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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lessons from a Chat

Photo by Marilyn Patterson

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first...

Upon hearing his familiar song, I slammed on the brakes, nearly throwing myself over the handle-bars. He was back; after his winter break in Central America, my old friend had returned.

This comrade was a Yellow-breasted Chat; a large, gawky, pear-shaped bird that makes his home in shrub islands, and low dense thickets.

"How was your vacation?" I queried.


Apparently my question was not the ice-breaker he was looking for.

"Was the weather to your liking?" I asked him, with piqued curiosity.


"Did you have trouble with your passport this time?"


My chat had many secrets, but at that moment, he didn't seem too keen on giving any of them away.

The Yellow-breasted Chat is an odd-ball among birds. Its distinctive vocalizations earned it the nickname "Raucous Polyglot" ("noisy many-tongued") in the 19th century. The bird does seem to have a bizarre musical taste, as most of his calls consist of a whistle and a bit of chatter.

But the oddities don't stop with his voice. The birds bright yellow breast and white "goggles" have earned it the nickname "clown-bird." This title seems to fit, as the chat will often go into a bizarre display where it will skip from bush to bush, giving his raucous whistle and chatter all the way across. During these displays, he seems to break the laws of gravity by stopping in mid-flight, sinking toward the ground, and then picking himself up again, acting like the yo-yo of the gods.

Even his own family seems to think him something of an anomaly. He belongs to the Warbler clan; a group of small, musically talented, strikingly patterned songbirds. Compare a chat to any of his smaller cousins, and differences are immediately apparent. Most warblers are small and vibrant; the chat is large and awkward. Most warblers are superb songsters; the chat seems to be a reject from American Idol. Most warblers are graceful fliers; the chat makes you wonder how he gets from point a to point b.

"Yes, they broke the mold with you my friend," I said in the politest manner possible. "In fact, the world you inhabit seems totally up-side down," said my mouth.

"Just like the world you inhabit," said my spirit.

As I looked at my friend, my mind's eye began to wander. It raced back two-thousand years, when the Master sat on a mountain and gave a sermon that turned the world up-side down for everyone who had ears to hear.

When we allow Christ into our hearts, he comes and gradually turns our perspective up-side down; He enters the doors of our souls with the keys to a unique kingdom.

A kingdom where the Master serves the servants.

A kingdom where death is necessary for life.

A kingdom where the malnourished orphan in India, raising her withered hand in praise, is as much an heir as the CEO in New York City, raising his pen in a multi-million dollar signature.

The world would call such a kingdom up-side down. Christ would call it reality.

I wonder how many Christians plan for Christ to turn this present day world right side-up when they invite Him into their lives. I imagine we all have our own agendas for Jesus to fulfill, but gradually, our eyes are opened. And when we look around, we see ourselves in the same mistake the crowds shouting Hosanna were in. We find ourselves in desperate need of a divine shake-up.

Eventually, my mind wandered to the moment at hand, and I found myself concentrated on my friend, the chat.

"Perhaps you and I have a good deal in common Mr. Chat."

He assented silently, quite an feat for such a noisy fellow. His golden moment of silence was then followed by chatter and a few skips into a nearby bush, leaving only his voice behind.

"With the condition the world is in now, I think I feel much more secure in an up-side Kingdom, don't you?" I heard another pause. Then came his reply in those unmistakable tones:


That's chat speak for "couldn't agree more."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pilgrims in the Dark

Pilgrim passing through: Blackburnian Warbler by Marilyn Patterson

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims...

This past Easter morning beckoned me outside quite early. It was the silence that lead me on; it was the pure, still, unadulterated silence of the night that called me forth. I only followed because I was sure the silence would soon be broken.

Stepping out of my car, I embraced all the luminaries above, and felt their warmth and light wash every part of me. As I walked along, old friends such as the Scorpion and Cassiopeia gave their silent approbation for a tired, anxious mortal like me. For these heavenly lanterns knew I was there only to witness the silence being broken.

Even my thoughts began to rush with excitement over the spectacular happening that was on the horizon. They ebbed and flow against the shoreline of my grey matter, until only the future was on my mind. What if the future let me down? What if the silence wasn't broken tonight? Or ever....?


The promised noise that broke the silence.

What was it, you ask?

That seemingly insignificant sound was a "nocturnal flight call of a migratory songbird." When songbirds migrate, they perform this vital function at night. They don't totally rely on their vision for this flight; instead they use such rudimentary tools as the earth's magnetic field, the position of the stars, etc. Employing these modes of travel allows them to fly at night, which can provide a safe cover for these tiny, feathered beasties.

However, when these birds are travelling together, the night can be a problem if you want to see your friend. It can also be a detriment if you happen to run into someone else, especially if that someone else is bigger than you. But perhaps the biggest danger of all is not keeping a steady course for your destination.

