The Love of the Albatross

Thanksgiving Sunday        Creation Season   October 8th, 2017

For the past several weeks, as our theme for Creation season, we have been reflecting on climate change.  It has not been an easy topic to think about – and as we bring the season to an end on Thanksgiving, I promised to try to be a bit more upbeat, and talk about “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, or the like.  I hope I will fulfil this promise, at least in part.

Actually, what I really want to do this morning is tell you about a movie I saw last week.  The movie was “Albatross”, a documentary about the albatrosses that nest on Midway Island in the Pacific.  I was a bit hesitant about going, as I am ambivalent about documentaries – they are often so preachy. What I hadn’t anticipated was that this would be one of the most movingly beautiful and heartbreaking movies I have seen in a while.

It was one part nature documentary, such as we are used to from, say, the Planet Earth series, exploring the life cycle of this amazing bird with luscious photography.  Albatrosses can have wingspans of 10 feet; they can live to be over sixty years old, roaming the oceans of the world.  They mate for life, and each couple raises a single chick. They take turns warming the egg and chick, while the other parent flies out to sea to gather food – a flight that can take weeks and cover the entire north Pacific, over 10,000 miles.  When the chick had been fed a couple of times, the parents abandon it. Then comes the most remarkable part – the chick’s first flight. When a stiff wind is blowing, the thousands of newly fledged young birds stand up and stretch their wings into the wind, in order to strengthen them.  Then, when they are ready, they cough up whatever indigestible pieces are in their stomach, and finally launch themselves on their first flight.  After they take off for the first time, they will not touch land again for five years, until they return to breed.  Occasionally they can rest on the surface of their water, but almost all of their life is spent in the air, soaring over the ocean on their huge wings.

So this is an amazing bird, another of God’s wonderful creatures.  If the ancient Israelites had known about the albatross, no doubt it would have featured in the book of Job, as one more instance of God’s inscrutable creative power.

And then there is the heartbreak: framing this feel-good nature story in the movie is another tale of loss.  Albatrosses live by scavenging whatever floats on the surface of the water.  They feed indiscriminately – and that means, in recent years, that they are ingesting more and more plastic garbage from the ocean. Some are able to regurgitate it and survive; but many end up dying agonizing deaths, their bellies filled with sharp plastic fragments.  As their corpses decomposed, sickening piles of plastic are revealed amidst the feathers and bones.  The filmmaker follows this horrible process with unflinching gaze, but one filled with tenderness and grief.  We see him weep as he gently strokes the bodies of the recently dead, and then reverently cuts them open to reveal their deadly contents.

Image result for chris jordan albatross photos

Why am I telling you about this?  Because this film puts its finger on what we need in our relationship to nature: two things, in fact, two related attitudes, love and grief.  It doesn’t preach at us about the plight of the albatross as another problem to be solved; it makes us fall in love with the beauty of this bird, and then it lets us experience the grief that comes when love and beauty meet loss.

As the narrator remarks at one point: “I never thought I could care so much about an albatross.”  The remarkable thing is that this movie makes you care so deeply about the albatross, which is why I think it should be seen by everyone.  It goes to the heart of the one essential thing in our relationship with nature: that we have to learn to love God’s creation.  Not just on principle, in the abstract, not just when things are pretty and inspiring.  We need to cultivate that deep love that involves slowing down, paying attention, and sharing not only in the delight and wonder, but also in the grief.  We need to learn to truly grieve what we are doing to God’s creation; and true grief comes only with true love.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, this is something to keep in mind. We give thanks for the good things of the earth, for food and health and glorious fall weather.  It is good and right to enjoy our turkey and pumpkin pie, and to accept these good things as gifts of a generous God.  But perhaps there is a trap here, as well: that we give thanks only for what we get out of God’s creation, for the ways in which it benefits us.  And that can be just a religious veneer on our original sin with nature – our tendency to see it only in terms of what we can get out of it; our tendency, in short, to exploit rather than tend and love.

So let us give thanks this day not just for the good things we enjoy.  Let us give thanks also for the albatross, which is useless to us as it soars endlessly over empty oceans – unless we learn to love it for its own beauty alone, and not for anything it can do for us.  Let us learn to love the polar bear – which would kill us if it got the chance; and the savage beauty of the Amazonian rainforest; and the uncanny power of the whale.  Let us learn to love them with a faithful love that does not turn away when we learn of their destruction, but which keeps on loving through grief.  And let us love the forests of our home here in the valley, the intricate community of the trees, the delicate moss on the rocks.  They were here before we were, and, God willing, they will be here when we are gone.  Let us love them because they are sacred, because they bear something of the beauty of their creator.

In a few minutes we will baptise Kelly into the body of Christ. As we look to this new life, fresh from the creator’s hand, we see something else that we are to love: not for what we can get out of her, not because there is any advantage to us, but selflessly, for her own sake.  And as we look to this new life, we reflect on what we would wish for her, what kind of life is most human and real.  There is a prayer we say immediately after the baptism which I have always loved.  It ends with these words:

Give her an inquiring and discerning heart,
the courage to will and to persevere,
a spirit to know and to love you,
and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

“The gift of joy and wonder” – that is our most precious gift as human beings. The gift of being able to love, of rejoicing in something for what it is, not asking how we might profit from it. It is the only true way for us to love one another: simply delighting in the other person, not exploiting them for our own needs. And it is the only way to love God’s creation, caring for it for its own sake, not ours. It will bring both delight and grief.  May God grant Kelly, and may God grant us all, this most sacred gift of love.