Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Celebrate! (Into the Wilderness of Lent)

Quakes, Tsunami, and Spring Migration

Here in the Platte River valley the first week of Lent, the annual spring migration of the sandhill cranes has reached its peak. During the day, the fields are full of cranes feeding and dancing and making the sound that in this part of the world means the beginning of spring. At night, the cranes gather in the river for protection from predators. People fill blinds along the river and stand along bridges to see and hear the arrival of the cranes at sunset and to watch them take off again at sunrise. The Rowe Sanctuary offers a Cranecam that shows some of the wonder of this. (Sunrise and sunset are both around 7:40 now.)

Of course, the first week of Lent has also brought news of the 9.0 earthquake in Japan and the tsunami, aftershocks, and dangers from damaged nuclear power plants that have followed. The news, photos, and videos coming out of Japan have helped us see some pieces of this disaster that is too big for us to truly comprehend. It’s so big that its impact is felt here; we talk with one another about the latest news reports, we pray for the people of Japan, and we look for ways to help.

When we drove from Hastings to Grand Island for church on Sunday – a gray day with a “wintry mix” of showers, sleet, and snow – the fields were full of cranes. Nearly as dramatic were the fields of snow geese. Later that day I returned to Grand Island after checking the news and seeing updates about the extent of the damage in Japan and estimates of the loss of life. The day was still gray, and the mood of the weather seemed to match the news.

And then, on my way home, having brought communion and Ash Wednesday ashes to some of our older parishioners who can’t come to church any more and thinking about Lent and Japan and hoping the road wouldn't turn icy before I got home, I saw some movement in the gray fields. Some of the cranes were dancing. When cranes dance, they leap into the air and flap their wings. Some of the cranes are dancing in this video shot near the Platte:

On a sunny spring day, this dance fits right in with the mood of the day, and we humans think the birds must be sharing our joy. On this still wintry Sunday with such weighty news in the world, I was surprised to experience the same level of joy when the cranes began to dance.

The Omaha World Herald reported yesterday on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s visit to the Rowe Sanctuary on Monday. Secretary Salazar, says the article, stood “silent and transfixed by the spectacle” before saying, “It’s inspirational.” His reaction is typical of people who come from other places and see the cranes for the first time. It’s a spiritual experience.

On Sunday, March 27, St. Stephen’s in Grand Island will have a special Crane Sunday to celebrate the migration, reflect on its spiritual elements, and talk about the connection between that sort of experience and what we typically talk about on Sunday mornings in the church. Because the cranes come in March, our Crane Sunday always ends up being a Sunday in Lent. Far from detracting from a proper observance of Lent, we have found that celebrating something that is so much a part of our lives during Lent deepens our Lenten journey. We don’t forget the wilderness of Lent; the wilderness of Lent helps us to appreciate the joy of the crane migration and the other signs of spring.

In our part of the world, the annual visit of the sandhill cranes is commonplace; some Nebraskans wonder what all the fuss is and can’t understand why people from faraway places come to see the spring migration in the Platte Valley. Why would we celebrate something so ordinary, and especially during Lent?

A friend who lives in Tokyo sent me a message early today. Kirk describes what it is like in Tokyo right now -- empty grocery shelves, lines at gas stations, unpredictable train service and power supply, and aftershocks from the earthquake – and says everyone looks forward to a return to normalcy whenever that may happen. He knows it is much worse to the north, and that the return to normalcy there will be years in coming. He ends his message with this: “Celebrate your normal, everyday lives.”

Everyone is invited to join us at St. Stephen’s at 9:30 on March 27 to celebrate our normal, everyday lives in central Nebraska and to focus on the wonder and joy that is ours for the noticing.