“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25, 27)
Last Christmas, amidst the festive rituals of going to my brother’s house to gather for yule tide family time, a special gift caught my attention nestled amid the branches of my brother’s Christmas tree. Tucked almost at the top of the tree in a cozy spot was a bird’s nest. He made a point to show it to us. It was perched so perfectly among the branches; it could have passed for an ornament hung purposefully by human hands or even overlooked altogether. They didn’t notice it until after they had picked their tree out, but before they cut the tree down (during their annual adventure to fetch a freshly cut tree). They made sure to remove the nest before cutting, lest the tree’s descent damaged it. They set it back in its place when they got home. I stood on my tiptoes to see it and could not resist touching it. It was stunning. It was the shape of a hand sized basket – made from handfuls of twigs and natural threads woven so deliberately together to form a place to keep something safe. But no hand had made it – merely the handiwork of tiny claws, a tiny beak and, best of all, a tiny bird brain.
During his scientific stay at the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin made it his mission to study birds, specifically finches. Using the specificity of such birds, he wanted to learn the origin of life’s ability to thrive over time. He thought if he started small with bird brains, he might then utilize his observations to understand more sophisticated cerebral systems. Okay, I confess, as an Intelligent Design supporter, I thought (as I observed that bird’s nest at Christmas) about how brilliant a bird is…and more directly, how wonderfully God designed a bird’s DNA to do that. A bird is designed to craft something sturdy and secure to incubate its offspring. Eggs hatch, baby birds learn to fly away and they instinctively build nests of their own to ensure the survival of their species. They’re really good at it. I like to think that God is really good at designing all of life to thrive and survive, according to its kind. But just because I think that, doesn’t mean I live like that. Throughout the Scriptures and more relevantly my life, God has used the image of a bird to signify His care for us. God describes how smart birds are, not solely because of their skill to soar high and weave nests but also because they don’t worry…at least, not like we do. One could argue, that’s because birds don’t know any better and we do. I think God graciously wants to tell us that it’s actually the other way around – our brains have been much more sophisticatedly designed to know all the more how God has provided for us, so we absolutely need not worry. Sure, we can build skyscrapers and jet engines; but we can also worry like no other creature can.
When I was thirty four, I burned out as a therapist. Talk about helplessness and hopelessness. I was diagnosed with both. The ever increasing hours at the office managing a full caseload of clients with serious issues to resolve and trying to keep on top of the never ending pile of paperwork drained me in a way I had never experienced. Any effort I exerted never seemed enough. I realized I could have worked 24/7 and needs would still have gone unmet. I remember asking God the inevitable questions of why and why not. Why was it so hard? Why were there not enough hours in the day or resources? I found myself spiraling into a black hole of despair. I’d lie in bed at night, hoping my clients were safe as well as hoping I could just get some sleep to refresh my energy for the next day. Neither hope seemed fully actualized. Living and working in an urban setting seemed to exasperate my hyper-sensitivity to how great the plight of people was.
One day while in route to meet with a supervisory mentor to talk about how to best help my clients or at the very least help myself, I distinctively recall asking God for help. Moments after I prayed, I walked by three consecutive people in some kind of need. The first person I passed was standing at the top of the subway steps talking on his phone to someone about how he was being evicted and had nowhere to go. I began to descend the subway steps to catch the train to my colleague’s house and passed a second person standing halfway down the staircase. The person asked people as they passed by for money for food. I looked at him and shook my head that I had none to give and I passed him by, descending further into the subway tunnel and further into despair. I honestly didn’t have a dime on me. I was barely making ends meet myself on a non-profit social service salary. My emotions were so raw from being so tired. I could have started crying as I passed the third person at the bottom of the steps also asking for any spare change. I found myself standing on the subway platform waiting for the train and feeling the tears well up in my eyes. I prayed again – though this time I did not ask God why but how. How were all these people going to be okay? How was I going to be okay? I had that feeling of vertigo as I thought about every person in the city, in the world needing help and how could God care for them all with attentive response. At that very moment, I looked down amid my dizziness and saw something on the ground. I widened my eyes to make it out clearly and fixed my focus on the area right in front of me. A little sparrow-like-bird hopped about around my feet. I laughed out loud. “What is a sparrow doing in the subway?”, I thought. The urban bird was really a sparling; but the nature of a small bird (like a sparrow) bore the image of a beloved promise for me and brought it back to my memory at the most opportune moment. I watched the little bird hip hop back and forth in front of me, sweetly chirping without a care in the world it seemed. I stood there mesmerized by its movements. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It fluttered around me for a few minutes and then, I kid you not, it whimsically chirped and hopped up the steps that led back to the turn style gate and out of the subway it flew. It was like God responded to my pleading question “how” with “how much more” (Matthew 6:26). My feelings of overwhelming burden became so much lighter as I waited on that dark subway platform. Tears of joy filled my eyes and I found myself smiling like I hadn’t smiled in a long time. I felt so loved by God. If the God of the universe could send a sparrow to encourage me in a dingy subway station, He most certainly could send whatever anyone else needed to keep them going. I mean, He sent Jesus for heaven’s sake! For heaven’s sake? Yes, God is always providing opportunities for us to connect with Him, so He can reconnect us to heaven. He did not forsake earth or any of us when He sent Jesus as the quintessential solution to our problems (John 3:16).
That “sparrow sighting” has begun a long standing testimony of this theme. Every time I see those sparlings around town, I remember and smile. Friends have joined me in celebration of such imagery and have sent me images of sparrows at times to remind me of how God cares for me or how they have experienced His care for them. It’s become a sort of legacy of mine. When I’m boohooing to my dad about how hard life feels, he often asks me if I’ve seen any sparrows lately to nudge me not to forget God’s promise. I’ve added that Christmas bird’s nest as a great gift, reminding me once again of not simply my ability to trust God but God’s ability to help me keep trusting.
- Paper cut out (birthday card to me) by Maggie Machledt-Girard 2013
- Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
- Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe
- Unlocking the Mysteries of Life documentary
- Traveling Mercies by Annie Lamont
- Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard