The gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch

I walk quickly. In the first hour of walking I can manage 6 kilometres. Pretty impressive, eh? Well, I was zipping through the treed park near our house the other day when I heard birds rustling and chirping in the branches above me. 

I stopped when I noticed a small bird scampering down the trunk of the tree head-first. This tiny bird caught my attention. It had a disproportionately long beak, a black cap and a white breast. I memorized the details of what I saw, and scurried home to consult my three, different bird books.

It was a White-breasted Nuthatch. I was so thrilled to have made that identification. I love birds, and I enjoy the challenge. Most of the time.

I’m by no means an experienced, knowledgeable birder. Because most often I forget the names of the birds I identify or mis-identify. Because I don’t carry around with me my bird books and note pads wherever I go, I have to hone my skills of observation and memory. There are times even when my bird books don’t display sketches or photos of what I think I saw. That’s really frustrating!

When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being flogged for disrupting the peace, their future was uncertain at best, an absolute failure at worse (Acts 16:16-34). They were done, or so it seemed. The prospects of continuing their missionary journeys looked bleak no matter how you looked at it. What could they do?

I bet no one expected that earthquake to come when it did. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly. The severity and life-changing magnitude of an earthquake, for example, cannot be predicted. It’s only after-the-fact when assessments and conclusions of what happened can be made. 

No one could see it coming the way it did: The fires in northern Alberta around Fort McMurray, despite the dry hot Spring, could not be predicted. Who could forsee precisely how it’s actually played out, and continues to play out? It just happens. And people have to react to the moment, when it does.

Despite the life-changing magnitude of events unfolding around Paul, he still seems to find stride in his faith, and yes, even joy. He shows resilience in faith. Despite all the losses, earthquakes, imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks, rejections, threats on his life, thorn in his side — he still demonstrates an incredible passion for, dedication to, and joy in his life in Christ.

They are in the Roman colonial city of Philippi when Paul and Silas are arrested. Paul’s famous letter to the Philippians was written, later, when Paul sat in a Roman prison cell. And it is in this letter where we find some of the most joyous and aspirational words from Paul’s hand: 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)

Paul is instructing his good friends in Philippi, and followers of Christ in all times and places, to rejoice — not when everything is perfect, not when your problems have been resolved, not when certain conditions have been met, not when we are prepared for rejoicing, not even when the stars are aligned.

But, to rejoice, precisely when things are chaotic and messy. Rejoice, precisely when things are not going well, nor planned, nor pre-conceived, nor forseen. How is this even possible?

When installing our new dishwasher recently, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly.

When I ran a cycle for the first time, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted and warped the door in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job. 

As soon as I loosened the screws a bit so that the dishwasher could rest naturally, evenly and squarely on the floor, everything worked fine.

Indeed, to be faithful is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult, unpredictable times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith. 

When things don’t go well, is it that we are trying too hard? Or believe the solution is simply to work harder? And then do we get all tense, anxious, impatient and frustrated when nothing in our power seems to work or when things don’t always go the way we planned? And we don’t ask for help. Or recognize or confess openly our limitations. Who do we think we are?

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, open our hearts, deepen our trust in the good Lord who comes to us, who is alive and lives in us.

It is the freedom of God who comes to us, quite unexpectedly. Like the gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch. All I needed to do, was to stop my rushed march through the woods. Stop my over-thinking, incessant mental machinations. 

Just stop, and look up.

Doing God Thanks

The birds can teach us a thing or two about life. Especially those ground feeders. Have you noticed chickadees and sparrows feed? As soon as they peck downward to capture the seeds with their beaks, they immediately throw their necks upward.

Quite possibly to aid in consumption, the birds’ movement during feeding suggests to me, symbolically at least, an attitude of gratitude while receiving what is good, what is needed, for life. The bird looks to heaven in between each peck to thank the Creator for the gift of food.

It is born into the fabric of our nature to give thanks. On the one hand, we work and take responsibility to delve deeply into our lives and the world around us for what we and others need. At the same time we pay attention, mindful of the gift of life and what we receive out of the grace of God.

Not to do both would be unnatural, even unhealthy, for the creature. And this is the initial problem for the rich man in the Gospel text for today (Luke 12:13-21). His total lack of concern for any other person mirrors his total disregard for the source of his life and abundant material possessions.

He is pecking at his food, alright. And, making the most of that! But he is not at the same time looking upward. He is not mindfully paying attention, alert, for what is real, what is true, in that moment of living.

But what if we feel we don’t have enough or anything at all for which to look heavenward in thanksgiving?

A fear of scarcity may very well be what motivates the rich man to build bigger barns and plan for increasing profits in the first place. Planning for a rainy day is what it’s all about, isn’t it? And when that rainy day comes, you don’t want to be found wanting.

