What do you have in your hands?

Of late I’ve been confronted over and over again, in conversations and through circumstances, by a simple question: What do I have in my hands?

At the turn of a new year, I often fall into the trap of dreaming up some grand plan to change the world, a plan that would require the gathering of vast resources and a grand following. That doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon! And as I’ve thought about it, most of the grand deeds done in the history of the world started with a person taking what they had in their hands and putting it to work to meet some immediate need.

So what do you have in your hands? Is it a stack of old boards that could be made into something? Is it some space out back that could be cultivated to grow food for someone who’s hungry? Is it a box of old garden seeds that need to be planted? Is it a cupboard full of flour that should be baked into bread? Is it some sort of message from Above that needs to be well stated so others can hear it? Is it a pile of old newspapers in your grandparents basement? Or is it all the old woodworking tools buried beneath the papers? Is it a pick-up truck or van that can carry lots of stuff? Is it an empty room that could provide shelter to a traveler? Is it a box filled with old blankets or clothes that could be put to good use? Is it that old sewing machine and boxes of fabric? Is it some sort of knowledge or skill that could be taught to another, who could, in turn, pass it on?

So what do you have in your hands? What has God put in your hands?

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Grandfather’s Last Garden

Over the years since my grandfather’s death, I’ve sometimes wished I could have been there to harvest his last garden. After retirement, my grandfather became an avid vegetable gardener, supplying all the vegetables he and my grandmother would need for the coming year, plus many of the vegetables his extended family and neighbors needed all summer, too. He died one summer not long after planting his garden, and as the harvest season came on, the weeds grew and much of the fruit went unharvested. I remember hearing how my cousins went and gathered some of the produce, and I had wished I could have been there to help. On our summer visits as children, we had often helped in the harvest and preparation of the produce for canning and freezing. Hours of picking, sorting, cleaning, and blanching made for some great times.

In the end, my grandfather planted more than just vegetables in that garden. He also planted in his children and grandchildren a passion for planting and growing things. He planted a willingness to work hard and to enjoy working together. And though a man with a somewhat gruff demeanor, he planted a spirit of kindness and generosity in those who watched him quietly deliver boxes of produce around town.  He planted a sense of affirmation in his grandchildren as he found ways to include them in the work, despite its inefficiencies. He planted a sense of joy in seeing how our sweat and effort could mingle with the miracles of the Earthmaker to bring amazing gifts to share at the table. He planted a joy of heathly food and our value of a lively and bustling kitchen.

I now stand at a point in my life where I wonder whether the garden I planted this spring might be my last. As I look at that garden, I see in it many good things growing, along with some weeds. I see some plants that require a good bit of painful pruning each year—the blackberries in particular. My hope is that I will continue to have opportunities to plant, but there is no guarantee. It makes me wonder if I’ve planted well enough in the lives of my children, my wife and other family members, my friends. And I worry that perhaps I have allowed weeds to be planted and not dealt with them quickly enough to keep them from spreading seeds that others will have to deal with. When I’m done, I want to leave a garden behind me growing with many good things and with limited liabilities.

The Hebrew Scriptures present a good bit of wisdom about good planting in the lives of those we love. One famous passage in this regard is known as the Shema, and it reminds us to plant the Scriptures in our own hearts and the hearts of the people close to us, sometimes leaving reminders around the house so we don’t forget the important things.

Listen, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NLT)

Jesus identified this great command to love God above all else, along with loving our neighbors as ourselves, as the most important things to remember and live out. By planting these truths in the lives and hearts of our children and families, we can at least make a start at good planting. And as I think about it, this is some of what my grandfather accomplished through his garden.

Garden Tip: Plant for the people in your life, not just for yourself. In my early days a vegetable gardener, I often took a lot of space planting things that only I enjoyed eating. The result was always a lot of wasted produce. I’ve since learned to keep it simpler, planting mostly things that everyone in my life will enjoy. There is great joy to be found in sharing the garden’s gifts with others—a juicy, sweet tomato, some green beans and kale, or a basket of peaches. I’m sure that’s what my grandfather discovered, and I’m glad he passed it on to me.

Murmurations

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

If you happen to be near a marshland or waterway in the British Isles or northern Europe in an evening during fall or winter, you may witness a remarkable sight. Early on you may see small flocks of dark-colored birds, starlings to be exact, flying about in the late afternoon sun. But then the smaller flocks come together and join into larger and larger gatherings, until they swell into a single cloud and begin to flow as one, roiling in the sky in astounding, unpredictable, yet beautiful patterns. It can hardly be described—like a living, shape-shifting creature, flowing, dancing to an unheard symphony. As the cloud of birds moves near, a murmuring rush tickles the ear as thousands of feathered wings brush the air. This is truly a wonder to experience, even if only through a video. (Here’s another fun one that recently went viral on the Web.)

Scientists have struggled to understand this phenomenon. We know that starlings gather in larger groups in the cold months, probably to benefit from the warmth of numbers. Sometimes flocks can swell to over a million birds. They truly are a communal creature, following systematic feeding patterns that ensure everyone gets a turn to forage for insects in fresh ground. Perhaps their evening flights help to generate the additional warmth they need to make it through the colder nights. The large winter gatherings of starlings certainly make the spectacular aerial displays possible, since a large flock is needed to really catch the eye. But none of this explains how all the individuals in a flock fly in such a precise synchronized flow, without any predictable or learned pattern. It is as if they fly and think as a single entity.

To watch a flock of starlings in the flow of a murmuration makes one wonder if they aren’t actually governed by a singular mind or perhaps a directive voice. Make a search of starling murmuration videos on the Web, and you will discover that the videographers couldn’t resist mixing music into their videos. Everyone seems to sense that the birds are flying to a divine symphony just out of human earshot. As you watch, it’s hard to avoid that thought.

So how does it happen? Mathematical analysis of flock dynamics in videos has shown that each starling’s movement is somehow influenced by the movement of all the others. It’s as if they are all tuned in to the same frequency. They adjust almost instantaneously to the movements of the others with regard to both speed and direction. The shift of one bird results in the immediate shift of the entire group. The more closely scientists have studied this, the more intrigued they have become.

Physicists see profound similarities between the starlings’ movements and what is seen in other critical systems like crystal formation, avalanches, and ferromagnetism. They are systems poised on the brink of near-instantaneous transformation, but it is hard to know what pushes them over the brink. In a starling murmuration the moments of change happen in an almost continuous flow, making it especially interesting. In part, it could have to do with a group survival instinct, enabling them to evade predators like falcons. But again, this doesn’t explain how they do it. The ability of the individuals to instantaneously correlate their movements to all the others just isn’t known.

