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BIble picturebook & God's Birds

May 26, 2024

Psalm 104

Psalm 84:1-4

by Katy Lines

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Some of my favorite birds are found in Kenya. There’s the tiny, iridescent suncatchers (kind of like our hummingbirds, but brighter), the bee-eaters, turacos, and the prehistoric-looking casqued-hornbills, the paradise fly-catcher, and my favorite... the lilac-breasted roller. (partly because it has the word lilac in its name). The beauty and variety of Kenyan birds are why I got interested in birdwatching to begin with.

We have nothing like these here!

What we do have in Indianapolis is pigeons. Pigeons love cities! In Edinburgh, the Globalscope Roots team have a lower level room with a large window well... where pigeons have decided to hold their convention—nearly every pigeon in Scotland attends their window well! Pigeons show up everywhere—they’re on every continent except Antarctica. They can be nuisances, but they can also be nourishment: the kids in Turkana like to catch and eat them. Cities, deserts... pigeons are everywhere.

So that got me thinking... In Turkana, I loved learning Turkana names for birds; they are often called by their sounds: tula is an owl, ekarikarikot is the red-and-yellow barbet, and akuuri is the pigeon or dove. But the dove has a nickname in Turkana, too: etau a Akuj, the heart of God. Throughout scripture we see the pigeon/dove showing up as a sign of God’s presence:

  • The Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. (Genesis 1:2) Not necessarily a pigeon, but definitely an avian image)

  • Noah sends out the dove from the ark; it returned, bringing life (Genesis 8)

  • At Jesus’ baptism: The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit— it looked like a dove— descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life." (Matthew 3:16-17)

What if... doves being ubiquitous... what if, every time I saw a pigeon, I was reminded of God’s presence right there in that place at that moment?

We say we do know that God is with us, but sometimes we (or at least I) forget. But what if this very ordinary funny little bird with a big body and little head was a regular reminder that for real, God is here, among us, right now? I joked with the Roots team in Edinburgh that, since their window well was infested with nesting pigeons, God must be seriously present in their space and their work.

It’s hard now, for me to not see pigeons and think of God’s presence. And I can’t help but pay more attention to them and notice them more often.

Bible Picturebook

This summer, we want to have a bit of fun—maybe even whimsy?— connecting images and items from our everyday world with themes and threads in scripture. Ordinary items in our ordinary world, can certainly be just that... water is water. Food is food. But ordinary items in our sensory world can also communicate something more: new life, reliance on God. If we are willing, they can be visible signs that can point us to deeper truths, direct us somewhere. This summer, we’re going to ask them to direct us to the deeper truth of God with us, what God is doing both in scripture and even today.

I assume you, like me, were once a child. As a child, did you have a Picture Bible? I remember as a little kid, laying on my belly on the floor, flipping through the pages before I could read, thinking about the stories that the pictures drew me into. And as a grown up, I remember bedtime readings with our boys, showing them the pictures as we read aloud.

This summer, we’re going to explore and savor some earthly images that are threaded throughout scripture, that draw us into a deep truth about God, about us. We can think of them as metaphors or icons.

Karen Swallow Prior (yes, her name includes a bird!), in her book The Evangelical Imagination, reminds us that material culture—the things we see and hear and touch and smell and taste, not just think about in our heads (our thoughts, dreams, imagination, etc.)— that material culture is important to those of us who follow Christ especially because Christ himself upended dualism, the separation between spirit and matter, sacred and profane, when God became flesh, human, embodied. In her book, she says that the language of scripture reflects how the spiritual and material are inseparable. And the Bible is filled with material, physical realities that serve as metaphors or “types” for truth.

Our senses of the physical world—what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, etc.—craft a certain kind of story, a certain kind of truth about the world. Our material world cultivates and shapes our language, our thoughts, out habits, our dreams (and vice versa). And not just our individual minds, but our community’s language, thoughts, habits, and dreams, too. These are shaped by our physical world—our building, our street and houses, our neighbors—human and otherwise.

For those of us who follow the way of Jesus, we’re part of a social body known as the Church. So we learn to see & hear & experience the world around us not only as individuals, but as part of that social body, the Church—both Englewood as an expression, and the Church in different times and spaces. We see with eyes not wholly our own (or smell with noses not wholly our own) because what we see (or smell) is oriented and practiced by our church community as well as the culture we live in. For those of us who follow Jesus, our senses receive the physical world oriented and shaped by scripture and those who’ve interpreted scripture before us, as well as our own shared interpretation of scripture. The way of Jesus becomes the lens through which we experience everything around us.

The images in scripture, ordinary things, are able to connect our selves and our community into the community and stories of scripture. For instance, the ordinary tables that Jesus sat around with Zacchaeus, with the Pharisees, with Mary & Martha & Lazarus, with the disciples on Passover night, bring our own tables into connection with them. When we sit around our dining room tables, our picnic tables, our fellowship hall tables, we can be drawn into and emulate the table conversations, practices, and guests of ancient tables. Sitting with Rebeka, Brittany— who are both expecting— and others at our small group can draw me back to Jesus celebrating with Mary, Martha, and the raised-from-the-dead Lazarus about new life.

Or, to use another example, I just bought a new dress to wear for the wedding in a few weeks. Dressing myself, can I be drawn to Paul’s metaphor of being clothed in Christ (Romans 13), wearing Christ and Christ’s attributes?

God's Favorite Bird?

Another common bird around here is the house sparrow. You’ve all seen them right?—they are first to land under your outdoor restaurant table when a pizza crust is dropped. They build messy nests on our front porches and in Mike & Lisa’s window A/C unit and have created an entire metropolis of nests under our garage roof solar panels. (I think the author of Psalm 84 must have spotted a bird’s nest on the ledge of the temple: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts.) House sparrows are the most common bird in the wild, worldwide. Originally from Europe and Asia, they’ve been imported into the U.S and rest of the world, displacing sparrows here like the song sparrow and destroying eggs and nests of the bluebird.

I often find myself resenting these particular invasive species—I’ve cultivated a yard to welcome goldfinches and hummingbirds, chickadee and eastern phoebe, but 75% of what shows up are house sparrows (add in the doves, robins, starlings, and occasional cardinal to top it off). But house sparrows thrive on city life and think my chickens’ food is meant for them.

I wrestle with appreciating sparrows, but they are my neighbors. They remind me about how Jesus views them... and us humans... beloved, valued, and cared for by God:

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? Matthew 6:26
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31

I’m grateful God gets as excited about sparrows as God does about sunbirds and lilac-breasted rollers. I want to be like God when I grow up. Can I cultivate appreciating these neighbors more? Both the sparrows neighbors and the preteen cluster of boys running up and down my street? I can’t see or listen to these pesky, messy sparrows without thinking that God thinks my neighbors (and me!) are significant.

As I was writing this on my front porch, a pair of doves hovered over Junior’s house across the street from me, roosting on his roof and chimney. At the same time, sparrows were singing nonstop, flying from our front yard tupelo tree into Junior’s window A/C unit. All I can imagine from all these birds is that God must love Junior a whole lot. 

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