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.

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Polarities

The spiritual life is often described as a journey or pilgrimage. Near the beginning of the journey, it is easy to assume that we will always move forward, getting stronger, deeper, and wiser every day, until we achieve maturity and a sanctity, of sorts. Oh, that this were true!

In time, we discover through experience that progress in the spiritual life is a struggle forward. With each two steps forward comes a step back, sometimes three steps back! The journey is hardly a straight line forward. And there are many reasons for the difficulties. Sometimes the problems are caused by a tough environment. Sometimes “friends” and family get in the way. Sometimes our detours are caused by brokenness within or just a lack of discipline. Often, it’s a tangled combination of many factors.

So let’s look at progress in the spiritual life through a different sort of lens. The spiritual life is all about reconciling broken relationships. It all starts with our relationship with God. He has done His part through the sacrificial gift of Christ. But our relationship with God is held back by our tendency to be afraid of God and unwilling to reach out to receive His gracious forgiveness. And when we do reach out, it is often just on our own terms. We ask Him to fulfill our desires whether what we ask for is good for us or not. As a result, our relationships with God are often mostly illusory. The God we worship is more a figment of our imagination than anything close to reality. And so we worship idols of our own making, not the God of grace and truth that He is. So as people, we are often caught between two poles—the pole of illusion (or idolatry) and the pole of true worship.

And there are other parallel polarities describing the other key relationships in our spiritual lives. One involves our relationships with other people. After the first man and woman sinned in Eden, one of the first consequences was shame and distrust between them. And now we all struggle between to poles of hostility and hospitality in our relationships with others. And what about our relationships with the world in which we live? It has become for most a resource to be plundered, not a sustaining, living environment to cherish. We are caught between the poles of exploitative production on the one hand and a dream of cooperative cultivation on the other. Below is a chart that illustrates these parallel polarities and adds other related ones.

Relationship with God

ILLUSION <—————————————————-> WORSHIP

Relationships with people

HOSTILITY<—————————————————> HOSPITALITY

Relationships with the world

PRODUCTION <————————————————-> CULTIVATION

The struggle within ourselves

PRIDE <———————————————————-> HUMILITY

DISRESPECT<—————————————————> RESPECT

LUST <———————————————————–> LOVE

FEAR <———————————————————–> COURAGE

POWER <———————————————————> RELINQUISHMENT

CONTROL <——————————————————> FAITH

BOREDOM <——————————————————> AWE

LONELINESS <—————————————————> SOLITUDE

DESIRE <———————————————————-> CONTENTMENT

I / IT <————————————————————> I / THOU

ENDS FOCUS <—————————————————-> MEANS FOCUS

In this life we are caught between many polarities, all interrelated in some sense. And as we move to the right on the interior polarities, we find ourselves moving toward the right in the relational ones. As we move to the right in our relationship with God, we will likely find ourselves moving toward the right in our other relationships and our attitudes, as well. And if we find ourselves especially broken in our human relationships, it will likely mean we are broken in our other relationships as well.

Our spiritual lives might be described as a whirlwind that is hopefully listing toward the right, toward growth and wholeness—toward shalom. And with the help of God’s constant presence through His Spirit, there is always hope. Much more could be said here, but perhaps this is best left to your own reflection.

I and Thou

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote a book (I and Thou) that captured an important truth. He stands within a large stream of thinkers since the Enlightenment who recognize that we as thinking subjects do a great deal to shape the realities we perceive. In other words, we objectify (or mentally remake) the people or events or other objects of our experience based on the grid of perception that we’ve developed through culture, society, family, and experience.

Buber also recognized that it is likely that some of us see things more clearly than others. For many, the act of perception is equal to the act of objectification. When we see someone or something, we recreate it into something quite other than it actually is. We view it as an IT or a thing. Such objectification places our perspective at the center of our universe and allows us to see the world on our terms. It allows us to create a world where we can feel safe and in control. All of us struggle with this to some degree. It is part of being human. But for many of us, the perceptions we live by are nowhere near a true reality. For some, the misperception borders on madness. And in the extreme, it is certifiably so. In the end, objectifying our world is our attempt to play the role of “God” in it.