It gives a hint that birds and other creatures are sometimes gifted with perceptions and other abilities that we humans just don’t have. And when their particular communal gift is on display, it shines a light on the Creator who gave the gift and inspired its use. Awe-inspiring events in the world of nature often point to something bigger behind them. The study of astronomy has long inspired such awe and points to something greater. David, the ancient psalmist of Israel, put it in a memorable way:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.” (Psalm 119:1-4, NLT)

The heavens point to their Creator. So do other remarkable events in nature, and special gifts and events in and among people. The experience of some communal worship events can at times carry this sort of weight. I recall once a musical gathering I attended where the final song was a prayer of praise. As the song concluded, a Spirit-inspired whispering arose among the audience—softly-spoken prayers that took on a sound not unlike that of a starling murmuration. It rose to a climax, and then slowly quietened into a joyous and peaceful silence. No one wanted to leave, or even move, for that matter.

As I watch the starlings in their communal aerial dance, and hear the whisper of their wings, it inspires in me a prayer of praise. It points me to the Earth-maker, whom I sense created many things with a grand smile, and with the intent that we enjoy them together. It also gives me a good shot of humility, as I watch the greatest of human minds trying to explain it all, but without much success. Some things will likely remain always happily “beyond us.” An amazing event that may initially bring a furrow to my brow, in the end invariably brings a shrug to my shoulders, a shake to my head, and a smile to my face. And it keeps me always listening for the divine symphony swelling up in the silence behind it all.

Gardening Tip: Most gardeners view a flock of starlings as an unwanted challenge, since their large numbers can lead to a fair amount of destruction and disruption. (Thankfully, they tend to prefer wooded marsh lands when they are in large gatherings, and don’t usually pose too much of a problem. They also do most of their gathering during the cold months when the garden is asleep anyway.)

Many other bird species, however, can be a wonderful addition to any garden, especially song birds. Here are a few hospitable things you might do to welcome them into your space:

  • Add some sort of water feature like a bird bath, a trickling fountain, or even a pond (if you’re adventurous). Birds need a water source, and if they can be sure to find it in your garden, they will come.
  • Plant native plants that provide birds with food, including native grasses and flowers with seed heads, and fruiting shrubs and berry brambles.
  • Plant sheltering shrubs and trees to keep protect the smaller birds from predators and to give them good nesting places.
  • Add a few nesting boxes for birds common to your area. Specifications for these can quickly be found in books at your local library or by a Web search. (Various bird species are drawn to boxes of different sorts.)
  • Put out some bird feeders in locations where you can easily watch them. It can be quite entertaining—and sometimes enlightening!

Earthworms

“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I suspect most of us have felt like a worm at one time or another.

In one of his lower moments, King David of Israel wrote, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. . . . But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all!” (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, NLT).

Centuries later, the first words of this passage were spoken by the Messiah himself as he hung on the cross, rejected by people and “forsaken” by His heavenly Father for the burden of sin He carried. Even Jesus had His low days—perhaps one of His most important days being the very lowest.

Bildad, one of the friends of Job, echoed David’s thought in a more general way: “In comparison [to God], people are maggots; we mortals are mere worms” (Job 25:6, NLT). Though Bildad’s wisdom might be questioned on some points, what he says in this case is hard to argue with. People who think too highly of themselves probably don’t see things very clearly.

As a gardener, I’ve come to think that being like a worm, though perhaps tough on my ego, isn’t all bad. It may even be essential to my spiritual growth and  a necessary part of me becoming a positive force in the communities I’m a part of. Time spent feeling like a worm isn’t necessarily time wasted.

As I work the soil in my garden, it makes me happy when I see it alive with wiggling earthworms. Worms are a good indicator of the health of garden soil and sign of freedom from pesticide pollution. Worms are essential members of the soil-building community, breaking down organic matter to a refined form, gathering minerals from deeper layers, then mixing these together and spreading them, all the while aerating compacted soils.

Earthworms travel through the soil by muscular contractions that alternately shorten and lengthen the body. This digging action is aided by tiny bristles (setae) that strategically anchor parts of its body as it lengthens and shortens, allowing it to gain traction and move forward. The burrowing process is also lubricated by the secretion of mucus, the reason why healthy earthworms are so slimy to the touch. As they move around and do their thing, earthworms work to improve the soil on biological, chemical, and physical levels.

Many species of earthworms feed on humus on the soil surface and carry it down to lower levels, enriching the soil with digested organic matter. Their biological work involves eating, digesting, and spreading humus throughout the soil. This creates a rich environment for countless other microorganisms to live and do their work of providing micro-nutrients to plants. The high level of organic content also allows the soil to better hold moisture, another necessary ingredient to an environment healthy for the living microorganisms.

Worms also alter the chemical make-up of the soil by ingesting minerals from deeper layers, normally as small stones. Tiny fragments of grit in a worm’s gizzard grind these stones into a fine mineral paste, ready to feed plants. The worms often mix these minerals with humus in their digestive system, thus leaving castings rich in both humus and nutrient minerals.

As worms alter the biological and chemical make-up of the soil, they are also altering the soil physically. By burrowing in the soil, especially through existing tunnels, worms force air down into the soil, oxygenating it to deeper levels, thus adding another element needed for most organic life. The passageways they create also allow water to flow down to deeper levels, aiding in the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water. These tunnels also soften and lighten compacted soils, allowing roots to grow more easily.

Since a high level of organic matter is essential for fertile soil, an abundance of earthworms is essential for any gardener, especially those who take an organic approach. Any healthy organic soil is filled with these humble creatures. One of the troubles with the industrial farming practices so prevalent in our day, including the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is that they kill off the earthworms and other organic life that sustain a healthy soil. As the soil becomes sick, farmers tend to use more and more chemical solutions, which over time ruin the earth so essential to their livelihood and ours.

The work of earthworms is going on constantly, but most of us are blind to their amazing, life-giving activity. Oh, that more of us were like them! It seems a human trait, perhaps a reflection of our fallen nature, to want praise and compensation for all we do. Most don’t choose to work unless they get something directly for their effort. But all of us have heard of, or perhaps had the privilege of knowing, that rare person who goes against the trend, who serves quietly and selflessly in the background. Often it is only in their passing that we discover all they were doing to help others and transform their communities. And when they are gone, they are greatly missed, even though few even know their names.

