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

Let others breathe

My neighbor sat glumly on his front porch looking out over the grass in his front yard, and the patch of municipal green area across the street from our homes.

He loves to play golf. In the nearly twenty years of his retirement he has made golf his passion.  A couple days before the government lifted restrictions on golf courses he called out to me from his melancholic perch on his front porch, “Hey, you can work a little harder, eh?” He flicked his eyes to the sky. “Sure would be nice to get out on the greens when the weather is like this.”

Presuming my neighbor meant “God” when he looked up, and presuming he believed my prayers had extra pull with God when it came to affecting government decisions, I just smiled. “I’ll get on that right away.” I paused, then added. “But let me know how you make out getting ready for that day when it comes, ok?” He winked, and smiled back giving me the thumbs up.

He obviously responded to my encouragement to get ready. The next day, he trimmed a spot in the grass across the street. Throughout the whole morning – he is an early riser—my neighbor was across the street chipping golf balls with a pitching wedge over the street and onto the front yard of his house.

In the scripture today,[1]Jesus empowers his disciples to “teach” to the “nations” everything he had taught them. This Great Commission, as we have come to know this text from Matthew’s Gospel, is meant for all Jesus’ disciples including all who follow Jesus today. 

“Teach the nations.”

The only distinguishing mark of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching. Only Jesus taught and his disciples did not. Long before this scene on the mountainside of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, and even long before the events surrounding Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus had already given his disciples the power to cast out demons, heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God has come near.[2]

For the longest time while Jesus was with his disciples, he had been doing the same kinds of things alongside them. Except teach. Now, as Jesus commissions the disciples at the end, he adds teaching to their mission.[3]

Today we know that people are different in how they learn something. Some learn best by doing it and being active about it. Some learn best first by reading about it in a book or on screen by themselves. Others learn best in a group or with others to help motivate them, like in a classroom. Others learn best by observing and watching others doing it. Others will learn best by associating certain smells and sounds to activate and reinforce the memory. Still others learn best visually using images and pictures. Etc. etc.

Beware of presuming one way or style of teaching will accommodate each and every human being. To say the least, teaching and learning is complex. One size does not fit all. Maybe that’s why Jesus left this specific commission to the end.

As if this was not hard enough to grasp, Jesus ups the ante by instructing his disciples to go to the “nations”. Nations here is not our modern understanding of nation-states. But rather, more like ‘foreigners’ and people who are not like us.[4]

Matthew was writing primarily to a first-century Jewish community. And he was echoing the Gospel message of extending the mission of God to the Gentiles. The nations, for us, represents anyone who is different from us, who doesn’t share our lifestyle choices, ethnic background, traditions, and race.

The Holy Spirit is blowing to and among all people.

At this time in history, especially, we are called to let others breathe. And, especially, others not like us. When George Floyd lost his life in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, it was at the hands of someone who violently took away his ability, his freedom, to breathe. All because the colour of Floyd’s skin was not the same as the police officer’s.

When we build relationships with those who are different from us – because that is the call of Jesus – we can ‘teach the nations’ starting in our backyards, in our neighbourhoods and around our homes by simply letting those with whom we differ in some way breathe. Let them be who they are. Let them express what is important to them. Let them claim the space around them. Let them feel validated by your presence. Let them breathe.

I am not a golfer. Even though I tried on a few occasions, I never took to it for various reasons. Nevertheless I appreciated that even though my neighbor knows that golf is not important to me, he still reached out about his yearning to play golf after a long winter. He was still willing to be vulnerable with me.

A few days following our brief exchange about prayer and God and golf, the government announced that golf courses were to open the second last weekend of May. I have hardly seen him around the neighborhood since. I suppose he has been spending a lot of time at the local golf course several kilometres away.

But a couple of days ago I bumped into him in front of our houses. “How’s the golf going?” I asked. He wanted to let me know that golf was a game that you never perfected, that you always have to work at, that no matter how many years you’ve played it, it’s a process that never ends. 

“Some days you score a 76 when you could have scored a 68,” he said. “Other days you surprise yourself by doing better than you should have. There are so many factors and variables that go into each and every shot.” And the journey continues for him.

I think my neighbor taught me a thing or two about prayer, God and … well, golf. Jesus gives us a challenge. Being a disciple of Jesus feels overwhelming. We may resist its conferring upon us, as a result. The mission will disturb and take us out of our comfort zones. Life in Christ will continue to challenge us. And yes, we will at times doubt – as the disciples did even with Jesus standing right in front of them.[5]

Along the journey, however, let’s not succumb to the despair of assuming that being a faithful Christian, and teaching others about God, is a one-off, run-and-done deal. It’s not something we check-off a list. And let’s not assume it is our power that achieves God’s work. That strategy is sure to fail. 

I was going to tell my neighbor, even in a joking manner, that it was my hard work at praying for the golf courses to open early that made it so. But I didn’t. Because our life does not rest in our power and strength to preserve it, protect it, control the outcomes, or to make something happen. 

Being disciples is about relationship, the quality of each, unique relationship. Being disciples is a life-long journey of building relationships, of listening and watching, of risking and doing – a learning and a practice of letting others breathe and grow that never ends.

I didn’t do anything about my neighbour’s golf game except be present with him, to listen and affirm. Maybe our loving presence with another who is different from us can be an opening for the Spirit of God to enter and breathe into our relationships.

