A Moment to Reflect

13 August 2020

A Moment to Reflect -80


“But the thing about thunderstorms is that there’s always a sense of peace when once the storm is over.” ― Tabitha G. Kelly, Standing By

When Moses stretched out his staff towards the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. Exodus 9:23-24

He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. Psalm 18:14 

Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy; shoot your arrows and rout them. Psalm 144:6

I know that many of the readers of these reflections live in places other than Scotland, so some may not be aware that there was a fierce and prolonged thunderstorm late on Tuesday night through to the early hours of Wednesday morning. I can’t imagine there will be many people who do live in this part of the world who were unaware.

It certainly kept me awake for some time.  I don’t remember any previous storm having so many lightning flashes come so quickly one after the other… not even in Florida in midsummer. At times it seemed like a cosmic strobe-light. For a time, the thunderstorm also seemed to be right above our heads.

It looked to me as if most of the lightning was either cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-air lightning but there were also some cloud-to-earth strikes that caused considerable damage. And, tragically, the accompanying hail and rain caused flooding that had fatal consequences through the derailment of a train just outside Stonehaven. So, it was no laughing matter.  

Apparently global warming, and its consequent climate change, is going to make this kind of thunderstorm much more common here in years to come.

By the way, there are certain skills and techniques required to photograph lightning. I have not acquired any of those skills yet. To be honest, I’ve rarely ever tried to take such pictures. However, I did take one photograph of a flash of lightning in Budapest from the deck of a riverboat on the Danube. I recognise that it probably doesn’t capture the full drama of the moment, but it will have to do, as it seems to be the only ‘lightning picture’ that I have.

More light-heartedly on the subject of lightning-strikes, the American golfer, Lee Trevino, used to joke… “If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron!” [some serious non-golfers may require an explanation of this joke.]

I’m not totally sure that Trevino made that one up himself, but he was good at telling it. I guess it is based on the ancient notion that ‘thunderbolts’ or bolts of lightning are arrows fired by God to strike down his opponents, and that the rumbling of thunder is the voice of God. (You certainly do find both ideas expressed in the Bible, especially the Psalms—though I’m not sure whether the Biblical authors really understood this literally or whether they meant it metaphorically.)

There is no debating the fact, however, that down through the centuries many people (without the benefit of a more scientific understanding of what thunder and lightning actually are) have taken these notions literally. 

So when, in 1746, the scientist, Benjamin Franklin (who was also one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’) began scientifically exploring the phenomenon of electricity he soon found himself stepping into an almighty storm of another kind—a maelstrom of controversy.

Franklin was accused of trying to defeat God’s purposes by intercepting and disarming the divine missiles through his invention of the ‘lightning-rod.’

The agnostic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, described the Franklin controversy with acute insight and sharp wit in a short pamphlet with the rather long-winded title of “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish: A Hilarious Catalogue of Organized and Individual Stupidity”

“When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning-rod, the clergy, both in England and America, with the enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. For, as all right-thinking people were aware, lightning is sent by God to punish impiety or some other grave sin—the virtuous are never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants to strike any one, Benjamin Franklin [and his lightning-rod] ought not to defeat His design; indeed, to do so is helping criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston. Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the ‘iron points invented by the sagacious Dr. Franklin,’ Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr. Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the ‘iron points.’ In a sermon on the subject he said, ‘In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.’ Apparently, however, Providence gave up all hope of curing Boston of its wickedness, for, though lightning-rods became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare.”―Bertrand Russell

So, what do you think?

Did you hear what God was saying in the rumbles of thunder last night?

Do you believe that everyone who was hurt or even killed by that or any other storm was being deliberately targeted by God? (Especially anyone who was actually struck down by lightning?) I don’t!

As for myself, I think that while it was relatively easy for Bertrand Russell to use the Benjamin Franklin story to mock the naïve notions of some believers, he may have missed the main point.

The Old Testament prophet Elijah discovered God may be just as likely to be heard whispering in the shadowy silence as thundering through the lightning clouds.

As for myself… my own view is that God doesn’t just speak to us through thunder and lightning, but actually ‘speaks’ to us through the whole of creation—in sound and silence, through darkness and light, in all creatures great and small, in atoms and vast galaxies, in tiny insects and flowers and (yes) even in flashes of lightning and roars of thunder.