What Christians Can Learn from Birdwatching

Consider the birds of the sky, that they do not sow or reap or gather produce into barns, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more than they are? (Matt 6:26, Lexham English Bible)

When I was in grad school, my advisor occasionally invited us to go birdwatching with him. While I appreciated the thought, each time I politely (I hope) declined. I was sure I had better things to do (sleep in, mostly). And having never done it before, I mentally wrote off birdwatching as an avocation peculiar to Paul and other English gentlemen of a certain age.

Stott birdwatching in 2006
John Stott birdwatching in Northern Ireland in 2006 – John Stott Memorial

I hadn’t thought of this in a long time, but then when I was at my grandparents’ farm house earlier this year, I sat in my late grandmother’s chair and noticed a book on her shelf: The Birds Our Teachers. It was also from an English gentleman of that age, but because this one was named John Stott (only my favorite evangelical leader of the 20th century), I sat up a bit straighter. Confirming that the author was that John Stott by looking at the subtitle (Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird Watcher), I flipped through a few pages. Alas, our kids were getting tired, we had an hour to drive to get home, and I wasn’t sure I was at liberty simply to liberate the book from its dust-gathering duties on the shelf.

But now I want to track down Stott’s short book (or its 2008 revision, amusingly re-subtitled Essays in Orni-Theology), having read another Christian birdwatcher this morning at Christianity Today‘s website:

Considering the birds is different than considering rocket science or technology; it gets you thinking different thoughts about creatures, creation, and the Creator.

A bird’s flight is amazing. It can grow a new feather in two weeks. It can be wiped out so easily that many birds are on the brink of extinction. Without human influence (habitat destruction, climate change), the expected rate of extinction for birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year.

Blue, Consider the BirdsIn the Aeneid, the pathway to hell is Averno—in Greek, this means, a place without birds. Where would we be without the birds of the Bible, the birds in our backyards, the birds we sing about in the “Twelve Days of Christmas?” God has surrounded us with birds, and they’ve become powerful symbols for our faith. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “hope is the thing with feathers.”

That from Debbie Blue, whom I know best as the co-founder of House of Mercy, an emergent church in St. Paul, MN that’s popular with some of my colleagues and students from Bethel University. But she’s also the author of Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible. (The two come together on her page at the House of Mercy website: “She approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.”)

In the CT.com piece Blue focuses on two biblical birds. First, the vulture (or, here in Minnesota, the turkey vulture), which she suggests is probably what Old Testament authors (Exod 19:4; Isa 40:31) had in mind when they used bird metaphors that we translate with the more noble-looking “eagles.” Why focus on a scavenger?

We need something to eat death, digest it, and rid it of its toxicity. Vultures stare death in the face and fear it not at all. It goes through their bodies and comes out harmless.

…Vulture begins to seem like a rich metaphor for God—a God that can take everything in and make it clean—a God that can make even death, nontoxic.

Rock pigeon
The rock pigeon – Creative Commons (Dori)

Moreover, it stretches our understanding of the beauty of God’s Creation. Likewise, when she turns to the dove (“…unlike the vulture… almost universally loved”), Blue suggests that the bird present at Jesus’ baptism was actually a rock dove, which is the “ancestor of our domestic pigeon.” That sparks this orni-theological musing:

Isn’t it sort of limiting to imagine the Spirit of God as something dainty and white?

Pigeons are ubiquitous, on the streets. They are wherever we are—in some of the worst places we have made (think: our neglected projects and abandoned buildings) and some of the best (art museums, parks, Rome’s piazzas). They won’t leave us alone. What if the Spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often disdained?

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