Hope Is the Thing With (Non-Metaphorical) Feathers

Jesus Is a Bad Birdwatcher

Sam Bush / 4.7.20

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

– Emily Dickinson

When Jesus speaks of the end times in the Gospel of Matthew, he suggests praying that it won’t take place during winter. I’m not usually one for silver linings, but I’m grateful that this quarantine is happening at the beginning of spring (if you live in Virginia, that is). Things may very well get more dire in the days ahead, but, for the past few weeks, I’ve spent considerably more time in creeks and rivers with my two year old son. I’m not organized enough to structure his days with countless indoor activities – each of which seems to last about forty-five seconds – but if we drive to the Rivanna River and stand ankle deep in the chilly water, we are good to go as long as there are sticks and rocks to throw. There is an endless supply of wonder there, as if it flows downstream.

I’m reminded of the great book How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes, a British sports writer who travels the world to report on things like the World Cup and the Super Bowl, always trying to get in some good birdwatching while on the road. While many ornithologists have a reputation for turning the natural world into a competition (these people are called “twitchers” and are considered the Pharisees of birdwatching), Barnes invites his reader into the world of birds as a child would – with curiosity and delight. You don’t have to own a vest with a million little pockets or keep a list of what you’ve seen and haven’t seen. Simply look out the window. Did you see a bird? Did you enjoy seeing that bird? Congratulations, you’re officially a member of the Bad Birdwatchers Club. Welcome, friend.

Barnes begins the book with his conversion story which takes place at the edge of London where he used to live. He was on his way to catch a train when a kestrel (a small, hawkish bird of prey) snatched a small martin (picture a swallow) out of the sky like a thunderbolt and dramatically carried him off as his meal. Wham bam, thank you ma’am, just like on the set of Planet Earth. Barnes stood there completely stunned, his life forever changed.

He goes back to that first experience and why it was so enjoyable:

“How much skill was required? How much knowledge? How much scientific background? None, none, and none. It wasn’t necessary to identify the bird, to know it by name; it was enough to witness a fierce and terrible drama….It wasn’t exciting because it was rare and because I could call it Falco subbuteo and because I could boast about it. It was exciting because it was a thrilling bird in a thrilling moment….The only real skill involved in this perfect bird-watching moment was the willingness to look. I have developed a habit of looking.”

While each day of quarantine feels like a long slog, there are still opportunities to look up. Sometimes, to offer a desperate prayer; other times, to see geese flying overhead. With the help of my toddler, I am somewhat developing a habit of looking. He and I have seen bald eagles three times this past week and each time has felt like a miracle. Barnes writes, “Looking at birds is a key: it opens doors, and if you choose to go through them you find you enjoy life more and understand life better.” I may not understand life any better these days – in fact, there is more uncertainty about my life than ever before – but I’ve been surprised to find myself looking up more and seeing small flashes of color in the trees. “The whole creation has been groaning together” (Rom. 8:22), but it is still being sustained all the while by its gracious Creator.

This week, in Central Park, before you would be able to notice any birds, you will notice hospital tents. Elsewhere, most Americans are under orders to stay at home, and for good reason. Even still, God’s Word calls us to find comfort in looking up. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us, again, in Matthew. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Jesus himself, it seems, was a birdwatcher (you can almost hear the twitchers in reply: “What kind of bird, Jesus? Are we talking kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds, buffleheads…??”). Jesus, you see, is a bad birdwatcher. He is far less interested in birds and far more interested in you. And he wants you to know that he’s going to take care of you, no matter what. In this anxious time, just like every time, he invites us to the Stream of living water, to stand ankle deep and receive his endless supply of wonder as it flows downstream.

Illustration: “Wood Thrush” by John James Audubon