Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lesson from Johnstown

I've been reading David McCullough's book on the Johnstown Flood. It was one of the greatest natural disasters in America, and over two thousand people died when it struck in 1889. Until I read the book, I didn't realize that the flood was caused by God and the Presbyterians.

For God's part, God sent a lot of rain.

As for the Presbyterians, they were people like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick - wealthy industrialists who made millions on steel and railroads. They built a hunting camp about fifteen miles uphill from Johnstown. When summer came, it was a great place to escape the stress of their mansions in Pittsburgh.

However they didn't pay attention to the quality of the dam that created their fishing lake. They ignored warnings that the dam wasn't safe. After God sent all the rain, and the dam burst, and the flood waters roared down the hill, those rich old Covenanters made token donations to the victims' relief fund. Then they said, "Maybe we should start summering in the Adirondacks. Or in Paris."

As David McCullough reminds us, "There is a danger in assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibility."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Promise of Winter

One of my treasured books for this time of year is a book of winter reflections by Martin Marty. Commenting on black and white seasonal photos taken by his son, Dr. Marty believes winter is a promising time for spiritual reflection. As he notes,

Winter has its inevitable place in the human condition. Farmers know that in the rhythm of the year and the nature of the soil, there is a reason for fields to lie fallow for a season. So too we know that in the rhythm of the day and the nature of the soul, there are reasons for the pace of our thought and for our spiritual reflection to vary. (The Promise of Winter, p. 7)

The promise of winter, says Dr. Marty, is not an easy or inevitable spring. Rather the promise comes from God who speaks throughout the seasons. Sometimes the heavy snow slows us down, cancels all distractions, and causes us to be more careful with our lives. A good storm can also invite us to catch up with the inward movements of the soul that we've been too busy to notice.

On a snow day I pulled on my boots and took the camera outside. The digital camera that normally sees in color began to catch images in shades of black and white. That seems to be the invitation, not only of winter, but of the spiritual life. We can discover the places within us that have lost their luster, and we can reflect on the situations that beg for a fresh covering.

Meanwhile the snow still falls through no power of our own, and there's something purifying about it. The white blanket covers the grunge of an unkempt backyard. The lumps and dents in an uneven lawn are leveled off. Dull ordinary things suddenly look better than we expected. It's true that a snowfall can present a necessary burden to remove or blow away. But it can also create new forms of beauty.

What do we need most - beauty or burden - as we begin our late winter journey toward the cross?

Keep the faith, and drive carefully out there.