Bishop Brian Cole offers a sampling of his essay on the phrase “consider the birds of the air” from “Saving Words: 20 Redemptive Words Worth Rescuing.”
Hi, I’m Bishop Brian.
There’s a new book out called Saving Words: 20 Redemptive Words Worth Rescuing. It’s edited by the Reverend Joseph Pagano and the Reverend Amy Richter, who also happened to be married to each other and has 20 essays on words or phrases from the Christian tradition that we worry might be at some risk of losing. And so the essayists are invited to reclaim a word or phrase. And I wrote a brief essay on “consider the birds of the air” and want to read to you an excerpt from that. The Birds of the Air.
I met Mark and Greg, my first semester of seminary. We were all students at the Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I was a new college graduate, not yet 22 years old. Mark and Greg were in their thirties, both having worked for a decade between college and seminary studies. We met in New Testament Greek class. We all sat near the front and bonded over a shared academic earnestness and dry sense of humor. So I was excited when they invited me to go birdwatching with them. I had never done any real birdwatching before then, but I knew how to recognize Cardinals’ Robins and Blue Jays. How difficult could this be?
Turns out it can be difficult. For starters, there’s the equipment. You do not simply go out and see what you can see with your own two eyes. Binoculars are necessary. In the case of Mark and Greg, the binoculars were quite pricey. They let me borrow an older pair. Also, I discovered you need a bird book, both to help identify what you see and record when and where you see the bird. In doing so, you create your bird list before we went. They also told me it would be helpful to listen to cassette tapes of bird calls. So before you saw the bird, you could hear it. This was going to be more than Cardinals’ Robins and Blue Jays.
The Saturday morning arrived for our bird excursion, at least I looked like a bird watcher with binoculars and bird book khaki shorts and good walking shoes. I soon discovered that birdwatching can last a long time if you go with serious birders, Mark and Greg, we’re serious and this long amount of time includes a great deal of not seeing birds.
Actually, the bird watching time is the briefest part of the day. Finally, when you see a bird, you often barely see the bird whose full view is blocked by branch and leaf shade and cloud.
That day with my two friends, I discovered I was not a birdwatcher.
I was a friend of birdwatchers, a more enjoyed watching Mark and Greg watch birds. It was a joy to see these birders in their element if seminary is a time to discern, call. I knew that day that bird watching was not mine.
Having grown up in southern Baptist tradition, the Bible was the book that shaped my life, both in church and culture. As a southern Baptist, there were many, many opportunities to attend church services where the primary act was the preaching. Most of the preaching I heard before attending seminary focused exclusively on the letters of St Paul. So the Gospels were in many ways new to me in seminary, along with Greek in the New Testament survey class. I took a class on the gospel of Saint Matthew.
Shortly after my first birdwatching trip, our professor in the Matthew class devoted a few lectures to the sermon on the Mount. Look at the birds of the air. They neither so nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Turns out Jesus was a birder. The professor that day, let us in a great discussion on the power of this passage with Jesus, his every day reminder about anxiety and worry and the call to trusted our God does not abandon us in the every day.
Look and consider the birds of the air who find provision in God’s world, while we worry about so many things we cannot control, the birds delight in being birds. God delights in them. If God provides for them, well, not God, sustain us to. Well, I was moved by the teaching I felt the same as when I had gone birdwatching to look at or consider a bird, you have to go where the birds are. Since I was, no birder could Jesus provide me with an indoor illustration regarding anxiety and worry and trust.
About this time, I was introduced to the writings of Thomas Merton and the practice of centering prayer. Outdoor birdwatching problem solved. I could let go of anxiety and worry and trust in God’s care for me without leaving my room. If Mark and Greg, in the first year of Jesus’s sermon on the Mount wanted to look at birds, I was fine with that. Meanwhile, I would practice centering prayer, praying in silence, meditating on the Jesus prayer. It would be my interior life that would take flight.
For several years, I was at ease with the outdoor indoor divide on how Christians could manage anxiety and worry even in my own marriage. This worked. My wife, Susan, is a lover of birds and delights in their beauty and presence in the now. She also feeds them daily, which is another reason the birds do not have to worry. Being a bird in our backyard comes with a meal every morning and refreshed water in the bird base three times a week. And Jesus’s invitation to look at the birds, he’s calling his disciples to see what is all around them in the every day, as long as there are birds to see, then Jesus is teaching on anxiety and worry can speak to us, both birder and non birder.
That’s just an excerpt from the essay that I wrote for Saving Words. It was published by Cascade Books, the whip and stock press, and this publication would commend the other essays to you as well. I wrote this essay. Consider the birds because of ways in which this passage, for me, its understanding has changed over time. And in the rest of the essay, I talk about how both the deep decline and bird population worldwide, but also the experience of walking daily during COVID time has reshaped my sense of thinking of the birds of the air and how it deals with our anxiety and our worry.
So I would say to you, I would encourage you as you think about reading both in preparation before Lent or during Lent to consider this good book, this good publication saving words edited by Joseph Pagano, Amy Richter. Lots of really good essays in the book of considering those words we want to save to reclaim in the Christian tradition. We are living in a time when we need to continue to speak good news to God’s world, both in the Diocese of East Tennessee and across the land. It was great to be a part of this work and encourage you to pick up a copy to share with others and celebrate good writing and good reading.