Jesus talked a great deal about this sort of person—it is the sort of person he calls us all to be. And though he held the power of the universe in his hands, he demonstrated quiet service throughout his life. The evening before his death, he demonstrated this truth in a most memorable way.

Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. . . .

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that is who I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13:3-5, 12-17, NLT)

So is being like a worm really so bad? Our very lives depend on such people, just as we depend on the worms! We need to open our eyes and hearts to the good things going on behind the scenes and beneath our feet. We need to find places and opportunities to serve others in transformative ways, whether we are ever recognized for them or not. The health and life of our friends, families, and communities depend upon it.

Garden Tip: Look for ways to encourage the presence of earthworms in your garden soil. This will certainly involve adding organic matter in the form of compost. Start a compost pile to recycle your leaves and other yard waste and then spread it for your plants—and for the worms. Their activity will, in turn, feed and improve your soil in multiple ways. And the enriched soil will feed your plants, which will then feed you! Also be careful not to add things to your soil that will hurt the earthworms, including chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Look for organic solutions that encourage a living soil.

As you find ways to protect and delight in earthworms, also (as strange as it might sound!) look for ways you might be more like them as a life-sustaining force in the places you find yourself.

Boxes and Other Frail Vessels

Boxes intrigue me. Just watch the eyes of a child when given access to a box, especially the large sort made for a kitchen appliance. What is it about such a box? Is it that the space set off by its walls becomes something small enough to be manageable for a small person? It’s no longer the vast stretch between the child and eternity. It’s something that can be arranged, made cozy. Or is it because the space within it has now become somehow special—set apart.  And by being set apart, it somehow becomes sacred, imbued with mystery. Perhaps it involves something of both.

A definition of sacred or holy space is quite particularly “space set apart.” The Hebrew term for holiness points to this very thing—something being set apart or unique, as opposed to everyday or mundane. In Scripture, it is one of the primary ideas for describing God. He is separate and completely unique—wholly other. He is apart from and above all His creation, so nothing in creation is truly worthy of representing Him, only able offer hints about Him. He is also completely separated from all that is broken and twisted by sin. When He calls us to be holy, He wants us to be different from most of the people in our world—transformed.

In recent years I have inadvertently become a box maker. It all began with making small wooden chests for my sons as they came of age. These were designed, in part, to contain (in a secret compartment) the words of wisdom and objects of remembrance given to them by family and friends.  Then came the bird houses (boxes, at least of a sort), seed boxes, prayer boxes, tea boxes, potato boxes, and recipe boxes, mostly for gifts. These are mostly made from wood that would otherwise have been discarded or burned, a reminder to me of  God’s work of redemption in our own lives. Most of the boxes have messages burned or decoupaged into them—words from Scripture or other wise sayings. Some also contain prompts for prayer, Scripture reading, and meaningful conversation.

While making these, there has been time for me to reflect on what a box is. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more joy I’ve taken in the work. It is one of those activities for me in which I feel God’s pleasure. Though these boxes can sometimes be beautiful in their own way, they are not really about themselves. They are much more about what they are meant to hold, or what they signify or point to. Boxes by their very nature point to something other than themselves.

In ancient Israel, God prescribed the creation of sacred space to help signify His presence among His people. In the Tabernacle, the interior space was set apart from regular space by a special frame and wall coverings of leather and fabric. In the Temple, the space was set apart by heavy stone and cedar-beam walls. Both of these spaces were highly decorated with embroidered and carved ornamentation, and much gold, silver, and bronze. These places were not designed to be worshiped, but to point to the one true God and to inspire worship of Him.

One of the most striking objects of this sort in ancient Israel was the Ark of the Covenant—a box of  acacia wood covered by gold, signifying God’s presence. It is interesting that God used a box to signify His presence. In a world filled with idolatry, all the nations surrounding Israel had their idols—small hand-made objects that represented their gods. But the Lord had forbidden His people to make any images of Himself. Instead God instructed His people to make a box to help them visualize His presence.

As said above, boxes by their nature aren’t really about themselves. They are designed to create a space for something else, to signify and protect their contents. The very creation of the box holds up the contents as something special, set apart—sacred. The Ark of the Covenant signified the very presence of God—in a sense it was His throne—and became a means for inspiring faith among God’s people. And it contained items that helped the people remember truths they needed to hold on to: the stone tablets with God’s laws on them, Aaron’s sprouting rod as a reminder of the priests’ authority, and some manna to remind the people of God’s miraculous provision of food.

In the New Testament, a vast shift takes place. Jesus speaks of it in John 4, when the woman at Jacob’s well asked if it was important for Samaritans to go to the Jerusalem Temple to worship. Jesus told of a new era when true worship would have nothing to do with the Jerusalem Temple, but would be a matter of worshiping in Spirit and truth. Instead of a place or box to signify God’s presence with His people, God had sent His own Son to be Emmanuel—“God with us.” And when Jesus finished His work and ascended to heaven, God’s very Spirit came to indwell His people—His presence actually resides within us.

“Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, NLT)

“So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22, NLT)

We as individuals and as communities of faith became the sacred spaces in which God Himself dwells, and it is through us that He makes Himself concretely present in this world. So we have become the sacred (though frail) vessels that carry God’s presence to a broken world.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NLT)

We are fragile vessels for a wonderful and overwhelming presence. We are God’s boxes, signifying and carrying His presence to the dark places in the world. As Jesus was when He walked this earth, we also are to be. An overwhelming task? It can feel that way, but it is important to remember that we are just the vessels, just the ones pointing to the true power. It’s all about God, not the vessels that signify Him.

Our weaknesses in the end just do more to point to God’s adequacy. The apostle Paul reflected on this when he said:

“So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NLT)

Garden Tip: Construct a seed box to contain and organize your garden seeds. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and the wood doesn’t need to be expensive. You can make a nice wooden box with just about any old scraps. If you do, it will be a reminder to you of how God often uses “cast offs” to do His miracles. It is this sort of redemption that God accomplishes in our lives.

Seed Boxes

Design your seed box to signify the gift of life and God’s power to create and sustain it. Let it remind you that the seeds inside, once planted, have the potential to grow into beautiful and nutritious gifts from God. Remember that the seeds are evidence of the power of God and the fact that He chooses to work with us, in us, through us to accomplish His miracles.

If you are set up to do so, make two or three boxes at a time, and share them with others. Burn or router names on your gifts to personalize them. The back of these two seed boxes have these words burned into them: IN EACH SEED IS A UNIVERSE HURLED. It is a reminder of the amazing miracle of life that God has rolled up in each seed, and that He has called us to participate in His work as planters. It also reminds us that wonders and miracles are so often bound up within what we so often mistake for merely ordinary or mundane.

