A year or so ago, my church‘s assistant pastor began a sermon by saying, “You may never have really noticed our stained-glass windows.” My jaw dropped. How could anyone not notice our stained-glass windows?! They’re beautiful! They’re very colorful, they depict a variety of Biblical characters and saints and symbols from obvious to obscure, and they have a lovely old-fashioned style. I’ve spent many hours gazing at them.
Even if a person never gave much thought to what’s depicted in the stained glass, how could anyone fail to notice the colors? For several years I always sat near the St. Patrick window so I could soak in the jade green of his cloak and the velvety purple of his robe. The wings of most of the angels, and the robe of St. John the Evangelist next to the pulpit, are a glowing ruby red. And the blue! Many of the windows have backgrounds or borders of bright blue glass, a shade both intense and deep, the bluest blue there is! I don’t see how anyone could spend one minute in that room during daylight and not notice that spectacular, brilliant, bluest blue!
Well. Unless they were blind. At first that was a brush-off sort of thought, which I was going to use to set aside my astonishment and focus on the main topic of the sermon. But it turned out that I never did resume listening to the sermon (sorry, Jared) because that first sentence opened a door through which I was snowed under by layers and layers of gratitude:
- I can see. The fact that eyes work is really extremely impressive. What a cool design that is! (I do believe in evolution. I believe God wrote the laws of science and created atoms, and evolution is God’s plan.) How amazing to be able to detect the bouncing of light rays off objects and process that information so rapidly that I can make split-second decisions about which way to move, I can read, I can recognize people, I can move my hand exactly the right distance and bend it exactly the right amount to pick up even an object I’ve never touched before.
- There are many wonderful things to see. There’s art like this, nature, expressions on people’s faces, bits of unexpected beauty even in mundane things like melting snow in the gutter.
- I was born in a time when people can make lenses that give perfect vision to those of us whose eyeballs aren’t quite the right shape. How impressive that people figured out how to do that so well and even how to make lenses that ride comfortably right there on my eyes so I can see clearly all around me! And I can keep wearing them day after day because somebody invented a cushy liquid polymer stuff, somebody figured out how to keep it sterile in a bottle, and people I never met labor in factories so that I can buy that stuff.
- I was born into a family that could afford optometric care, so I have never had to get by with uncorrected vision. It’s annoying that my eyes on their own blur everything more than nine inches away, but with my contacts I get a clear, sharp focus on things hundreds of feet away. This luxury is quite low-priced for the value it provides, but it does come at a price, and I’m lucky that I’ve always had that money or someone to provide it for me.
- I have excellent color vision. (I can distinguish green, cyan, blue, and purple pyramids easily even in very dim light.) The bluest blue is a striking color by the standards of anyone who can see blue at all, but I suspect it’s even bluer for me. I am grateful for every nuance of that blue and for all the millions of colors that surround me every day.
So that comment about not noticing the stained glass, which seemed to be so preposterous, actually got me to see the stained glass at many more levels than I had before. Now it is a weekly reminder to give thanks for the many gifts I easily take for granted. Yeah, we may be late for church because my kid spent 15 minutes whining about wanting to wear a particular pair of socks he couldn’t find or describe, and I may have a headache and cold feet and a bunch of dreaded chores planned for the afternoon, but here is the bluest blue existing just to please our eyes. Am I really so very angry?
A few months later, my son and I spent the Saturday before Palm Sunday helping to clean up the church for the holidays. We dusted and polished the stained-glass windows, the carved stone arches, and the intricate woodwork. Examining these details so closely made me think of the people who gave these things to us. Like our parish dishes, our church building and most of its furnishings were selected and paid for by people long ago, who loved God and one another and us enough to put their time, talent, and treasure into creating a glorious place that would last for generations. Our parish has less than 100 members now, and many of us are threadbare academic types whose best efforts would be barely able to buy and furnish any kind of building if we were starting now. It’s only because of the gifts of the past, and because we have taken good care of what we have, that we have a beautiful and extremely useful building to enjoy today.
Our whole planet is like that! It’s an enormous, amazing gift. Every part of it was put in place long ago, and all we have to do is take care of it. Not even six billion of us working together could buy and furnish a new planet, so we are lucky to have this one. This gift was so immense, so rich, so wonderfully designed and balanced, so forgiving, that even our reckless behavior these last few centuries hasn’t destroyed it. Despite all the broken places, we still have a beautiful and extremely useful planet to enjoy today. We’ve just got to really notice it, be grateful, fix it up, and take good care of it.
You may never have noticed the way sunlight shines through leaves and illuminates them with the greenest green. Look for it this spring. Let it dazzle you in the most unexpected times and places, give thanks for the big gift that is so easily taken for granted, and get to work fixing up our planet for all the Earthlings yet to come.