I tried to rescue a baby bird the other day. There were six of us trying, actually, two adults and four children, playing in the backyard for two hours while a bird cheeped steadily every minute or so, and an anxious mother robin fluttered around the trees above us, calling to her baby to come to her. We humans wanted badly to help, but the problem was we couldn’t figure out where the little bird’s cries were coming from. When we stood next to the shed it seemed to be coming from the shed, but when we went into the shed it was clearly coming from outside. The mom and the two five year old girls tried on and off to look for it, and the toddler helped out by saying, “Birdy!” every time he heard the chirps. The three year old was mostly otherwise occupied. But me, I was obsessed. So much so that I was concerned I wasn’t doing my job as a nanny. I tried to focus on the kids, but the chirping kept calling me back to the search. My compassion and motherly instincts were working hard, but also my inability to back down from a challenge. There MUST be a way of finding that bird. I could do it, I knew I could.
Still, the kids were my priority, and I was also concerned that they not be too upset about the lost bird. I tried to reassure them, even as I was searching, that the bird was alright.
“Oh, I forgot!” said the five year old that was under my care, the bright, imaginative Louise that I wrote about here. “I can understand bird language!” She went over where the noise seemed to be and listened for a moment.
“I was right!” she said. “That’s not the sound of a bird in distress.”
“Oh good!” I said, pretending to believe her, and she and her neighbor-friend went back to their game. The mom went around the corner to work in her garden, the toddler and the three year old played in the sandbox, and I tried to focus on them, to pay attention for my own sake as well as theirs. One of the main reasons I’ve been nannying for the past eight years since my ministry job fell apart is because being present with small children is so therapeutic for me. Watching a one year old play in the sunshine while the breeze ruffles my hair is as good to me as an anti-anxiety medication. There was my health, my centeredness, right there in the sandbox. Pay attention, Jessica, I told myself. But:
That was a bird in distress, no matter what Louise said. It was almost time for us to go inside. The kids’ dad would be home soon and I wanted to give them a snack. I checked to make sure all the kids were safe and occupied, and then I went over to that corner of the yard, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and listened.
I peeked at the kids again, then resumed my breathing and listening. I took a step forward.
To the left, I thought, and took another step. I squatted down. Then I opened my eyes and I was in front of a blue bin, full of balls and other outside toys. Could it be?
I slowly, carefully began to remove the toys from the bin. Suddenly I heard a fluttering sound from the bottom. My heart skipped a beat. I’d done it! I was about to rescue it! I kept removing toys, even more slowly and carefully, my head full of visions of the bird flying away free, of a joyful reunion with its mother. Then, finally, I removed the last toy, a frisbee leaning against the side of the bin, and under it was the terrified little bird. I gently tipped the bin over and called to the kids:
“I found it! I found the bird!” And then my heart sank. Instead of flying out of the bin, the bird hopped out, and I saw that all of its tail feathers were missing, and some of its wing feathers as well. It hopped around to the side of the house and I blinked back tears.
“Okay, Louise and Manny,” I said, “Time to go inside.”
From the dining room as we ate our snack we could see the baby bird, still on the side of the house.
“Look!” said Louise, “Its mother came to find it!” Its mother was there, indeed, chirping at it, and feeding it. I tried to be enthusiastic about it for Louise’s sake, but I wondered if the baby had any chance of making it. The mom could feed it on the ground, but she couldn’t protect it from predators. I had worked so hard to locate and rescue the little bird, but it seemed like that rescue had been in vain. It all seemed deeply unfair. Many baby birds die, I know. But this was my baby bird. This was the one I’d left my baby humans to save. This was the one I’d used all my powers of centering and quieting myself and listening to search for. This was the one I’d found.
To be honest, I don’t want to write the second half of this blog post. I don’t want to look for deeper meaning, for reassurances, for the presence of God. I just want the bird to be okay. I want to write another story like the one where Louise and I rescued a little dog, and brought him safely back to his warm home and loving owner. I want to write about a joyful reunion, not a tragic one.
