• Courtney Ellis

Look at the Birds

A mourning dove sits atop the stone wall outside our kitchen window. It watches us—my husband and kids and me—as we pass pancakes and apple slices, settling into another day of working, learning, and living from home.


The dove turns its peachy-gray head to regard our little band of humans as we pour syrup, sip coffee, and remind the preschooler for the third time in as many minutes that his feet don’t belong on the table. The toddler spots the bird and points a sticky finger, yelling, “Tweet, tweet!” We turn and pause to watch.


The dove sits a moment longer, puffing up its chest, raising its head to show off a black cheek patch, and then flutters into the air over the house.


“Tweet!” the toddler informs us once more, returning to her breakfast.

“Look at the birds,” Jesus tells the crowd surrounding him on the mountain. They’ve come to hear a wild-eyed preacher, this curious rabbi, and perhaps to see him perform a miracle or two. They weren’t expecting ornithology.


I never really look at the birds. They exist as white noise behind other more necessary sounds of life; background characters in the heady drama of human existence. The crowds surrounding Jesus might have felt similarly. They’d walked a great distance. They were hot, tired, hungry.


“Look,” says Jesus, “at the birds.”


I’m willing to bet that you don’t look at the birds much either. Most of us don’t. Those who do tend to spy out unique, rare breeds. The common sparrows flitting around Jesus would not even register their attention.


“Do not worry,” Jesus says. “Look at the birds.” The eyes of the crowd drift upward. They had not considered the birds.


I had not considered them.


Instead, I wept at the kitchen sink last April when a strawberry tumbled into the garbage disposal. I had wasted our final one, whole worlds of supply chains and essential workers contained in one plump, vanishing morsel.


Worry only offers more of itself.

There’s a reason the verb worry can mean both to fret or to pick away at a fabric’s border, fraying the edges until only strings remain. Worry plays at the fringes of our minds, wearing slowly inward, thread by thread, until we discover ourselves smaller.


I’ve held worry in my hands these last months, turning it over and over like a Magic-8 Ball, looking for answers. But, of course, it has nothing to say except, “What if . . . ?” Worry only offers more of itself.

“Try to be alive,” wrote William Saroyan. “You will be dead soon enough.”


And there is Jesus, asking the crowds that surround him to raise their gazes and look for a moment at the birds.


They had not looked before. Instead, they looked at their dusty sandals after following Jesus up the mountain. They looked at their neighbors—those they loved and those they endured. They looked for food, shelter, love, truth. They looked for an end to Roman oppression. They looked for fresh hope.


But in this moment, listening to Jesus, they pause and look at the birds. There they are, most likely common sparrows. Ordinary and familiar. Fragile and unobtrusive. Cheap to sacrifice at the temple, if nothing better could be afforded. No one is offended by a sparrow, but no one is dazzled by one either.


Still, the people pause. They look.


The moment of quiet watchfulness changes little. Those who were hungry still hunger; those who were angry still seethe. The sick have not been healed. The deaf still cannot hear.


Yet a moment of quiet watchfulness creates a subtle, almost imperceptible shift.

The birds, unaware of their use as an object lesson, continue to dive and swoop and titter and alight.


Yet a moment of quiet watchfulness creates a subtle, almost imperceptible shift. As Howard Thurman wrote, “The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth.” The pause, the lifted eyes. The crowds surrounding Jesus.


You. Me.


“Do not worry,” says Jesus. “Look at the birds.”

Similar sparrows fly overhead in Wuhan. They perch on a gravestone, cheeky with cheer, as a priest in Brazil reads liturgy to a small group of graveside mourners. They follow my college roommate as she walks the streets of Madrid, working her lungs back to strength after recovering from COVID-19. They nest in the trees outside the Texas hospital where my friend works another back-breaking shift. They hide under the icy eaves of my grandparents’ lonely home in Wisconsin, a home we have not visited in over a year.


Right now, where you are, move toward a window and look. Look at the birds.


Down our street, vultures are circling. Actual vultures, nearly twenty of them, landing awkwardly in a tree behind an abandoned house, as hunched and brooding and ominous as the year we’ve just survived.


Yet these shaggy, bare-headed birds have a home. Nests. Food for their young. Strength for their journeys. Even vultures are a gift in the economy of God, removing what would otherwise fill the air with the stench of decay.


Worry threatens to destroy us.


But we might listen to Jesus, look at the birds and somehow, strangely, be lifted.



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