When I was an English teacher at Ithaca High School, I always got agreement from my more thoughtful students when I asked, How many ways could you be dead by now? Isn’t it a crazy miracle that we’re all here today?
Getting teenagers to appreciate being alive isn’t always the easiest job, but I enjoyed doing it. And I got to read some inspiring essays on the subject. I made a practice of doing their assignments myself and sharing my difficulties and successes, so we learned a lot about each other.
My own essay might include the summer I camped alone at Chimney Pond for two weeks of hiking and climbing in the Mt. Katahdin area, in Maine. I was 17. Before bedding down the final evening, I put my last bit of food between my sleeping bag and the back wall of my leanto. In the morning, my food was gone. I soon found my lunch, a can of condensed soup, on the trail nearby, but the steel can was full of pencil-sized holes and all crunched up like a wad of chewed aluminum foil.
Now I knew what had happened, and I went back to my leanto for more evidence. Sure enough, the dirt floor showed bear tracks on the near side and the far side of my sleeping bag, and I stopped breathing for a few seconds.
When I visualized it, I gave thanks that I’m a deep sleeper. Wouldn’t want to startle a hungry bear, especially while he’s standing above me.
Or I might write about when I was nine, and I came down with measles. When my fever reached 106, I lost consciousness. Our farm was miles from medical help, so the doctor replied to my parents’ frantic phone call, “Pack him in ice!” I still enjoy the memory of waking up and loving the refreshing relief of being covered in chopped ice.
And of course there were the dumb things we did as kids, because being kids, especially boys, we thought we were immortal. We all hunted with guns and bows, and one of our games had us line up in two ranks 40-50 yards apart, and shoot arrows almost straight up, so they’d come down on the opposing side. We allowed just one arrow in the air at a time — What do you think we were, foolish? — and the receiving team tried to judge the arrow’s trajectory and stand close to where it would fall. And nobody got killed. Nobody even got hurt.
More recently, I got hit by a fast car while walking, which broke a still unknown number of bones, and I took years to recover.
More recently still, our house burned, and if it had occurred at night, or if our dog hadn’t alerted oddly, which led my wife to discover the fire, I wouldn’t be here trying to move you to reflect on how blessed we are to be here.
Let’s consider Moses. Here’s a baby who should have been swept up in the extermination order. But his mother does something absolutely crazy and hides him where he’ll be found, not by a soldier but by a princess, and gambles that her baby won’t be killed, and that the baby’s sister will get Mom hired to nurse him, and that the princess will want a cute baby as a pet. And the princess goes for it! What are the odds?
If it hadn’t been for this. If it hadn’t been for that. We all have these stories. So isn’t it a crazy miracle that we happen to be in this room together today?
Do yourself a big favor, and take the time — you’ve earned it — to write down a collection of reasons you could so easily not be here at all. You might need a lot of time. These miracles happen every day. Reasons to be thankful.
So why are we here, when we, like so many we love, could so easily have succumbed to accident, illness, poor choice, fatal coincidence? — Life can be fragile. Now we arrive at the purpose of religion.
The arts tell us who we are. History tells us what and when. Science and math tell us how. And religion and philosophy tell us why. So “why are we here” is an appropriate question for us today.
We can argue for hours about whether our amazing luck to survive so far is or is not thanks to God’s direct manipulation. But the least we can do is be thankful, right? What do we do when something good happens? Notice it and give thanks, I hope, for a start. Incidentally, an attitude of gratitude pays huge dividends in mental health.
In my favorite part of Alice Walker’s great novel, The Color Purple — this is a part that’s not in the movie — Shug says to Celie that God wants, more than anything, our love and appreciation. Our delight and love for this world, and our gratitude for being alive in it, is Step One, and the great creation allegories in Genesis tell us that God wants good company. Okay then, doesn’t good company thank the host for everything? That’s the least we can do.
So, we’re here to practice an attitude of gratitude just for being alive, as difficult as that can be sometimes. But if it were too easy, what would it be worth?
Why Are We Here, Step Two, is to pay it back, to pay back the immeasurable blessing of being alive, even if we live with physical or emotional pain. You know the saying, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But back to Step Two, which may look impossible: Pay back God? What does God need? An app that creates a universe in less than six days? I like the idea that God wants our love and appreciation, but what does God need? How can we, or Moses, pay God back?
By paying it forward.
God needs help. We can offer our thoughts and prayers, but as God’s people, we are God’s hands. We can wave these hands and sing praise songs, and make ourselves feel close to God, but this exhilarating group therapy doesn’t travel well.
We need to get out there, with our time, money, and sweat, and make actual contact. God needs help. We are here to make life better for each other. This is how we pay it forward. We are here to do favors for our neighbors, to share our talents, to show — notice I’m saying show, not tell — show our kids that life is good, that it’s fun to learn stuff, and fulfilling to be kind to each other. One of my real life idols, the Dalai Lama, says his religion is very simple: kindness.
That’s how we pay it forward. This is why we are here. If we practice kindness and compassion, in real life and on line, we are helping God. We become God by being God’s hands and speakers. I don’t mean forcing Bible verses and pieties on anyone — that can backfire — just behave like a Christian. Never mind the bad attitudes of others; our empathy, gentleness, kindness, and positive attitude will have the more profound effect in the long run.
You could also look at all this as creating God. Does that sound like blasphemy? I’ve heard cynical scholars say that we created God in our image, but I like to think of it as a two-way street. We keep repeating that God is love. Well, if A equals B, then B equals A, and that means that love is God, right? If love is God, the more love we create and practice, the more God we have, right? I don’t see God as a physical being like the old white man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but as a spirit we all share. We have God in each of us. The God we make isn’t created from nothing as much as realized, brought forth from within us, and greater than the sum of the parts we contribute. I like to think of the total of the God-ness in all of us and in all life forms as the Holy Spirit. That’s what God is for me.
I think of the Trinity as a metaphor. The Father is our gendered, inadequate label for the creative Force that set off the Big Bang and set evolution in motion. We humans are tool users, so we use the term Parent Creator God as a tool to help us hold in our heads the impossibly huge idea of Creation.
I see the Son as a man who was a spiritual genius, endowed with the guts and the ability to articulate, practice, and demonstrate godliness, which is very simple, really. It’s compassion. It’s kindness. But Jesus came along to show us how high we could set the bar.
And as I said, the Holy Spirit can be our label for the godness-goodness that lives in each of us and gives us reason to be here. Our job is to help the Holy Spirit inside each of us join with the Spirit in everybody else, and — Make God Happen. Make God happy. That’s how it works. That’s why we’re here.
And wow. What a blooming miracle it is.
Acts 27:9-28:9 Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Mark 5:35-43 Genesis 2:4b-23