Because our life rests in God’s willingness and God’s power to be present with us, to sustain our lives and grow them with others who are different from us yet breathing alongside us. This, we can trust. Even to the end of this age.

[1]Matthew 28:16-20

[2]Matthew 10:7

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, “Matthew 28:16-20” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 3(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.44

[4]Thomas G. Long, ibid., p.47

[5]Matthew 28:17

Because you are a sky full of stars

I love the NHL TV ad where they show just the first seconds of an on-ice interview moments after a team has won the coveted prize — the holy grail of hockey — the Stanley Cup. After over 20-some games played, four consecutive series won, the campaign is finally over in victory, the question: “How does this feel?”

And so the ad runs through several players over the years, responding to this same question. It’s the consistent response that makes the point. None of them have words to describe the feeling. Uhh. Ummm. (sigh). (sob). Whew! (shake head). etc. is all they can manage. Words simply cannot describe the majesty and awe and joy of the moment.

Such is the attitude surrounding the Psalm appointed for this Trinity Sunday on which we also celebrate an Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation).

Early 20th century American scientist, Dr. Carver, was asked by some writer late in his life what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Carver replied, “The capacity for awe.” And mere words fall far short of capturing an awe-filled moment.

When the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4), this is not intended to be so much an intellectual question. This is not so much a matter of curiosity, that is being expressed. It is not so much a problematic question.

Rather it is a question of mystery and marvel. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them . . .?” A question of mystery is not satisfied with logical tidiness. This question eludes our intellectual grasp because the enormity of moment grasps us.

Psalm 8 is not a scientific response to the wonder of creation, and the wonder of human life. It is a hymn — an evening hymn — a vesper song. It is an expression of faith — an act of worship — a moment of praise. It takes place in the temple, not the laboratory. It springs from the heart rather than the mind. It is wonderment, not wondering. It is awe, not assessment. It is exaltation not experimentation. It is affirmation not analysis. It is celebration, not curiosity. (Carl Schultz, Houghton College, “What Are Human Beings?”,

But not just at the best of times. It is when we get that phone call in the middle of the night, when tragedy strikes, when we hear for the first time “bad news”, and when things suddenly go from bad to worse. There’s a similar dynamic at play within our hearts; it’s as if we are standing before a mystery that we simply cannot ‘manage’ scientifically. When words fail us, and we feel we cannot do anything.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” O God? This prayer can also be a prayer that puts us in our place, literally and figuratively. We are but a speck of dust in the magnitude of all that is. Who are we? A speck of dust? We can feel like that sometimes, too.

But here’s the catch. There’s a fellow in the Old Testament that I think you may of heard of. His name is Job. He was a man of God. But he lost everything. His family dies. He suffers pain and disease. His friends ridicule him. He loses his house and property.

And when he complains to God, he cites this very Psalm. In the 7th chapter of Job, he quotes the exact words from Psalm 8 as he shakes his fist at God: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them … (v.17)”. And then, “Will you not look away from me for a while, leave me alone…?” (v.19).

Here’s the point of this Psalm quote in Job: God pays attention to us. In those glorious moments of life, but especially also when we are at our lowest. God pays attention to us specks of carbon in the universe. Let your soul rest in this awareness — of a God who will not leave us alone, even when we are completely defeated.

My favourite summer past-time is watching sunsets over the ocean or Great Lake. When I sit or stand still on the beach at the water’s edge observing this large burning orb dip into the fluid horizon — if you had a camera on me, you would say I am gawking at the sunset. I’m not saying anything. My eyes are wide open.

I encourage you this summer if you experience an awe-filled moment — on the farm, in the forest, on the beach or mountainside, even at home — pay attention to the glory of God before you. Pause, just for a minute. Because in that very moment, God is gawking at you.

It is because God pays attention to us, that we find, as Job eventually did, the strength to move on. It is because God pays attention to us when we are joy-filled as well as down-and-out, that we find, eventually, the strength to carry on. It is because God considers each one of us a beautiful and precious creation — because God is gawking at each of us — that our hearts are filled and we can live life fully.

During this Confirmation year, we made a few road trips: to visit Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre in the Fall, and other Lutheran, Anglican and even Jewish congregations in Ottawa. Olivia would usually drive in my car. And something we always did while we travelled was listen to music.

Indeed music — as the Doghouse Band from Pembroke today reminds us so wonderfully — music is an expression that defies analysis because music goes straight to the soul, to the heart. Martin Luther said that when you sing, you pray twice. J.S. Bach came to be known as the Fifth Evangelist (after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) precisely because his music expressed the Gospel even better than words on a page.

The pop group, Coldplay, just last month came out with their latest album. One song in particular has been getting a lot of airtime on radio. Now, they’re a secular band, but these lyrics are deeply theological, if you pay attention to them. They are a prayer, to God:

“‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I’m gonna give you my heart
‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /’Cause you light up the path …

‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars /I think I saw You

‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I wanna die in your arms
‘Cause you get lighter the more it gets dark /I’m gonna give you my heart….”

It’s ’cause who God is and what God does, that we have any hope and any strength in all of creation to be all that we were made to be. It’s ’cause who God is that we can give Him our heart.

God gawks at us. God pays attention to us. And because of that, we can move on, no matter what.