Every Bird’s a Songbird

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Art: “Songbirds in Apple Blossoms” by James Hautman.

As I sit on my porch this morning in a light, refreshing rain, the most prominent sound I hear is joyous birdsong, different strains of music from a variety of birds that co-habit in our tiny bird sanctuary. A statue of St. Francis appropriately stands among the feeders and the suet. The hummingbird feeders are in a separate spot, providing a banquet of sweet nectar to these delightful birds, whose fast moving wings create their most unique song.

I love to listen to the songbirds, and we are graciously blessed to live in a neighborhood with very few sounds — no traffic, no motorcycles, no speeding cars, usually not even people voices. Just the birdsong, with an occasional tree frog and the wonderful southern gift of cicadas. 

In my opinion, every bird is a songbird. According to scientists at The Nature Conservancy, the term “songbirds” refers to a wide range of bird species. Songbirds typically include finches, sparrows and warblers, but most often when someone is defining “songbird” they refer to beautifully colored birds that we’ve never heard of. The Nature Conservancy website features three: the Dickcissel, the Blackburnian Warbler, and the Kirtland’s Warbler.

I have never seen any of those birds, but I have heard lots of glorious birdsong. So I stand by my opinion that every bird’s a songbird. And in my better moments, I hear their songs as an offering to God, their songs of praise to God who gave them voice. During those times, I am drawn to the many beautiful and lyrical Psalms. This is one that is particularly moving to me

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

You wrap yourself in light as with a garment;

You stretch out the heavens like a tent and lay the beams of your upper chambers on their waters.

You make the clouds your chariot and you ride on the wings of the wind.

You make the winds your messengers . . .

How many are your works, Lord!

In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,

You give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.

— Psalm 104: 1-3;10-12; 24-25, 30 (paraphrased)

Many of the Psalms urge us to sing, to praise God with our voices. 

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

As far as singing, well sometimes we are reluctant, holding back an imperfect voice that does not always make pleasant songs. Sometimes we are convinced that our singing would not be such a worthy offering of praise. So we should probably remember that every bird’s a songbird. And as for us humans, it might help to remember that every person has a voice, every heart has a song, every soul has a melody.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee. How great thou art! How great thou art!*

Amen.

 

* From the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish traditional melody and a poem written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940) in Mönsterås, Sweden in 1885. It was translated into German and then into Russian and became a hymn. It was translated into English from the Russian by English missionary Stuart K. Hine, who also added two original verses of his own.

 

 

 

 

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Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

Uncommon Commoners

 

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Terlingua, Texas. Astrophotography of the Milky Way over a field of Chisos bluebonnets.

As I write today, I think of all the ways we are ordinary extraordinary folk. We are complex at times, immersed in thoughts deep and weighty. In the next moment, we may well find ourselves acting like common, ordinary people that avoid deep thoughts at all costs.

We are divergent. We are a kind of paradox, common and uncommon all at once.

I recently saw the stunning photograph featured in today’s blog post. I was intrigued that a photographer was gifted enough to capture the juxtaposition of common flowering bluebonnets and the ethereal brilliance of the Milky Way. It is the kind of breathtaking image that makes me stop in my tracks, suspend time for a moment, and lose myself in the idea of earth and sky.

I studied the common bluebonnets and the uncommon Milky Way above them. And I wondered, “Is there something extraordinary in my ordinary life? Am I just a simple, common person? Or is there something uncommon that lives with the common in me? Inside me, in that place that even I do not fully understand, does common and uncommon grow together, entwined and twisted into one?”

As I pondered these questions that made little sense to me at the time, I read a piece written by my friend, Ken Sehested. I knew instantly that I would borrow one of his intriguing thoughts.

Uncommon commoner.

It worked for me. It defined me, the common part of me and the not-so-common part of me. You see, like most people, there is more to me than anyone can see. All of us can claim that. We are a people that can gaze skyward at the Milky Way while we sit on the ground in a patch of bluebonnets. We are a people of inner strength and resilience, the kind of resilience that makes it possible for us to endure whatever life throws at us and live to tell the story. We are a people with the kind of resilience that makes us uncommon commoners.

I know this because I have seen it time and time again up close and personal. I know this because I have stood at the bedside of a dying woman who was singing hymns of praise to God. I know this because I have kept vigil with a mother who witnessed her son being removed from life support after an accident, and as it was happening, she began to pray through her heavy sobs of grief. I know this because I walked out of the emergency room with her while she shared cherished, happy memories of the son she had just lost.

