January 25, 2009

Being Alive

After the amazing landing of the airplane in the Hudson River, reporters were rushing to interview the passengers. One man talked about the experience right after he and the others had been plucked from the plane. His voice was shaking with emotion. He paused and apologized to the reporter for that, saying "I'm just excited to be alive."

I've recalled this man's words over and over. I wonder why it takes something like surviving a plane crash or cancer to show us how sweet life is. A few days after I heard the interview, I had a too-busy, stressful day. I was walking from one meeting to another, and the day was crisp and cold. The sky was blue above and people were bundled up, going here and there. And the man's words came to me like a kind of commandment, instructing me to be excited about being alive. In the middle of busyness, stress, worries, difficulties, and duties: Be excited to be alive. And in that moment, my mood shifted and I saw how beautiful everything was, around me and even within -- my own life.

To the man from the plane, I offer my thanks. And a prayer that his revelation of the amazing experience of being alive will continue to shape him and those of us who heard that interview for a very long time.

January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day!

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no Winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul [we] ever took.
Affairs are now soul size,
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.

Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1951)

January 18, 2009

Not the same

It was snowing this morning and my street was not plowed. I suppose I could have been slightly heroic and gotten myself to church, but I decided to stay home. Instead, I worshiped at the "church of the internet" -- live streaming video from a famous church. It was a lovely service, carefully choreographed, with guest musicians, a large choir, and an intellectually-leaning sermon. It was nice -- and better than nothing, I suppose -- but somehow it wasn't quite church.
And this leads me to think some about what is church and, related, what is worship. For me, it is a physical experience, being in the same space with others engaged in the same actions. It is the sounds, smells, warmness or chill of the air, touch of the bulletin and hymnal, presence of others nearby in the pew standing and sitting, breathing and coughing and whispering. So for an experience to be church for me, it is incarnational. And it is also communal. There is something about the gathered body that is essential. One alone can pray and worship, too, but one alone is not church. Church is where I meet others on the same path but with their own journeys; where I share their burdens and hand over mine to them and to God; where I turn my attention from my own self to others and to the world; where I can see God in the world in those made in the image of God. I can pray and sing when I am by myself and that is necessary and important, and it is praise and good. But for an experience to be church and worship for me, it needs to be with others, all of us gathered by the Holy Spirit to meet God and live into the calling of Christ.
I hope it doesn't snow next Sunday...

January 3, 2009

Paradise with People?

My book group is reading "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman. The premise of the book is summed up in the title: what would happen to the earth if people suddenly disappeared. The author describes, in sometimes excruciating detail, the way human-made structures would quickly fail. He also tells of the effects of humans on the air, soil, and water of the planet. And he explains how the earth would begin to revert, heal, restore -- you pick the word -- if we were no longer here.

I've known in a small way what the book proposes all my life. On our farm, cleared land left for only a season or two quickly begins to sprout up with all kinds of things. The blueberry farm where I worked all through high school, acres and acres of cultivated bushes yielding a good crop and employing the neighborhood for three or four weeks each spring, is now all grown up in pines. The barn where we packed the berries is probably fallen down but it is hard to know since the road through what was once field is now completely gone. Places on the farm where timber was cut only fifteen years ago are again forest. For the farmer, maintaining the human enterprise is constant work, so it is not surprising to me to read how quickly nature, of a non-human nature, rushes in.

In November, I traveled in New Zealand. This is one of the places the book discusses. Because it is a remote set of islands, New Zealand existed without humans for a very long time and it is relatively easy to figure out what life was like there before "we" came. One thing that happened with the coming of humans was the introduction of other animals. Stoats, rats, and possums found easy pickings in a place where the only native mammal was a small bat. Centuries of evolution had produced flightless birds, some of which became easy targets for predators, both animals and people. The signature kiwi was almost eradicated; the giant moa was.

There are some small islands just off the large South Island that are being restored to their prehuman state. The rats and possums have been trapped, and naturalists keep constant vigil to see that no new predators are reintroduced. We visited one of those islands, and it was incredible. The whole island is a rain forest, lush and green, with giant ferns reaching up to the sunlight. The most amazing thing was the birds. They are almost tame. I sat for a while beside the path, and all kinds of wild birds came and gathered around, seemingly curious but also astonishingly unafraid. It was a powerful experience to see them up close that way, looking at me with interest, just as I was looking at them.

Many of those on the trip talked about these places as paradise; we observed that walking through these primeval forests must be what it was like to walk in the Garden of Eden. Of course, in Genesis story, paradise is lost soon after the humans arrive. But I want to believe that paradise with people is still possible. Maybe one of the unanticipated effects of all this financial woe will be to turn us away from the kind of mindless overconsumption that has destroyed so much of the earth, attacking like a predator introduced into a trusting, unsuspecting ecosystem.

New Zealand and its birds are very beautiful. So are the doves and juncos and cardinals and sparrows cavorting in the snow under the feeders in my back yard. And I do believe that paradise is possible.

January 1, 2009

First Footing

From Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community, a prayer for the new year:

New Year

The opening door

This is to be used as a 'first-footing' prayer. In Scotland and the northern parts of England, New Year is given much importance: folk go from house to house wishing each other a good year ahead, and celebrate their good wishes with food and plenty of drink. It is often seen as important who should be the first to cross the threshold and 'bring in the year' once midnight has passed. This song (spoken or sung) asks Christ Himself to come and 'first-foot' for us. The door is opened to welcome Him in and invite His blessing, whether He comes in silence or in the company of other guests.

This day is a new day
that has never been before.
This year is a new year,
the opening door

(Open the door)

Enter, Lord Christ --
we have joy in Your coming.
You have given us life;
and we welcome Your coming.

I turn now to face You,
I lift up my eyes.
Be blessing my face, Lord;
be blessing my eyes.
May all my eye looks on
be blessed and be bright,
my neighbors, my loved ones
be blessed in Your sight.

You have given us life
and we welcome Your coming.
Be with us, Lord,
we have joy, we have joy.
This year is a new year,
the opening door.
Be with us, Lord,
we have joy, we have joy.