The Lost Week: A Winter Adventure

   Last month a polar vortex wandered down into the southern regions of the United States, where it met moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two systems dropped a multitude of winter weather on areas that, unlike America’s Heartland, are unequipped to handle ice and snow. My life, and the lives of my family members, were disrupted by this February winter event, which resulted for us in the Lost Week.*

Forecasters warned us well in advance that winter weather was coming. They knew all about the polar vortex, the Gulf moisture, and the winter weather the two would produce. Usually this mix happens further north, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Those states know how to handle winter weather. But ice and snow are rare in the southern states; when they occur, they usually melt the next day. Prolonged cold temperatures are unusual; prolonged cold temperatures with winter precipitation are even more unusual. Central Arkansas had gone more than one thousand days without measurable winter precipitation before this winter weather event. As a result, states and counties and municipalities invest little money in snow removal and other ways to handle winter precipitation.

On Wednesday February 10th, we were all talking about the upcoming winter event and the likelihood of weather-related closures during the coming days. Some freezing rain fell and hardened on cold surfaces that night and the next morning. In Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, road crews would have salted the roads and bridges even before the rain began, and all roads would have been open Thursday morning. Instead, for the safety of their workers and of those whom they serve, schools and offices and most other businesses closed for the day that Thursday. Although no precipitation was added Thursday night or Friday morning, the temperature remained below freezing. Some places remained closed on Friday, while others (including my employer) opened late and allowed us to work for a few hours.

Heavy snow was expected to begin some time on Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures had remained below freezing all day Saturday. As a result, churches canceled their Sunday services (or followed the online protocol they had been using for the past eleven months). Snowfall did not begin until evening, but already closings were announced for Monday. Less than an inch of snow had fallen by Monday morning’s usual travel time, but it continued to snow all day. About ten inches accumulated during that Monday snowfall. The snow was light and fluffy, easily moved by shovel. Interstates were kept open through the day, but side streets and rural routes, having received no winter treatment, were impassible.

I have experienced winter weather driving before. My Driver’s Education in high school took place during one of the snowiest winters of northern Illinois history. A few scattered days of classes were canceled that month, but we were rarely off two days in a row. Some years later I attended a meeting in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, living at that time in the southeastern corner of the city. It took about an hour to cross the city to get to the meeting. Around lunchtime, snow began to fall. Plows and other weather treatment vehicles were stuck in traffic as they tried to deal with snow that evening. It took me seven hours on the road to return home. At one point, on the Interstate, I saw three eighteen-wheel trucks side by side, spinning their wheels on a slight incline, blocking three lanes of pointing the opposite direction form which I was heading. The total snowfall from that storm was 9.7 inches. When I got home, I thought surely school would be closed the next day, but I was wrong. Overnight they cleaned up the mess, and in the morning all roads were open and life had returned to normal—business as usual.

Two of my daughters shared an apartment on the west side of town. They chose February 17 of this year to move to a new apartment on the north side. Both had recently taken jobs on the north side, and their new apartment is also closer to my house. Therefore, they had packed many boxes and left them in my house to make moving day easier. Both daughters work in the health care field. One, who works in a hospital, saw the forecast and decided to take a motel room Sunday and Monday nights, sharing and splitting the cost with a coworker. The other, who works weekend nights, followed a normal schedule and managed to make it to work Sunday in spite of the beginning snowfall. Monday, she drove from work to the old apartment, but got stuck on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the apartment. She walked the rest of the way and let us know, by text and phone call, about her situation. Since we had cleared much of the driveway Monday afternoon, we volunteered to rescue us from her apartment—and, if possible, to free her car—Tuesday afternoon. Although my car was nearly stuck on another hill near her apartment that afternoon, we managed to free both cars and to bring her to our place, along with three cats and a dog, who were welcomed (with some hospitality and some apprehension) by our two cats. The other daughter then came to our place from work Tuesday afternoon. With more snow forecast for Wednesday, they agreed to postpone their truck rental and put off the bulk of their move for an undetermined number of days.

