Sunday, November 8, 2015

Thanksgiving One: Provision

Monarch caterpillar, Marshall Hedin, Wikimedia
At a recent funeral, I found myself talking with friends I hadn’t spent time with in years. The conversation turned quickly to challenges and changes, and to stories of God’s provision in recent times of struggle.

One friend recounted her experience of needing a car. Without one, her job possibilities had been limited. She had saved enough to buy something used, but was having trouble finding a car both affordable and reliable.

“I was praying,” she said, and I felt like God was asking, ‘What kind of car do you want? What’s your favorite kind of car?’” She laughed. “I kept thinking: I just need a dependable car, but the thought wouldn’t go away: if you had a choice, what would you want?”

She finally spent some time thinking about cars she’d had, and remembered one that had been totaled by a family member years ago.  “I loved that car!”

Not long after, she saw a similar car for sale, used, for ten dollars less than the amount she had budgeted. She took a mechanic friend to look and ended up with a far better car than she had hoped for. A car she loves. A car that makes her feel cared for. A car that makes her laugh with joy when she looks at the way God sometimes provides.

Another friend had lost her job and was anxious about how to pay the mortgage on a new home she’d recently settled on. She had had some interviews, but had been waiting too long to hear. Her job ended Friday. On Monday, she’d be on her own.

She called a friend to join her in prayer and together they prayed that she’d hear, very soon, about the one job she’d been waiting on.  That there would be an offer.

That same afternoon the call came. A very good job, for a very good salary. To start the next Monday. She was comforted by God’s care.

Sometimes God provides just what we need, just when we need it. Sometimes in ways that make our hearts sing.

Coincidence, I hear you say (you know who you are, my dearly loved friends, who shake your heads that someone so well-educated could continue to be so naïve).

Cedar waxwing, Putneypix, Wikimedia
The same kind of coincidence that delivers bequests to ministries in need – with just the right amount, at just the right moment.

Or leaves bags of clothes outside a seminary student's door on the very day he and his wife began to pray about how to buy winter clothes for their kids.

The same kind of coincidence that met a seventeen –year old me in the hall of a college administration building and promised “if you come here, you’ll never worry about money.”

Or stepped on the elevator in a crowded hospital, looked at an infant gasping for breath, and said “treat that child for strep pneumonia.” And saved that child’s life.

God’s provision is sometimes so blatant, personal, impossibly precise, that to ignore or explain it away is a greater leap of faith than accepting and rejoicing.

And yet, yes, there are times when provision seems lacking. When what we wanted doesn’t happen, when what we need seems too late, or too small.

I watch the refugees from Syria, the sorrows of our inner cities, and wonder.

Yet I don’t know those stories. And find, on those occasions when I’m blessed to hear from those with experiences far different from my own, that God is at work there, as well. Providing in ways I can’t see, wouldn’t expect, have no way of knowing.

The birds in my back yard are singing this week. High in our aging locust trees, Bluebirds and Cedar Waxwings have been celebrating a wealth of Virginia Creeper berries and the attendant clouds of tiny bugs. Robins, Titmice, Hermit Thrush: it’s a Thanksgiving party, a few weeks early.

The more I know of creation, the more I marvel at the ways provision is hard-wired into the interwoven webs of life.

Red knot © Hans Hillewaert, Creative Commons
Horseshoe crab eggs for migrating Red knots at just the exact moment they’re needed.

Milkweed plants hosting hungry Monarch caterpillars. 

Endless supplies of goldenrod seeds for Goldfinch young in the golden autumn afternoons.

Interdependent biospheres alive in human organs.

Yes, some believe that all happened by eons of undirected self-selection, the interplay of chance across endless millennia:
"By chance, of course!" As if
that tied up ignorance with a ribbon.
In the beginning something by chance
existed that would bang and by chance
it banged, obedient to the by-chance
previously existing laws of existence
and banging, from which the rest proceeds
by logic of cause and effect also
previously existing by chance? Well,
when all that happened who was there?
Did the chance that made the bang then make
the Bomb, and there was no choice, no help?
Prove to me that chance did ever
make a sycamore tree, a yellow-
throated warbler nesting and singing
high up among the white limbs
and the golden leaf-light, and a man
to love the tree, the bird, the song
his life long, and by his love to save
them, so far, from all the machines.
(from Leavings, Wendell Berry, 2010)
In recent years a small wave of scientists have quietly lost their faith in chance and converted to Christian faith, or more confidently and publicly affirmed the faith they started with. They affirm that the laws that govern energy and matter - atoms, cells, solar system, light - point to an intellect beyond understanding, that the details of our common life are fine-tuned so precisely that chance is no longer adequate explanation.

Astronomer Allan Sandage, discoverer of the first quasar, converted to the Christian faith at the age of fifty. In a New York Times interview he explained: 
“Science cannot answer the deepest questions. . . As soon as you ask why is there something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science. I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery, but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”
A 1998 Newsweek article quoted Sandage and other respected Christian scientists, noting: 
 “Something surprising is happening between those two old warhorses science and religion. . . Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life and consciousness. It turns out that if the constants of nature – unchanging numbers like the strength of gravity, the charge of an electron and the mass of a proton – were the tiniest bit different, then atoms would not hold together, stars would not burn and life would never have made an appearance.
"When you realize that the laws of nature must be incredibly finely tuned to produce the universe we see," says John Polkinghorne, who had a distinguished career as a physicist at Cambridge University before becoming an Anglican priest in 1982, "that conspires to plant the idea that the universe did not just happen, but that there must be a purpose behind it." 
The Anthropic Principle, first noted in 1961, affirms the fine-tuning of the universe to support life. Density of matter, presence of carbon, strength of gravity, levels of radiation, speed of light: the list of fine-tuned parameters keeps lengthening, gathered under the heading of the “fine-tuned universe.

In a 2011 interview, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and mastermind of the Human Genome Project, said:  “If they (constants in the universe) were set at a value that was just a tiny bit different, one part in a billion, the whole thing wouldn’t work anymore.” 

NASA astronomer John O'Keefe, reflecting on this fine-tuning, marveled at God's provision: 
"We are, by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures.. .. If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in."
These scientists would be quick to say that fine-tuning does not “prove” God, in the same way that evolution does not “disprove” God. God, by definition, is outside the bounds of scientific proof.

I can’t prove that the provision I see in every direction is a gift from a loving God.

Just as no one can disprove it.

Instead, I celebrate, give thanks, and trust myself to the one who has been providing since the first atom was created:

Sing to the Lord with grateful praise;
make music to our God on the harp
He covers the sky with  clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes the grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call.
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

(Psalm 147:7-11)

from In der Provence, Van Gogh, France, 1888