Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Lesson of the Groundhog

"The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throught the land of Egypt there was bread." Genesis 41:53-54

It's Groundhog Day or, as I like to call it, The Feast of St. Chuck. As many of you know, I'm a fan of all creatures but have a special place in my heart for the lowly woodchuck. You can read about my most famous defense of them here.

More generally and more seriously, I have always believed that God's first revelation came in the created order and that everything in Creation has something to teach us. Which begs the question...what does God hope we learn from the groundhog?

The life of a groundhog is relatively straight forward: Eat all you can, get as fat as you can, sleep for several months together, wake up, predict the weather, repeat. There are times when that seems like an ideal life! But the gluttony of the groundhog that gets so many of you gardeners upset is not like the gluttony of people. There is a purpose for getting so fat. The groundhog hibernates for the winter. If a groundhog does not get fat enough, there is no spring awakening.

During hibernation, a groundhog's body temperature drops to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C) and its heartbeat drops from 80 beats per minute to 4-5. As it sleeps from roughly October - March, there is no nighttime raiding of the fridge. The groundhog lives off the fat accumulated in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, often even after waking back up, since the ground is often still snowy in March, with little to eat even then.

In short, the groundhog knows to store up during the times of plenty for the lean times ahead. It knows that some winters are longer than others and prepares for the worst, while popping back up in March, hoping for the best.

It was that wisdom that allowed the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, to move from being a prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon to being second in command in all of Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and Joseph, while still in prison, gave the correct interpretation: The land would have seven years of plenty and during those seven years, Pharaoh should store up all the extra grain because seven years of famine was coming on its heels. Pharaoh did just that and when the hard times came, Egypt was the only place with food. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to leave the land of Canaan and go to Egypt in order to survive.

It struck me how similar the plenty/lean cycle was to our current situation and how dissimilar was our preparation. When times were good, we did not look ahead and store up for the lean years. We were gluttons, yes, but for gluttony's sake--consuming anything and everything, whether we truly needed it or not. We neglected to remember God's lesson in creation that winter follows the harvest. While the groundhog dug his burrow deeper and prepared for hard times, we lived as if the abundance of summer would last forever. And it didn't.

The groundhog teaches us that hard times are a part of life. Some may be harder than others, but we can survive them if we remember that they will come and prepare. God sent that message through Joseph to Pharoah, allowing Egypt to prosper even in a time of famine. God sends that message to all of us who see a groundhog. Maybe we should put down our guns and traps and listen.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Groundhog Day

Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Everybody is all stirred up about the Super Bowl tonight. The real celebration, however, comes tomorrow which, in my world, is known as The Feast of St. Chuck. (To understand my reverence for the lowly woodchuck, click here.) I love Groundhog Day not just because I have a penchant for furry rodents (although I do), but because the groundhog (aka woodchuck) has a lesson to teach us—the lesson of the seasons.

This year, most of the U.S. has had a taste of the ravages of winter. Even as I write there are still a half million people without power from an ice storm that hit many southern climes unused to such calamities. Right before Christmas much of my state was without power for 2-3 weeks from a similar event. The storms of winter are not just inconvenient. People die. Some with heart conditions shovel heavy snow and do not survive the exertion. Those who lose power, and therefore heat, sometimes die from the cold or from the various ways they try to keep warm. Fires spread from kerosene heaters. Carbon monoxide from generator exhaust or open gas ovens ensures that some never waken from sleep. Many are killed in accidents on icy roads or sometimes when a frozen tree falls and crushes a car or home. People fall on the ice. Winter has its beauties to be sure, but there is no doubt that it is a difficult, expensive, and dangerous season.

This is not news to woodchucks. When the cold winds start to rip, they grab one last bite of your favorite flower bulb and then head deep into the ground for a winter-long snooze. Once safely underground, their metabolism drops and they live off the fruit of their earlier labors until they hear you setting their table in the garden in the early spring. While those who have not found enough food during the warmer months might never emerge from hibernation, most of them seem to have been raised with the hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” and manage to fatten up enough to last through their winter-long nap.

It is winter now and the woodchucks sleep. Since I believe that God speaks through Creation, I think the God-given instinct of the woodchuck has something to teach us about how to approach winter storms. Of course there is the direct message to come in out of the raging snow and ice and don’t take unnecessary risks. But there are also those metaphorical winter storms that hit us. Right now the world is in an economic winter and many of us are learning that we should have saved more during the “warmer” months. There are winters of grief when a loved one is lost. There are winters of illness that pound our physical bodies and winters of emotional strain that make it difficult to get out of bed.

The woodchuck teaches us that despite the workaholic nature of our society, there is a season to hibernate. There is a time to stop all labor, crawl into a hole, and let the storm pass. But the woodchuck also teaches us that hibernation is a season, not a lifestyle. There is also a time to come out and re-engage the world with love and labor, the things that make us healthy enough to live through our next hibernation. The woodchuck reminds us of the necessity of Sabbath in balance with the work of our hands, especially when a stormy season comes.

To everything there is a season. Celebrate the Feast of St. Chuck by acknowledging the seasons of your life. Acknowledge that while there may be strange guys in top hats eager to pull you out of your lovely sleep too soon in order to predict the weather; God has sanctioned hibernation as a normal and natural part of Creation. Work will have its season once the storms are past.

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