I’ve been recommending widely a book I’ve read recently: Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue. It’s easy to read but has a wealth of new understanding and insight contained in its 10 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one bird that crops up in the Bible narrative – from the eagle to the vulture to the partridge to the sparrow – and finds new ways of understanding them symbolically. Reading it you may learn some things you were unaware of about the love life of the ostrich but, somewhat more importantly, you might also gain a new understanding of some of the love and life contained in the scripture.
Blue’s first chapter focuses on the pigeon. Not many people’s favourite bird. In fact one often described as a flying pest or a rat on wings, and one that is believed to be a blight on the urban landscape that should be exterminated rather than celebrated. Seemingly a far cry from the pure white dove that is one of the symbols the Bible gives us for the Holy Spirit. But, as the book reminds us, a dove is a pigeon – they are both members of the Columbidae family. In fact it was more likely to have been a common Palestinian rock dove rather than a white turtle dove that hovered over Jesus’ head at his baptism– and the grey rock dove with its iridescent green and purple neck is considered to be the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon.
With this change in our visualization the symbol for the Holy Spirit suddenly changes from something indicating purity and exclusiveness to something indicating commonality and ubiquity. Pigeons like to be where people are, they don’t discriminate between the ‘good’ areas and the ‘bad’ areas but crowd wherever life is to be found. That sounds like quite a good description of God too.
This is how Blue draws out the metaphor: “Maybe the spirit of God is so common – wherever life is, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it … Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that – fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong – it is not as pure as the driven snow. Maybe we get a little hung up on purity. God after all created LIFE (everything, swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying). Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we are mistaken about what holy means.” Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, p12.
This year I am choosing to see the presence of the Spirit of God in the common pigeons that peck at the dusty pavements, rather than in the white doves that coo in peaceful parks. When a flock of pigeons dance in the sky I will be reminded of the dance of the Spirit of God in all things. When I see pigeon poop all over buildings I will be reminded of the incarnation – that God became flesh in all its messy reality, not just the pure and proper bits. When the sun catches the iridescent colours on a pigeon’s neck I will be reminded of the beauty that God’s spirit brings to all her beloved daughters and sons, not just those who shine in the eyes of the world.
Michael Leunig, one of my favourite prayer poets, has this to say about those suffering from colds:
God bless those who suffer from the common cold.
Nature has entered into them;
Has led them aside and gently lain them low
To contemplate life from the wayside;
To consider human frailty;
To receive the deep and dreamy messages of fever.
We give thanks for the insights of this humble perspective.
We give thanks for blessing in disguise. Amen
I’m not suffering from a cold, but I am currently laid low by a different virus and having some doctor-ordered time at home. I feel I should embrace this space with a Leunig-like welcome but instead am mentally kicking against the pricks as hard as I can.
So this post is to remind myself that I am not called to be Superwoman but called to be Ellen. And being Ellen means accepting the need to sit by the wayside from time to time, remembering that I am dusty and mortal, and that the world will keep turning even when I’m not doing much to help it spin.
I hope you are healthy and hearty and full of life. But if you’re wearied and heavy-laden, whatever the cause, I hope you know that there is good company at the wayside and the possibility of blessings that we cannot yet perceive.
There is a beautiful Georgia O’Keeffe painting of autumnal leaves which has the title ‘The Poetry of Things’. It is resonant of incarnation, of holy embodiment, and of the delight and worth held by the material and transient. Where in this world of beauty and terror, continually created and beloved of God, do you find a poetry that speaks to your innermost being?
There is a considerable difference between secular optimism and the spiritual virtue of hope. Optimism relies on a blind faith that things will get better, hope on an eyes-open trust in the nature of God. The glass of God’s grace is never half full or half empty – it is always overflowing.
You are God’s beloved.
What we believe is important, not least because it shapes our priorities and our choices in life. But equally essential to a faithful life is where we put our trust. Who or what do you trust beyond measure? Where is your heart secure in the knowledge that it will never be betrayed?
I can’t celebrate All Saints and All Souls without recalling my own beloved dead. One of them is my grandfather – the Revd Alexander Harpur, a parish priest in East Anglia till his retirement and a good, loving, gentle man. I didn’t know him for long – I was only four years old when he died in his 80’s – but I remember his smile and the sense of welcome whenever I was with him. He was one who could be remembered under the great crowd of All Saints who did their bit to make the world a more loving, God-filled place.
Another of my beloved dead is my oldest brother – Geoffrey. We shared a life on this world only for a very few weeks – not long after I was born, he died at the age of three, from the multiple disabilities that had been with him since birth. Geoffrey could not be said to have achieved anything in his short life on one scale of measurement, that of doing. But on another, that of being, he achieved a great deal – he gave my mum and dad and the others who cared for him someone to love and cherish. He opened the hearts of those around him by his need and helplessness and so also made the world a more loving, God-filled place.
Alexander and Geoffrey lived completely different lives but both deserve to be celebrated as souls who were created and loved by God and as saints who made a difference to the world. They, and all those like them, call us not only to remember and celebrate our predecessors but also to consider the legacy that we will leave after our own death. How will we have touched the world with God’s gentleness? What will we have helped to blossom? Where will we have sown seeds that bear fruit in the future?
As we remember those whose love has shaped us, it’s good to also think about the inheritance we will leave behind. In the words of the Australian cartoonist and prayer writer Michael Leunig: Let us live in such a way, That when we die, Our love will survive, And continue to grow. Amen.
The daisies which bloom at this time of year are named after Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels. I like the echo this gives of the beautiful Talmudic saying that “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow! Grow!”.
Angels are part of the mystery of our faith, part of a way of understanding the world that takes us beyond the material and factual into the unseen and unproveable. In scripture they are agents of God’s purpose, bringing messages of reassurance – ‘do not be afraid’, of challenge – as in Jacob’s wrestling match, of calling – as Mary encountered through Gabriel. They are also agents of God’s justice, fighting evil like the superheroes of the spiritual world with wings in the place of capes.
I wouldn’t stake my faith on the actual existence of angels – they aren’t a necessary part of the story of God’s loving, creative interaction with humanity, more like an entertaining sub-plot. But I like to think they exist. I like to think that an angel hovers over each child whispering ‘Grow! Grow!’. I like to imagine that the world is full of creatures beyond my sight and understanding. I like to believe that my beloved dead are sung home by a whole choir of angelic voices. It makes the universe feel more alive, more loved and more beautiful to picture it filled with the fluttering of angel wings.
But I have one caveat to belief in angels. Such belief becomes less than helpful if we rely on angels to provide the love, life and beauty of the world. Rather than relying on a heavenly figure to nurture every child we should consider how we can do this ourselves. Rather than trusting angels to fight evil for us we should be out there committing ourselves to work for justice and for peace. Rather than believing that angels will protect the grass, the daisies and all the rich diversity of the natural world we need to take this urgent responsibility on our own shoulders.
So this Michaelmas let us both delight in the idea of angels, keeping our eyes open for the shimmer of a celestial wing, and also do the work that angels are supposed to do – becoming agents of God’s purpose in our own right.