By Will Brown
I often have the feeling that we are living, in America, in 2019, in some kind of in-between time, the end of something old, or the beginning of something new. Or both. Life in such “spaces” can provoke a little anxiety, to make one feel as though one is subject to forces and socio-political shifts much larger than oneself, and well beyond one’s control.
Such thoughts and feelings befit this time of year. One of my leitmotifs is how the natural world has a sacramental character, manifesting psycho-spiritual realities because, in fact, the boundaries between the natural world and the spiritual world is much more porous than we like to imagine.
As I write this in late September, we recently had a several-day-long spate of almost pleasant weather in my part of southern Georgia: early mornings one would be tempted to call “cool,” and afternoons wherein, if one were sitting in the shade and there were a little breeze, the situation was right on the cusp of downright pleasant. Cloudless sulphur butterflies have appeared in numbers betokening change, with southerly migrants joining year-round residents in little dancing swarms of neon.
I am a casual monitor of bird activity, and I’ve noticed that patterns are shifting ever so slightly in that kingdom too. The pileated woodpeckers in the park where I take my dog, Jeb, for his daily romp, seem a little more agitated, vocalizing and flitting between the pines, after having spent the last few months in a more staid frame of mind. Cardinals have returned to the backyard, and a pair of bluebirds, for reasons unknown, have been poking around the bluebird box again, which sat on its pole, forlorn in the baking sun, since its former residents abandoned it in spring.
Of course, mourning doves are back in force on power lines, and a few have found their way into my stew-pot since September 7, the opening day of dove season this year. I even flushed a covey of bobwhite quail out in the woods the other day. The last time I paid attention, or had the audacity to venture that far from air-conditioning, a few months ago, they were paired-up in fence rows or whistling singly somewhere in the pines. And did I discern a flock of sandhill cranes croaking south through the stratosphere a week or so ago?
On the other hand, the brown thrashers in my backyard act as though nothing’s happening. There are two of them. They were ornery in the spring, ornery through the summer, and they’re ornery now. Nothing seems to change for them. Apparently, they have no intention of going anywhere. They poke around between a row of monkey grass along the property boundary and some native wildflowers (asters, echinacea, and milkweed) we planted for pollinators, beneath the bluebird box. One of them is usually scowling at me as I pull into the driveway, before it disappears, with an air of indignation, into the lower branches of our fig tree as I turn into the carport.
And the heat has returned, all but erasing the memory of that pleasant streak that raised my hopes a couple of weeks ago. The forecast is appalling: mid 90’s at best, for as far as my smartphone’s weather oracle can see into the future.
Yet my intuition remains: something’s up. The signs of change predominate among the conflicting signals. The natural world seems to be an icon of the news cycle, where all is as it was, even amid scattered chirps of revolution. If only the birds could speak!
But in a certain sense they do. Scripture insists on this point too. Consider Job (12:7-10):
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.
He is the Lord of heaven AND earth. A merciful, albeit often inscrutable, wisdom and benevolence enfolds the entire expanse of creation, encompassing every corner at every scale, visible and invisible, from the subatomic to the intergalactic. “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do,” (Hebrews 4:13). Nothing is left out, neither flowers (Luke 12:27), nor birds (Luke 12:24), nor the vicissitudes of weather and climate (Job 37:1-13), nor the various departments of our dysfunctional government (1 Peter 2:12-17), nor you nor me (Luke 12:28).
It is a source of comfort — or it should be! — to the Christian, that he with whom we have to do sits on his throne with sovereign attention, and that the whole cosmic drama is resolving itself toward a grand reconciliation with its creator through the cross of Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:19-20). And through it all our task remains the same: fidelity.
Fr. Will Brown currently serves as associate rector of All Saints’, and priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, both in Thomasville, Georgia.