The grace of starlings

My friend and I talked on the phone.  We were sharing life across states and time zones.  This day, we spoke about church.  It’s frustrating, we easily agreed, to know of so much divisive talk back and forth between denominational and doctrinal lines, so much sparring even within a congregation.  And I stopped talking for a bit.

The scene in my backyard distracted me.

“Hello? Are you there?” my friend asked.  “Did something happen?”

“Oh, no, nothing tragic.  I am watching these stupid starlings,”  I told her.  I proceeded to tell her how we had purchased a cute bird feeder from Target–spring green, ceramic, with a rope and a hook–and bird seed that would attract a great variety of birds.  I told her how we hung it and waited for the great variety to show up and grace our yard with beauty.  I told her how every day since the last of the snow melted dumb black birds swoop into our sanctuary space and rule the bird feeder.

A dozen or so starlings squawked at each other as I told my angry tale.  Two or three birds at a time took their turns devouring my great variety feast.  The stylish little feeder toppled back and forth with their clunky movements.  Big, boisterous lot.  I concluded my rant of frustration.

Half to my friend and half to myself, I said, “I wonder if I can find some food for the feeder that would un-attract the starlings.”

I recanted and back-peddled.  I felt guilty about trying to not include the starlings.  I told my friend as much.  Who was I to pick and choose which birds my feeder could feed, I asked.  I felt sorry for the starlings.

“Maybe churches attract starlings, and we just want pretty birds,” my friend offered.

Furrowing my brow, I watched the birds.  “Maybe so,” I said softly.

Those birds occupied my thoughts day after day.  They showed up in the yard so frequently, it was hard not to think about them.  I pondered how I didn’t like them.  They are ugly birds, after all.  Big-billed.  Noisy.  Bossy.  Crowding.  Some people call them dangerous.  I didn’t want dangerous birds hanging around.  No other bird really had a chance to partake of the great variety seed.  The congregation of starlings was just too large, too much.

It was true, what my friend had said.   I want church the way I want it.  No starlings.  No danger.  No boisterous noise.

But something dug deeper in me.  I found myself feeling sorry for the starlings, because I saw myself in their company, clunking around noisily, mimicking the songs of others.  I felt the sting of someone looking out their kitchen window and wanting to dissuade my presence.  No real grace.  Not for me.  I found myself searching for grace.

What do we do with the shitting things, the times that are just like that?  In the church?  In our families and homes?  In our own souls?

I don’t have a lot of answers.  Not really.  But I wrestled with those stupid birds.  In the end, I quit clanging my pots and pans to scare them away.  I let them stay.  They ate what was offered.  Eventually, it was time for them to move on, and they did.  When they left, I imagined that they carried away with them a measure of my gracelessness for them, my gracelessness for myself.

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Going to Feed

After work at the local bank, Dad came home, went upstairs, and changed out of his suit and tie. He put on jeans and a more farm-appropriate shirt, though Dad hardly resembled the rest of the farmers in our extended family. He always dressed in a tailored manner, always crisp and well-groomed; his side-zip farm shoes were just older, more worn-out versions of his banking-business Florsheim ankle boots. He came back downstairs and sat in his recliner to spend a few minutes stuffing his pipe with fresh tobacco. “Myra,” he called, “do you want to go feed the cows with me?” He sucked in on the pipe as he said it, the lighter flame responding to each puff. I put on my shoes and ran to climb into Dad’s 1970-something red Chevy Blazer.

He smoked his pipe and hummed along to Kenny Rogers and George Jones as we drove from Campbellsburg to the outskirts of New Castle where Dad leased some land for his cattle. Our eyes roamed the landscape of fields, barns, and houses, all belonging to people we knew well in that rural community. Honeysuckled wind whipped at my ponytail, and I pushed stray hairs out of my face. I sat in the middle on the console top, right next to the driver’s seat. We didn’t say much, but I didn’t mind.

Dad turned into Mrs. Barnett’s driveway, and he pulled the Blazer to a stop in the usual spot beside the cellar door. He turned off the engine so we could go in and say hello to Mrs. Barnett, whose house was old and bent like her. It, and she, smelled of moth balls and old farm clothes and Wonder Bread and some variety of Avon perfume. She offered me a lemon drop, like always, and I took it gladly. Just as quickly as we had made our way on the worn stone path to her door, we said goodbye and went about our feeding business.

