The other day I drove up to the home of a family who can no longer drive, and paid them a very enjoyable visit. The sun was shining as I walked up to the door, rang the bell, and then placed my hand around the knob as I turned and opened it.
The apartment complex is beautifully situated in Madison Park and I noted the pleasing sense of order that was promoted by the clean straight lines of mid-century design. The knob turned with a kind of mechanical efficiency and precision. The air coming in off the lake smelled sweet and refreshing.
As I walked through their entryway I could not help but keep stealing glances at the beautiful view of the water through the expansive glass windows that make up much of the back wall of the living room. We enjoyed a pleasant moment as in an unconsciously civilized way we sipped our drinks, ate some sweets, and shared our stories.
My awareness of just how beautiful that moment was, and how fortunate I was to be able to participate in it was made that much greater by my consciousness that just a few thousand miles away from there, people who speak the same language that I do, appreciate the same values, and live under the same laws and protections, were experiencing astounding loss as they tried to live through the horrific vagaries of the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina.
How strange it is that we can sit in comfort, while there are others who are suffering so, crying out for water and food, hoping to find missing loved ones still alive, praying to make it back to safe, dry ground.
The flood and its tragedy made me so very much aware of how much we take for granted in our lives. We are often blind to the miraculous that pervades the everyday, not via lightning flashing through the sky, or the astounding beauty of a rainbow ' but in the simple wonder of a knob turning, or a wall keeping out the elements.
Our lives are enriched by the gifts of wonder and beauty we are given every day and by those people who, through their work, have made those gifts possible. Too often I hear that people need to find new meaning in their jobs, but it is in the communal effort to create civilization ' to ensure that services are delivered, that food is on the table, that insurance will be able to recompense those who have had losses ' that our lives are shot full of meaning.
It is the fact that we as members of a complex civilization strive to work together that has helped make possible the simple yet sublime blessings of the everyday. Awareness and appreciation of what we have should be made even keener by recognition that at any moment it can all disappear.
In his book I Asked for Wonder, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel encouraged us to live with a sense of awe as much as possible.
'Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things,' he said. 'It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine...to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.'
Our tradition teaches us that even in disaster the Divine is present. I have to admit that I will no longer be able to read the flood story of Noah with any kind of detachment. That tragic Biblical story ends with the brit covenant in which God promises not to flood the world again.
In the story, God is not simply reserving other potential ways for destroying us if the need arises, but is teaching us that our relationship with Divine will from that point onwards be such that God will be present to us as supporter when we are facing difficulty. When we think we cannot go on, God is present as a source of renewal giving us encouragement to survive and face the task of rebuilding our lives.
At the end of the flood story, Noah begins the process of rebuilding by planting a vineyard ' a symbol of hope. After a tragedy, we are left with the opportunity to rebuild ' but every day presents us with a chance to renew our world. God wants us to understand that each one of us has a gift to give, an ark to create, and a way of carrying others.
True recovery from disaster depends upon our working together, and realizing that the blessings of our lives come from helping each other, lessening our focus on the self, turning back the trend toward social atomization, and renewing our sense of responsibility to the greater community.
We can plant societal vineyards of hope working to be more prepared prior to the next natural disaster, ensuring that the poor are not left behind, and creating a medical system that will meet the entire community's basic needs.
Our lives are short, but even in the presence of tragedy they are filled with opportunity, with blessing, with possibility. Now our country needs to rebuild. May we share with others, so we can return to a sense of normalcy ' and soon, God willing, may children in New Orleans and Mississippi crawl into bed and feel the wonder of soft sheets enveloping them as they safely go to sleep surrounded by the simple gifts that working together as a society we in holiness give each other.