March 23, 2009

Warbler-Inspired Worship
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Last Sunday morning, Judy and I climbed out of our car in the church parking lot, and I happened to look over the wall, where my eye caught a bit of movement. It was a small bird flitting about the blossoms on Harvey Golden’s tangerine tree. It was mostly basic-brown colored, but it had splashes of black and yellow on its head and breast. I immediately said, “Judy, that’s a warbler!”

By then, the bird was gone. Judy asked, “Is that unusual?” I tried to explain that you don’t often see warblers in urban areas, but my excitement was lost on her. Only an old bird-watcher would understand.

I immediately went to my office and pulled down my Field Guide to Western Birds, in an attempt to identify which of the 20-or-so native warblers it was. I narrowed my search down to two species, but my brief glimpse didn’t leave me with enough information. I’m going to have to wait for another warbler encounter.

This episode awakened an interest of mine that has been dormant for years. As I arrived for work Monday morning, I scanned Harvey’s fruit trees for my warbler, but he was playing hide-and-seek. As I reached the church lawn, my eyes picked up on every bit of bird-activity in the area. There were the usual house finches and starlings. I saw a small bird flying with an irregular wing beat; I knew this was typical of certain species, but I couldn’t remember which.

Then I heard sounds, first the cooing of pigeons in the bell tower, a crow call in the distance, then the elaborate music of a song sparrow. All my senses were now tuned to birds. I remembered that I had seen other interesting birds around the church lawn: humming birds, purple martins, even a red-tailed hawk. The hills seemed alive with the sound of bird-music.

Just a few days ago, I was totally unconscious of all of this. My warbler friend had awakened me to a whole bird-world that had surrounded me all along.

My mind fixed on a verse in the Bible:
“Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!”
So this morning I located the verse and found that it is in a psalm written by a person who had experienced something very similar to my warbler-awakening—a discovery of God through the beauty, order, power and variety in nature. He had experienced an “Aha!”–moment, and as a result he began to see God everywhere he looked in all of creation.

His poem of praise is Psalm 104. It begins and ends with the phrase “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” And in between, the poet describes many of the wonders of nature that continually caused his soul to bless the Lord.

He talks about the great expanse of the heavens, which he pictures as the clothing the Creator wears (verses 1-2). He sees God’s power in strong winds, rainstorms and forest fires (verses 3-4). The earth itself, with its continents topped by high mountains and its seas that seem infinitely deep, is a testimony to the solid reality of who God is (verses 7-9).

Next the psalmist gets to my birds:
“You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your works.” (verses 10-13)

People are also part of God’s manifold creation, and he makes sure they have all they need to live and flourish (verses 14-15). He provides a pattern of day-and-night, seasons of the year, and in this super eco-system all creatures find their role (verses 16-22), including people who “go out to their labor until the evening” (verse 23).

Then comes the key verse that came to my mind:
“O Lord, how manifold are your works!” (verse 24)
The psalmist adds
“In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

At this point, the psalmist seemed to be talking directly to me. “You’re impressed with birds? You haven’t seen anything yet!”

“Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.” (verse 25)

Add them all up, the thousands of species of birds, of fish, of bugs, of “creeping things. ”Line them up. God created them all. And God takes care of them all. How touching is this picture of God nurturing his creation:

“These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
When you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”
(verses 27-28)

I quickly lost sight of my warbler, but God didn’t. He was behind Harvey’s tangerine tree, holding out his open hand, and my warbler could eat his full of “good things.”