I opened the galvanized panel gate while Dad cranked the engine to life again. He drove through, and I latched the chain back in its place. Dad let me sit in his lap to take charge of the steering wheel. I manned my job as expertly as I could.

Dad hollered, “Sook-cavvvvv!” out his window. The cows perked their ears, murmured low responses, and turned their faces toward the red machine that rumbled in their pasture. They began to trot toward us, the little calves kicking up their back legs like they were some kind of big stuff. Dad called out a few more times before he let off of the accelerator, and we came to a stop in the middle of the eager gathering.

Dad moved his finger above the herd as he counted half out loud and half to himself, first the cows then the calves. He got out and walked right through them to the metal feeder. I marveled that he never was afraid of those animals, so many of them and all so large. I stayed in the driver’s seat, resting my arm on the door and my chin on my arm. The dust from the feed billowed as it mounded in the trough.

It drifted to me, all of the smells colliding—sweet like corn and alfalfa and molasses, mixed with the smell of cattle and the strangely comforting odor of manure, and Dad’s cologne and his pipe tobacco. I sat there lost in the scent and the drowsiness of the evening watching Daddy do what he had done for years and years, long before the suits and ties.

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St. Francis

He once stood in another garden space, on a piece of soil, surrounded by herbs and flowering perennials. He once belonged to my father-in-law. After Dad Boyd passed away last November, the St. Francis statue made his way to our family. In a packing frenzy, someone wrapped St. Francis in an old towel, and he rode along for miles and miles to a make his home on a new, drier, sandier patch of soil underneath our ornamental pear tree. John placed him in the shade of that tree, close to the house near the patio, where we can see him and remember where he used to be and in whose care he had always been, until now. He stands there all day and night, spade in one hand, tiny bird in the other.

Tendrils of ivy creep toward his feet, little bunnies play nearby, a pair of doves rummage in his station of the yard. In between the shadows of swaying pear branches, the sun laps his head, his back, his face, and the bird in his palm. It is no matter to him, even on days when the sun doesn’t shine and snow piles or rain falls steadily. Still, he keeps his charge, gaze fixed toward the robins, or starlings, or earthworms, or bugs. He manages to keep his spade ready for the tending of the earth, and all along, the winged one he holds never flees.

Clad in monk’s garb, rain-splattered dirt stains add contrast on his gray-scale motif. Browns and greens and pinks and yellows surround St. Francis on any side, nearly any time of year, framing him, highlighting him. Simple and completely unadorned, his sculptured self demands nothing, yet he attracts all manner of creaturely beings.

He attracts us, our family. Gently he calls to us. He speaks about the holiness of tulips and rabbit families, of feeding the wretched starlings, of smelling sweet roses as well as the stench-y daisies. Creamy white paint with sanded grey edges—just a statue. Yet, every day, we live in awareness of not only the 18-inch likeness of St. Francis, we live in keen and tangible awareness of John’s dad and his deep love and appreciation for flora and fauna, of his love for God’s created world, of his love for a small garden fixture in the form of a catholic saint.

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a child will lead

Small, four-year old hands reached out to stroke her baby sister’s head of dark curls.  That Margaret was nestled into the bending slope of mattress where her petite frame touched my own.  We sat, me with the little one cradled in my arms, and she with the anticipation of nighty-night prayers to offer.

“Jesus,” she asked, eyes closed, eyebrows dancing in earnest as she continued, “just help her to reawy rewax.”  Then, she sang an impromptu, quietly operatic lullaby.  Her feet dangled over the edge of the bed.  Small feet, small hands.  Big prayer.  Help her to really relax.

15 years later, God whispers her words back to me.

Don’t worry about tomorrow.  It has enough worries of its own.  Just rewax.

Put your hands to the work I’m giving you, even if it doesn’t look like the work I give to someone else.  This is your story.  Rewax.

I’m teaching you.  I’m helping you.  Rewax.

Have I ever left you?  I led you here.  I will lead you still.  Every little baby step.  Rewax.