Uncommon commoners.

Ken Sehested made this so clear with these words.

What makes all of us commoners uncommon is when we experience the pain of trauma up close and personal, find the resilience to endure, take a hammer of righteous rage to that trauma and pound it on the forge of conviction that another world is possible, another way will open if we hold out, hold on, hold up, and hold over . . .

— Ken Sehested

Ah yes. We have seen, and we will see again, the pain of trauma. We will find within ourselves the resilience to endure. We will “hold out, hold on, hold up, hold over” because God has graced us with hope, enduring and abiding hope.

Life will always give us — uncommon commoners that we are — vivid fields of bluebonnets growing in the dirt and a sparkling Milky Way in the sky above. Thanks be to God.

Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

What do you do when you’re tired, very tired?

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

For years, Steven Nawojczyk has been one of my heroes. Yesterday I posted on my blog one of his many beautiful photographs taken while enjoying nature with his delightful dog, Feebi. The two of them explore nature every day, taking in the extraordinary beauty of Arkansas. Steve has learned to immerse himself in the life-giving sights and sounds of creation. It is therapy, really, a time of re-creation for a person who spent his life as a public servant, immersing himself far too deeply in human tragedy.

In the early 90s, Steve was the county coroner in Pulaski County, Arkansas. He saw too much, felt too much, cared too much and investigated the deaths of far too many young people. Steve was the “face” of the 1994 documentary that gave Little Rock a years-long reputation as a haven for gangs — HBO’s “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock,” While that star billing turned him into a sought-after public speaker and educator throughout the country, it didn’t make him popular in Little Rock city government.

When HBO came to town, largely because of Steve’s urging, Little Rock was a city with a problem. Gang-related killings had spiked the murder count to a record high of 76 — a higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles and New York. With the coming of crack and gang skirmishing to determine who would sell it and where, there were areas of where drugs could be purchased openly in the streets. Graffiti threats covered every wall, every bridge. Gang life had even spilled over into the suburbs, with white teens suddenly willing to do violence for their colors.

Steve Nawojczyk did not sit in his office in those days. Instead, he walked city streets, listening to gang members, hearing their life stories, holding before them the possibility of change and hope. But that kind of life commitment made him tired, more than tired.

Today, national media are again interested in the soaring murder rate in Little Rock, surmising that gangs are once again taking their place in the city. And they are calling Steve for interviews and information. This is, in part, Steve’s response to them:

ATTENTION MEDIA BOTH NATIONAL AND LOCAL WHO HAVE BEEN CALLING:

I am not doing any interviews or returning phone calls about the LR night club shoot-out nor the current status of gangs. I’ve been saying the same things about it since the early 90s when I was the county coroner . . .

I will address one question all of the reporters, even the one from CNN, seem to be leaving on my voice mail- “…how does this compare to the gang wars of the early 90s when HBO came to town?”

Here’s my answer- ask the leaders in LIttle Rock this question since almost every single one of them were involved in one way or the other back then.

The current mayor was the prosecutor. The current city manager was in the city manager’s office. The current prosecutor was the chief deputy prosecutor. Many of the city board were around then as were many of the same preachers that are still preaching the same sermons. So, they should have been working to understand this and work to prevent it from recurring for the last 20 plus years. At least you would think . . . No need to reinvent the wheel, dudes.

So, I’m retired and tired, very tired. Thanks for thinking enough of my opinion to call me. But I’m done with it all, I’m tending to other more important personal battles right now. Paz y amor.

Signed:
Steve Nawojczyk

So what does one do when they are tired, very tired? Again, Steve is our example.

Go out into the serene beauty of nature. Take in all that is right and good about God’s creation. Let the sunrise awaken your soul and the ripples of an Arkansas lake sooth your spirit. Let the weariness of the past fade into yesterday; let the present day give you strength; and lift your vision to the bright hope of tomorrow.

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Feebi

Steve and Feebi are restoring their souls in their daily adventures. They are opening themselves up to stunning sunrises and the gentle breezes of soul healing. So if you are tired, very tired, spend some time letting nature give you a fresh, new vision of the world.

And as Steve so often says, “Paz y amor.”