Soaring

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

As spring comes to central North America and the migratory birds begin to return, some bright days are punctuated with loud cries in the heavens. If you look around for the source, it can be hard to pinpoint. Just keep looking up, then yet again, higher. Above where you’d expect it, you will likely see small specks in the sky, flying in formation. Sometimes groups join and begin to swirl together, before breaking off again and heading north, all along calling their plaintive cries. This is the migration of Sandhill Cranes.

They look small from a distance, but when on the ground, they stand as tall as 3 to 4 feet, with a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet. Sandhill Cranes are skilled soaring birds, their long sweeping wings ideal for catching rising air. Utilizing thermals to obtain lift, they can soar for hours with only occasional wing flapping. With their bulk, these large birds would not get far at all if everything depended on the flapping of their wings.

During their migrations, Sandhill Cranes often stop over in wetlands for the night. As the sun rises, they can be seen standing in the morning mists, awaiting the sun’s magic. As the sun rises and shines, the dark soil absorbs its energy and, in turn, warms the nearby air. As the air warms, it grows lighter and begins to rise into the colder, denser air above. The cranes sense the lift and with a few wing flaps rise high enough to catch the rising currents. They begin to circle upward by the hundreds, marking the normally invisible rising air columns with their noisy presence.

Many smaller birds fly primarily on on wing power. If you watch Swallows or Swifts flitting in and out of the shadows in search of mosquitoes, their agile movements are driven by quick movements of their wings and tails. Sparrows and Finches flap around among the shrubs and peck around on the ground for seeds. Hummingbirds demonstrate the ultimate in wing-powered flight, their wings moving so fast that the wings disappear from sight. But there is a downside for these smaller birds. Flight for them takes a great deal of energy. If a hummingbird fails to find nectar on a regular basis, it soon runs out of energy and starves to death.

But there are birds that mostly just ride the wind, catching the thermals that rise as the morning sun heats the air, or riding the currents that ride up cliffs from a warmer valley floor below. Among these are the large migratory birds like storks and cranes, who can often be seen standing in a misty wetland watching for the sun to arrive and stir up rising currents. Hawks and eagles often ride the currents along cliffs, hanging motionless in the air watching for small animals or birds below. As they hang motionless, a small twitch of wings and tail, and they drift away at astounding speeds. Sometimes they close their wings and thunder earthward like a bolt of lightning, then gently rise again with spread wings, clutching dinner in their claws.

The ultimate in soaring are probably the scavengers, like vultures, whose wings sweep backward and upward to take maximum advantage of the wind’s upward lift. Unlike other avian raptors, like hawks and eagles, that often dive to catch their food and have to use more flapping to power their agile movements, the vultures rise high to look around and when they find food, they slowly circle down to gather around and take their turn at a carcass. These are some of the ugliest birds on the planet—that is, until they catch a breeze and glide away with utter and astounding grace.

The prophet Isaiah had watched these soaring birds and used them to describe a person of faith:

“Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31, NLT)

The Hebrew term translated as “eagle” in this passage is thought by many scholars to more likely refer to the Griffon Vulture. The Griffon Vulture (also known as the Great Vulture) is a large scavenging bird, very common in Palestine and much of the Mediterranean world. Most translators shy away from rendering the term “vulture,” probably because it doesn’t create an inspiring picture to the mind’s eye. But the Griffon Vulture, like all vultures, is a wonderful and stately glider.

The strength Isaiah promised wasn’t mostly a strength to enable us to flap harder and longer. Lift comes to a soaring bird, not from wing strength but from wind strength.  They just need to know how to read the winds and how to utilize their wings, a gift they all have from God. The same is true of us. Strength comes to those who trust God for strength when all their own strength is gone. When we are weary of body and spirit, it is a matter of catching the divine and holy wind. There are often times when there is just no strength left in us to give. All we can do is raise our wings and hope.

The apostle Paul begged to be released from an unidentified weakness, but the response he heard from the Lord was this: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT) The same answer is there for us.

Wilderness Tip: Look up into the sky. No matter where you live, there are surprises lurking, along with reminders of truth. During seasons of migration, you may see cranes and geese flying in formation, knowing where they need to go to survive, cooperating with each other to make the journey as easy as possible. You may see flocks of small birds gathering to migrate together toward warmer air and live food sources. You may see a large, lonely soaring bird with swept-back wings, probably a turkey vulture or some other scavenger, riding the winds to unspeakable heights, searching for the next mess to clean up. Or perhaps you see the flapping outline of a Raven, looking for just about any source of food. Have you seen any of these things lately? They are there, even in urban areas, on a daily basis. Open your eyes; lift them to the heavens; smile at the wonders God has made.

And remember to study the ways of the holy wind of God’s Spirit; Scripture reveals a good deal about Him. Then learn to lift your spiritual wings so He can carry you to places you probably have not even imagined. He knows where He wants you to be. If you are willing to study the wind currents and take some practice flights, you will soon be riding the winds. You, too, will be soaring.

Planting

“Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.”

(Job 12:8)

As the air warms, the days lengthen, the soil softens, and birds sing to the sunrise, a thought starts to haunt any gardener’s mind: planting. Then plans start to form; garden beds are populated, at least on paper; seeds are purchased. Then the soil is turned and weeded. Self-seeding volunteers like cilantro, kale, lettuce, and nasturtiums are moved somewhere safe to take advantage of their early start. Then the seeds go in the ground, some earlier than others, depending on the hardiness of the plants. Peas go in early, along with some lettuces and greens, onions, and hardy herbs. Then beans and root crops like beets, parsnips, carrots, potatoes. And last, the tropicals like tomatoes, peppers, and basil—probably as plants.

God was the first planter, and He planted with His words. He spoke, . . . and plants of all sorts sprang from the ground. But He made the plants so they would produce seeds that when planted could reproduce plants of like kind. Then God made people “in his image” to tend the garden, to continue the work of caring for the creation He had made. But tending the garden always remained a cooperative venture. The people could plant the seed and prepare the soil, but then they had to leave the rest in God’s hands.

Preparing the soil and planting seed is a human act, but it’s an act of faith that requires for success an endorsement from heaven. It’s an act that inherently recognizes our dependence on God and His miracles—miracles of synergy in ecosystems, of chemistry and genetics, of wind and sun and rain. So planting is an act of dependence. (It’s not like building a car, which is more like a declaration of independence!)

