For the Birds
Joel Kurz

Last fall, during a break at a seminary symposium on justice as the Church’s faith in action, I decided to head outside for a breather before the next session. I was in a casual conversation with another pastor when he reached the door and pushed it open. On the steps was a wood thrush, beautiful but recently devoid of life. I wanted to say something and stop but didn’t since my companion was talking and moving ahead. Once we parted ways a bit later, I returned to the steps and moved the small creature to a hidden area underneath a bush. I felt sadness and said a prayer of thanksgiving that this bird had lived, however short or long.

Some might find this eccentric or suspect and remind me that it was “just a bird,” but if Jesus could say that not even a common sparrow falls to the ground “apart from the Father” (Matt. 10:29), cannot his human creatures stop to take notice too? Jesus did say, after all, that we should pause amidst the anxiety-ridden pursuit of life’s necessities to “look at the birds of the air” who don’t plant or harvest or gather into barns yet see that the Father feeds them (Matt. 6:26) and gives them also their daily bread through their daily work. About these words of Jesus, Luther wrote,

You see, He is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers. It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospel a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and a preacher to the wisest of men, and daily should emphasize this to our eyes and ears, as if he were saying to us: “If you do not know that you have supplies and cannot see them before your very eyes, you cannot trust God to give you food for one day....” But we are as hard as stone, and we pay no attention even though we hear the great multitude preaching and singing every day…. We, who are rational people and who have the Scriptures in addition, do not have enough wisdom to imitate the birds (quoted in Marty 4–5, 7).

One cannot help but call to mind the celebrated account of St. Francis and the birds. Not long after his conversion, Francis went with a few companions to a castle and began to preach after instructing the swallows to keep silent for as long as he talked. They did, and Francis’s fervent preaching brought forth new companions in his fledgling order. Not long later, Francis saw some trees along the roadside which were filled with birds. He went to those trees and preached to those birds. When he dismissed them with the sign of the cross, they took flight in the four directions and filled the air with songs of praise. Those avian creatures encouraged Francis and his brothers in entrusting themselves to the proclamation of Christ while depending daily on what the Father gives.

The birds are worth noticing. They have much to teach us about direction and changing course, about being attentive to what really matters and attending to the matters at hand. If we humans think something is demeaning or worthless, we often dismiss it as “for the birds,” but it truly is amazing to see what birds do with the worthless and the waste of our “economy.” And thinking of economy, it is astounding how frequently people who have never used a slingshot (which is most of us) speak of “killing two birds with one stone” as the mantra of efficiency. Remembering Francis and the birds and how he begged for stones when rebuilding the ruined chapel, I am quick to counter: “Let’s let the birds live and build with the stone.”

 Luther was right; we often are hard as stone and pay no attention to things that should shake us out of ourselves and lead us to trusting praise and merciful action. The Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to a wayward and mindless people who he promised to cleanse with water and reclaim through his Spirit; to remove their “heart of stone” and give them a “heart of flesh”—one alive with compassion and feeling (see 36:22–31). If we cannot live out gratitude and mercy in the small and seemingly insignificant spheres of life, how can we do so in even greater and more important ­situations?

One day St. Malo (c. 640) was working in the vineyard pruning vines when he took off his cloak and tossed it aside. On finishing the job and returning to get his cloak, he found that a wren had laid an egg in it. Recalling that God cares for the birds, he left it there until all the eggs were hatched and the wren’s brood was safely on its way. People marveled at Malo’s compassion and gloried in the care he extended to those smaller fellow creatures (Waddell 51).

 In “Apologia,” an essay about removing killed animals spotted on roadways, Barry Lopez related the incident of the sage sparrow he accidentally killed while driving through Idaho:

I rest the walloped bird in my left hand, my right thumb pressed to its chest. I feel for the wail of the heart. Its eyes glisten like rain on crystal. Nothing but warmth. I shut the tiny eyelids and lay it beside a clump of bunchgrass…. I nod before I go, a ridiculous gesture, out of simple grief (114).

I recalled Lopez’s practice recently when I was out on a run and I encountered a dead squirrel on the pavement. I don’t normally stop for anyone or anything while running, but it didn’t take long for me to know that I had to turn around and move the squirrel to the tall grass. I thought of the wood thrush at the seminary and the rightness of so simple an act as I finished the rest of my run. Nothing is beneath us if we are compelled to live out our Lord’s compassion and mercy, trust and praise.

Oscar Wilde wrote more than a century ago about a “generation that knows the price of ­everything and the value of nothing.” If we pause long enough from our self-imposed deadlines and market-driven desires, maybe we can look at the birds (and all of Creation) and see that all we need truly is given as we “seek first the reign and righteousness of God” (Matt. 6:33). Those who “set their hearts on the pilgrim’s way” will find God’s contentment and strength, but also that “the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts” (Psalm 84:4,2).


Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.


Works Cited

Lopez, Barry. About This Life.  New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1998.

Marty, Martin E., ed. The Place of Trust: Martin Luther on the Sermon on the Mount. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Waddell, Helen, ed., trans. Beasts and Saints, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy