he butted in uninvited anyway).

This view is comfortable because with it we can absolve God of all catastrophes. Good things come form God; bad things come from nature (or the devil). God didn’t cause the Haitian earthquake; it was the result of tectonic movements deep underground. It was the result of the operation of gravity and impersonal mechanical forces. Or perhaps it was the work of the devil. Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a centuries-old curse, a pact with the devil that the Haitians made in exchange for the power to drive out the French during the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence.

But Christians have a problem. It is God’s omnipotence. While we hastily defend God against accusations that he causes earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, or other disasters, we usually aren’t quite ready to say that he is powerless to prevent them. (Some Christians have said that, and in doing so have diminished God rather than magnifying him as they ought.) If God does not cause calamity, surely he allows it, and isn’t that morally equivalent?

Here we must tread carefully, for this question is not an academic one. It is deeply personal for each one of us. Everyone has had bad things happen to them: death of a parent or child or spouse, a debilitating illness, an incapacitating accident. Such things happen to everyone and cause many to conclude that there is no God or that if there is he does not love them.We have to confess that our judgment has already been compromised.

Once we put God in the dock, we set ourselves up as his judge and agree in principle that there are moral laws that, if they apply to God, surely apply to us as well. And if God really is God, we may find ourselves having to answer to him for our sins rather than judging him for his.

It is natural to believe that bad things befall bad people and good things befall good people. It is how we would order the universe if we ourselves were in charge. We would reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and we would do so immediately. Disaster would be reserved for those who are exceptionally wicked. This was what Job’s friends believed. Repeatedly they demand that Job repent of his heinous sins. He must have been scamming single mothers or selling children into prostitution or ordering mass executions to have incurred such wrath from God. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health all in a short time, yet he claimed to have done nothing to deserve it. ‘Fess up, Job. Nobody has that much bad luck. You must have brought it on yourself.

Funny thing about Job. He never blames Satan for his troubles. The writer of Job lets his readers in on the scenes in heaven, but Job is never privy to them, and he never realizes that the Accuser has accused him of being righteous only for gain, only for God’s blessing. In Job’s mind God is the one ultimately responsible, and it is to him that he wants to present his case: the case of a righteous man unfairly singled out for punishment.

Here’s the funny thing about God. He never acknowledges Job’s case. Instead he overwhelms him with evidence of Job’s own inadequacy. In the end, Job is forced to admit that he is in no position to question God’s actions. He repents and prays for his friends who were guilty of the far greater sin of misrepresenting God.

So put me in the third camp. Despite it’s strange affinity with the naturalistic view of the first camp, I think it better represents the way the universe actually works. Nothing occurs by chance. God has his purposes in everything he causes and allows, and somehow those purposes are better than any alternative we, with our finite capacities, can imagine. I am blessed to be without a job now, and I will be blessed still more when I have a job again.

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