Whether it’s fear of having nothing, or destitution in the present circumstances of your life — these attitudes may keep us from looking upward in faith, in thanksgiving. Our hearts are cold stone towards others and God, and/or we believe it’s all up to us to make something happen. God has nothing to do with our material concerns, one way or another.

Have you heard the joke — “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” The rich man in the Gospel makes plans. But they don’t turn out exactly the way he had planned, did they? Earthly death is God’s final say. At some point on our journeys of life, we need to acknowledge that at the end of our days it’s not about us, but about God whose promises stand forever.

I don’t think God actually laughs at us when we tell God our best-laid plans. But perhaps we are called upon by this Gospel to turn our hearts and minds outward, and upward, with some humility.

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This is what is left of my mother’s inheritance: One, crumbling brick. When my mother grew up in pre-Second-World-War Poland, she belonged to a large and very wealthy German family in the south-west. She lived in an estate-sized home whose family owned large tracts of land and had servants waiting on them 24-hours a day.

Then, as the Soviet army pushed westward across Europe in the mid-1940s, the Soviets expropriated any properties owned by Germans. My mother’s father was taken to far eastern Ukraine where he later died, and her mother and siblings were put out on the street. For days they lived in corn fields trying to evade marauding soldiers on the hunt. Finally they were able to find shelter with a relative where they were able to live in safety until the end of the War.

Literally, in a matter of days, from riches to rags. The American Dream, in reverse.

Decades later after the iron-curtain (the physical and symbolic wall that divided East and West) fell, my mother traveled to her home town with her brother and sisters. They visited their old property where nothing besides piles of rubble from the old homestead remain.

For my mother, this brick symbolizes why not to place eternal value in material possessions. It points to the need to view life as much more than a selfish grab of as much stuff as possible.

Moreover, it represents the basis for a life of gratitude. For, if it weren’t for the experience of doing without, she may have never come to the realization of and the attention towards a life lived for the sake of others and of God.

You might recall a Hebrew story from Scripture sounding a similar theme to our Gospel for today, when Joseph in a dream is instructed to tell Pharaoh to save food in barns for seven years of plenty in order to prepare for a subsequent seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32-36). This is a wonderful scriptural precedent for gathering in a bountiful harvest and saving it for the future.

The critical difference, of course, is that in the case of Joseph, the purpose of doing so is for the benefit of many people — indeed an entire nation.

Echoes of previous stories from the Gospel of Luke resonate. In the case of Mary and Martha — where Mary has chosen the better way — the point is not that preparing food and being busy is bad. It’s just that Martha was distracted from remaining centered on the whole point of being busy: serving with prayerful attention to the divine guest.

In the same way, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material wealth. It’s more a question of what purpose it serves and to whose benefit. The answer to that question will determine the value of the entire activity.

What is the purpose of this building in which we worship today? What will its purpose be in not only seven years from now, but twenty-five and fifty?

There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with buildings and properties and abundance of material wealth. It’s being very clear and motivated by the mission, the vision, the purpose that’s at stake. Form follows function, not the other way around.

Someone in the bible study group on this text summarized the message of this text for us today, as being: “Allowing what we have now to be used for God’s purposes.” It may not be much, from our perspective. But it’s what God has given us in this time and place. How are we using it for God’s purposes? And where may the Holy Spirit be leading us?

I entitled this sermon “Doing God Thanks”. I think viewing our mission in light of God’s purposes requires of us discipline around our attitude of gratitude. And it’s not just in the feeling of thankfulness, it’s in responding, in doing, in putting muscle to the task at hand. We look up, and we look out, and actually move our bodies in that direction — and then see what God has in store.

But we start with what we know we have, for which we can offer hearts of thanksgiving.

Listen to what Richard Rohr writes about on the topic of “Day-to-Day-Gratitude” (p.285, “On the Threshold of Transformation”):

Things go right more often than they go wrong. Our legs carry us where we are going, our eyes let us see the road ahead, and our ears let us hear the world around us. Our bodies, and our lives, work pretty much as they should, which is why we become so unsettled when we confront any failure or injustice. This is not so true for people born into intense poverty or social injustice, of course. And we had best never forget that.

Nevertheless, we must stop a moment and look clearly and honestly at our life thus far. For most of us, life has been pretty good.

We shouldn’t be naive about evil, but perhaps the most appropriate attitude on a day-to-day basis should be simple and overwhelming gratitude for what has been given. From that overflowing abundance will come the energy to work for those who have a life of scarcity and sadness.

From what are you grateful, in the midst of your full and complex life?

God is the source of life and all things good. God will give us what we need to work towards God’s ends, God’s kingdom on earth. May we dig deep and never forget to look up — to see how rich God is toward us.

Thanks be to God!