All that you have is mine.  Steward it well.  Relish sharing it.  Stop comparing.  I made you.  I know you.  Rest in me.  When you go to bed, just really rewax.  Quiet your mind.  Be still.  I am enough for you.  Nothing can separate you from my love.  Rewax. 

God is outside of time.  My daughter’s intuitive heart asked for help.  Surely, she did not know the fullness of it all.  She was four years old.  Yet, her childlike faith challenges me, even now, across time, in time, in the fullness of time.  For such a time as this.  “Just help her to reawy rewax.”

 

 

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Signature fragrance

Someone asked me, “So what brought you to this area?”  Long pause swollen with want of possible answer, best answer, authentic answer.  I quickly pray to ask God what he would have me say.

Because I could say, “We work for a non-profit.”  It’s accurate.  It’s also not the whole truth, and it makes me uncomfortable to skirt the question.

However, if I spout out, “We are missionaries, and we work alongside people who want to go further and deeper in their relationship with Jesus,” then every small but significant relational building block we’ve stacked together will be forever altered by whatever her perceptions of Christians are.  The pause is long.

While I don’t want to stand so closely to Peter and his denials of Christ that they somehow become my own, I confess that I just don’t want to speak too loudly sometimes.  The version of Christian that I see in lots of places provokes a hiding instinct in me.  Since changing gears in mission from pastoral to para-church ministry, we’ve enjoyed greatly the ability to blend in with people and be known simply as John and Shannon.  I’m hesitant to blow my cover.

Exposing what we do comes with a price.  It’s akin to reaching into my purse, pulling out my signature fragrance, and spritzing the people around me.  Some might appreciate it.  Others may prefer the opportunity to draw in close enough to me, take a whiff of what I’m wearing, and discover the subtlety pleasant and interesting.  I don’t fear the exposure because I want only to chase after Christ and make him known when it’s comfortable and private.  The revelation of occupation–or calling, to be more specific–changes the stakes of relationship.  Especially when what Christians in the United States are up against is as much the reputation of unattractive behaviors of their brethren and with their brethren as it is the persecution from the culture.

What if I peel back my shirt sleeve, show my Jesus colors and, right away, I get lumped into piles of manure?  What if they smell lingering manure on me, as surely I am culpable, too?  Or, what if they have been so wounded by some soul who abused them in the name of God or the church?  What if they hear the “loving” way the church talks so much about changing the world but sees how little they (we) seem to do in the way of really loving people?

No singular person carries the burden to correct these pains, though the scriptures are full of examples of praying prophets who shouldered heartfelt confessions on behalf of not only themselves but the whole of God’s people.  We should take note and do likewise.  I should take note and do likewise.  The mounds of division and hurt I see grieves me deep in my gut.  All along, water for the thirsty is in our hands, and we’re watching people die of thirst while we argue over the water pitcher.

I can’t calculate how I will be received, no matter how I answer the question, no matter which way I carry the water.  As with so many conundrums, the best answer comes when I abide in the love of Jesus; there, in his heart, I learn what to say.  And I have no choice but to leave the fall-out up to him.

“Job change,”  I tell the woman.  “My husband was in pastoral ministry for many years, and, after a long journey, we changed direction.”

I watched her face, then I nervously scanned the walls of the warehouse structure where we stood.  I counted panels on the walls.

She asked a few more questions while we waited for our boys to finish their play.  We filled the gaps with parent talk and odds and ends.  Only God knows what she thought or thinks.  It’s okay, I guess.  But I know I liked it better when she just knew me as Shannon.

It’s not, as some might propose, that I do not have a burden for those who do not know the beauty of walking in relationship with Christ.  It’s not, as others might suggest, that sharing the love of Christ is not necessary.  My soul bears an interminable ache for the world to experience the utter relief of knowing God through Christ.  For me to be quiet about where to find bread would dishonor my Lord and would deny the hungry food.  No, it is neither of those things.

It is this:  when I am myself, without a label, Christ in me lives to show forth his glory by his fingerprints upon me.  My words may be necessary at some point, but the fragrance of Christ had better be apparent without them.  Otherwise, perhaps I am not my true self at all.

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