Consider the Ravens
Watching the birds in my yard brings to mind the reality of another world where care and watchfulness transcend the heaviness of living with great sorrow.
The grieving look for signs: signs of life, signs of hope, signs of presence, signs of what remains after loss. Rational thought processes are often suspended. The bereaved sees what she wants to see—a sign of that person or thing that was lost in the ordinary or mundane. Magical thinking takes hold and suddenly a bird, a cloud, or a rainbow becomes a message. Literature on grief suggests that mourning goes through various stages, the first being a desire to bring back the deceased. I suppose this explains, in part, the seeking of signs as a way to bring back the one who was lost through death.
Birds have become my sign. Though I am not a true birder, or a member of the National Audubon Society, I began to notice them more as a result of my own journey through grief. I began to notice them more because it seemed that the birds around my home began to notice me. Hummingbirds hovered right above my head and despite the rapid hum and whir of their wings they appeared to be fixed on me, as if they were watching me. Whenever I would look out on my backyard, there was a robin, or a crow sitting on the ledge of my deck, looking at me. They seemed to follow me, to accompany me on walks or as I worked in the yard—not even moving when the dogs came bounding into view. Was I just seeing things, or were the birds a sign of life—of his life—as if my loved one was with me, watching me through their eyes.
Intellectually speaking, of course, I know this is grief-induced wishful thinking. Moreover, I can understand how my longing to see signs in birds could seem escapist in light of the weightier issues of our world. Yet, as my personal loss makes me a participant in the global experience of grief, watching the birds in my yard brings to mind the reality of another world where care and watchfulness transcend the heaviness of living with great sorrow. Birds have often been viewed as a clue for the transcendent; their ability to fly and soar above the fray seen as a sign of life, hope, and an abiding presence. Perhaps grief doesn't cloud my vision, but rather reveals a deeper reality, a reality that bids me to be watchful for signs all around me.
In fact, the biblical writers make use of birds throughout the narrative of Scripture.(1) Birds are often messengers bringing signs, bearing life-giving provision, or witness bearers to Divine favor. In the biblical account of the flood, Noah sends out a raven and a dove to see if the destructive waters had receded. During a horrible famine in the days of the prophet Elijah, ravens bring sustenance—meat and bread—to nourish him. And the gospel writers see the embodiment of the Spirit of God like a dove alighting on the head of Jesus after his baptism. As they function in Scripture, though seemingly small and insignificant, birds are reminders of the liminal space between heaven and earth.
They even feature prominently in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.(2) In the midst of what most scholars believe to be the central teaching of Jesus recorded in Scripture is an exhortation by Jesus to "consider the ravens." This is the same sermon in which Jesus challenges his followers with the weighted tasks of loving enemies and doing good to those who persecute. Yet here, in this great message, the challenge is issued to consider the ravens. It is a challenge given in the midst of Jesus's commendation not to worry or care about provisions. "Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?" Jesus issues an invitation to consider the carefree ways of the birds as an antidote to our own care and concern. It is an invitation to dwell—in the midst of great cares and concerns—in another reality of which the birds give witness.
Whether or not you might consider the birds of the air out of grief or wonder, they can be signs for us. They may be simple, fleeting glimpses of another realm we wish were more obvious. They may be emissaries of the God we often wish would be more directly interventionist in the world, in our personal problems and present in our pain. When I consider the ravens and the other birds around my home, I hope to glimpse another reality, a foundational level of care for even the smallest of creatures that is available and present for me as well, especially in the midst of grief. Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them is forgotten before God. As we consider the birds, might they be signs, signs of hope, provision, and care. May they remind us that we are not forgotten.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Genesis 8:6-7, 8-12; 1 Kings 17:1-6; Psalm 55:4-6; Matthew 3:16; Mark 1-9-11; Luke 3:21-22.
(2) Luke 12:24; Matthew 6:26.