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 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.

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.

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.