To combat all these potential perils is that tiny SEEEP mentioned above. These flight calls serve many vital functions. We can only process a few of these advantages through our brains, but if we had bird brains, I imagine the advantages of the flight call would be innumerable.

First, the flight call helps you keep in touch. Without these tiny SEEEPS, birds would find themselves alone in the night sky. Not a comfortable place to be if you're heading from South America to Northern Canada, like some high mileage birds.

Second, the flight call keeps you safe. Should you receive a response from a bird ahead of you, look out!

But perhaps most importantly, keeping in touch with flight calls will get the bird to its destination in better shape, if at all. To be sure, the life of each individual bird depends upon the flock as a whole. If I were a Blackpoll Warbler, and I ended up in Russia instead of Ontario, I might be a little miffed at my friends for not letting me know I was on the wrong track.

As believers, we travel together in a dark environment, a world in which we have nothing. The Bible makes the emphatic claim that we are "sojourners and pilgrims" in this domain of darkness. We are simply foreigners on our way to our home country, passing through a hostile land.

That's why we vitally need fellowship. I used to feel the command "Do not forsake the assembly of believers" was put forth simply to ruin my weekend. But as time performed its work, I found that fellowship was one of the most powerful weapons in my spiritual armory.

Without communication, our soul weakens. Without fellowship, we will eventually put ourselves in our own little corner, where we will make daily sacrifices to our thoughts. The process is sad, but inevitable.

The road to heaven has many travelers, all with the same Book in their hands, and the same Spirit in their hearts. We must encounter them regularly, we must learn from the Book, we must fellowship. Or else, we may just find ourselves in a position we had no intention of arriving at.

As I bid goodbye to my travelers in the sky that Easter Morning, I was filled with the joyful anticipation of celebrating that Holy Day with my fellow pilgrims. My heart was glad and expectant because of the fellowship ahead. I knew that as long as our feet were on the path, the book was in our hand, and the Spirit was in our hearts, we'd turn out fine.

But I also felt sorrow for those who would not be fellowshipping with their fellow Strangers that morning. My heart broke at the thought of solitude on such an important occasion.

For a Christian without fellowship, is a SEEEP with no response...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Forest Fortress

Photo by Marilyn Patterson

"A Mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark Never Failing."

The woods I stood along side of seemed full of promise. Each square inch of understory appeared to creep with life; the life found only in those who wear feathers. My winged friends, however, elected to remain hidden from sight, only betraying their existence with auditory clues. Tiny "sips" and "cheeps" alerted me to their presence, but this morning that would not suffice; I must see these beauties.

Thankfully, a birder is not left alone when dealing with uncooperative avi-fauna. Birders have a tool, an aid that can make birds visualize from thin air. This magic wand is called "pishing": a sound that imitates angry Tufted Timice. The usefulness of pishing is not obvious to most people; making sounds at a tree or bush does not appear to be the height of productivity. People have the luxury of ignoring the sounds of riled Tutmice. Birds do not.

Birds know that Titmice and Chickadees are pitbulls with wings. Whenever any type of danger approaches, these gray and white guardians faithfully spring into action. The whole forest will resound with "pishes," and any bird worth its salt will come to survey the situation; see what the danger is this time.

And so, by imitating Titmice and Chickadees, a birder can easily pique the interest of other species of birds. What starts out as a few soloists voicing their protests may soon become a whole choir, calling with unified umbrage.

Pishing: the reason I was making noise at a bush.

There! Movement! In the corner of my eye, the life I came here for. Pishing pulls through again.

The bird is a Hermit Thrush. A small, brown bird with a rusty tail and bold black belly spots, this unassuming bird is a common winter visitor in Southern New Jersey. Understated in just about every way, he lets you know he's near by a soft "chyk" and his distinctive motion of dropping his wings.

Subdued yes; stupid, no. For my Hermit Thrush did what any thinking bird would at a sign of danger, he went to the forest fortress: a green-briar bush.

Green-briar goes by a number of colloquial names: sticker bush, cat-paw, evil, etc. It is the classic thorn bearing shrub, and it is unforgiving. I encountered green-briar on my first birding experience, a wall of it, in fact. I emerged from that natural edifice looking like a character from a Wes Craven film, and have since learned to keep away from those ominous thorns.

But my friend the thrush learned to run to them. He freely and happily jumped into the midst of the bush. Pausing for a moment, he assesed the danger, and relaxed. He wasn't losing control; in fact, he had the freedom to look around, knowing his suuroundings were the securest place possible. He was safe from the dangers that I was alerting him to.

"The Lord is my light and my Salvation, why should I be afraid; The Lord is my Fortress, protecting me from danger, why should I tremble."

The world is continually sending out an alarm call. Its message is a cacophany of worry, despair and fear. We must respond with a soft "God is still on His throne; I am in Him." When the "wolves in sheeps clothing" come, we must rest in the Truth, for that is never shaken. When the darkness comes, we must remind it that it can never hurt us, for we are people of the light.

We must ever be learning just how might a fortress our God is.
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