The same is true when we plant other sorts of seeds in people’s lives through our words and deeds—seeds like faith, hope, and love. The apostle Paul used the planting of a garden as an illustration for our work in the community of faith.

“After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9, NLT)

Words are powerful things, especially the words of God. In the beginning, God spoke and the heavens and earth came into being, light poured in to obliterate darkness, and the waters separated from the land. At God’s word plants sprang up to cover the earth, then fish and birds and animals all came to be. Then God formed a man from the ground and breathed life into him. God made humans in his image, which meant, among other things, that they too could speak words and continue God’s work. One of the first assignments given the man was that of naming the animals—to use words to lay his governorship over the animals and to grant them identity. Giving a name, like speaking any word, can be a powerful thing.

We know the power of words from experience. We have experienced their healing power, along with their devastating effects, on almost any given day. God’s words are the most powerful of all. We have been called upon to plant them in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the power of God’s words. Like seed, they are to be planted and God will help them grow to bear fruit in people’s lives.

“The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NLT)

Jesus told a number of stories about the planting of seeds. The best known of these stories tells how God is in the business of planting His life-changing truth—His Good News—in people’s hearts.

“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” (Matthew 13:3-9, NLT)

Many of the seeds grew, matured, and multiplied, but some failed to mature and reproduce. We all understand this from the garden. We know about that back corner that remains mostly clay despite our best efforts to improve it. We all know how quickly weeds spring up to choke out a crop. And we’ve chased away pesky sparrows scratching for seed in a freshly planted bed, or robins pulling sprouting beans after mistaking them for worms.

And we have watched the same happen in our hearts. God’s words sometimes take root, but often distractions, weariness, and the evil one get in the way. So in celebration of the planting season, let’s look at a string of Scriptures that focus on seeds and planting. Let them sink into the soft, fertile soil of your heart, in hopes that something good will grow there. God is certainly interested and able to make seeds grow. We see it in the garden every spring. Perhaps some of these words will plant just what you need in your heart today.

“The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life; a wise person wins friends.” (Proverbs 11:30, NLT)

“A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.” (Proverbs 16:28)

“Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you.” (Hosea 10:12)

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (Matthew 17:20)

“What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)

Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.” (John 12:23-26)

“Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9)

“Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18)

Garden Tip: Planting is an act of faith, an act that demonstrates our dependence on the Creator and Sustainer of all things. God is in the business of doing miracles with the seeds we plant. We can’t do the miracles by ourselves. As you plant the seeds in your garden this spring, reflect on how you might plant good things in the lives of your spouse, your children, your coworkers, and your neighbors. Let this planter’s prayer (taken from the peace prayer of Saint Francis) guide your thinking about the ways. Then depend on God for the miracles.

A Planter’s Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me plant love.

Where there is injury, let me plant pardon.

Where there is doubt, let me plant faith.

Where there is despair, let me plant hope.

Where there is darkness, let me plant light.

Where there is sadness, let me plant joy.

—Francis of Assisi

 

On Ravens

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”
Job 12:7

As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after their Exodus from Egypt, God provided a substance they called manna (which means in Hebrew “What is it?”) for them to eat each day (Exodus 16). The people were to gather just enough to feed their families for one day, and no more. If extra was gathered to be saved for the next day, they would find it rotten and maggot-ridden the next morning. But on Friday, the people were allowed to gather enough for two days so they would have enough for the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath day, the extra manna remained good to eat. The people of Israel ate the manna this way for the forty years they wandered in the wilderness. Day by day, God was teaching them that he could provide for their needs, but they needed to trust him. They couldn’t gather extra and bank it for a future rainy day. It just didn’t work that way.

In western societies with stable economies, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Saving for the future is considered a virtue, a way of insuring against any troubles that might lie ahead. There is certainly some wisdom in this, but over time we tend to start thinking that we are in charge of our own fate, that we can buy insurance for any possible emergency. Detailed planning and incessant saving become a required hedge against some ever-looming disaster. And worry sets in, and then greed. The more we save, the more we fear that we might not have enough. So we turn inward and ignore neighbors in need of food and shelter, hiding away what most people in the world would consider a fortune. We forget that it all came from God in the first place, and that it all really belongs to Him.

We are also blind to the fact that many of our blessings are stolen from the backs of the poor. Cheap resources that feed wealthy economies are taken from poor nations at a fraction of their value, and the relatively little paid to purchase those resources is taken by a greedy elite. The hungry remain hungry; the thirsty draw water from pools of sewage; the naked find only rags to cover themselves; those sleeping in the rain may never see a roof overhead.

We are also blind to the truth that our self-sufficiency would never be possible in a nation overwhelmed by poverty and inflation. Saving money in such an environment only means it will be able to buy less tomorrow, as its value plummets on a daily basis. There is nothing solid to invest it in, except perhaps a tool or seed that might promise a little food in the future, . . . should the weather cooperate. In such places, spending money as soon as it comes is almost always the right choice. Trusting God for the needs of tomorrow is the only option.

And so Jesus tells us that the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised are the blessed ones (Matthew 5:1-12). They are the only ones who see how dependent they are on God’s provision. They are the ones who have a clear bead on the truth. Perhaps that is why the poor often live with less worry than the rich. They have learned the secrets of faith and dependency. (And they have nothing really to lose!)

Jesus expands on this theme in his reflections on a common bird—the raven.

The Hebrew Bible records a number of interesting accounts of ravens, making it little surprise that Jesus should use it in illustration. In the account of the great Flood, Noah released a raven to see if the waters had receded (Genesis 8:6-7). Unlike the dove, which returned to the boat, the raven flew about until the floodwaters dried up, probably by landing on floating carrion, something the dove would not do. (Due to its omnivorous nature, ravens are listed among the unclean birds in the Hebrew laws.)

Many centuries later, as the prophet Elijah hid from wicked Ahab and Jezebel in the wilderness near the Kerith Brook, the Lord sent ravens to feed him with bread and meat, presumably gleaned from a wealthy person’s table (1 Kings 17:2-6). And more than once elsewhere in Scripture, God is said to see the plight of ravens in need and to provide them with food (Job 38:41; Psalm 147:7-9).

Ravens have coexisted with humans for thousands of years and in some areas are so numerous that they are considered a pest. Part of the Raven’s success comes from its diverse diet, one of the most diverse of any bird. They are willing to eat just about anything available to them—from dead carrion, small animals, and insects to seeds, berries, and fruit, and, in populated areas, gleanings from people’s trash.

