Accipiters, Songbirds, and Pollinators: Learning about God as a Novice Birder

August 31, 2020

Good Morning, I have this last chance to gather with you and a final opportunity to speak. And, despite my convictions otherwise, I am not entirely sure this will be a sermon in the traditional sense but something different. We will not be exegeting a passage of scripture together instead I want to talk about birds and allow them to be an on-ramp for us to learn a bit about God in the midst of this. 

I am generally not one for titles but today I chose a rather long one… Accipiters, Songbirds, and Pollinators: Learning about God as a Novice Birder. 

A caveat before we begin, if you are not a fan of birds you may want to grab your phone and open candy crush or get your grocery list ready but Birds keep appearing in the bible.

At creation we are reminded of them, they play an important role for Noah and the flood, a raven flying back and forth until the land was seen, a dove returning with nothing, then with a bit of an olive branch before it didn’t return at all – a sign the earth had once more evolved past the chaos it was and was good again. Elijah was cared for with food brought by ravens. Jesus reminds us that sparrows are looked after by God a promise that he will care for us also. 

Birds have an important place in God’s story and offer great lessons for us about who God is, in a world of uncertainty and chaos- let’s allow these birds to remind us of the God who is recreating the world. 

  • Into the unknown, wonder and surprise with chasing birds and looking to God the same way
  • The circle of life, the delicate interplay of accipiters and songbirds- Paying attention to what God is up to.
  • What a sweet sweet sound- The marvelous complexity of birds and the God who created them.
  • Under the wings, finding ourselves held secure when all else fails.

But first, let’s go on a bird walk

And as anyone who has ever gone on a bird walk will tell you that bird walks can be a bit all over the place, they are meandering, lingering at some spots, circling back, hurrying, waiting, and a bunch of other things. My conversation today will be a bit like that. 

So let’s depart on a short walk, a bird walk, and stop at a few specific locations along the way that can help us. Now my favourite location is by the Seine river in the Park by my house so that is the mental framework I am going to run with, in my mind following that route but stopping to linger where the Cooper Hawk’s nested before going a bit further and waiting where the Indigo Bunting liked to hang out. We will continue by the river, hoping for a glimpse of a kingfisher, some warblers before we are surprised by a noise we haven’t heard before, after which we hurry through the tall grass and trees to get a distant look at the great crested flycatcher along the way the lessons I mentioned, the things I learned will be brought into focus, we will experience, new birds, new colours, hear new sounds. We will see new life, we will, unfortunately, see death but through it all, we will be reminded of how good our God is – even when we feel like we do today.

So we enter, and our senses are overwhelmed with the activity of birds… we hear their songs, we hear and see the branches move as they dart unseen to our eyes in front of us. Then we catch glimpse of them in front of us. As we step a bit further we make a note of whatever birds we might see, a red-eye vireo, a Phoebe, some warblers and finches, the ever-present sparrows, some ducks and geese, and some ones we don’t see or hear enough of to identify. We are awed by what we experienced.

But how should we approach this walk?

What should our expectations be? 

I was told by the resident naturalist at Oak Hammock Marsh that it is best to go for a bird walk without expectations of what you will see, instead, it is better to go with a certain amount of openness and anticipation to what you might stumble upon. The walk itself, the uncertainty, the hopefulness of just being surprised is part of the excitement of things. 

This journey into the unknown of birds helps us to experience God because isn’t this so much a part of what our lives with God are like. When we approach God with a certain demand and expectation, this is how I want to meet you, and these are the terms, this is how it must be God do this, act like this, show me this or whatever language we want to use we are left with a wanting and unfulfilled expectation that can only foster a disappointment. We are left bitter, and sad because that is not how it works, we don’t get to make the rules. Just like I cannot say as I enter the park, I am must see an owl or an oriole on the walk or else. 

Instead, we approach him saying ‘God show me what you wish, teach me what you want, meet me how you will’ then the wonder, the mystery can allow us to see great things new things. When we approach God with this humility, I am convinced he will speak to us, show us something amazing and beautiful.

