A meditation on birds and Jesus:
In celebration of the life and faith of Sandy Johnson
I give thanks for knowing and loving, and being loved by this most remarkable person. With joy I bear witness to her faith by inviting the fresh breezes of the gospel word to blow across our tears and lift our feet to dancing.
Jesus, as is true of other great teachers, uses few words to address what we most need to learn. Sometimes, his words flow with such elegance that their simple beauty slip past our best defenses and into our deepest places. Their poetic imagery lodges in our hearts before we have time to analyze them and consider their implications. Such moments abound in the Sermon on the Mount.
As he speaks to the folks who once gathered round him, on a hillside in Upper Galilee, he also speaks to us, in this place and in this hour.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear? 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? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Matt. 6:25)
I imagine him looking into the faces of those standing before him, addressing the anxiety he sees in their eyes, then looking up into the sky above, watching the terns and gulls circling round and round riding the thermal updrafts as the air, heated by sand and rock, meets the cool moist winds off the great lake.
And as I listen to his words, I don’t hear Jesus saying that we ought to think of ourselves better than the birds he is watching, but rather to encourage us not to think of ourselves as less! God regards birds and God regards us. The birds seem aware of this regard as intrinsic to their nature. They sing it out full throated, each morning. But we human creatures are such a strange and curious species. We are so often full of worry; uncertain who we are, uncertain of our own worth, uncertain of our place in the world, uncertain that we have anyone’s regard, including God’s.
In the absence of being seen, or heard, or touched, or held — all sensory and concrete indications of regard — the soul withers, the spirit becomes sickened, anxiety spills into the emptiness of our isolation. From this dark place, it’s easy to look about and compare our condition with others. It’s easy to notice that others seem to have greater regard than we do, have more than we have, are better and more valued than we are. In this lonely place, we cultivate what Henri Nouwen describes as the theology of scarcity. It is this way of understanding the way things are in this life that seems to have the greatest hold upon our collective minds and which we believe so fervently and practice with such piety; it is this theology and the accompanying anxiety of never having enough, never being enough that Jesus is addressing and trying to dispel.
And he does this as a poet – not as a theologian! Rather, he says, open your eyes, look about and into the sky or at the bird feeders in your back yard, turn your ears to the source of the magnificent morning chorale in the branches above your heads, see yourself as one with them as St. Francis once did and gather together in the Assembly of
All Beings (that eco-system that Gary Snyder describes as genuine wilderness, that, when fully functioning, means that all member are present, the place where a wholeness reigns that is the ground of a different conviction) the theology of abundance.
Well, how does one do this? Really? How do we join the assembly of all beings and begin our conversion from the anxiety and worry of never having enough theology, to the theology of abundance where there is enough for all? Mary Oliver, a poet Sandy dearly loved, observing other birds of the air writes in her poem Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft
animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the
clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and
the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese,
high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to
calls to you like the wild
geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing
in the family of things.
To announce our place in the family of things, to walk into the assembly of all beings is to feel the anxiety of separation and estrangement melt away. As we turn to regard each other, to see and hear each other, to value and regard each other — in that fellowship, we feel the astonishment of being regarded by the one who creates and who is present in all that has been made. To regard another — even the sparrow at the feeder is to open ourselves to Presence.
Matthew elsewhere relates this essential experience that occurs when, for example, we offer a cup of cold water to one who is thirsty. To regard each other, to enter into this most personal I-Thou relation is to glimpse the Eternal Thou. Phil and Sandy and I talked about this often.
I remember the first e-mail Sandy sent out to many of us, after hearing the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. She declared (and I’ve heard her declare many things over many years, with a deep furrow in her forehead) — and she was unequivocal about this: that whatever happened, and she knew damn well what would happen… “I am still me!” “I’m still me!” I heard this declaration all the time, regardless of all the particular abilities she lost along this perilous journey; by word and sheer dignity she declared: “I’m Still Me!” Talk about announcing your place in the family of things! And I must say, Phil, your care for Sandy, these long years and all along this difficult way — each slow step down the hall, each spoon of food into her mouth, each book read, each time you took her hand and cooed into her ear your love — every moment expressed your deep mutual regard of each other. And so with each song you sang with her, Alice, and all your time, Sue, giving pedicures — each and every one who brought care and regard to Sandy entered into the assembly of all beings!
All of which illustrates the deepest truth Jesus would have us embrace this day: that having the regard of God or the regard of others is not something we earn, but rather it is the gift offered when we see our intrinsic beauty in each other. This brings no inoculation against the onslaught of disease or poverty, nor does it guarantee health or wealth, or lack of suffering as some preaching proclaims these days.
Rather, it offers us the possibility of being fully alive — alert and awake to the world we are in — exclaiming with E.E. Cummings as we will do together at the end of our celebration…I thank you God for most this amazing day…. A great hymn of praise which ends with these words…. “Now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
This is how Sandy came to this enlightenment, one day, while driving down River Road on Febuary 18th 1987. She wrote of it in her journal — which was full of rich theological reflection and insight. She begins with the familiar phrase from an old gospel song: “God’s eye is on the sparrow…” She writes: “How can I imagine God’s eye on every sparrow, let alone every person in the world? The question came up this morning as I drove past a dead squirrel on River Road — it occurred to me how sad I felt at the death of this one squirrel. Maybe, I’m part of the eye of God, part of God watching over creation. Maybe I can understand God’s sorrow through my own. Maybe this is what Imago Dei means…” — and here Sandy uses the Latin phrase, which translated means, the image of God — “maybe I’m the image of God here…”
Yes, this is most certainly true. To be seen by Sandy was to be regarded as valued. To be heard by Sandy was to feel understood and known. To see her smile when face looked upon face was to feel welcomed into relation. In this manner, she embodied the old 16th century English prayer we know as Sarum Primer, as one guide to help us incorporate this way of being into the ordinary practice of our day. For I know Sandy well enough to know that early in this celebration we are having, she would want us to turn from regarding her and to look at each other. She would insist that we are no different from her. We are each the image of God. Right here! Right now!
So, I invite you to speak with me this old English prayer as we bear witness to the life of Sandy whose faith and life were one, and who regarded us and the whole wide world with the eyes and heart of the One who first breathed it into being…
God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
(And I add for Sandy)
God be in my voice
And in my singing
God be in my heart,
And in my loving;
God be in my hands,
And in my doing
God be at mine end,
And at my departing.