Ravens can be found everywhere on the globe. In ancient cultures around the world, ravens have been a popular subject of mythology and folklore. In many ancient cultures, including those of Scandinavia, Ireland, Wales, Siberia, and peoples of northwestern North America and northeast Asia, ravens were revered as spiritual figures or even gods. In many early Christian western traditions, ravens were considered to be an ill omen, probably mostly due to their all-black feathers, their visible intelligence and watchfulness, and the fact that they gather around carrion and are thus often associated with death.

Realizing how common and well-known ravens are, it should not be surprising that Jesus mentioned them in his teachings. He said:

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. Life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!” (Luke 12:22-24, NLT)

Jesus wasn’t advocating a lazy lifestyle here, but was teaching the need to recognize our dependency on our heavenly Father. No matter how hard we work, we cannot succeed unless the work is undergirded by blessings from above. It is easy after years of hard work and success to begin to think that we have earned everything we have. But beyond our vision, there are many around the world who have worked just as hard, who are equally virtuous, but enjoy no such blessings. There is grace behind all the blessings we receive; we just aren’t privy to the many hidden events that have led to them. And many of the comforts we enjoy in the affluent nations of the west are quietly gained on the backs of hungry children, slaving away under squalid conditions.

So let the raven remind you of where all your blessings come from—from the hand of God. And let us all learn to be more like the ravens—or more like the Israelites as they gathered manna each day in the wilderness—facing the concerns of each day through the eyes of faith. And let that faith allow you to be generous with the wealth at your disposal. Your fortune, however small it might be, could be enough to save a life or to help a family discover the providence of God.

As it turns out, the Irish name Fiachra means “raven.” We don’t know why Saint Fiachra (for whom this site is named) was given his name. Perhaps it was because his hair was black like the feathers of a raven, or perhaps he had a hooked nose reminiscent of a raven’s beak. Perhaps his parents just liked the sound of it. We will never know for sure. But on other terms it is certainly appropriate, since Saint Fiachra was known for his hospitality to travelers, the sick, and the needy. Was it not ravens that were sent to wait on Elijah as he hid in the wilderness? And are not the ravens compared to the needy ones Fiachra once freely served at his table? And so Fiachra’s Hollow might also be called Raven’s Hollow—but without any of the negative connotations!

Let us end with a story from the Sayings of  Desert Fathers. Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion, said:

When we were walking along the salt sea one day, I was thirsty, so I said to Abba Bessarion, “Abba, I am very thirsty.” Then the old man prayed and said to me, “Drink from the sea.” The water was sweet when I drank it. So I poured some water into a flask, so that I would not be thirsty later. Seeing this, the old man asked me, “Why are you doing that?” I answered, “Excuse me, but it’s so that I won’t be thirsty later on.” The the old man said, “God is here, and God is everywhere.”

Is it possible that people living in affluent societies have lost the art of living by faith? If we worry too much about tomorrow, will we not be blind to the needs of others around us today? Will we not often excuse ourselves from acting faithfully on behalf of Christ in the opportunities that constantly rise? And in the end, who is safer—those who spend their days worrying about how they will cover for any conceivable disaster, or those who entrust their lives into the hands of God with a life of faith and generosity?

Garden Tip: Growing food in the garden is even more satisfying when it is done with the goal of giving much of it away. I recall the final years of my grandfather, who planted a large garden in his retirement. He took great joy in leaving baskets of produce around town and providing for the families of his children. He had discovered a profound truth: “It is in giving that we receive.” Look for ways to share the gifts you receive from your garden, whether in food or in plant cuttings. And look for ways to give from your means until it hurts. It isn’t until we need to walk by faith that we are likely to discover the wonder of it.

And when you see a raven fly by (No matter where you are in the world, they are there!), remember not to worry, but to trust in God to provide for your needs. And demonstrate that trust by giving to others from what you do have.

Lenten Longings

A sacrament is a human or physical means to the experience of divine grace. The most common sacrament celebrated in the Christian community is that of bread and wine, a physical means by which we experience the grace made possible through the sacrificial gift of Christ’s body and blood. But there are many things in concrete human experience that can be sacramental for us—that help us experience the truth and presence of God in profound ways—things like thorns, or the ache of human longing.

As fall turns to winter, short days and cold weather descend and put our gardens to sleep. The earth is dark and lifeless—cold. Our bodies slow down and for many of us, the short, dark days bring on a deep weariness of spirit. In our heart throbs an deep longing, a desperate wish for light and life. It is in such hopeless times that our hearts quicken with thoughts of spring, when longer days lead to warmer weather, and to the awakening of the world—resurrection! Barren trees birth buds and blossoms, then leaves and a full dress of green.

We all know what this ache is like. It might come in simple forms, like a deep thirst for a drink or a deep hunger for food. But often it involves a longing for other people. Depending on our place in life, we might long for a parent who is distant or gone forever; for a spouse who is too-long away; for distant friends or for a love not yet discovered;  for a child who has walked away, never to return.

But our longings often reach beyond what we can see and touch. All of us from time to time feel a deep and nameless longing. It may be something we have not yet named. Long ago Saint Augustine said in prayer, “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in You.”  We’re born with a God-shaped vacuum that awakens in us a nameless longing for eternity, an aching wish to draw close our Creator. And, perhaps, all our human longings are underscored when we lack a connection to the One who made us.

And the longing for our Creator is “felt” by more than just humans. In Scripture we are told that all creation is groaning, longing for a rescue from the painful consequences of sin and of living in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-23). We long for the return of our Maker, who has the means and desire to make things right again. This is the longing we feel in Advent season, as we await the coming of God in the person of the Christ-child—Emmanuel—“God with us.” It is also the longing of Lent and Good Friday, as we await the resurrection light of Easter morning. This is the longing we feel as we look for the return of the Christ—our Maker and Keeper and Healer—come, Lord, and come quickly!

But our own small longings are just an echo of a longing as deep and wide as the universe—the longing that God feels toward us as members of His alienated creation. Ever since the fateful day of separation in Eden, God has longed to be intimate with us. He didn’t create us so He could inflict punishment on us for our failures, or so He could abandon us and watch us flounder in darkness. He made us to be His friends. All the great people mentioned in Scripture had serious failings, but what set them apart was their profound friendship with God. (Look at Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and David, all known as friends of God.) God has a longing to be a friend to every one of us. And the Father sent His Son to overcome the alienation and heal the rift. In Christ we are no longer strangers, but citizens of God’s kingdom and members of His family (Ephesians 2:19). There need be no distance.

