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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Migrations

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

(Job 12:7)

As I watch the migratory birds flying south overhead as the air turns cold in fall, or north again as it grows warm in spring, I often wonder at how they know where they are going and when it’s time to leave. Some species fly to very particular destinations, both going and coming—but go and come they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t likely survive another year.

It is through this travel that they live through the cold months in the opposite hemisphere, when the foods they depend on in one place disappear as the temperatures drop. Many of the migratory birds eat insects, worms, small animals, or fish and need an environment warm enough to allow them to feed. Many seed-eating birds, on the other hand, don’t need to migrate since their food sources remain available during the wintry months. They find ways to adapt to the cold and find their food on dried-up or frozen seed-bearing plants, or perhaps at a friendly bird feeder.

Some birds migrate astounding distances each year. The Arctic Tern is the clear winner, making a round trip of some 22,000 miles. Essentially, it flies from the Arctic to Antarctic and back again. It breeds in the northern hemisphere—in northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia—and it winters as far south as it can go in Africa or South America. Most migratory birds stay in either the eastern or the western hemisphere, following a predictable north-south flight pattern along rivers, through wetland areas, and along coastlines. Few strike out across the open ocean, though there are a few exceptions—notably the Golden Plover. In the western hemisphere, the Golden Plover nests in Alaska but migrates toward the southwest, flying non-stop over the Pacific for over 2,000 miles to winter in the Hawaiian islands; some even continue on to Australia and New Zealand. In the eastern hemisphere, this species nests in Labrador and migrates at a southwest angle across the Atlantic, flying non-stop all the way to Patagonia in South America, a distance of about 2,800 miles.

Most migrating birds in the western hemisphere fly north-south over the narrow isthmus that makes up Central America, heading from North America to their wintering spots in South America, and then back again. Such a flight path, normally defined by a supporting geographic feature (like an isthmus or waterway), is commonly called a flyway. In the eastern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly south from both Europe and Asia to winter in Africa. Some in western Europe fly along the coast of Portugal and Spain and cross into West Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean. A much larger number fly from eastern Europe and Asia over the land area of Palestine along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean; from there, they cross the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt and the Nile Valley, and then continue south into eastern and southern Africa.

The people of Israel who lived in Palestine would have been familiar with the vast bird migrations flying overhead in fall and spring. The prophet Jeremiah used this common sight to illustrate a message from God to them (and to us):

“Even the stork that flies across the sky knows the time of her migration, as do the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane. They all return at the proper time each year. But not my people! They do not know the LORD’s laws.” (Jeremiah 8:7, NLT)

The species listed here—the stork, the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane—can all be seen migrating through Palestine to this day. The stork is especially prominent in this migration. It is estimated that as many as half a million white storks pass through Palestine every spring and fall, wintering in southern Africa and nesting in many parts of northern Europe. In migration, they can often be seen in fields and wetlands in the early morning, waiting for the morning sun to warm the air to create the rising thermals that lift them high into the sky. A very large bird, storks often fly at a level 4,000 feet and can appear very small in the sky.

Aside from the stork, there is some debate about the species listed in translation of the Hebrew, but all these are possible. A comparison of translations often lists the “thrush” instead of the “crane.” Varieties of all these species migrate through Palestine each year. Actually, varieties of these species migrate in both hemispheres and provide a sure sign of spring for anyone observant enough to notice.

The people of Israel had received a special revelation from God, a revelation that provided them with laws that, if followed, would guide them to live unselfish lives in a healthy community. But the people chose to live their own way—a way that they learned from their pagan neighbors rather than from God—a way guided by desires for wealth and power and pleasure. And this path had led them to build a society of injustice and weakness, governed by people with selfish hearts. Jeremiah said of them (and of us all): “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NLT).

The migratory birds knew God’s life-giving laws and followed them by flying back and forth each year. Somehow God had written His law on their “hearts”; the birds knew what to do to survive and live a healthy life—and they did it without fail. They still do. But not the people of Israel. And for their sins, God was about to send them on a forced migration into Babylonian exile. And so it happened during the lifetime of Jeremiah. He watched as Jerusalem with its Temple was destroyed and the people were marched off to Babylon.

But as the people were led away into exile, the prophet spoke promises that give hope that God’s people might yet become more like the birds—with God’s laws written on their hearts:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: The good figs represent the exiles I sent from Judah to the land of the Babylonians. I will watch over and care for them, and I will bring them back here again. I will build them up and not tear them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” (Jeremiah 24:5-7, NLT)

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34, NLT)

“They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me.” (Jeremiah 32:38-40, NLT)

God did bring a few of His people home from their exile, guiding them on a return migration to the Promised Land. And He still works to write His law of love on all our hearts so that we can live as He wants us to, no matter where we are or what we are faced with. And if we have already made our own migration as far away from Him as possible, He is always ready and waiting for the spring of our return.

Birding Tip: Become aware of the migratory birds that live in your part of the world—at least for a part of the year! Are you in a common nesting area? Do you live in a prominent flyway that sees millions of visitors overhead each spring and fall? Or are you in a common wintering area, which for you would be summering! All habitats are important to a migratory species’ survival. Chances are you are near a flyway for some species even if your area is a good nesting area for others. Many migratory birds are water birds, so study the waterways and wetlands nearby and look for information that might tell you when a major migration will be coming through. It can be a fascinating experience to observe it. A good place to start would be to read about Arocha and some related conservation organizations, which work hard to protect habitats around the world that support migrating bird species.

And remember to listen to the birds, who have God’s wisdom stamped on their hearts. May we all find the same to be true of us. And may we all have the faith to follow His calling, wherever it may lead us.