Friday, November 11, 2016
For everything, there is a season
Twenty-five years and three weeks ago, my wife and I watched the television with horror from North Carolina as the hills to the north and east of Oakland, California burned. We had lived within a mile of some of the scorched earth only five years earlier. We knew people who were evacuated. In the end, "the fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (620 ha) destroyed, included 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion."* My wife and I returned within several months to the Bay Area for a visit. The devastation was clear. Chimneys were the only remnants of nice homes. The air still smelled of burnt wood and grass. It was heart-breaking.
Five years after the fire, we returned again, this time (semi-)permanently, as I took a job working with the university community at UC-Berkeley. We ended up living less than a mile from our previous home. So, once again, we were constantly traveling through the area that had been burned-over. As one might imagine, it was quite different. It was clear that the environment worked to repair itself. "Wild" parcels of land gave evidence of new growth; wildflowers bloomed. In addition, replanted vegetation had that "fresh" look, and was quite smaller! New homes looked little like their predecessors (mostly they were larger!). What was most significant, however, was that, both with the new construction and with those homes that had survived the fire-storm, there was a wide swath of cleared land surrounding each building. As is the case with many Colorado homes in forested areas now, the trees and brush were removed to help create a "fire-free zone". From the disaster that was the fire, the residents of the Oakland hills learned both how to work WITH the environment, as well as what might be done to prevent a future conflagration on the same scale.
Almost every year at this time, I recall that fire and its aftermath. This year, the memory coincided with my reading of the Hebrew prophet Joel. The short book tells of a locust plague and its aftermath. The account is of complete devastation:
For a nation [i.e., the locusts] has invaded my country, mighty and innumerable, with teeth like a lion’s teeth, with the fangs of a lioness. It has reduced my vines to a desolation and my fig trees to splinters, stripped them and broken them down, leaving their branches white. . . . Has not the food disappeared before our very eyes? Have not joy and gladness vanished from the Temple of our God? The seeds shrivel under their clods; the granaries are deserted, the barns are in ruins, because the harvest has dried out. Loudly the cattle groan! The herds of oxen are bewildered because they have no pasture. The flocks of sheep bear the punishment too (Joel 1.6-7, 16-18).
Certainly, in the mind of the prophet, this plague was due in pat to a lack of faithfulness on the part of the people of Judah. The prophet calls them to proclaim a fast and to repent.
Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; you elders, summon everybody in the country . . . Cry out to God. . . . Tear your hearts and not your clothes, and come back to your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and he relents about inflicting disaster. (1.14; 2.13).
The demand to return is directed to ALL of the people, not just some. And, on behalf of God, if they do so, Joel assures the people that things would get better:
Land, do not be afraid; be glad, rejoice, for God has done great things. Wild animals, do not be afraid; the desert pastures are green again, the trees bear fruit, vine and fig tree yield their richness. Sons of Zion, be glad, rejoice in Yahweh your God; for he has given you autumn rain as justice demands, and he will send the rains down for you, the autumn and spring rain as of old. The threshing-floors will be full of grain, the vats overflow with wine and oil. I will make up to you for the years devoured by grown locust and hopper, by shearer and young locust, my great army which I sent to invade you (2.22-25).
Reading that, I recalled the aftermath of the firestorm in Oakland. The fire eventually burned out, and nature took over (in some cases with human help). The change of seasons (i.e., "autumn rain") move inexorably; the locusts WILL die and the fire be extinguished, and the land will restore itself.
And, THIS year, the reading of Joel and the recollection of the Oakland fire coincided with the election. It was not difficult to speculate that some, like me, reading Joel and thinking of the fire, might equate the campaign season and election to a locust-like plague, or firestorm, leaving nothing but destruction and despair. And certainly, there is despair and worry, especially for some. Hopes that a glass ceiling might be broken were dashed. There has been talk that our political system has been destroyed (or at least seriously damaged). Some of us have found it difficult to breathe, or get out of bed. People around campus have appeared stunned. We wonder what the future holds. I can't answer that; I'm not sure anyone can. But I will say that the days AFTER the election were when I read those verses from chapter 2 of Joel. And I was reminded that there is a seasonality to life, to nature. As much as autumn follows summer and is, in its turn, followed by winter and then spring, there is also a predictable "seasonality" to our political system. Regardless of our political leanings, we can learn from what brought about THIS election (much as Oaklanders learned what contributed to the nature of their firestorm) in order to make some corrections prior to the next. And, some of that learning, I believe, will demand of ALL of us the humility suggested in Joel's call-to-repentance.