Jesus once told a story of a father and two sons, by which he illustrated the passionate longing of the divine Father to be close to His children—both those who choose to live selfish, excessive lives and those who actually think they can earn His favor by being good. See the passion of the Father as he welcomes His prodigal son home, despite his earlier offenses:

“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began….” (Luke 15:11-24, NLT)

As you feel the ache of longing in your heart, whatever its source, let it become a divine sacrament to you—a means by which God calls you to yearn for Him and His return. Let it be a means that drives you to reflect and prepare for that and for any other future event, like the longing you may feel to plant your garden, when the warmth of spring is still a long way off.

And know that in this heartache, you have begun to tune your heart to the heartbeat of God, the one who loves you and longs for your love and your transformation. You have begun to know the ache in His heart for you.

Garden Tip: A longing for spring in the middle of winter can be a source of depression, but it can also be a call to action and awareness. Those who receive seed catalogs in the mail during the cold months often find hope stirring and take a sketch pad in hand to begin a garden plan and make a seed order. Take the time to dream of possibilities and let your longings grow to full maturity. Lay out the rows and beds for your plants. Make all the necessary plans and preparations.

And as you begin the long, dark days of Lent, don’t hide from the ache in your heart; embrace it. It reveals your awareness that things are not right, that things here are broken. Take the time to prepare your heart; don’t waste any time. Remember also that the longing in your heart reveals something to you about the heart of the Creator, who longs for us to come to him. Remember that the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas was an expression of God’s longing for you and for the restoration of all things. Look forward to His resurrection at Easter as a sign of its further fulfillment. Then let your heart groan as you await His return, when the present darkness will be overwhelmed by light, and there will be no distance between creation and Creator. Turn toward His longing embrace and make ready.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lowly exile here,

until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel—has come to thee, O Israel.”

On Sparrows

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”
Job 12:7

There are times when we feel invisible, when it doesn’t seem to matter whether we exist or not.

This was true for Hagar, the slave-wife of Abraham, who had run away into the wilderness, helpless and pregnant, without hope for the future. Sarah had given Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate to produce an heir, but when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah became jealous and by her harsh treatment drove Hagar away (Genesis 16). But the Lord saw Hagar in the wilderness and gave her the promise of many descendants through the child she was carrying. Hagar responded by giving the Lord a name: “The God Who Sees Me.” Nowhere else in Scripture does a person choose a name for God—only this exiled, lonely slave woman, who was in desperate need of help. And God—the Maker of all things—truly did see her.

Years later when Sarah had her own son (Isaac), Hagar and Ishmael were sent away into the wilderness (Genesis 21:8-22), this time never to return. Again, the Lord saw the outcasts and provided water and a promise of hope for their future. He reached out to Hagar there when she was invisible and had lost all hope. And to Hagar, the Lord was again, “The God Who Sees Me.”

Centuries later, the Jews who heard Jesus speak would have known the story of Hagar. But perhaps there were those among Jesus’ followers who needed a reminder that God was still the One who sees. Jesus used His observations of the common sparrow to illustrate the truth on this matter. As it happens, sparrows have a bad reputation and are often regarded of little worth, perhaps because they are so common, or perhaps because they have little claim to beauty—either in plumage or song. They can be found almost everywhere in the world and are numerous even in places where they aren’t native.

The hardiness of this bird is due mainly to its adaptability, both with regard to climate and diet. Sparrows are mainly seed-eaters, but they will actually eat just about anything—including insects, berries, fruit, or vegetables. They can survive in very cold climates, since their preferred food source is seeds, which (unlike insects and fruits) are unaffected by winter temperatures. Since sparrows reproduce quickly and are so numerous, they generally make a nuisance of themselves. Farmers, even today, often look for ways to slow their reproduction.

These negative feelings about sparrows make what Jesus says in relation to them even more striking:

“What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31, NLT).

Even in Jesus’ day, sparrows were considered of little worth. They could be bought in the market at two for a penny or five for two pennies. They were used by the poor then (and still today) as a food source, boiled with vegetables for at least a little meat in the soup.

If even the common sparrow is valued and seen by God, how much more must we be. He counts even the hairs on our heads. We can know that our Father in heaven sees us and loves us, and that we are valued. For those unable to think well of themselves, understanding this is at least a step in the right direction. Speak to your Father in heaven using a name that means something to you: “O Lord of heaven and earth—the God who sees me! Help me to rest in your care.”

Garden Tip: Set up a bird feeder in a place where it is easy to watch, and feed the birds. Watching these amazing creatures, winter or summer, can be a source of much delight. And no matter where you are in the world, you will almost certainly find a motley little bird with nondescript markings of brown, black, and white—the common sparrow. Take the words of Jesus to heart. You can be sure that your heavenly Father sees this little bird. And if He sees the sparrow, you can be certain that He sees you, too.

Peace on Earth

“Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.”

(Job 12:8)

From ancient times, the sea has been looked upon as a symbol of unruly power and chaos. Anyone who has experienced, in even a small way, the raw power of a stormy ocean will understand the association. Its raw force lies so beyond our capicity to control it that the only valid human response is of fear and awe. Nothing made by man can stand long against its destructive forces.

In ancient Near Eastern literature, the sea was believed to be governed by the god Yam (which is the semitic word for “sea”), the deity who embodied and ruled over the sea’s raging power. Yam’s kingdom was Tehom—the deep—the place of primordial chaos. Yam was closely associated with Lotan, the great seven-headed serpent or dragon that dwelt in the deep and embodied the forces of evil. All the ancient pagan cultures had gods of the sea, and all were thought to embody similar attributes. The ancient Greeks called this god Poseidon; the Romans embraced him as Neptune; the Vikings called him Aegir. This was the god of chaos, storms, shipwrecks, earthquakes, and tidal waves. He was unpredictable, unruly, and untamed, just the same as his kingdom.

The ancient Hebrews, who lived in this ancient semitic world, were called into the service of Yahweh, the God of all things. This was the Creator, who formed our world from the chaos of the deep. The Hebrew Scriptures begin the account of creation in this context:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2, NLT).