I unsurprisingly, I have a couple of bird stories that are relevant. One day this spring, I was out in the park, just doing my walk, camera in hand, just walking along when in the distance I saw something blue flash in the distance, surprised I held up the camera and quickly snapped a couple, terrible photos of it- but with excitement, amazement, I knew what it was- an indigo bunting. The excitement level was very high as I wrapped up and head home- telling Alyssa ‘Guess what I saw!?!’ That wonder, that amazement is what God can offer us when we approach him, with that humble expectancy- and then he shows us something that is as marvellous as an indigo bunting. This photo was taken a week or two later but look at how amazing this bird is.

Now I recognize that there are times when we approach him with specific desires, requests, and needs in specific seasons and times – like when we are transitioning jobs and need direction for the future but I still think this applies.  June 6th is a significant day in my family. On June 6th, 2006, my Grandmother died. Three years later on June 6th, 2009- Rebecca my niece, and the first child of this new generation was born – 2 weeks early. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Anyway, my Grandmother loved cardinals. Cardinals are extremely rare here, their range has been expanding a bit, seemingly as a result of climate change and I had heard one had taken residence at a park here in Winnipeg, so on June 6th Alyssa and I headed there to try and find it. After no early success and a little detour with a Cooper Hawk, Alyssa spotted something red in a tree and we knew we had spotted it. It sang a beautiful song, and I called my mom and tried to let her listen to it. I will admit, there were tears full of all sorts of emotions as – the marvellous goodness of God was displayed in red feathers and a song of deep beauty. 

Do not be afraid of entering into the unknown with God, beauty, and wonder is there for you.

So we have decided to go forward with no expectations and see what we might see. As I mentioned there is a specific nest for a cooper’s hawk the I found in the spring and have kept an eye on since then. So on our bird walk, we will move there and we will wait and watch. A cooper’s hawk is an accipiter, which is an order of hawks that are short, broad, and fast fliers in wooded areas. They are magnificent creatures and absolutely fearless often to their own downfall. Tree limbs can appear unexpectedly when you are flying as fast as they do. But most walks I would stop and look up and very often someone would be looking down at me from the nest- and if I was closer than I was allowed, I heard about it. I have long since been fascinated with Accipiters but more and more this summer a love-hate relationship developed. You see, one of the primary sources of food for a Cooper’s Hawk is songbirds and I have a fancy for songbirds. This caused some problems for me, and no word of a lie and a mini-emotional meltdown in late July thinking about things, but then I did my own research and learned some things. Predation is important to keep things in balance. Too many birds, mean not enough insects and other food sources, and when the Hawks are out the birds decide to ‘social distance’ and this keeps the natural world running as it ought to. 

This forced me to reflect on things about God. Somehow God is always at work, always doing something, as much as I hate how often the sovereignty of God is thrown around so carelessly, we have to remember that as the hymn says: “This is my Father’s world; And to my listening ears; All nature sings and round me rings; The music of the spheres” The balance of circle of life, of predation and victimization, is beautiful and painful but is actually a work of God’s gracious keeping and tending of his cosmic temple. 

This year in the park, I paid a lot more attention to what was going on and besides all the new birds, I didn’t realize lived there, I saw beavers, and fish and turtles and frogs, flowers, deer, and although I never saw it Alyssa saw a crazy moth. Called a hummingbird moth. I opened my eyes, slowed down, tried to pay attention, and reaped the reward. Let’s spiritualize this for a second. What would my life be like if I did this with intentional regularity in my spiritual life, paying extra attention to what God may be up to? I think we would see those rewards. Being surprised by a turtle is great, being surprised by Jesus is better. So standing a few meters from the tree with the hawk nest,  I still wrestle with this but recognize God’s providential hand in the circle of life has been refreshing and allowed me to take note of what is going on. 

We edge a bit further, down the path into a little clearing where the mosquitoes are at their worst, but also we hear so many beautiful sweet sounds of the various birds in this area. I love listening to their songs, the natural music can lift my soul in a way little else can. Often you don’t even get to see what is making that noise, you just have to listen. Some birders, much more advanced than myself can identify most birds just by their song and often are just as happy to hear a rare bird as they are to see one. Let’s think about bird songs for a moment. 

