We’re told the earth would be a much healthier place if man wasn’t here. Our very presence disturbs the balance of nature: the climate has changed, we make messes, we don’t clean up after ourselves.
Yet we are here and were meant to be from the beginning – instructed to name and admire the creatures who came before us. The Creator Himself formed humans to be the disturbance nature must cope with from the beginning of time. And nature doesn’t take it lying down: it likes to flood and quake and blow and burn us to bits when it pleases. It is an uneasy relationship, to say the least.
Yet who else is there to admire two shy woodpeckers who would prefer I simply go away?
Deal with it, woodpeckers. I’m here to stay, just watching you watching me.
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings! ~Paul Dunbar from “Sympathy”
…the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup A suddenness, a startlement,at a branch end Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt, She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings – The whole tree trembles and thrills It is the engine of her family. She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end Showing her barred face identity mask
Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings She launches away, towards the infinite… ~Ted Hughes from “The Laburnum Top”
The free bird thinks of another breeze and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom. ~Maya Angelou from “Caged bird”
The 4 AM moment of this waning night before the first bird awakes to sing – a solemn silence holds its breath till broken by chitters and tweets.
Like a full breast tingles with readiness to flow until emptied – this wave of quiet builds before toppling forward in barely contained abundance, saturating our ears.
The Conductor’s baton rises to ready the multi-voiced chorus – awaking voices, pleading, spill from a thousand thousand perches.
My anticipation rises for for such a prayer uncaged and free – cascading from overnight stillness into an explosive unmistakeable dawn.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today; And give us not to think so far away As the uncertain harvest; keep us here All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white, Like nothing else by day, like ghosts at night; And make us happy in the happy bees, The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird That suddenly above the bees is heard, The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill, And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love, The which it is reserved for God above To sanctify to what far ends He will, But which it only needs that we fulfil. ~Robert Frost“A Prayer in Spring”
We are wisely warned what may happen in the next few months: a second or third wave of virus, more disruption, more closures, more deaths. There seems no end in sight on this long COVID road. Or perhaps the end is prematurely near for too many.
Thinking so far away to uncertain times ahead, we need to remember the future has always been uncertain; we just aren’t reminded so starkly. Instead we are reminded to dwell in the present here and now, appreciating these quiet moments at home for what they may bestow.
The earth is springing even while our hearts are weary of distancing and isolation. Each breath is filled with new fragrance, the greens startlingly verdant, each blossom heavy with promise.
There is reassurance in this renewal we witness yet again.
This, now, is love springing. This is His love, reminding us He has not abandoned us. This is love and nothing else can be as certain as that.
Again the woods are odorous, the lark Lifts on upsoaring wings the heaven gray That hung above the tree-tops, veiled and dark, Where branches bare disclosed the empty day.
After long rainy afternoons an hour Comes with its shafts of golden light and flings Them at the windows in a radiant shower, And rain drops beat the panes like timorous wings. Then all is still. The stones are crooned to sleep By the soft sound of rain that slowly dies; And cradled in the branches, hidden deep In each bright bud, a slumbering silence lies. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke [trans. Jessie Lemont], from Poems
It seems in May everything explodes with energy: the birdsong earlier and louder the grass nearly squeaks with growth the buds unfurling before our eyes.
There is much momentum running pellmell into longer days; I need to catch my breath.
As showers blow in from clouds gray and thick with menace, dumping their load, everything stills from the drenching, waiting for a shaft of light to break through again, turning everything to gold.
So I tell you to stop worrying about what you will eat, drink, or wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds. They don’t plant, harvest, or gather the harvest into barns. Yet, your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying? — Matthew 6:25-27
Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with worldly affairs. He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless, or useless. Nor does he suggest that we should withdraw from our involvements and live quiet, restful lives removed from the struggles of the world.
Jesus’ response to our worry-filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the “many things” to the “one necessary thing.”
It is important for us to realize that Jesus in no way wants us to leave our many-faceted world. Rather, he wants us to live in it, but firmly rooted in the center of all things. Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change in contacts, or even a change of pace.
He speaks about a change of heart. This change of heart makes everything different, even while everything appears to remain the same. This is the meaning of “Set your hearts on his kingdom first…and all these other things will be given you as well.”
