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Archive for the ‘Life and Death’ Category

Since my last post I have survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far north as Boston, and felt the gusting fury of Hurricane Irene, which ripped up a half dozen ancient oaks on my street and left most of the city without power. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but as I stood in my study last Tuesday watching the light fixtures swing back and forth, as I felt the floor shaking beneath my feet and the wall trembling behind me, I remembered the prayer I used to say in Washington, DC, in those days just after 9/11: “Lord, if this is my day to die, let me do it with faith and courage.”

It wasn’t so bad during the hurricane, but at one point I looked out the window and watched as a giant tree toppled toward my side of the street, missing my daughter’s car by inches.  It made me gulp, and think about how vulnerable we are, how quickly the flame of our fragile lives can be snuffed out.  I survived the storm, but according to this morning’s newspaper at least 20 people didn’t.  What were they thinking in those last seconds of earthly life?

When the earthquake came it took me a full fifteen seconds to figure out what it was.  At first I thought someone was pushing a heavy cart across the floor above me, but as the rumble grew deeper and the building began to shake I knew that couldn’t be it.  When I saw the light fixture begin to swing back and forth I thought, “This is an earthquake!” and at first all I felt was wonder.  I’d never been in an earthquake before (“So this is what it’s like!”).  But then I realized that the floor above me could fall on top of me, crush me and kill me, and that’s when I began to pray. 

It seems to be my instinct, in such “moments of mortality,” to make my peace with God, to make sure that things are OK between us in case I should find myself suddenly standing before him.  But then, in the next second, my mind reaches out toward the people I love, toward friends and family, making sure that things are OK between us in case I should die before I have a chance to say “I’m sorry.” 

Is this why Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others?  Did he know better than most of us just how fragile life is, how quickly it can end, and how important it is to tend and nurture our most important relationships?  Because an earthquake could come, a tree could fall, and you might not have time in that “moment of mortality” to make your peace with God or say you’re sorry to others. 

Maybe that’s why it felt so right to go to church yesterday morning, after the storm—to spend some time with God and others—to make my peace and say my prayers and hug some people who are dear to me and who need to know it.  If those moments of mortality serve no other purpose they serve that one: they help us remember what matters most.  And for that, among other things, I am grateful.

It’s going to be a beautiful day today.  The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 83 degrees. 

If I’m not careful, I’ll forget everything I learned.

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Falling

Picture a world where, at birth, you are hurled off a cliff—a really, really high cliff, so that it takes a lifetime to reach the bottom.  You would “grow up” on the way down (if you can imagine such a thing) moving through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. 

Because you had always been falling you wouldn’t be afraid of it.  After those first few terrifying moments you would get used to it, and then began to enjoy it: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive.  Everybody else in this world would be falling with you, so you wouldn’t be alone.  You might even join hands with someone else and choose to fall together for days, for years, or even for the rest of your life. 

Some people would find that if they flapped their arms really hard they could slow their descent slightly (the same people you see running on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym).  Others would get bored and go into a nose dive to speed things up (the same people who live so carelessly and recklessly now).  But the one thing everybody would know is that there was no way to stop falling altogether or to start falling up instead of down.  Eventually everybody—everybody—would hit bottom.

And everybody would know it.

Which is different from our world, where people often seem surprised by their own mortality, by the very idea that they could get sick and die.  “Why?” they ask.  “Why me?”  If we lived in that other world I might say (while falling beside them), “Well, just look around you.  Everybody is falling.  Everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.”  But in this world they know that some people hit bottom sooner than others, and it doesn’t seem fair, and they want to know why. 

“I don’t know why,” I say at last.  “And you’re right…it doesn’t seem fair.  But back to my original point: everybody is falling, and everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.” 

And while it seems odd to say so, there is some comfort in that, isn’t there?  We are not alone in our mortality.  Everybody else is doing it with us.  It makes you want to join hands with those others, and pull them in close, and then do everything you can—together—to enjoy the ride: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive…

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