From the chaos, God created a world that was good and beautiful, and He populated it with all His creatures, including humankind. The people He made were given charge over the other creatures, which would relate to people much as people should relate to God. But as the story progresses, the people reject the rule of God and begin to stir the waves of chaos in the world once again. They become as unruly and destructive as the primordial deep. In the time of Noah, God destroyed most of the human race for their destructive wickedness (ironically by using the chaotic forces of a great flood). But as Noah’s descendants spread on the earth, they turned once again to their own way, until even the unruly waves of the sea were better at following God’s instructions than they were. Even of God’s chosen people, the prophet Jeremiah said:

“Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence? I, the LORD, define the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set. But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me.” (Jeremiah 5:21-23, NLT)

The human race, having embraced the path of selfish disobedience, have become the agents of chaos in the world, rather than God’s agents of peace and beauty. And since the beginning, God has been on a mission to restore the order of His creation by reaching out to the people He made, even at great personal cost. It was for this reason that the Christ was born, to live a life of goodness and ultimately sacrifice—so that the rift between God and His ruling creatures could be healed and His people could be transformed into His servants—His agents of peace.

With all this in mind, remember this account of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee:

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.

The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”

The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” (Luke 8:22-25, NLT)

After seeing this astounding miracle, the disciples were overwhelmed and asked, “Who is this man?” They knew the power of the sea. They had heard stories about sea gods. They also knew that the God of all things, Yahweh, could draw the boundaries for the sea. They knew He could silence its rage in an instant. They knew the story of  the prophet Jonah, who had set sail for a distant land in disobedience of God’s call. God sent a raging storm to swamp Jonah’s boat, but when Jonah was thrown into the water, the sea immediately went still at God’s command.

Who is this Jesus? It is a question we all must ask. Perhaps you doubt the stories written about Him. But have you ever taken the time to look closely? If we come to see Him clearly, as the Creator of all things, the One who stirs up storms and quiets them with a word, the only honest response to Him is jaw-dropping awe. This is the One we celebrate at Christmas.

The Baby is born in Bethlehem.

Universe-Spinner spun.

Galaxy-Weaver woven.

Earth-Maker formed.

Storm-Stiller come.

Creation-Healer now with us.

Emmanuel.

The Child is born in Bethlehem.

Hallelujah!

Garden Tip: Though this may not pertain to your personal garden, it does relate to God’s garden—the world in which we live. Open your eyes to the power of a storm. Walk in it; stand it it; raise your fist to it if you must. The storm is in God’s hands, and so are you. The storm must always do God’s bidding. But He has granted you freedom—freedom to participate in His work of bringing peace and beauty to the world, or to rage against His order as an agent of chaos. It is your choice to make. He is on a mission to recreate what has been broken. He is calling you to join with Him in the work of His garden. What will you do with this call? Do you dare to become an agent of God’s peace on earth?

The Friendly Beasts

“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I have often wondered what the animals and birds see when a forest—once lively with activity and birdsong—suddenly falls silent. Or when a happy dog suddenly cowers and whines, or suddenly explodes with barking, but for no obvious reason. Perhaps the birds in the forest are silenced by a swooping owl or hawk—or something else that I’m blind to. Or perhaps the dog smells or hears a snake in the grass or a rabbit in a nearby shrub. But sometimes I haven’t been able to discern the cause, even after looking closely. And I wonder.

I wonder if they see things—not just things hard to for us to see—but perhaps things truly invisible. I remember the story of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21-36). The false prophet was riding his donkey to take payment for cursing God’s people. An angel stood in his path—an angel Balaam couldn’t see. But Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and stopped. Balaam got off and started to beat the animal. But still the donkey refused to move, and the Lord caused the donkey to speak in protest. I wonder—does this still happen? What am I blind to? What of the spiritual realm are we all blind to?

I remember the animals who gathered to board Noah’s ark, called by God to come in twos for their survival (Genesis 7:1-24). I remember the ravens called upon to feed Elijah as he hid deep in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1-7). And what about the great fish that swallowed Jonah to rescue him from drowning? All these creatures did God’s bidding, and often while the people around them failed to do so. And what about the frequent call in the Scriptures for us to join the rest of creation as it sings God’s praises? Do we hear their voices singing? Do we join them?

As Job was struggling to make sense of his terrible suffering, he said to his accusing friends, “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you. For they all know that my disaster has come from the hand of the LORD. For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10, NLT).

Job’s friends assumed it was sin that had brought this trouble on Job, but Job knew that it was more complicated than that. He knew his own heart, and he couldn’t understand why such trouble had come upon him. He somehow sensed that at least the animals would understand his plight, even if his friends couldn’t. He knew that trouble could fall upon even the best of people and still be a part of God’s plan, that there were mysteries beyond the wisdom, the ideals, and the control of people. Do not the animals recognize this by following their instincts, accepting their given place as members in the creation?

And listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who saw more wisdom displayed in the ox and donkey than in his own people: “Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the LORD says: `The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.’ ” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NLT)

The beasts live in proper relation to their masters and their Creator. But we, who were given the work of  caring for the creatures and their environment, have forgotten our own Master—our Maker, our Protector, our Healer. And so we also fail in our work as masters. “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

With this in mind, let us approach the Advent season with an old Medieval carol in our hearts. This carol first surfaced to documentary history in connection with 12th-Century France, and from there it spread to Britain where it is still often sung. This song is often written off as fanciful, the product of an unscientific age, no doubt because the animals in it are said to speak and to offer gifts to the Christ child. But is it so fanciful? I wonder. And even if it is, I hope that as this Christmas approaches, each of us will offer the Christ—our Maker and Master—the small gifts we have with as much willingness and joy as the creatures in the stable.

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus, our Brother strong and good / was humbly born in a manger rude, / and the friendly beasts around Him stood. / Jesus, our Brother strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown. / “I carried His mother up hill and down. / I carried her gently to Bethlehem town.” / “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red. /”I gave Him my manger for His bed. / I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.” / “I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn. / “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm. / He wore my coat on Christmas morn!” / “I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, in the rafters high. / “I sang Him to sleep, so He would not cry. / We sang Him to sleep, my mate and I.” / “I,” said the dove, in the rafters high.

And every beast, by some good spell, / in the stable dark was glad to tell / of the gift he gave Emmanuel, / the gift he gave Emmanuel.

Gardening Tip: Remember Balaam’s donkey and open your eyes to the world around you. It is shimmering with miracles. And pray for a second sight that reveals the spiritual realities all around and underneath. Any place where you are standing can be for you a thin place. Read the account of the prophet Elisha’s victory over the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23). The prophet could act with confidence even when facing thousands of armed men. Why? because he could see what others could not. What are you blind to?

And as Advent approaches, remember the friendly beasts in the stable; open your heart to God’s gift to us in the person of the Christ. What gifts has He given to you that He now is calling you to offer back to Him? What gifts has He bestowed on you that He could use to change someone’s world this Christmas?

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