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"Look at the birds of the air. . . ." Matthew 6:26a
The birds sing, not because their days are easy, but because they have a song. --Vance Havner
Birdwatchers, don't you just love it! Not too many recreational activities are mentioned in the Bible, but here is our verse. Look at the birds of the air--what a beautiful phrase for us to take completely out of context. Next time you pick up your binoculars and bird guide, remember, you are doing what Jesus commanded!
Like many people, my interest in birds began in the backyard when I started to notice differences and unique behavior patterns between the species. We had the usual mix of head-banging woodpeckers, ground-hoping robins, bossy blue jays and stay-at-home cardinals. Also lots of little brown or gray birds doing a variety of shenanigans, plus an occasional stray pheasant or mother duck. Then there were those awkward-looking vultures who soared so gracefully and the gang of crows, one doing lookout while the others foraged for food. And off in the distance, those brave little blackbirds nipped persistently at the wings of the much bigger Red-tails.
I was married with two small children and a student at Millersville University when I became a bird-watcher. My first expedition with binoculars and bird book was with friend Jean Stehmen. We didn't go far, just a mile and a half south west to Cassel's Hill. There, for the first time in my life I saw a killdeer. It matched perfectly the picture in my guide book. Eagerly I began my list of bird sightings, with Killdeer written proudly at the top of the page.
For those of you who have never been bird-watching, I would say it's a lot like fishing. Quiet, still, often alone in the woods, nothing much happening and then the sudden rush of excitement at the possibility of a "catch." Thinking myself alert and ready at all times, yet lapsing into day-dreams and reverie. Lots of time to think, to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of nature.
That's how it was one day after the pressures of semester's end. Basking in the pleasure of all things completed and no more assignments due, I was sitting alone among at the trees at the old White Oak Dam with binoculars ready. And I remember specifically saying something like this, "God, if you know I'm alive, send a 'special-treat' bird into my view, something unusual I don't see at home, as a message that you care about me." Or the short version: Dear God. I exist! Please acknowledge!
Those were dry years for me spiritually. Not because I chose that dismal state; it just was that way. I found it difficult to really believe in God; there were so many reasons not to! I was only in my 20's but my faith seemed old, lacked enthusiasm and brought me little joy. Although I wanted to feel good about God, it simply wasn't there. It was easier to believe God loved "you", or mankind in general, than to believe that God actually loved me. To my way of thinking, God didn't answer my prayer that day.
It was the 1970's. My generation had marched for civil rights, against the Viet Nam War, for sexual freedom, against politics Watergate-style. Up and coming were Earth Day with its environmental focus and Abortion Rights for women.
The relevance of the Church was tested by these issues, and we searched the holy Scriptures for guidance. With amazement I discovered there were wonderful people, sincere lovers of God, taking opposing sides on many questions. Dear God. I'm still here. Where are you? Please let me know! I was holding on amid the conflict and uncertainty, while searching for answers I could call my own.
After a regretful, emotionally-charged experience in '79, seeing those "special treat" birds took on new momentum. I'd be out in the wilds along the river and without wishing, thinking or praying about it, I'd see them. After this happened several times, I thought back to my bird-watching at White Oak Dam--those days when my longing to hear from God could not be satisfied. Why was it that all these years later, while not particularly seeking to experience God's presence, it just started happening?
My response to those winged messengers was a spiritual one. I began to think automatically about God and say, "God knows I'm here. God loves me and sent me another bird to tell me so." It filled me with awe, wonder and joy. Such moments of grace kept bringing me back to the realization I wanted more from my relationship with God.
Why are there periods of distancing when God seems so far away? Why are there times of closeness to God? And who determines which it shall be? God or me? Why is God blessing me so richly now? Why was God seemingly beyond my reach back then? It would not have been difficult for God to send me a special bird that day at White Oak Dam. It was such a simple request which would have meant so much to me, yet God had remained silent.
In '81, I underwent back surgery. For one who loved the outdoors and physical activity, the recovery was a trying time. It took nine months, just like having a baby. I did a lot of reading, starting with some best-sellers. But my soul was hungry, and I soon switched to the classics of Christian literature.
I identified with Saint John of the Cross who owned up to a dilemma he called "the dark night of the soul." I knew then I was not alone. Others spoke of joy and sorrow, belief and doubt, as the normal rhythms of life. Rather like the ocean tides or the waves on the beach, and not something to be stressed about. Evelyn Underhill described the moods of the soul as the manner in which we are tutored by God through times of distancing as well as closeness.
But even more important than the words on the page, was the chatter in the red maple tree outside my window. Those simple, every-day songbirds helped me believe that God knew about my situation, loved me and would help me overcome. Faith is a "yes" word, a gift from God that needs to be nurtured and acted upon.
The Gospels speak of people being blind and deaf to God, eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Was I blind early on in life and now just beginning to see! That may be the case, but not necessarily. They say if I don't feel close to God, who moved? Supposedly the answer is me. But many of us try very hard and still are not fulfilled.
I heard about a radio broadcast which ran for 40 years. That preacher never missed a beat. He had a message for his listeners 5 days a week for nearly all of his adult life! It amazed me that anyone could remain so constant. Every year my daughter-in-law creates her own very unique Christmas cards. This year she told me she almost didn't get it done. She felt like just sending a note saying, "Gone to the dogs!" I salute the 40-year pastor, but I'm more in line with my daughter-in-law. Throughout my life I have held on to some very thin threads.
Faith is not a feeling. I know this intellectually but it takes time for that truth to work its way to my gut. The gift of God's presence does not depend on our feelings, instead it is accepted by faith. God's love and care is real no matter where, no matter what. It becomes "visible" to us as we believe. In the process of our believing, God reveals.
The year is 2007 now, and I have lots of experience under my belt. I usually don't worry too much when I don't feel like a person of faith should feel. I know that God is just around the bend. How do I know this? The birds are telling me so! Life is not easy to explain. Many things I do not understand. But God has planted a song of hope within my soul, so I will sing.