Oct 24, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite C
It’s the loveliest thing about swallows,
The moment they come,
The moment they dip in, and are suddenly there.
For months you just never thought about them
Then suddenly you see one swimming maybe out there
Over our bare tossing orchard, in a slattery April blow,
Probably among big sloppy snowflakes
And there it is – the first swallow,
Flung and frail, like a midge caught in the waterskin
On the weir’s brink – and straightaway you lose it.
You just got a glimpse of whisker and frailty
Then there’s nothing but jostled daffodils, like the girls running
In from a downpour
Shrieking and giggling and shivering
And the puckered primrose posies, and the wet grit.
It’s only a moment, only a flicker, easy to miss –
The first swallow just swinging in your eye-corner
Like a mote in the wind-smart,
A swallow pinned on a roller of air that roars and snatches it away
Out of sight, and booms in the bare wood
And you know there’ll be colder nights yet
And worse days and you think
‘If he’s here, there must be flies for him’
And you think of the flies and their thin limbs in that cold.
I spent this week giving attention to birds. I’ve stood still by my window waiting for birds. I’ve stopped mid-conversation to see a bird on a bench tilting her head toward me. I’ve waited in the open spaces where there are no birds; I’ve observed their absence. I’ve looked at pictures, carefully drawn by patient hands, pictures of speckled eggs and spackled nests. I’ve leafed through photographs of grackles and cowbirds, nuthatches and waxwings, kinglets, larks, and ibises.
I spent this week giving attention to birds, because Jesus seems to think that’s something we should do with our time. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells the crowds gathered around him on the side of a mountain. Look. Notice. Give attention.
We’re in good company when we take time for birds. There’s a whole Christian tradition, though not well known, that has paid special attention to animals of all kinds, including birds. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to construct “books of nature,” called bestiaries. Christians at this time assumed that embedded in the natural world were lessons for people, that in the lives of animals we would discover lessons about who God is, that God is somehow revealing God’s self through things that creep and crawl.
Each animal unveils something about God and God’s desire for human life. This week the Scripture pulls our attention towards two birds in particular – sparrows and swallows. We hear about them in Psalm 84:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Sparrows and swallows share some things in common. In the psalm they are building their houses, their nests in the Temple. This isn’t surprising. Swallows and sparrows have lives that are near to ours. They are found where there are people because these birds build their homes in pre-existing structures. In order for them to survive, to lay their eggs they need us.
I learned a lot about these birds as I gave them my attentive regard. I learned that barn swallows pick pebbles of mud and clay from the ground, molding them into a cup nest. The birds will return to the same nests for some twenty years. In the ancient world sparrows were sold for pennies, the burnt offering at the Temple by the poorest of God’s people. They are ubiquitous. An author from this century describes sparrows “as a troublesome and impertinent generation, [that] nestle just where you do not want them. They stop your stove- and water-pipes with their rubbish, build in the windows and under the beams of the roof, and would stuff your hat full of stubble in half a day if they found it hanging in a place to suit them.”
Sparrows and swallows found refuge in the Temple. The Temple was the place where God’s life ran free. It was the place that gave shape for God’s spirit, the holy place, the place to which people drew near to draw near to God. Here God welcomes sparrows to pack the dirt of their nests, to line the nest with feathers, to brood patiently over a clutch of six eggs, always one egg noticeably lighter than the others. God gives them attention. And W\when we give attention to birds we are as God is. When we do this we’re enfolding our lives into God’s life.
God’s attention is attentive regard. God’s attention is delight. I read an interview with Mary Oliver, the naturalist poet, who told the journalist memories of her late spouse, whom she called “M”: “It has frequently been remarked about my own writings,” Oliver said, “that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
Mary Oliver’s words remind me of a friend who is an ornithologist. When we talk outside, every once in a while, he pauses, so I pause, and I follow his eyes to a tree, to a branch, to a flutter of movement, then he’d tell me about his surprise at seeing this bird, this particular bird, here in our neighborhood. As the bird hops from branch to branch, both of us become distracted by this dance in the tree, surprised by what we notice.
I imagine that God is like this, like my neighbor. The God who goes about, doing all the important things, important business, yet who can’t help but be distracted into attention for birds, the surprise of these creatures, the distraction of delight. What takes practice for me–this discipline of paying attention–is simply how God is. In God’s life all created things have weight, they cannot help but call attention. God cannot help but be drawn back to them. And in turn God’s love draws us into the distraction. God invites us to notice that there is a bird nesting at the altar, invites us to be drawn into the lives of other.
In the bestiary manuscripts I mentioned before everything is supposed to be a lesson. There are thousands of these texts and their accompanying pictures, each beast revealing a moral or spiritual lesson. I noticed that the manuscripts tend in two directions. Some quickly move from the description of the animal to the lesson discovered therein – this fish is like the Trinity, this pelican is like the sacrifice of Jesus, this rabbit holds a moral lesson.
But on some pages the monks are carried away by the depictions of the animals themselves. They get distracted figuring out the exact color of the swallow’s breast, distracted in describing the deep cross of the scissor tail, wondering about swallows who catch insects as they fly. After a while the writer catches himself in the distraction of these descriptions, manages to tack on a pithy phrase at the end about how God is like this or that. The writer forgets that the bird isn’t the thing itself. The writer is distracted by creation, distracted into attentive regard.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve met with many of you, I’ve enjoyed getting to know all the ways you are distracted by the things that distract God. In looking to birds I’ve become curious about all of you, those of you who have built into your lives a capacity for distraction. I’ve learned it by your attentive regard to those at the margins of our church, the people who are difficult to love. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in rocks, you stop to pick up something remarkable where I see ordinary gravel. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in our children, the one who spend Sunday school with my toddler, the one who gathers up a clutch of preschoolers from around our neighborhood. I’ve also learned it from those of you who have given attentive regard to yourselves—the ways you give your own life the attentiveness that reflects back a God who loves you.
As I gave my attention to birds this week, as I began to think about your attentiveness I started to notice that my attention was drawn more and more to other things, ordinary scenes in my life that I often overlook. At the public library I saw a woman hard at work, using a computer reserved for job searches, looking for employment opportunities. Her two children, toddlers, were crawling under the table, around her chair, jostling for the coveted spot between their mother’s feet. I saw another mom, gently rocking her stroller back and forth with one hand, her little one bundled inside, napping, while pecking at the keyboard with her free hand.
As I watched them all, I remembered the words of an ornithologist who described a species of sparrows that builds nests out of whatever is available, sparrows that make life out of whatever they can find. As I looked at these little sparrows, nesting under the computer table, I thought about other nests: the homes built for overlooked people. Tent cities and refugees in camps, shelters cropping up in the woods, the people who sleep in cars, on a friend’s couch, under the doorways of church buildings—and how God can’t help but pay attention to them, how they draw God’s attention, how God’s eyes turn toward them.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus points to sparrows because they remind us that God gives us what we need. But I do wish Jesus lingered here a bit longer, lingered here with the birds before turning to us, stayed where Psalm 84 gives attention. I wish that he’d lingered on those mama swallows whose babies chirp, mouths wide for insects; those thick, dark nests made pebble by muddy pebble; those freed bodies flitting about the open air of the Temple. This is the goodness, the unexpected and unasked for pleasure of simply being received as we are. What we learn from sparrows is that delight in the unexpected intrusion of another is to dwell in God’s life. What we learn is that God’s distraction for us is love.