Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Lenten Celebration

Since the last Green Sprouts post, the number of migrating sandhill cranes stopping in the Platte River valley has increased dramatically. The cranes are now easily spotted in fields during the day and on the river at sunset and at dawn.

Last Thursday I was driving home from Grand Island in the late afternoon, and had the delight of seeing cranes very near the road where I was driving. Several of them were dancing, jumping up into the air and spreading their wings.

This sight always thrills me and lifts my sprits. I’ve been thinking about why so many of us have this same reaction to the cranes, and I suspect it’s a combination of factors that make these birds so special to us. Their time with us each year is comparatively short, only six weeks or so; since their company is comparatively rare, we learn to value it. Their size coupled with the surprising grace with which they dance fascinates us. The sound when they gather at the river in the evening or when they take off in huge groups in the morning is surprisingly loud and difficult to ignore. They are a reliable sign of spring in our part of the world, an assurance that winter is nearly done.

For me, though, the biggest awe factor may be the history of this migration. According to the Rowe Sanctuary crane facts, the cranes have been making this annual trip for over nine million years. The Platte River itself is 10,000 years old, a short time in comparison. Moreover, they look ancient, like something that stepped out of a prehistoric diorama at a natural history museum. People who visit places like the Holy Land or ancient Greece or the ancient Celtic sites in Ireland are awed by the knowledge of the age of these sights and what that says about the human journey. The cranes are so much older than any of these things that we can’t even conceive of this length of time.

When people describe their experiences of seeing the cranes, they use words like ‘awesome’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘like nothing else I’ve ever experienced’. As they talk about these experiences, it becomes clear that crane-watching is a spiritual experience for many people, though they might never use that language to describe it. When we connect with these ancient birds, we somehow also connect with the Holy, with God.

The crane migration is observed in south central Nebraska with crane viewing tours, art shows, lectures, literary readings, and sporting events. At St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, we decided that it was time for the church to be involved in the celebration, to name this spiritual experience for what it is. To do so, we are planning a liturgical celebration of the sandhill crane migration for this Sunday. Since we are in the middle of Lent, we are planning carefully, balancing between the solemnity of Lent at this point of the liturgical year, and the joy of our experiences in the fields and along the river at this point of the Earth year.

Most Americans know how to have fun celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day during the season of Lent, wearing a lot of green as the earliest green shoots appear in fields and gardens. Healthy spirituality seeks a balance. Our liturgical year provides much of the balance, but being aware of tensions like those between our observance of Lent and the urge to celebrate these early signs of spring in our part of God’s creation keeps us from a narrow, rigid focus that is not especially healthy for our spirits.

You can share some of the joy and awe of crane-watching, especially at sunrise and sunset, through the web camera provided by the Rowe Sanctuary. You Tube has several videos of dancing cranes, including this one. And visitors are very welcome to join us at Saint Stephen’s in Grand Island at 10:30 this Sunday, March 22, for the Fourth Sunday in Lent and a liturgical celebration of the migration of the cranes.

Our text for this Sunday is John 3:14-21 – “For God so loved the world…”