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!
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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.

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?

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.

Thin Places

In the Christian Celtic tradition there has always been a deep awareness of spiritual reality, and the recognition that that reality is always close at hand. And the Celts also spoke of special places—“thin places”—where that spiritual reality was especially close. As the old Celtic saying goes: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart; but in the thin places, that distance is even shorter.” A thin place is a location where the veil separating spiritual and physical realities is especially thin, where God’s presence seems especially close and His divine whisper is loud. I think it likely that all of us have some special places, where our spiritual senses seem to be especially alert. Such are the thin places.

In the Bible there is mention of this sort of thing. For the people of ancient Israel, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem, were locations where God was especially present—where the separation between Creator and created was especially thin. It seems God recognized the need in the people of Israel for such a place. Perhaps that is why he provides such places for us all—places where we can go and sense His divine presence and power, where we can more easily hear His still, small whisper in our ears, where we can receive his gifts of grace. In the New Testament, the church was given the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a tradition practiced regularly by millions of believers of many languages and cultures. Why? Perhaps because it provides for us a thin place, a concrete manifestation of divine grace, a place (and time) where we experience God’s real touch of forgiveness and transforming love.

My garden is one of the thin places for me. Why is this so? Perhaps because it is a place of beauty—at least on its better days. Beautiful locations can jar us into a realization that a spiritual reality is at hand—that God is close by. Perhaps it is also because the garden is a place of miracles. Dead seeds go into the ground and are transformed though water, sun, and many unseen processes into amazing gifts. Watch the eyes of children in a garden as they pick the fruit, and you will have little doubt that this is the stuff of miracles. As we grow up, we often become blind to the miracles all around. Perhaps the garden is a thin place, not just because it is a place of life, but also because it is a place of death. The living things feed off the composted decay of plants of an earlier generation. It reminds us that life is a gift—a gift purchased by the living things that died to feed it. It awakens in us the realization that life is short, and that our life costs something.

I think most thin places occur in nature because the evidence of the Creator’s presence is so vivid and clear. An awe-inspiring landscape can take our breath, awakening our appreciation for the One who twisted it from the bones of the earth. It stills our hearts and minds and helps us to catch at least a small glimpse of heaven. Often the works of people hide God’s glory and blind us to spiritual reality, but sometimes human creativity can also create a thin place. Simple things, like warm hospitality around a full table, can be such a place. Or when we step into a great cathedral, time stops and we feel small in God’s great presence. God is there in a special way, and His voice is loud in the silence. Over the centuries monks built monasteries that were “thin” for the many who passed through their walls, augmented by the prayers and worship offered there. Stand on the cliffs of the rustic monastery on Skellig Michael and imagine a great storm blowing in off the North Sea—there you will find a thin place.

Thin places are in some sense sacramental. They are locations and practices that bring God near, where truth is conveyed through the concrete—through people, through creation, through the Word and the word. That is most often how God works. Though the beauties around us aren’t an actual extension of God, they do convey His presence, His grace, and His truth to us. For He is the Creator of all. I close this post with some reflections on thin places that I recorded some time back:

I think I’ve had a summer of visiting thin places—places where heaven is more real than earth, where the brush of an angel’s wing is more real than a breeze, where the wind smells of the breath of God. I felt it amidst the improbable, tortured landscapes of western national parks, places that surprise you into a different sort of consciousness. Everything is so huge, putting you in tiny relief. These are places that set you often on the edge of a precipice, where your stomach finds itself in your throat, where one slip could bring your last breath. These are places where we realize our smallness, our weakness, our fragility, how so very temporary we are. We discover we are like grass in a desert, which soon fades after the spring rains are gone. We discover the truth about ourselves—that it’s a miracle we’re alive and that we’re all just hanging on by a thread. Each day, each breath becomes newly precious, a reason for rejoicing. Our hearts beat faster, colors are more vivid, friends and loved ones are suddenly more precious, God’s presence is vibrant, real.

But as I’ve thought about it, thin places aren’t just physical places of monumental proportions. They are “places” on the border of life and death, on the edge of eternity. We can go there without traveling to a far-off mountain top. We might get there, at least in a small way, by a step out of our comfort zone—a bungee jump, giving a speech, or a karaoke performance. We can go there through a 30-day fast or by receiving a terminal diagnosis at a doctor’s office. We can reach a thin place through a broken heart, by sitting on a friend’s deathbed, or by growing old and frail. It’s a step toward humility, helplessness, a step toward faith, a step toward eternity.

