Since my last column, I have survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far north as Boston and the gusting fury of Hurricane Irene, which ripped up a half dozen ancient oaks on my street and left most of the city without power.
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but as I stood in my study recently watching the light fixtures swing back and forth, as I felt the floor shaking beneath my feet and the wall trembling behind me, I remembered the prayer I used to say in Washington, D.C., in those days just after 9/11: “Lord, if this is my day to die, let me do it with faith and courage.”
It wasn’t so bad during the hurricane, but at one point I looked out the window and watched as a giant tree toppled toward my side of the street, missing my daughter’s car by inches.
It made me gulp, and think about how vulnerable we are, how quickly the flame of our fragile lives can be snuffed out.
I survived the storm, but according to my local newspaper at least 20 people didn’t. What were they thinking in those last seconds of earthly life?
When the earthquake came, it took me a full 15 seconds to figure out what it was. At first, I thought someone was pushing a heavy cart across the floor above me. As the rumble grew deeper and the building began to shake, I knew that couldn’t be it.
When I saw the light fixture begin to swing back and forth, I thought, “This is an earthquake!” and at first all I felt was wonder. I’d never been in an earthquake before (“So this is what it’s like!”).
But then I realized that the floor above me could fall on top of me, crush me and kill me, and that’s when I began to pray.
It seems to be my instinct, in such “moments of mortality,” to make my peace with God, to make sure that things are OK between us in case I should find myself suddenly standing before him.
But then, in the next second, my mind reaches out toward the people I love, toward friends and family, making sure that things are OK between us in case I should die before I have a chance to say “I’m sorry.”
Is this why Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others?
Did he know better than most of us just how fragile life is, how quickly it can end, and how important it is to tend and nurture our most important relationships?
Because an earthquake could come, a tree could fall, and you might not have time in that “moment of mortality” to make your peace with God or say you’re sorry to others.
Maybe that’s why it felt so right to go to church Sunday morning after the storm – to spend some time with God and others – to make my peace and say my prayers and hug some people who are dear to me and who need to know it.
If those moments of mortality serve no other purpose, they serve that one: they help us remember what matters most. And for that, among other things, I am grateful.
And now, beautiful weather is upon us again. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 83 degrees.
If I’m not careful, I’ll forget everything I learned.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.