Jesus asks people to do many things in the Gospels. Some of his exhortations are not very straightforward: enter by the narrow gate, bear good fruit. Some seem meant to throw us on the grace of God because, try though we may, we will not obey: judge not, love your enemies, do not lay up treasures for yourself on earth. Jesus says very clearly, directly, and unambiguously, "follow me," but we'll struggle all of our lives to do so.
I decided to grasp onto one suggestion I could handle: Consider the birds (Matt. 6:26). I love that Jesus asks us to do this: Go outside, get off the Internet, watch birds.
Instead of simply sitting on my porch, breathing deeply, and considering the birds that landed in my tree, I decided to read everything I could find on ten birds mentioned in the Bible. (If you knew me, you know I have to make a project more complicated than necessary.)
I really considered the birds. I learned about their mating, eating, and social habits. I looked up what they have meant symbolically across cultures, throughout time, in Christian iconography. I took them seriously as characters in biblical stories. Once you start looking, you will find birds everywhere—in your bushes, of course, but also in poetry, painting, and song. Take for example, Christmas Carols—the partridge, the French hen, the two turtledoves.
I found some precedent for my project in the medieval bestiaries, stories and illustrations about animals included in old Psalters and prayer books. Based in part on verses like Job 12: 7-10—"Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you"—the writers and illustrators believed every animal, every plant, every created thing had something to teach those who were carefully and faithfully paying attention.
Though these lavishly illustrated manuscripts are pre-scientific and contain very medieval moral lessons, I like the vital attention these Christians gave to the beasts—the curiosity with which they observed them—as if they were purveyors of some sort of wisdom or knowledge not readily accessed by humans. They watched closely, as if observing them might unlock some window we normally keep shuttered. Jesus says, "Consider the birds." Surely, there is something for us to learn from them.
We are such thoroughly interdependent creatures; yet, we have often staked our lives, and the life of the planet, on the anthropocentric notion that we alone are truly important to God—the crowning glory of creation. Some of the first words out of God's mouth are "let the birds fly…let them multiply" (Gen. 1:20, 22). Jesus tells us that not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Matt. 10:29).
God loves the world—every single part of it, the entire whole of his creation. The images of God's redemption throughout the Bible include the land, lush and thriving. God sends rain and the desert blooms. If we have a special role as highly conscious creatures, it involves a greater degree of responsibility than is required of rabbits and seals. God asks us to help take care of what God loves.
God as Vulture and Pigeon
Of all the birds I explored (researched, watched, contemplated, stalked), some of the most striking revelations came from the vulture and the dove.
In Minnesota, where I live, the only vultures I see are turkey vultures. They have bald red heads. It looks like their skin has been peeled off and their whole head is some raw gaping wound. I have always thought of them as ugly, violent, dark, and dreadful, when in fact vultures, unlike most creatures, rarely hurt a living thing. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that could otherwise spread diseases. They have uniquely strong digestive juices that kill bacteria and nasty pathogens. The Mayans revered the vulture, referring to them as death eaters. This struck them as a good, godlike thing. It makes sense. We need something to eat death, digest it, and rid it of its toxicity. Vultures stare death in the face and fear it not at all. It goes through their bodies and comes out harmless.