So what have I gained from this foray into thin places? I’ve had fear awakened—but I’ve also been awakened from a waking sleep, a numb stupor. I’ve been almost overwhelmed by sadness—but, though sadness remains, I’m healthier emotionally than I’ve been in a long time. I feel smaller, more helpless than I’ve felt for a long time—but I know that I’m eternally safe. I’ve felt truly lost—but I know I’m not alone and without a guide. I’ve discovered that it’s better to be in God’s hands than in my own, even though I can’t control where I’m going or see around the corner ahead. (Even when I’ve fooled myself into thinking I’m in control, I’m still really blind.) I’ve remembered what I have known for a long time—that the sense of being in control, strong, capable, or worthy is only illusory, and that God’s gracious, merciful presence is essential for my very existence, for each simple breath.

And so I’ll take a step forward each day in faith, believing that God will be there to catch me when I fall, find and guide me when I’m lost, love me when I’m afraid and lonely, encourage me when my courage is gone. It is sometimes good to walk the edge of a precipice, as long as it leads, in the end, to the arms of God.

Garden Tip: Visit one of your thin places, and taste the goodness and greatness of God. Listen to His voice. Reflect on how you are connected to God, to others, and to the world He has put us in. Trace out these connections and give thanks for the life that flows to you through them. Then dream—make plans to build, to plant a thin place. This world will never have enough of them.

Watersheds

We sense it in times of flood, when the water runs high over the ground. We look upstream to see where the water is coming from, then downstream to see where it is flowing. We look upstream as we watch the flotsam roll in over our ground, and then wonder where our own garbage will end up. When we see the movement of water over our land, we are reminded of a truth: No matter how isolated we may feel in our place, we are always connected to others.

It is difficult to find a good map that marks off watersheds. Centuries ago, rivers and other waterways dominated our maps. Waterways were an important mode of transport, while also being a significant deterrent to travel. It was tough to cross them without a bridge or ferry. They also marked the flow of water through a region, and a careful study of the rivers and streams could give one a pretty clear picture of one’s watershed. But today’s maps are dominated by roadways and often ignore the natural features entirely. Most of us aren’t even aware where the water flows.

When I saw a watershed map recently at an outdoor education center, I was struck with my connection to the people both “upstream” and “downstream” of me. (Or could it be “upwind” and “downwind”?) I don’t live along a river, but the runoff from my place goes somewhere, carrying with it whatever resides in my grass and soil, whether weed seeds or pesticides. It ends up in a nearby wetland and then a stream, a river, and eventually an ocean. Fish will swim in it; frogs will sing in it; salamanders will slither in it; perhaps they’ll all die in it. Some of it may find its way into a town’s water system and someone’s drinking glass. What am I gifting the people downstream? And what have I been gifted by the people upstream?

Jesus once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12; Luke6:31). Most everyone would agree with the wisdom of the golden rule, especially when standing on the suffering side of the equation. But it has often occurred to me that we often aren’t aware of much of the grief we are handing out to the people and other creatures downstream of us. Whether it is the mess in our fields or the brokenness in our hearts, what we do and who we are has a profound effect on the people around us.

  • An angry person tries to bury it deep, but then the anger bursts out in ways that leave wreckage on spouse, children, and friends.
  • An investor buys stock in a company that shows a successful bottom line, but the people downstream of its factory are paying the price in sickness and deformity.
  • Someone allows lust to fester in the heart, turning friendships into idolatrous worship, leading to foolish slips that can echo painfully for generations.
  • An eager shopper buys discounted shoes and T-shirts, not realizing that the rest of the cost was paid by a hungry child in a distant slum with blistered fingers and a back raw from a beating.
  • Some are imprisoned by unhealthy fear and false shame, silencing their voices and rendering useless their desperately needed gifts.
  • Some allow greed to take control, leading to the hoarding of wealth as many people go hungry, even die of starvation.

In one of his sermons, the great Poet John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of they friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We are all tied together, even the most isolated of us. Sometimes it is our very silence and isolation that destroys those connected to us. We often sin more gravely with our omissions than with our commissions.

So as you watch a leaf flow by on a stream or seeds blowing on the wind, ask yourself who is standing downstream or downwind of you. And ask if your presence upstream is a blessing or a curse, for either or both can be granted. But if no thought is given, chances are that suffering will come of it. Grace and peace to you as you think on it. And if you don’t think and act well, it could be that the poison you drop will someday pour back on you.

Garden Tip: Be careful about the pesticides and fertilizers you use in your garden and on your lawn. Study how to do things organically. And if you truly believe you must use some of these chemicals, chances are you don’t need nearly as much as is recommended. (The chemical companies would love to sell you more than you need!) Most artificial fertilizers damage the living portion of your soil, the very part that allows continued and sustained fertility. Earthworms and other nearly invisible creatures are easily killed and are no longer available to turn organic matter into plant food. Use compost whenever possible for fertilization, or allow a more diverse lawn, including some clover, that can do some of the work of fixing nitrogen for the grasses. It takes some time and effort to take an organic approach to gardening, but it can be done with some planning and patience.

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.