But there are also those who have learned to forgo this tendency to objectify what they perceive. Such people have the humility to allow the objects of their perceptions to break through unabashedly as a THOU rather than an IT. Such people are affected and shaped more deeply by the world and people around them. They feel empathy and compassion to a far deeper level, because they really do see people and really do hear people. They are transformed and shaped by the people and events around them rather than merely seeing what they want to see and making everything they see over into their own image. They have relinquished the role of God in their world. These are the hospitable souls, and their relationships are characterized by I/THOU, not by I/IT. They allow space for others to enter into their world, affirming and valuing the THOU, and growing through the association.

The I and THOU person must relinquish some control over the world, which is an act of faith in itself. Such a person must have a solid sense of self in order to maintain healthy boundaries and keep from being obliterated by visitors who might push their way in. How might this conversion from seeing and treating others as ITs to treating them as THOUs affect our relationships?

  • In relating to God, it will mean a shift from illusory petitions and demands to true worship and honest prayer, leading to communion.
  • In relating to other people, it will mean a shift from hostile or manipulative domination to generous hospitality, leading to community.
  • In relating to the rest of the world, it will mean a shift from seeing the world as commodity source to recognizing it as a living environment, leading to cooperative cultivation.

Such a shift will change us from being proud to being humble, from grasping to giving, from shouting to listening, from claiming godhood to embracing creaturehood. Is not such a conversion what we are called to? Jesus said:

“‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33).

In the Beginning

In the beginning . . .
God created a beautiful world and filled it with plants and creatures, great and small. He created a man to care for it, and then a woman to complete the man—together a creation in God’s image. They were naked, but without shame; there was nothing to hide. They lived in harmony with each other, with the other creatures, with their environment, and with their Maker. Harmony, peace, hospitality were the operative words.

But then the people betrayed the trust God had placed in them, failing to keep the one boundary laid on them by their Maker. The man and woman ate the forbidden fruit and, in so doing, became afraid of God and hid from Him. Then the man turned to blame the woman. And the woman turned to blame the serpent. And God slaughtered a living creature to provide clothing to cover the new-found nakedness and shame of the people. He banished them from their perfect environment in Eden, and thorns sprang up to separate people from the life-sustaining earth. The new operative words were conflict, separation, hostility.

You can find all this woven into the account of Genesis, chapters 1-3, how a world of hospitality became a world of hostility. Selfishness became the human mode of operation, and thorns became the sign.

  • And now, in this broken place, people mostly come to God to wheedle what they can out of Him. Prayer becomes a means to beg for the fulfillment of desires, a magic incantation of sorts. Good deeds become a means to manipulate God to action on our behalf, instead of being an act of love. And so we objectify God as a mere Thing, as an idol, and fail to know him as the just and loving Friend He is.
  • And our relationships with other people are twisted in a parallel manner. We come to people mostly for what we can wheedle out of them. Acts of kindness and love often become acts of manipulation, given only in hopes of receiving in return. And so we objectify our fellow humans as things to be used for our benefit. Relationships are chosen with this in mind, not in response from a call from God or out of true generosity. We use others as a ladder upward or as a resource to gain power, wealth, and pleasure at inordinate levels.
  • Our relationship with the rest of creation has also been compromised. We come to other creatures, both plant and animal, and view them only as a means to power, wealth, and fulfillment. And as we use, and often misuse, them, we destroy the commons granted to all. We destroy the environments that they, and we, depend upon for life, and violate a good world that God created and loves.
  • In all this, we have lost our identity. In seeking to become God in our world, in becoming the objectifier of all things, we have become separated from our very selves. Our identity as children of God has been lost as we try to become God. And as we treat God, people, and the creatures in our care as mere things, we become just an isolated thing ourselves. We are alone and lost.

It is in this broken world that God injected Himself once again in the Person of the Christ. He taught us with word and deed how to love others with unselfish hospitality. And in His death and resurrection, He offered us a means of rediscovering a proper, loving relationship with our Maker. And through His Spirit, He offers us His ever-present grace and power. Through this transformed relationship with God through Christ, we can begin the lifelong struggle to transform the twisted relationships in all areas of our lives, and ourselves be transformed in the process. We can learn again how to treat people as God’s people, as brothers and sisters, and the rest of creation as God’s good creation. The operative word can again be hospitality. And in the process, we can by grace learn that by losing ourselves, we truly find ourselves again in the end.