The Grace of Birdwatching

June 15, 2017
Daily Scripture Texts
Psalm 100
Exodus 4:18-23
Hebrews 3:1-6

As a grad student, I spend a lot of time in libraries, and while I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s possible that I have grown too accustomed to my sedentary lifestyle. So, two months ago I announced to my husband that I was going to take up bird-watching. Within a matter of days, I had a pair of binoculars and was scouring the nearby parks.

I had no idea what to expect from my newfound hobby, since I am not by nature a nature-lover. I had no idea that birding would take over my life so quickly, that it would haul me out of bed at sunrise for an early foray on the way to school or take me to far corners of the state to see birds I didn’t even know existed six weeks ago.

Birding has been called a worldwide scavenger hunt by its proponents, and it certainly does have an element of adventure about it. But what I love best are the periods of stillness and silence which are punctuated by the rapturous moments of sighting. These moments are the product of patience, of waiting quietly by the edge of a thicket for something, anything, to stir or sing. Then you raise your binoculars slowly, gently, so as not to startle the bird. That precise moment of seeing a bird up close is transporting—to see its tail quiver as it sings; to notice a white eye ring or a black eyeline that tells you exactly what kind of bird it is; to hear the phoebe sing FEE-bee, FEE-bee, FEE-bee or the chipping sparrow say chip-chip-chip-chip-chip-chip—it is to enter another world or learn another language.

I am often nearly overwhelmed with gratitude for these moments that are an in-breaking of grace. You can’t summon a bird sighting; you can only receive it. The outdoors is no longer brown-earth-green-trees-blue-sky but rather brilliant orange orioles, tiny kinglets brimming with good cheer, and comical little fellows called brown creepers. Of course, I wouldn’t see any of this if I weren’t out there in the trees in the first place, patiently waiting, quietly watching. Birding is both discipline and grace.

But enough about birds, and onward to another of my favorite subjects, the Psalms. Today’s reading is Psalm 100, a brief but beautiful hymn of praise. As I read it, I thought about how rarely I want to shout—really shout—for joy to the Lord (v. 1). There are moments, of course—after Christmas with my family, witnessing the baptism of our godson, driving along wooded highways in full summer. But there are other times when my thanksgiving is nothing short of forced.

Perhaps gratitude is, like birding, both discipline and grace. We teach ourselves habits of gratitude—giving thanks before a meal, keeping journals of things we’re grateful for, saying “thank you” to cashiers—to prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of grace. It’s not that these habits aren’t good in and of themselves; it’s that they also condition our souls to be able to know that the Lord is God (v. 3). Of course we always “know” that the Lord is God, but we long for the moments when we know-know it. When the power of our knowledge takes up residence in the soul, quieting the daily insecurities and giving us courage for what lies ahead.

So practice gratitude. Put your soul in the way of the Lord who provides. Teach it to confess that the Lord is good and his love endures forever (v. 5). Pray. Be still and silent. And then wait in hope for the rapturous moments that cannot be summoned but only received.

About the Author
  • Erin Zoutendam is a student at Western Theological Seminary. She enjoys researching ancient methods of scriptural interpretation and medieval women’s contributions to theology. When not reading, she is usually gardening, cooking, or hanging out with her cats.

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