A Bird on the Hillside

Recently I was going through all of the things “left over” from closing one of our family homes in the aftermath of the death of my grandmother and step-father. It was a long, long day of pulling open cardboard boxes in a warehouse in Mississippi, and finding them filled with things from China to Mexico to Montana to Memphis. There was Jade from a trip made to “the East” in the late 1800’s, silver from the antebellum South of long ago, avant-garde pottery from San Miguel de Allende, turquoise from the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, and multiple place settings, and table linens, and objects d’art of every imaginable shape, color, material, and size. The author of this collection was a creature of momentary inspiration, often with very good taste, but sometimes lacking the gift of a practiced discretion. Each bauble, silver napkin ring, hand-thrown plate and cup, painting, porcelain figurine and box had at one moment seemed irreplaceable and a necessary traveling companion; as though there could be no moment but the present moment.

In one of the hundreds of boxes I pulled out a little painting of blue bird on a rough piece of lumber, and it shot me through the heart. Something of the color, something of the simple material, something of the truth in its form and posture amid the rest of that bizarre carnival of “stuff,” put me in mind of a day when a man stood half-way up a hill, looking out over the Sea of Galilee. Turning to look at the shuffling crowd who were following him, for a moment putting his hand over his eyes for shade and noticing a few flowers blowing in the breeze, he said to those willing to listen,

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?[f] {Matthew 6}

One note of beauty and grace struck in the midst of a world filled with noise and confusion.

That little bird now lives with me on my bedside. It reminds me in the midst of this quarantine how the great drama of the accumulation and distribution of “things” can cease, like a flash of lightning, with the smallest reminder that our lives begin and end in the dust. We have been reminded that giving our time and energy exclusively to the treasures of this world might be like slaking our thirst with salt-water; the relief is temporary, and more often than not we will be left more parched than before. The carpenter on the hillside is trying to turn hearts and minds toward the water that will actually heal this thirst for things that haunts us; this carpenter on the hillside is looking at something behind the frenzy of chasing the next shiny thing, tuning the ears of souls to find one note of beauty and grace that will allow the chase to finally end.

This little bird also reminds me of something shared by The Venerable Bede in the 7th Century in England. Bede spent most of his life as a monk at Jarrow. He wrote about 40 works, his most famous being his history of the early English Church.

This excerpt is attributed to one of King Edwin’s men, giving advice on whether he and his companions should accept faith in Jesus Christ – 627 AD.

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting hall where you sit in the winter months to dine with your thanes and counselors. Inside there is a comforting fire to warm the room; outside, the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness whence he came. Similarly, man appears on earth for a little while, but we known nothing of what went before his life, and what follows. Therefore if this new teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems to me only right that we should follow it.”

A History of the English Church and People

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