Hummingbird heaven

Read John 3:1-17

The way Nicodemus approaches Jesus—his words and actions—reveals Nicodemus’ frame of mind. First, he asks rhetorical questions. What are rhetorical questions? They are questions with an obvious answer. “How can someone be born again?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. Here is a question that has an obvious answer in its literal meaning: No, one cannot enter a second time into the mother’s womb.[1]

He’s not finished. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses and “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Nicodemus asks another rhetorical question: “How can these things be?”

Rhetorical questions reveal more about the one asking the question. When we ask rhetorical questions we are not so much expecting a direct answer. We are not curious and seeking understanding with an open mind as much as we are offering our question for effect. With these kinds of questions we are normally getting ready to have a debate, to have a fight. A member of the ruling council, Nicodemus the Pharisee may very well have been used to using this style of combative discourse. 

Then, there is his behaviour. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Maybe he is trying to hide from being spotted with the agitater, Jesus of Nazareth. As I mentioned, Nicodemus was a religious leader. As such, he belonged to the privileged establishment in Jerusalem. Was he worried about his reputation, being accused of cohorting with society’s riff-raff? 

Or maybe, being someone who achieved material successes in life, he reacts against the notion of not being in control of his destiny. Jesus says, after all, that God’s Spirit is beyond our capacity to direct and control.

Whatever the case may be, Nicodemus’ words and actions reflect his fear. He has a lot to lose in his encounter with Jesus. He resists. He defends. And he pretends that he is right and that everything is alright, living life out of fear.

The words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans paint another picture. “We are led by the Spirit of God and [therefore] are children of God,” Paul writes. “For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear …”[2]

Ever chase seagulls on the beach? Or run after sandpipers across grassy dunes and windswept plains? We perceive birds to react in this skittish, fearful way. Normally, they bolt as soon as we make a noise or come too close. Their behaviour is fearful and filled with foreboding and anxiety. These are primal instincts to which they are slaves. 

In the Zoom service last week, Beth shared a remarkable moment of grace she experienced while watering her flower garden recently planted. Something was blocking the end of the garden hose, so the stream came out a slow, gentle arc splashing into the ground a few feet in front of her.

All of a sudden she noticed a hummingbird approach the fountain of water at its crest. And then the bird started drinking from the stream of water coming out of the hose. The hummingbird didn’t just take a nip and skitter away. It stayed there for several incredible moments, satiating itself and filling its tiny body. 

What is more, next time Beth looked, it had sat itself down on the low retaining wall bordering the garden in front of her, bathing in the water dribbling from the hose. It dipped its little head and lifted its tiny wings to wash underneath and then shook the droplets of water off.

Beth marvelled with wonder. And she confessed that in that simple moment doing simple things she had but one purpose: In the moment of the bird’s greatest vulnerability, to offer a safe space for this bird, normally skittish and reacting to fear. Here, in that holy moment and in that space, human and bird were nourished and restored. 

In my life God creates this safe, trusting space where I can be nourished and where I can be restored, renewed, and given confidence to grow and engage the world, anew. Fear can ultimately serve a higher purpose of pushing me to try new things, things I need to do.

In God’s presence, however, I no longer need to speak and act out of fear and judgement. In God’s presence, I need no longer defend myself against another with self-righteous, rhetorical questions. 

In the presence of God I need only trust. In trust, I am honest and vulnerable with whom I am. And I know that in God’s presence, in all areas of my life and in every decision I make, I am offered countless moments filled with grace.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Thank you, Beth MacGillivray, for the hummingbird photos at your feeder.

[1] John 3:1-17, the Gospel for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary, May 30, 2021

[2] Romans 8:14-15

Living witness

How do our lives reflect God? How do we give witness to God? How do our lives show that we are “sanctified in the truth”, as Jesus prayed for us?[1]

On my phone I have at least three different map apps. When I am in a place for the first time – a new city, a new trail – and trying to get from point A to point B I make sure to consult all three different digital maps in my hand. I take these maps to be fairly reliable because all three use location services to show me where I am in relation to the map that I’m looking at. 

However, not only are there slight discrepancies between the maps themselves. More troubling is a frequent inconsistency between the displayed configuration of streets, trails, roadways on the map, and the actual reality in front of me. There isn’t a roadway where the map says there is, for example. There are discrepancies all over the place, literally. And if I depend only on the maps to guide my way, I will often spend a lot of time on a street corner trying to make sense of it all before going anywhere.

Jesus, in his final prayer for his disciples, acknowledged the discrepencies we experience living in this world. He prayed that, like him, his disciples “do not belong to this world”.[2] I take this to mean that often our world will challenge a life of faith. The pandemic is such an experience. When the way we have practiced our faith is no longer possible and we have to find other ways, we can feel lost and disoriented. And our impulse is to consult our ‘maps’. And even escape into the ‘map world’.

When Adam Shoalts made his famous canoe trek across the Canadian Arctic a few years ago, he memorized his route, based on the maps he studied beforehand. Blessed with a photographic memory and spatial cognition, he could visualize in his mind all the lakes, rivers, bays and portage routes even before he entered each stage of his planned route. And with success. Shoalts rarely got lost.