I don’t want to, but I’m going to anyway, because I do believe that God is present in everything, the good and the bad, and I am committed to paying attention to that Presence. In Matthew 10:29 Jesus speaks about a sparrow falling to the ground. Some translations say something like, “Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent” or “your Father’s permission.” This makes it sound God has been asked by someone — maybe Satan? — if it’s okay to kill the bird, and God has said yes. But the New Living Translation has it as, “without your Father knowing it,” and the New International Version says, “outside your Father’s care.” I like this idea much better. The sparrow never stops being within God’s knowledge and loving care, even when the time comes for it to die. It is held in love, in life and in death. And so are we.
Jesus goes on to say, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” How intimate a way to express God’s love and knowledge of us. We are under the care of someone who has held us, who has touched our body with gentleness and attention, separating each strand of hair to count them one by one. God holds us with this same gentle attention in death as well as in life.
And there’s another story from the Bible that comes to my mind. Many people know the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed by a whale (or big fish) when he refuses to preach God’s warning to Nineveh. As the story goes, Jonah prays inside the whale, God saves him, and he then goes to preach to the people of Nineveh, who listen to him and repent of their evil ways. But there is an epilogue to the story, a follow-up to Jonah’s role in the drama. Jonah is angry with God for forgiving the Ninevites, and God feels that Jonah needs one more lesson to understand God’s compassion. So God makes a plant grow, which shelters Jonah from the hot, Middle Eastern sun. Then, the next day, the plant dies, and Jonah is so hot and miserable and angry that he wants to die. Then God says to him:
“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The story ends there, and we never know whether Jonah understood what God was trying to say. But I thought of it when my heart broke over the injured baby robin. It is easy to have compassion for a creature who cannot speak, cannot insult me or offend me, cannot honk at me in traffic or be mean or inconsiderate. But how much compassion do I have for those people in my life who have hurt me, or angered me, or just made my life harder than it has to be? How much concern do I have for the messy, smelly, frustrating, broken people who are worth more to God than many sparrows? How much time am I willing to spend — listening for them, eyes closed, breathing deeply, then slowly and gently moving things out of their way until they are free?
For those of you who read my post about apartment hunting — good news! We found an place! It’s not perfect, but it has many good things about it, and I look forward to turning our pros and cons list into prose and poetry.
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And three books that I’ve read recently and highly recommend:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray is an excellent introduction to contemplative prayer for Evangelicals and others. Cyzewski vulnerably shares his own stories and struggles with spiritual anxiety within Evangelicalism, and describes how silence, contemplative prayer, and other practices like the Examen, and canonical prayers helped to calm his anxiety and reconnect him with himself and with God. He draws on the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Richard Rohr, and others to describe the benefits of contemplative practices contrasted with the activity-based and results-based practices of the Evangelical world. As someone already familiar with the subject I wondered if the book would have anything to offer me, but I found Cyzewski’s story to be personal and compelling, and I enjoyed rereading some of my favorite quotes and stories from Merton, Nouwen, and Manning. I definitely recommend this book for those interested in learning about contemplative prayer, and I think it will be an enjoyable read even to those already familiar with the practice.
I was given an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
The Light is Winning is a fascinating read about a man who has overcome spiritual trauma as both a child and an adult, worked through bad theology, and come to a place of deep faith and hope. Hoag tells his story with compassion and humor, making space for the reader’s experience and perspective. My favorite part was chapter 3: A Problem With Authority, especially Hoag’s discussion of sociology professor Josh Packard’s research into those who he calls the “dones” who have poured years of energy into the church and have finally given up, exhausted. I found much to relate to in this book, and I think many struggling Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals will, too. I will definitely be recommending it to friends!
If you like social justice and want to see the veil pulled back on capitalism, then this book is for you. If you like The Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books and have always wished that someone would write a guide to economics theory with the same wit and ease, then DON’T PANIC, this book is for you! Seriously, this is one of best books I’ve read in a long time, and well worth the price, especially when you consider, as the book will reveal, that MONEY IS JUST A LIE WE ALL BELIEVE.
Click on the images to see the books on Amazon.