Repeat, Repeat the Sounding Joy

Clausae parentis visceraBrewers_Blackbird

Caelastis intrat gratia;

Venter puellae baiulat

Secreta quae non noverat.


[Into the womb of the chaste mother

There enters heavenly grace;

The girl’s belly bears

Secrets that she does not know.]


Today as we walked out of the church doors a noisy flock of starlings had roosted on the roof of the church and in the trees in front of the old steep steps to the doors to the nave and in the poplar in front of the derelict house across the street. 


My son heard them.  But I didn’t.  I was thinking about the kinds of things I think about when I leave church.  That usually makes it impossible to hear much else.


My son said to my wife, “Listen to the birds!  Doesn’t it sound like they are all singing, ‘Merry Christmas’?”


“You think they are happy that Jesus is born?”  “Mm hmm,” he said.


My wife hates birds of all kinds, but especially black birds.  And for me starlings are kind of like flying stains.  When I was a kid and my dad would see one he would practically spit on the ground and say, “Grackles.”  They don’t sing so much as gurgle or gargle to one another, or babble mutually incomprehensible nonsense to each other like an Alzheimer’s ward. 


They aren’t really a color, either.  They’re black.  But then if you move your head slightly they are purple, or green.  Like a rainbow in a puddle of oil. 


A long time ago when I was in my early 20’s I remember reading Psalm 84, looking at it with adult eyes for the first time. 


How lovely is your dwelling place O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the Lord;

My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.


Even the sparrow has found a home,

And the swallow a nest for herself,

At your altars, O Lord of Hosts, my king and my God!


I remember the intense skepticism I felt about the Psalmist’s interpretation of the sparrow’s motives.  It was unpleasant.  I felt despair about it.  I needed God, and I needed the Bible to be true and not a book of fairy tales.  I knew no religion or god that needed me to correct its facts would be able to save me.  And I had come to the conclusion that I needed not assistance but saving.  Above all I needed to be saved from the way that I thought I could figure everything out.


But I thought, “How can I believe this book is God’s Word?  What kind of baby thinks that a sparrow built a nest inside the temple courts because it wanted to be near God?  How does the psalm account for the the sparrow and swallow defecating on the courts of the Lord, on the altar?”


I needed God, and I wanted to believe, but I couldn’t see how the swallow building a nest near the Lord’s altar could be interpreted the way the Psalm interpreted it.  I saw it as a sign of God’s absence.  If the temple had been God’s dwelling, things wouldn’t have been the same as they are everywhere else.  You wouldn’t find rats eating the showbread and pigeons picking at the carcasses of sacrifices.


I suppose that says a lot about the many ways I misunderstood God.  But I don’t think it’s unique.  If God is there, many of us think, then the normal rules of the world won’t apply.  Birds won’t be allowed to make nests and poop in the house of God.


But why not?  Weren’t the people doing the same thing?  Don’t we do the same thing in church now?  Even on our best behavior we kind of make a mess in God’s house.  Even if we take great care to dress like soldiers on parade, and pay attention, and look solemn, earth still clings to us.  Some people will still sing off key, and some will still have slightly rumpled clothes, and some of us will still be late, and some will still fumble around with the pages of the hymnal.  Some people would still have sour looks on their faces, and others would still be constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they had done something out of place.


I didn’t understand that God is not ashamed to be seen with His creation.  He wants to be in it.  He loves the little sparrow that builds a nest in His house, and He is happy to have the grackles congregate outside the church where the people are singing about the Word, by Whom all things were made, becoming flesh and tabernacling among us. 


And maybe the starlings don’t sing as well as they did before sin entered the world.  Maybe sparrows didn’t poop in the garden of Eden and build nests in the tree of life.  But then again, maybe they did.  It’s not always easy to judge what things are out of joint with the order God intended for them and what things simply seem out of order to us.


But the Word made flesh is willing to bear with things that are not yet fully restored and bear with our misjudgment of the things He calls good in order to gather all things together in Himself and bring them to the Father.


It’s no joke when people say that the little children teach you about the kingdom of God, when they say that parishioners who have not studied theology but have prayed teach their pastors much about the Lord and His ministry that can’t be learned from professors.  My son off the top of His head at five years old knows what it took me fifteen years to start to understand.


Yes, the grackles are happy that it’s Christmas.  And isn’t their hymn to their Creator beautiful?  My son thought so.  He is only a few years older than His God was when He entered the world and listened to his first worshippers snort and grunt.


Hicks, Edward, Peaceable_KingdomNo wonder the angels and the grackles sing for joy at our good fortune.  Their Creator gathers both of them to Himself through our nature. He became a little boy like my son and made the stable his temple courts to satisfy my heart and my flesh which cry out for the living God.  If He had not taught me to find His glory in the baby in the manger, I would never recognize Him in the lowly sermons preached by me and others, or in the bread and wine of His altar, or in the mouths of children and the bodies of lowly, sinful, and suffering church members.  I would never learn to see the renewal of the earth hidden like a seed in the ground in a neighborhood of projects and abandoned houses.


Here He gives out this treasure: the restored creation, paradise.  God and man, birds and beasts, rocks, hills, and plains, all harmonious, all singing together, no longer groaning.  Yet it is a secret hidden from everyone, even from the eyes of the believers.  We only see ugly birds, vacant houses, an inn with no vacancies, a child in a manger. 

If I had never learned to see the temple of God there with the animals, then I would be like the young ravens that call, but I would be hungry forever. 

I would not ever have seen how, after men have their songs employed, from His secret place He gathers a little congregation of tuneless birds to repeat the sounding joy of the world newly born, wrapped up and lying in the manger.



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