He memorized the way primarily to save time, despite having these maps on hand. If he had taken the time needed to consult his maps and satellite tracking each time he entered every lake, river or portage route on the four thousand kilometre journey, he could have jeopardized getting to his destination in time before winter.[3]

When we experience significant challenges in our lives in this world, it’s important not to stick our heads in the sand. It’s important that we don’t stick our heads in the pages of books alone to escape our experience of reality now. We can’t afford to lose time doing that. I think our faith is less than it can be when we see the movement of our finger on a map as making the journey itself.[4]

We may not have memorized all the pages of the bible. We may feel, consequently, not strong enough in our faith to make the journey. But the pages of the bible are not where we live our faith. Our witness is strongest when we do not hide our vulnerability but takes risks in faith. Our testimony is strongest when we are authentic, when we are honest with who and where we are – lost, making mistakes, or still finding our way. 

The good news is that God’s greatness speaks in word and deed, through imperfect individuals and efforts.

Jesus Christ, the Gospel shows, lived our human weakness. Jesus shows the “greater witness”[5] in the lowliness and humiliation of the cross.[6] Jesus lived and died our human weakness. And from the reality of our very humanity he prayed for us.

What does this mean? It means our lives participate in the truth of Jesus’ life today, and for all time and in every place. We make God “a liar”[7] – in the words of the scripture writer—when we don’t believe in God’s very life in and through us, when we don’t believe that Jesus Christ lives and breathes through and in our very own experiences, our very own human lives.

In a few weeks we will have the confirmation of three young people who will affirm their baptism and their trust in God for life. The service will not look like any other confirmation service of the past. Believe me.

But confirmation services are not just about repeating back the ‘beliefs’ of the church. Confirmation services are not just about packing the church building to spectate young people confess some doctrine in robotic fashion. 

Rather, to affirm one’s faith is to bring something of your own heart into it. It is to express, in some simple, unique way, the connection you and your life are making with God in this time and place. And whenever that happens in the experience of living, it is the work of the Spirit of the living God, bringing it all together into the shared humanity—and therefore, unity—we have in Christ Jesus.

[1] John 17:19

[2] John 17:14

[3] Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Allen Lane, 2019).

[4] The metaphor of the map I adapt from Han F. De Wit, The Great Within: The Transformative Power and Psychology of the Spiritual Path (Boulder: Shambala Press, 2019), p.146,191.

[5] 1 John 5:9

[6] Willie James Jennings, “Theological Perspective 1 John 5:9-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008)    p.538-542.

[7] 1 John 5:10

Grounding love

It goes without saying that we have come to depend heavily on our smartphones and social media connections. Especially when physical connections are limited in pandemic public health guidelines, much of our socializing happens on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and the like. As a result, our social media behaviour—good and bad—has been amplified in a year of coping with more alone-time and cocooning in our homes.

In the comic strip, “Agnus Day”, two sheep friends stand side-by-side. The first reflects on Jesus’ commandment to love in the way Jesus loves—laying down one’s life for the other. “I don’t think I can love like this,” she says. Her friend replies, “It’s hard work but your calling is to love like Jesus loved.”

Reflecting some more, the first sheep says, “What if I just ‘liked’ Thumbs up sign outline the way Jesus loves?”[1]

I don’t think I’m alone by confessing how good it feels when whatever I post receives many ‘likes’. Even church attendance has recently been tracked simply by the number of hits or visits our YouTube services get. Relationships in our virtual world can operate on the thin surface of this kind of interaction.

And then the irony of it: Research in recent years has suggested a direct correlation between social media use and feelings of social isolation.[2]How can we be loving in this digitized environment? How can we love others in the way of Jesus?

The pandemic is causing us to re-evaluate and re-imagine what the love of Christ looks like. COVID has shocked us into considering anew what love (‘agape’ in Greek) means in our day.

In the life of Christ which Christians celebrate during this Easter season, we renew our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. What is at stake, it seems to me, is the quality of those fundamental relationships. What we renew is the way in which our relationships transpire and grow in the love of God.

And it takes a little bit more than clicking on the ‘like’ button.

Last week Jessica and I were walking through the Grove in Arnprior. And we found a rare woodland flower amidst the stand of old growth Alders, Pines and Hemlock trees. Red trilliums are hard to find and spot. They take a long time in the ground—five to seven years—to germinate before producing the rich, dark-red flower.

To grow red trilliums requires a multi-year commitment before the fruits of creation’s labour are realized and enjoyed by others.

I thought about how these flowers can serve as a reminder of how God’s love in Christ grows in us and in the world. The trilliums need the warmth and light of early Spring to trigger a verdant flowering. They do best when the ground in which they are planted can receive direct sunlight before their competitors can take hold. 

Their growth is dependent on many factors. Their flowering is truly a gift. A miracle, you could say.

On Mother’s Day we give thanks and pray for all who offer mothering love. Our prayer aspires to a kind of love that extends beyond her own needs alone for the sake of another—even one who is not yet born! Of course, this love is not gender exclusive. And this kind of love does not render the giver a doormat whose own needs are shucked. 

Rather, love happens when our goals will aim beyond our own lifetime. Loving, in Christ, is a long-term commitment that reaches past our own self-interests and pre-occupations. Unlike social media which can keep us locked in self-centred narcissism, the love of Jesus expands beyond the preoccupations of any one individual of any one time. This love is a gifting for all people of every time and every place to behold.

And when we feel overwhelmed and incapable of this kind of loving, as poor Agnus the sheep confessed, let’s remember we are not Christian because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus did and who God is. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “I chose you …”[3]

The love that grows from our heart is a gift from God. In the final say, we are not Christians because of our words or deeds, our actions or inactions. We are Christians because in our baptism, God said that we are. Our delight is to live into that calling to love others—devotedly, humbly and as we are.[4]

[1] (John 15:9-17)


[3]John 15:16

[4]Sarah Ciavarri, Finding Our Way to the Truth (Minneapolis: Fotress Press, 2020), p.112-113