We have to be honest that it’s not like things are okay these days. That’s not the end of the story, of course, and as people of faith, we have hope that in God’s hands good can come of this, but we’re sure in the middle of it right now, and there is real struggle and real pain for many.
A few weeks ago, I’ll be honest, I was despairing.
The count of people we’ve lost was really mounting, as predicted and feared – and it’s far worse now, of course. So I was feeling the grief of that, as I feel it now. And feeling the pain of knowing that people can’t come together to grieve their dearly departed.
Also, as predicted and feared, it became clear at that point a few weeks ago that the people hardest hit by this pandemic are the people who are hardest hit in our society when there isn’t a pandemic. The folks working at the Tyson plant, mostly immigrants, where infection is high – this is our local example of the national trend.
And on top of all that key leaders with massive amounts of power, also predictably, were not stepping up and demonstrating the virtues of sound leadership. But rather continued to lie and blame and dismiss and threaten and throw people under the bus at a time when there is way too much at stake for persistent duplicity and pettiness.
And as much as I have really relished the sense that we’re all in this together, it was a couple weeks ago that I really let myself feel my disappointment and anger that, apparently, a lot of our fellow citizens, and indeed pastors and leaders of some other churches in our country, refuse to be even inconvenienced for the public good.
All that grief and outrage and helplessness was just welling up inside of me. You know what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t be bothering to talk about myself if I didn’t know that you know what I’m talking about. We’re all feeling it if we at all care.
And I know God joins us in this. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. Jesus cried over Jerusalem because it did not know the ways of peace.
I was in our back yard – it was beautiful day – but here I was brooding and moody.
When suddenly a sound caught my attention. At first, I couldn’t place it, it was like something half-remembered from a dream. The sound was like a primitive reedy baritone woodwind belting out these gravelly purrs. It made me think of smooth river stones and reeds along the marshes.
Cranes! Sandhill Cranes!
Their calls were raining down from the sky.
I look up and at first, I can’t find them. When I do spot the dozen or so cranes flying in a V, I’m surprised by how high they are, for how near their calls sound. They’re flying north. Likely to settle for the spring in the wetlands north of the bend of the Columbia River. I remembered that these are likely the same crane families that I would see when I lived in New Mexico, years ago. They winter along the Rio Grande near Socorro. Eastern Washington is on their migratory route.
Cranes are ancient birds. They’ve been adapting their cycles of migration through millions of years of changes, over mountains as high as the Himalayas, through ice ages and tectonic shifts. Among many cultures across the world, Cranes have been seen to be messengers between heaven and earth. This is how they felt to me that day. Cranes have also been seen to be symbols of faithfulness. They mate for life. And they take care of their flock. Individual cranes take turns keeping watch over their flocks when they graze. They are faithful to their entire community.
As I stood there and watched and listened as they flew on, I awoke to the truth that’s expressed in a saying among the Diné or Navajo people: “Sometimes I go about feeling pitiful. And all the while I’m being carried on great winds across the sky.”
When I have the honor of presiding at the graveside when some dear person in our community has reached the end of their earthly days, I always like to include in the liturgy, part of Psalm 90
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart
My friends, we are in the midst of times of great upheaval, of tremendous loss, of tremendous uncertainty. This is nothing new. We can be honest about it. We don’t need to deny or dismiss or succumb to delusion. We can keep our hearts open to the struggles of our present reality. And, if we lift our gaze just a little, we can maybe glimpse a bit of that View of Eternity, a glimmer of God’s eye’s view of things. There are ancient cycles turning today, as they’ve turned in the past, cycles of death and rebirth, of loss and renewal. Civilizations, species, have come and gone as the earth wheels around the sun. And through the changes, our ancient faith sings of the faithfulness of our Creator. God’s Covenant has held through war and famine and exile. The Covenant that God will provide new life and new horizons of possibility for those who commit to the Laws of Life and Faith and Justice. So we hear from Robert Lax, a Christian poet: in the beginning, Beginning and end where in one. And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere: All things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed Beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love Had a compass whose whirling dance tranced out a Sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof Rose a fountain.
So we hear also from Psalm 65: You spread your justice, God our Savior, across the world to the farthest oceans. You have laid down the mountain ranges and set them fast; you make the seas calm and the sounds peaceful; you reconcile the peoples who dwell here. So in this corner of the earth we wonder at your deeds; at the meeting of east and west we sing your praise. You water the land and make it flourish, from your own bursting river. To provide our crops, you plough and irrigate the land, softening it with rain to make it fruitful.
So, my friends, let’s be real about the grief and struggles and the injustices of our time, while keeping our gazes lifted, so we may keep the faith, and keep the old covenant with our God and with each other, to be caring for the most vulnerable, to be living with courage, mercy, prudence, and wisdom.
This Sunday, to help us lift our gaze to the wider cycles of life lived in covenant with our Creator, we are especially blessed to have in our worship service, a visual tone poem, a work of art by Melissa Webster, a dear member of our community of faith. She’s curated this cycle of images from her woodcut prints and photography. Jackie Wood provides a meditative musical accompaniment.
For all of this, for our glimpses into the View of Eternity that helps us know that through all things we are being carried on great winds across the sky, I give thanks to God.
(Delivered May 17, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, for the community of faith at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ, an Open & Affirming Christian community)