One of my favorite things to do in the summer is read out under the shade of my backyard tree. There, I have a reclining chair and small little side table. I bring out my theology or anglophile books with a nice pot of tea and read away the later afternoons. With golden rays of sun twinkling through the leafy canopy above, and a usual slight breeze, it’s about as close to the sublime as I can get, unless I am in the English countryside near a thatched cottage or ruined abbey—but I digress.
It so happened that last summer the sublime turned benign when my reading was constantly interrupted by the aggressive swooping-down of birds. There I sat, quietly minding my business trying to read when two gray birds continued to swoop down within 3-4 feet of my head in a sort of inverted-U dive-bomber pattern. They were either avian bibliophobes, or (more likely and slightly less exciting) birds troubled by my proximity to their nest hidden far above in the intersecting web of branches.
At first I accommodated them, retreating to my less-comfortable deck giving them a week or two to sort things out. A few weeks later I returned, and the attacks immediately commenced. Now I was rather perturbed. So I began making ridiculous crow-like noises to scare them off (I don’t know why a crow noise, but it sounds meaner than an aggressive “tweet-tweet-tweet!” sound). This had about as much effect as trying to convince a parishioner that the pastor really does work more than one day a week. Things escalated and I began throwing sticks, then rocks. Then I realized I was defeated and that these little gray monsters would not let up unless I went a purchased a BB-gun. The thought did cross my mind. But my love of animals couldn’t bear the idea, so I decided I would just hate these little gray birds with a passion usually reserved only for the Devil, his angels and restaurant menus that have pictures of the food in them.
So when this summer came I was excited to retreat back to my shaded utopia and enjoy my summer reading. All was well—until about mid-June. I kid you not, on the day I first spotted him, there he sat, a gray bird on a branch about 12 feet from me, cocking his head from one side to another with a sort of curious taunt. It was as if he was deciding whether to attack or pity me. And in this stare-down of man and beast a thought suddenly occurred to me. “These birds aren’t shy…the other birds all run away from me but these birds rather hold their own.” Curious and inspired I ran inside and got my North American Birds book and looked them up. I found out that they are North American Catbirds, so named because of the mewing-meow like sound they can make that resembles a cat. All gray with dark black eyes and a red stripe on their under-side back tail, they migrate from Florida and Mexico each year. They tend to return to the place where they are born and so if you have catbirds you are likely to continue to have them.
I read that these curious little birds like small insects and fruit. So I decided, “why be enemies when you can be friends?” Armed not just with my books and tea, I nowwent outside with a tea-saucer filled with golden raisins. At first I began throwing the raisins about 20 feet away, but over the next few weeks catbird and I began to develop bonds of trust. And now we are good friends. He now comes within three feet of me, ticking his little head from side to side until I throw him his fruit. I even can call him to me whenever I want. By making a sound similar to calling a cat, he will appear within a few mins to get his reward. And the relationship works both ways. Sometimes when I am deep in my book I begin to hear a gentle, soft mewing, a bird equivalent to knocking on the door of a bedroom when you are not sure the person is asleep or awake. Pulled from my reading, there is the catbird, on the ground waiting for a raisin.
It’s a wonderful little story but I tell it for a specific reason. I found that gaining the catbird’s trust was incredibly rewarding. This took me by surprise. That catbird brings me real joy—not the kind of happiness you get when you win a game or buy something you’ve really wanted—but a sort of joy that comes in being the object of choice.
Yes, the catbird wants the fruit. But he chooses to risk getting the fruit from me. It may be a win-win situation but the catbird gives me more than he understands. Some days, when I am weighed down by my anxiety, the catbird shows up, and I reminded of the God who takes care of the catbirds will take care of me.
But more than that, the catbird reminds me that God delights in me. This is sometimes very hard for me to believe, because I know that I am a very bad sinner. I know all the ways I fall short, and all the times I repeat the same stupid mistakes. At some point, I think God’s kindness will ware out, that he will finally have enough and punish me. In a strange way I think I want Him to because that way we’d be even, kinda. I mean, if God exacted revenge, got really, really mad at me, then maybe I’d repent enough and be scared into being better. But that won’t work. And God knows it. So I sometimes find myself caught in the juxtaposition between grace and works—wanting to be punished so I can work (earn) my way back to God. But God isn’t this way. His goodness and grace and beyond imagination and his patience is beyond description.
That’s what I’m learning as I mediate upon my the visits from my little catbird. It truly delights me to throw him those raisins, to watch that little head twitch back and forth, to see him slowly gain trust, to excitedly come to me when I call, and to scurry off with his raisin.
And I think—God is like that. He delights in me. He enjoys being my Father. He enjoys being good to me. It is His good pleasure to give me grace. God delights in being the God of grace.
With this revelation of God’s character I understand God’s love in a new way. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. God did not give his Son because the world deserved it, or even was open to it. God took enemies and made them friends because God loves.
Now I am grateful that the God of love will discipline me sometimes. But this discipline is not penance; it is never an attempt on God’s part for me to pay him back. When God disciplines me it is to limit my options to sin or to learn a valuable lesson in the hopes of avoiding sin’s destructive power.
But overall God’s disposition to us is that of delight. That is why, when Jesus leaves he gives reason for his departure. He says that he goes to prepare a place for us, a place where we will have our own room in His house. Where He is, we will be too.
So sometimes God reminds me of simple lessons through the most unlikeliest of creatures. Now, not only do the catbirds let me read under their tree, but they give me the delight of being able to feed them. If Jesus can call us to look at the lilies and sparrows in order to not be afraid, I’m learning to look to the catbirds to be reminded of God’s great delight in being our God for us.
Maybe you don’t have catbirds in your backyard. But you do have a God who delights in you, enjoys you, and loves you. How would your life be different if you lived knowing that God takes delight in you?
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.