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.

Am I on vacation or living my vocation?

It’s a church joke that during a religious service whenever something happens that is somewhat serendipitous or unexpected it must be the Holy Spirit!

In my former parish where the church gathered in a hundred year-old building, bats were a problem; I can now laugh at memories of the most poignant moments of funerals, weddings and sermons where a bat would swoop down from the heavens …. The Holy Spirit!

Or, at an emotional high of a sermon, or during the Holy Communion, or at the dramatic climax of a bible reading – the power would go out, a lightning would flash and the clap of thunder would boom, or a gust of wind would rattle the windows and whistle through the eaves ….. The Holy Spirit!

The joke always reveals a slice of truth. When the Holy Spirit comes, we are indeed surprised, rendered speechless and startled, even. We laugh, maybe because the timing couldn’t be better.

But, on Friday when the magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck just kilometers from my home, I wasn’t laughing and I didn’t think the timing was the great.

Because it was my day-off, and I was trying to relax and enjoy a stress-free ‘vacation’, so to speak. When dishware and glasses startled rattling and the floors started heaving, I was pulled out of my dream-like state and escapist reverie into a moment of stark reality.

I was forced to face the reality of life and death. In a split second, I wondered if I should vacate the house and save my skin. And in that second I wondered if our two-story duplex would collapse over me.

When the shaking subsided, I couldn’t help but be brought out of my ‘vacation’ and into an appreciation of my ‘vocation’. I had to be grounded – excuse the pun – and re-orient myself in who I am and my purpose in life. So, I looked outside my window to see if there was any damage on our street and/or distressed neighbors in need. I remembered that, deep down, my calling in life draws me to others and serving their needs.

At this time of year, indeed, being the first long weekend of the unofficial summer season, I’m dreaming of vacations. Maybe you are, too. I look forward to a time to rest, restore, get away from it all and enjoy God’s beautiful creation.

At the same time, I realize yet again that just because we may be on a vacation, we are still living out our vocation. The word, ‘vocation’, comes from the Latin word which means “to call”. Our vocation is what God calls us to be and do. And, we cannot escape that vocation – even though we may try.