My friend Paul Wallace bird-watches as a spiritual practice, a way to commune with God through an inner stilling, a cultivation of awareness and peace.
“Went down to the water and awaited a bird from the Lord,” he wrote. “Received —5 yellow-rumped warblers —4 turkey vultures —3 yellow-bellied sapsuckers —2 hooded mergansers —1 blue-headed vireo —0 dogs off-leash The Lord is good.”
Paul (one of the best Twitter follows out there if you enjoy physics, faith, or birds) posted a picture of a song sparrow with its tiny beak open in song. The image stopped me in my tracks. The weather was gnarly, sleet flung from the sky, but still, the little bird sang. This brown speckled bird, smaller than the palm of my hand, singing in the freezing rain captured me.
“That’s it,” I told a friend. “That’s faith.”
Early in marriage, my husband and I noted how helpful it was that we tended to take turns having crises. I interviewed for jobs. He applied to PhD programs. We moved for his academic work and again for my first pastoral call. I got sick and then recovered. Then it was his turn. When disaster strikes surgically, individually, we can support one another. If the tornado hits your town, I can help you dig it out.
But what about when everyone is suffering? I don’t remember a more difficult year than the last one. So many of us are already walking around bowed low. At moments, even the thought of picking up another’s burdens to help carry them can feel excruciating. Everything already aches.
And then there is the sparrow, singing into the wind.
I’m a bookish Presbyterian (is there any other kind?), steeped in words. Learning biblical Greek and Hebrew was required for my ordination, as were essay exams and a deep knowledge of Scripture. My ilk tends to preach lengthy sermons and pray loquaciously. We have things to say. Many, many, many things.
Verbosity can be good in small doses. An educated clergy has its benefits and they extend beyond thoughtfully engaging the minds in the pews. Mainline pastors have led the way in helping their congregations embrace the science around COVID-19, pivoting to digital services, and encouraging parishioners to get vaccinated for both their own health and the common good.
Too much reliance on the text can lose the soul of the matter.
But words alone can’t save us and erudition has its own pitfalls. (Decades ago my denomination’s higher ups made the decision to stop covering vision insurance because, “All our ministers wear glasses.”) Too much reliance on the text can lose the soul of the matter. Our faith is one of emotion too. A faith of passion, wonder, mystery. The wild wind of the Holy Spirit can’t be contained within book bindings.
Looking to expand my gaze beyond the page, I stumbled upon Paul’s Twitter and his repeated treks into nature, his prayers to receive a bird from the Lord.
Birds fly where they will. Their presence is a gift, unearned. Yet birding teaches us to seek, to wait, to be expectant, observant, quiet. Go anywhere in nature and with a little patience and silence, birds will make themselves known. All we have to do is stay present.
Isn’t that the heart of all spiritual practice? We can kneel and read and fast and pray, but the real essence is the expectant waiting, the anticipation as we sit still, eyes scanning the trees for a flutter of grace where the Holy Spirit broods, as Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “with ah! bright wings.”
Too often I think I want a transactional spirituality, to receive a return on my prayerful investment. I want pat answers, like Eustace Scrubb’s beetles, dead and pinned to a card. What does it mean? I wonder, eager to strip knowledge from awe, to parse it from the text so that I may own it, control it, and use it as I will.
A living Word rises from the dead, proclaiming a new reality.
But a living Word, like a bird, will not stay tombed. It bursts out in explosions of thunderous, flapping wings. It is the quiet, mournful song of a dove outside the window of the newly widowed, the skeptical gaze of a seagull hoping for generosity, the witnessing phoebe on the back fence who heard the whole argument and knows just how petulant I can be.
A living Word rises from the dead, proclaiming a new reality. Resting on the impossible. Making all things new. Even we Presbyterians.
When my mind races and my patience grows thin, I’ve begun taking a page from Paul’s book, finding a moment to sit outdoors, breathe deeply, and still my soul.
Each time, the Lord has sent me a bird.
Thanks be to God.