This is the season of birdfeeders. It seems indeed right and proper that we should at all times and in all places support and sustain the resident birds during these long winter months. I suppose, really, they don’t need our feeders. They can find food in the woods and fields and bogs on their own, but it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The feeders we provide for our pleasure make it easier for them. I worry sometimes that I have imposed the fast food culture on innocent avians in making vast amounts of a limited variety of seed from unknown sources of origin readily available – at the expense of their innate foraging for a wider variety and native nutrition. Generation after generation of “feeder” birds. Has there been research about this, I wonder? Is this another hidden form of imperialism? Am I putting small birds at risk for my pleasure? (sigh) I hope not…
… because my spirit needs these little birds of the backyard – the chickadees and juncos and nuthatches and finches and downies – the small, ordinary, nondescript varieties that have already returned and alighted by the time I get back to the house after topping off the feeders. I need those chirps and peeps and twitters coming from their roosts among raspberry canes and bare lilac branches. The bigger birds – woodpeckers, jays, cardinals – come sailing in scattering seeds and snow and skittish finches. I need signs of activity during these months, but more than that, I need signs of flight: the freedom of wing, the small fluff and flurry of weightless landings and instantly reactive lift. I need to be reminded in these spontaneous flits and darts that life isn’t plan-able, assumed, predictable, dull. We plod around in three layers of clothing and heavy bottomed boots and thick mittens. We walk flat footed and carefully so as not to fall: a far cry from chickadee landings – sudden, unsteady, instantly centering on a springy raspberry cane. I suspect our clothing and movements are indicative of what goes on inside. Plodding along in predictable patterns of thought and expectation, planning the next step, insulated, layered, heading home for a comfortable chair.
We are reading the gospel of Mark in worship this winter with its recurrent theme of secrecy. The kingdom of God is hidden in common elements, familiar settings, everyday situations. The holiness and power of God is hidden in Jesus of Nazareth – in his teaching, his healing, his being.
The kingdom of God is like….I catch a flash something out of the corner of my eye – a goldfinch in its winter wear, not yet molting. It perches three feet away from me on the other side of the window, waiting for a turn at the feeder. The little bird is buff green and dowdy, but under its beak, around its eyes, gilding the top edge of its wings there is a bit of brilliant gold in the sunshine.
And it strikes me that in Mark’s telling of the gospel, Jesus is a parable. If the kingdom of God is like… something known but a little bit off – a goldfinch beginning its spring molt, seeds poured on the feeder, but not quite like that, then God is like… someone known, someone like us, but a little bit off. Like us, but more like God. Like us, but seen out of the corner of the eye, perhaps, a glimpse – barely seen – of something colorful, startling, true and unknowable. “There is nothing hidden but that to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Mark 4:21
We need these birds, and eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to receive. The kingdom of God is a brilliant flash out of the corner of the eye, seen but unseen…unexpected; it is quickness and light and lift. Those days when it seems that a lot of lift is needed – days of plodding spirits, and thick souls and layers of insulation (do you know those days?)… those are birdfeeder days. Take time to sit and watch. Nondescript, backyard birds are kinetic miracles, little puffs of feather and bone. How do they survive? And why, but by the grace of God – like you, like me. There is nothing straightforward or programatic about their flight. They swoop and halt and change direction on a dime, vanishing at the passing of a shadow. But still they return to the feeder. And in that they exemplify the pattern of faith for many of us – in and out, darting and daring flights, unpredictable, vanishing but coming back, drawn back for a seed, back to the Feeder (the One who Feeds), back to the source of life and faith and fuel. Blessed be these birdfeeder days.