Eight more inches of snow fell on Wednesday—again, mostly during the day. Streets and roads that had not been cleared now had double the obstruction. Where people tried to drive and spun their wheels, they often created sheets of polished ice rather than clearing their way down to the pavement. Some used sand or cat litter to try to gain traction. (Sand is a good idea; cat litter not so much—it’s mostly clay, which is also slippery once it gets wet.) Others took the floor mats from inside their cars and, putting them at their tires, managed to get their vehicles moving. My daughters managed to get a key to their new apartment and move some of their boxes out of our place, but they and their dog and cats remained refugees staying with us.

Meanwhile, my son lives in Texas. Like many other people in Texas, he lost power and water. He endured the deprivation for a few days, but then sought relief from us. After Wednesday’s snow, the main highways were beginning to open, so he grabbed both his cats and some perishable groceries and drove north to our place.

My son is an engineer. Living in Texas, he also heard information that was not shared nationwide and was able to understand what it meant. The power failure in Texas was due to solar power and wind power being disabled by winter weather. Texas utility governments petitioned the federal government for permission to burn fossil fuels using available technology, but they were denied permission because of the danger of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. Although other factors played a part in the Texas troubles, the stubbornness of federal bureaucracy played a significant role in worsening the winter weather crisis experienced by residents of the state of Texas.

At its peak, then, our house provided food and shelter for three human refugees along with a total of seven cats and a dog. My workplace was closed all five days of the third week of February. My daughters’ truck rental happened a week later than planned, although they did eventually get themselves, their pets, and their belongings into their new place. My son finally left for Texas yesterday.

It might be years before we face another winter weather event like this in the south. It’s fair to say that no lessons were learned, that no further provisions will be made to successfully cope with ice and snow in the future. Church services were canceled two straight Sundays, and even with all that extra “time off,” I had little success working on writing plans or other special projects. My “to-do” list is longer now than it was a month ago. But the snow has melted, the roads are open again, and life goes on. J.

*The Lost Week is a local joke (which I used at work to satisfying results) referring to the Lost Year of 1958-1959. The Lost Year followed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, a historic event accompanied by street protests and federal troops. In the summer of 1958, the state government unwisely acted to prevent a repeat of that performance by closing all the high schools in Little Rock. That school year, when high school students had to miss a year of school or find alternate sources of education, is known in Arkansas history as the Lost Year.

Silly groundhog

The legend of the groundhog comes from an old weather tradition attached to the holiday called Candlemas. If the day of Candlemas (February 2) begins bright and sunny, winter is only half-way done; but if Candlemas begins with clouds, winter is over and we can expect an early spring. Tales of the groundhog and his shadow perpetuate this tradition, and the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has claimed the national groundhog for the United States—only because they said so first.

I have always held that each region of the country has its own groundhog and its own weather predictions. The region where I live began the Second of February with a cloudy sky, although the skies cleared and the sun broke through by midmorning. Although Punxsutawney’s groundhog forecast six more weeks of winter, our local groundhog would have said that winter was over—an ironic prediction, since we had very little winter weather the last several weeks before Groundhog Day. A few times the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and frost had to be cleaned off the car in the morning, but that was it for winter weather. In fact, this region had experienced no measurable snowfall for more than one thousand days—the fourth-longest “snow drought” for this region since people began keeping records of the weather.

It appears that our regional groundhog stayed out for a while on his day and did not stick with the dawn forecast. Winter has arrived with a vengeance. The polar vortex (which would be a great name for a rock band) met moisture from the gulf, producing a layer of ice last Thursday, followed by many inches of snow yesterday and today. More snow is expected midweek. Travel is next to impossible, and most businesses are closed. This snow is like the snows of my childhood up north. But the state and city governments in this region invest little money in snow removal and road treatment. Most snows melt and disappear within twenty-four hours. This winter weather is expected to linger. We even need to leave the faucets dripping to keep the pipes from freezing, as our overnight and early morning low temperatures will be in the single digits and may even reach zero degrees Fahrenheit.

