A pastor finds joy through birdwatching

A pastor finds joy through the Lenten practice of birdwatching

Mar 19, 2022

Male western bluebird in Grand Canyon National Park (Unsplash/Benoit Gauzere)

I struggle to sit still and pray. That's a tough thing for a pastor to admit, but here we are. I've worked in ordained ministry for more than 11 years and, still, being still is often the last thing I want to do.

Then in early 2020, stuck within the four walls of my home with three active children, a perseverating husband and a perseverating self, stilled by circumstance and not by choice, I started looking out the window. A little black bird with a white belly looked back at me. A western Phoebe, as it turns out. Our youngest, then 18 months old and still learning how to form words, called it "the seaweed."

We watched the seaweed and he watched us, his tail flicking up and down, his eyes bright, his head tilted to the side. We noticed turkey vultures in the tree across the street, two dozen of them sunning their wings in the early morning California rays. A mourning dove spent its early hours on the wall between our house and the neighbors, stepping its pink feet gingerly on the cool bricks.

Within a few days, we had become a delightfully ecumenical gaggle. A rabbi joined in, Anglicans and Catholics and Presbyterians (like me!), sharing stories of birds brought to our yards and a slowly deepening awareness of God's presence.

It's unexpectedly shocking, but when you begin looking for birds, they are everywhere. Participants who said at first there were no birds in their area soon discovered cardinals, mallards, wrentits and starlings. One Lenten birder snapped a photo of her barn cat attacking a chickadee. (To everyone's relief, no birds were harmed.)

Some days, my 10 minutes stretched on forever. Other days they went by in a blink. Yet over time, I began to learn anew how to pray. With my eyes lifted, breath deep and ears open, I could hear the feathered thrum of a hummingbird as it sailed over the fence, watch the crows squabble with one another over who could claim the peak of the roof, and begin to sense the presence of the spirit of God within and around me.

When I am running at top speed, my backyard looks exactly the same, but as I retreated to it repeatedly day by day, I began to see the incremental shifts of hour and season. The pink blossoms on the nectarine tree budded and then burst open. The crows began dragging sticks out of the neighbor's tree, preparing to build a nest. The angle of the sun slanted upward. The earth warmed.

Birds are beautiful and strong, fragile and territorial, whimsical and predictable and magical in their creatureliness. They sang on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. They sang on Ash Wednesday. They sang on the day of my birth and they will sing on the day of my death. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells his followers to look at the birds as a reminder of their heavenly Father's care.

"So don't be afraid," he says, "you are worth more than many sparrows."

Today when I leave my church office or pick up my children from school or roll the trash cans out to the curb, I pause. The birds have always been singing. I've just only now begun to listen.

by Courtney Ellis