What counts is where our hearts are. When we worry, we have our hearts in the wrong place. Jesus asks us to move our hearts to the center, where all other things fall into place. — Henri Nouwen from Making All Things New
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang. — Mary Oliver from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
I must confess I am a skilled and well-practiced worrier. It’s deep in my DNA: my mother had truly exceptional worrying capability, awake or asleep. I’m glad she is safe in the arms of Jesus during these uncertain times as she would be beside herself.
As a novel virus passes, person to person to person, from a market in Wuhan, China, to the farthest corners of the earth in a matter of weeks, I find plenty to keep me awake, personally and professionally.
Yet I know my worry is wasted energy, and worse than that, it pulls me away from the center of all I really need to know: all will be well. It may take time to get there, but eventually all will be well.
Jesus wants my heart, not my worry.
This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller
Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh, When the bird waketh and the shadows flee; Fairer than morning, lovelier than the daylight, Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee! When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber, Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer; Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading, But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there. So shall it be at last, in that bright morning When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee; O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning, Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee! ~Harriet Beecher Stowe
The night’s drifts Pile up below me and behind my back, Slide down the hill, rise again, and build Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.
The moon and the stars Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain Appears, pale as a shell.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken Our heads. How can I feel so warm Here in the dead center of January? I can Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is The only life I have. I get up from the stone. My body mumbles something unseemly And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely On top of the sunlight. ~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.
The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.
I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.
We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.
For hours, the flowers were enough. Before the flowers, Adam had been enough. Before Adam, just being a rib was enough. Just being inside Adam’s body, near his heart, enough. Enough to be so near his heart, enough to feel that sweet steady rhythm, enough to be a part of something bigger was enough. And before the rib, being clay was enough. And before clay, just being earth was enough. And before earth, being nothing was enough. But then enough was no longer enough. The flowers bowed their heads, as if to say, enough, and so Eve, surrounded by peonies, and alone enough, wished very hard for something, and the wish was enough to make the pinecone grow wings; the wish was enough to point to the sky, say bird, and wait for something to sing. ~Nicole Callihan “The Origin of Birds”
We were created to be enough, but for us enough was no longer enough so we reached for more.
We ended up stripped and stark — as if fall and winter would be the ending of all things, but of course they are not. We will not sleep forever.
When I am down to my bare and broken essentials — the bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I am the pinecone in the dirt wishing for the strength of wings and miraculously granted the gift of flight and a voice to sing.
I know this darkness is not the ending.
Never has been. Never will be.
Whence comes this rush of wings afar Following straight the NoÎl star? Birds from the woods, in wondrous flight Bethlehem seek this Holy Night
“Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here Into this stable, poor and drear?” “Hast’ning, we seek the new-born King And all our sweetest music bring.”
Hark! how the greenfinch bears his part Philomel, too, with tender heart Chants from her leafy dark retreat Re, mi, fa, sol, in accents sweet
Angels and shepherds, birds of the sky Come where the Son of God doth lie; Christ on earth with man doth dwell Join in the shout, “Noël, Noël!” ~French Carol
I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.
I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.
It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.
Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.
At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.
I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …
Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.
Night and day seize the day, also the night — a handful of water to grasp. The moon shines off the mountain snow where grizzlies look for a place for the winter’s sleep and birth. I just ate the year’s last tomato in the year’s fatal whirl. This is mid-October, apple time. I picked them for years. One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels. It was the birth of love that year. Sometimes we live without noticing it. Overtrying makes it harder. I fell down through the tree grabbing branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off. We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves into the future together seizing the day. Fifty years later we hold each other looking out the windows at birds, making dinner, a life to live day after day, a life of dogs and children and the far wide country out by rivers, rumpled by mountains. So far the days keep coming. Seize the day gently as if you loved her. ~Jim Harrison “Carpe Diem” from Dead Man’s Float
There is so much to cling to, as if this were the only day, the only night, knowing it can never come again.
There is so much that has passed, like a blink, and I wonder where time disappears to, where it hides after it disappears over the horizon.
There is so much to remember and never forget. There is so much yet to come that is unknowable.