But, in this ever-changing world, snow days are not what they used to be. Rather than proclaiming the closing of schools, internet announcements are declaring that classes will be held only online. Students and teachers will remain at home, but the snow day will not be a holiday. School buildings will be closed, but classes will still be held. Younger children may not be aware of the change, but surely parents and (especially) teachers might resent the disappearance of an old friend—that unscheduled holiday of a snow day when classes are cancelled and young people go outside and frolic in the flakes.

Trusting the forecast, yesterday I dug into the corner of our shed and found our snow shovel. Dust and cobwebs were removed, and it stands by the front door, waiting to be used. The snow is still falling, so I will wait until afternoon before beginning the snow removal. That also was a game when I was young, clearing the path of snow, building a range of ephemeral mountains for imaginary explorers to conquer. Rejoicing in the beauty of snow and finding jollification in its presence helps one remain young at heart, I believe. Old Man Winter might make other people grouchy, but in my household he remains a welcome if a rare and brief guest. J.

Jesus has this covered

On his blog, Wally Fry asks the rhetorical question, “The weatherman says, ‘a storm is coming,’ and everyone panics. The preacher says, ‘Jesus is coming,’ and no one cares.” OK, that’s not a question, but it’s still a rhetorical statement. “Everyone” and “no one” are exaggerations, but the point remains that people react more strongly to a little winter weather than they do to the warnings and promises of the Bible.

So I commented, “I suppose it wouldn’t make much sense to rush to the store and buy bread and milk and eggs and a shovel because Jesus is coming. J.” That was merely a quick and casual reaction. Now that I’ve had a few more hours to think about Wally’s quip, I find that I have more to say.

First, it’s true, at least in Wally’s part of the country (Arkansas), the threat of a little snow or (worse) ice sends everyone to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs. Toss in a little sugar and cinnamon and you could make French Toast. Why people want French Toast with their ice and snow, I don’t know. Of course, they also buy shovels to move snow off the sidewalks and driveways and salt to melt the ice. The city and county and state governments invest very little money in snow removal equipment, since most of the time the snow is gone in twenty-four hours without any human effort. There is always a risk, though, of a longer freeze, possibly with the electricity out, so people in Arkansas have learned to be prepared. And by “prepared,” I mean that they rush to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs.

Jesus told a parable (found in Matthew 25:1-13) about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so the wedding celebration could begin. Five were wise and brought extra olive oil for their lamps; the other five were foolish and had no extra oil. When the bridegroom’s imminent arrival was announced, they saw that they had no oil and begged to borrow some oil from the first five, but there was not enough oil for the wise ones to share. Instead, the foolish bridesmaids went to find a store open all night where they could buy some oil. The bridegroom arrived, the doors were locked, and the party started. When the foolish bridesmaids found themselves locked outside of the party, they knocked on the door, but the bridegroom did not recognize them and left the door locked.

Bible interpreters sometimes chase the rabbit of “what does the oil represent?” The olive oil could be almost anything, and the parable still makes sense. Anyone who feels a need to rush out and purchase supplies because Jesus is coming is in danger of missing the party. Like the wedding guests who thought that their own interests and possessions were more important than the wedding of the king’s son (Matthew 22:1-14), these bridesmaids found something to be more important to them than the arrival of the bridegroom. As a result, they missed the party.

Why would you need to run to the store when you know Jesus is coming? Do you need milk? Jesus brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17); he can certainly supply us with all the milk that we need. As for bread, we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), but still Jesus says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he that has no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself with rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2). He who fed crowds of thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish also promises that when he comes, he “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). Do you need to buy eggs? Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12). Believe me, or believe his own words: Jesus has this covered.

Jesus can even provide the shovel. We know that he is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1-7), and we read in the Old Testament that shovels were part of the equipment given to every high priest (Exodus 27:3). They were used for clearing ashes from the altar, but still we know that Jesus has his own shovel. And what of salt? Jesus says to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). So Jesus is prepared for any bad weather. No storm can defeat him.

Jesus has this covered. We do not need to run to the store because Jesus is coming. Instead, we prepare to welcome him joyfully, knowing that when he arrives, the biggest party ever is going to begin. J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)

Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.