Beset from Above, Beset from Below

II Corinthians 4:7-18
September 13, 2020
Union University Church
Rev. Laurie DeMott

My favorite season of the year ended just over three weeks ago, on August 20th.  That’s the day the last of the baby bluebirds fledged.  Every April, I listen in anticipation for the whisper of the bluebirds arriving on my property, I spend May worrying about the weather and its affect on the bluebirds’ nesting prospect, and in good years, I spend June and July watching the bluebirds raise a brood of babies in the nesting box in my back yard.  In really good years, which this one was, they manage to raise two broods, extending the season into mid-August, and then, when the babies have grown their wings, the adults and their young offspring fly off my hill leaving my yard to the chickadees and finches.

As many of you know, I love bluebirds.  I love them because they are beautiful birds, and personable birds, but I also love them because I never saw a bluebird growing up. I’ve enjoyed watching birds since I was a kid hiking the woods of Geneseo, and back in the days of my youth, I saw bobolinks and scarlet tanagers, and an array of warblers and woodpeckers in the trees and fields around me but nary a bluebird because at that time, bluebirds were quite rare and their future was still in doubt.  Because of pesticide use, a loss of habitat, and threats from the non-native English sparrow and starling, bluebird populations declined precipitously in the mid-1900s, reaching their lowest point ever in 1963.  Awakened to the threat, volunteers began bluebird recovery efforts, building and erecting bluebird houses across the country, and slowly, the bluebird began to recover.  As an amateur naturalist in my youth, I was fully aware of the efforts to help bluebirds and so in 1991, when I built my house, the first thing I did was I put up a nesting box on my property for bluebirds, and for the next decade, I experimented with box designs, cleared brush to drive back the wrens, mowed large swaths of lawn, and stuck metal posts throughout my backyard where bluebirds can perch to hunt insects in the short grass.  While I was obsessing about bluebirds, I also put up the standard hummingbird feeders and provided sunflower seed for the goldfinches, the chickadees, and the occasional passing black bear, but those offerings were of short-term benefit.  An individual chickadee might appreciate the free meal, especially on a frigid winter day, but the chickadee species wasn’t dependent on my feeders for its survival.  The bluebirds, however, were a different story.  In my mind, every nesting box that I put out for a bluebird, every tree I cut down to save them from wren invasion, was an offering toward the salvation of a species.

Jesus told us that we are to care for our neighbors and throughout the history of the church, Christians have expressed that concern for others in the same two ways I have approached my concern for birds.  Like the bird feeders I stock with seed, we have established charities that provide immediate relief on a backyard basis.  We donate to food pantries and put together relief packages for flood victims, we volunteer for hospice. These acts of kindness strengthen our ties to the people with whom we share our neighborhood and, for the people in crisis who benefit from our attention, such acts of kindness can be the difference between life and death, between despair and hope.  Jesus also called us, however, to consider not only how we can show kindness to the people of our local communities and their immediate needs, but also how we might contribute to the salvation of human society as a whole.  He, like the prophets before him, admonished us to seek justice for the persecuted, to free the oppressed, to ensure the rights of even the least among us.  It is in this larger context of compassion that the church has produced people like the abolitionists of the 1800s, the early labor advocates, the men and women who brought about greater awareness of the needs of the mentally ill, the champions of children in our nation, Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who work today to end systemic racism in our country.  These are the Christians who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to relieve not just the suffering of individuals in this moment and this finite place but to change society so that we might create a future of safety and peace for all people. 

Since I erected my first bluebird house back in 1991, then, every time a pair of bluebirds has successfully fledged babies in my back yard, I have felt a pride in my contribution toward the salvation of the species.  It is so fulfilling to know that you are doing work which has such a broad and lasting impact, work whose effects will ripple out into the world far beyond the limits of one’s back yard.  I am not saving just one pair of bluebirds; I am changing the future for all bluebirds to come.

It is deeply satisfying work when I am successful, but it comes with a dark and discouraging corollary; because if every successful nesting has in my mind, a global impact, so too is every failure, in my mind, a failure of global significance. 

And there have been so many bluebird nesting failures in the last two decades. Since I put up my first bluebird house almost 20 years ago, my bluebirds have been beset from above, beset from below, beset from before, and beset from behind.  One of the first years I put up a house, a thunderous hail storm drove pellets of rain through the seams of the box, soaking the fledglings so badly that they died of hypothermia.  Other times, raccoons managed to scoop the eggs out of the nest and gobble them down.  Tree swallows have claimed the nesting box before the bluebirds could get started, and wrens!  Those diminutive brown birds that hop around looking so innocent and cute, are in reality nasty devious little birds who hate to share their territories with anyone else.  Over the years, wrens have pierced my bluebird eggs, rolled bluebird eggs out of the box, and stacked piles of twigs on top of the bluebird’s nest crushing the eggs underneath. Wrens and I are not on speaking terms.

