Gratitude and Gravity

What if our hard work ends in despair?
What if the road won’t take me there?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold

What if to love and be loved’s not enough?
What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold

(“Stay Gold”, by First Aid Kit)

Recently Linda and I vacationed in Northern Michigan, in Petoskey, a picturesque town nestled on hills around Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. A small, but beautiful slow moving river makes its way from Walloon Lake into town and through the center of town where rapids build and it rushes over waterfalls into Little Traverse Bay.

We hiked that trail for an afternoon, which rises and lowers along the river, among tall pine, beech and birch wood trees. Back in town, as we hiked below one of the bridges, a man was packing up his fishing gear but stopped to talk to tell us about salmon fishing in Bear River.

“Best time to be here is in October,” he stated firmly. “It’s cold, but the salmon are spawning. You ever seen that? Salmon jumping up a waterfall?”

“Only on TV,” I smiled.

“That’s a sight to see. They don’t swim, you know. It’s like they defy gravity, swimming up waterfalls and over river rapids. They jump right up this 10ft. waterfall! I seen it myself!” He startles us with a sudden burst of laughter!

Linda asked, “Do you know how they do that?”

“Sure I do,” he said a bit defiantly. “I grew up here. Been watching them all my life!”

Then he just smiled for a moment or two, as if we were going to have to stick around till October to see for ourselves. Then he burst out laughing again and described the process gesturing with his hands and body.

“The salmon somehow figure out they have to turn their underside into the current coming at them. That water hits them squarely in the belly and the impact launches them out and further up the waterfall as they push with their tail. As soon as they land, they’re hit with another volley of the current. And they’ll keep it up for hours and days! It’s like they’re defying gravity!”

I’m reminded of this image as I think about some of my friends going through a particularly difficult time in their lives right now. I’m thinking about this idea of defying the gravity, leaning into the challenges we face and being bounced further into our unlikely journeys when sometimes the questions about the future loom, and the distance ahead seems uncertain. And I’m wondering how we do this with determination and even a kind of gratitude for the journey.

But the salmon remember something that perhaps we often forget — that the river itself is life. That the journey, the bumps, the crashes, the coming up and the going under for air, is life in all its possibilities. That at the heart of life is life, the Holy, in whom we live and move and have our being.

One of my favorite passages of the Hebrew scripture is Psalm 23. Of course, it is a staple for times when we seek deep comfort for loss or fear. And maybe we miss some of its import because it gets relegated to what we would otherwise think of as times of sorrow.

But I’ve come to see the passage as meaning something else entirely — especially this strange image the writer uses where it’s written, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of the enemy.” And, “You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” These images of abundance, of gratitude in the midst of gravity, suggest to me something far more than protection and safety. They suggest to me life at the heart of things. The Holy One, the mystery of divine love and meaning, that is perhaps even most present in the more challenging journeys we face.

So, I wonder if there is a deeper gratitude that is as much, if not more, about tapping into this life with what we don’t want to experience and with whom we don’t want to be, than it is about being thankful for things going the way we like for them to. It feels like an odd question to me. But I think there is a profound direction here, too.

Tyl Eulenspeigel, the wise fool of German folklore, is said to have been making an arduous journey with villages, traveling up and down steep mountains for days. As the days wore on, the villagers couldn’t help but notice that as they desperately, painfully climbed the hills, Tyl would be smiling and practically skipping up the slopes. But as the villagers sighed with some relief at each successive trek down the mountain, Tyl became sullen, sad, even sluggish. They asked why the odd difference in how they experienced this journey.

Tyl answered, “When I am climbing the mountain, I know that at the top I will gain such perspective and view and I can’t wait to see it. But then leaving that new insight, that new perspective behind fills me with a little sadness and a sense of incompleteness. Until once again, I see a mountain ahead and know that soon enough, I will gain a wider view on things!”

This Sunday I want to continue to explore this idea of gratitude, especially where we might find it in the midst of gravity, as we look at Psalm 23 through the eyes of humor and mindfulness. The band will bring us music from Michael Franti, First Aid Kit, and Jack Johnson.

I hope to see you this Sunday.

Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven


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