Imagine the sound of a Common Loon calling out, echoing over the vastness of a still and empty lake. It is chilling in all the right ways.

Or think about the almost sombreness of the song of the White-Throated Sparrow, a song that is changing as you move eastward- inexplicably. 

Think of the Cardinal, belting out its song of Purdy Purdy Purdy, from top of a tree that resounds throughout the park. 

Or those Cooper’s Hawks who are conversing in a language that we cannot understand no matter how much we try and discern what it is doing. Some suggest 50 different vocalizations from these Hawks. Completely amazing. 

It is a cacophony of diversity and its complexity is what makes it so beautiful. To say birds make sounds or even birds sing does not do it anywhere near the justice it deserves. What God created as complex let us not reduce to simple. This diversity and complexity is something I love about birds, and meeting God, in and through them. Because you cannot be reductionistic with birds and have any success in gaining an understanding of them. Yes, they fly- well most of them, they sing- many of them and all the other stuff- but why and how and for what purpose is what matters. You can enjoy birds, be amazed by them but simplicity will never lead to an understanding of them. I am a novice ornithologist at best and the last biology class I took was in grade 10. So my science isn’t very good, but I am trying to learn about them, to understand them so that I can know more about them so I can love them more.     

So now here is the rub, if we cannot do it with birds how can we do it with God?

I am convinced that a reductionistic simplicity has wreaked havoc over the church in the west for much of the last century and so many in my generation are seeing the fruit, some good fruit but so much rotten as a result of this. To be even bolder, if you want to see evidence of that, just look at the foothold QAnon is getting in the church, look at how many of people my age are going through massive faith deconstructions and not always reconstructions when they see so much of what we were told isn’t really what they said it was. Take a 2-minute read of Ken Ham’s Twitter account or Franklin Graham’s or even read about Jerry Falwell Jr. 

My therapist told me this week, that so many people see him and others like him and ask him to give them the one thing they can do to get better, to overcome, or whatever. He told me that it doesn’t work like that because that is not the world we live in. Too often the church in NA wants a one-step faith or an emotional faith, or a romantic faith, or a twitter faith- a proof text faith. Not a robust holistic one. Complexity matters, The cerebral matters, and for the church to survive in a post-truth world; in a fake news world, it has to embrace a fully integrated, holistic faith that is in line with Mark 12:30 where Jesus quotes. Deut 6:4-5, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Or translate a bit of love god with the core of your decisions and desires, the core of your life, the core of your intellect, and the core of all your capacity. The marvellous complexity of birds reminds us of the marvellous complexity of God, his word, and the world he created for us. 

So we have decided our route, prepared to be surprised, we have visited our desired locations, experienced all we could with our eyes and ears, we have allowed the complexity to increase our wonder. Now as we wrap up our walk, put our gear away, and head home. There is one more aspect, one more reflection, and a theme that has spoken to me that can mostly be summed up by these 2 pictures.

I have often heard of hens keeping their young safe under their wings. In Matthew 23 Jesus laments over Jerusalem about how he longs to gather it under his wings. But I never had witnessed it before and certainly not by geese. But one evening in June, when Alyssa and I were on a walk that is what we saw. And if that is not an image for the love of God, I don’t know what is. Hidden, safe, secure. When I took this photo, we were just emerging out of the early pandemic restrictions, we were exhausted from navigating COVID and the emotional cost that went with it, and still, this image offered solace, hope, and encouragement. At that time, we didn’t know what the next 6 weeks would entail, and looking back a few more weeks on, with the pain and sadness, the anger and tears, as well as the deep uncertainty of what’s next this image is still true. I cannot believe in the providential love of the God who sees and does not allow me to find safety under his wings. The evidence of the love of God is not that he saves us from things that Paul may term skubalon, or crap, but that he covers us, holds us, sees us while we are in the midst of it. This doesn’t mean we are always ok, it doesn’t mean everything will turn out but God still sees and God still cares and at present, I am sure every very little but of that I am certain. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. So remember the birds will still sing tomorrow. 

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