The most devastating tragedy for me, however, occurred about halfway into my two decades of blue-birding.  I had over the first decade, spent considerable energy trying to provide safer housing for the bluebirds, improving the boxes to protect better against rain, replacing the original wooden posts with galvanized posts to keep away the raccoons, cutting down trees and bushes to keep the wrens back, and putting up extra boxes for the tree swallows.  The bluebirds’ success rate had increased and in the summer of 2002, I felt encouraged; I believed that perhaps I was finally making a significant contribution to the welfare of the species.  As I stood on my porch late on a July afternoon, contentedly watching the female bluebird feeding her growing babies, I realized that I had not seen the male bluebird all day.  The female was clearly tiring from her efforts to feed her young alone.  As I looked around me, wondering where the male had gone, a sharp-shinned hawk suddenly swooped out of the sky, plummeted toward the female as she entered the nesting box, and snatched her in his talons.

I leapt off the porch screaming at the hawk, “Let her go!” and chased it across the yard in my fury, but the hawk flew into the woods, clutching the screaming bluebird in its claws. I could hear her screams for several seconds more and then there was silence. The female bluebird would be a meal for hawk nestlings, and I realized then, it was the likely fate of the male as well.  Knowing that the bluebird babies were only a few days from fledging, I ran back to the house and called a wildlife rehabilitator who agreed to raise the babies, saying that it was very fortunate I had been there the moment the female was killed so the babies hadn’t been alone for long, but I didn’t feel fortunate in my witness.  I felt sad and incredibly discouraged.  For ten years I had been trying to help the bluebirds and had learned how to protect them against raccoons and hail storms and tree swallows and wrens, and just when I thought I was making progress, another challenge swooped down from the air.  The task suddenly felt impossible and I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.  I’m done. This is the last summer I am going to give my heart and hands to the bluebirds.”

Whether you are trying to save a species, or trying to save humankind, the challenge can feel overwhelming.  When we live out the gospel on a local level, acts of charity are easy to tote up in our favor. You can count the number of mouths you fed that day, the hands you held, the hurt you healed, and feel good about what you accomplished.  You realize that there were mouths that went hungry, hands that remained cold, hurts that still bled, but you weren’t trying to save the world; you were just trying to do a little good in the neighborhood where you live.  But when you set out to heal all of humankind, to try to bring justice and equity and peace to our world, you are much more vulnerable to despair because now every person that goes hungry is a sign of failure; every act of racism a mark against your work.  How on earth are we to think globally and work for the improvement of humankind while not falling prey to despair?

That summer, a decade ago, when the hawk ate the bluebirds, I seriously thought about taking my bluebird houses down so that I wouldn’t have to endure any more failures.  I wasn’t sure I had the energy to go through that yearly agony of wondering whether I was accomplishing anything or simply beating my hands against a merciless fate, but then a few weeks later, I woke to the whisper of a bluebird outside my window.  Even if my bluebirds hadn’t disappeared down a hawk’s gullet, bluebirds were usually long gone by that time.  They don’t stay around my property after the nesting season so I lay in bed for a moment wondering if I had been hearing right. The soft whisper continued and then was joined by several others swelling to a chortling of bluebird voices.  Running downstairs and into my yard, I was greeted by the sight of a fair of bluebirds – more than a dozen bluebirds flying around my yard, singing happily to one another, playing, squabbling, and dancing on the breeze.

“We are afflicted in every way but not crushed;” they warbled, “perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

A few minutes later they were gone.

I had never seen such a sight before or since, and I couldn’t help but feel that their presence that morning had been a message to me in my despair.  I left my bluebird houses up and the following summer two pairs of bluebirds successfully fledged their young in them.  

Who am I to say that the task before me is impossible to accomplish?  Whether it is creating habitat for bluebirds or feeding the hungry or fighting for justice for all people, who am I to say to God, “You are a fool, God, for thinking things can be different than they are?”  Who am I to claim that I know the full results of my hands, that I can see into the future and know every effect that my compassion has on the fate of the world?  Who am I to measure my efforts with my limited sight, my limited understanding, my limited knowledge?  

This is the gospel message for us:  God calls us to a work and we do it.  That is all that God requires of us.  Sometimes our efforts will seem to be for naught, and other times we will be rewarded with the joyful dance of creation, but regardless of whether we can see any results from the good we do or not, the gospel message remains: God calls us to a work and so we do it. “We look not at what can be seen,” Paul said, “but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

In the eight years since I decided to continue the work of saving bluebirds, I — and the bluebirds — have had good seasons and bad but we have kept on keeping on.  This year, the bluebirds raised two broods and even spent a few weeks hanging around my yard while the newly fledged babies learned to hunt on their own.  I have learned to appreciate those moments of success, knowing that there will be more failures in the future, but mostly I have learned, that when you are saving a species – whether it be bluebird or human – you have to be in it for the long-haul.  God gives us this work, and we just do it, trusting, that what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.