A friend of a friend owns an aviary in Dallas. One day the bird-owner was moving several cage-loads of birds to a new address in North Dallas. Driving his truck up Northwest Expressway at 50 miles per hour, he looked back and saw a strange sight: most of the birds were flapping their wings — still in their cages, and flying against the headwinds produced by the forward motion of the truck.
If Desmond Morris, the social anthropologist, is right, there are marked similarities between the bird and animal kingdoms and our own. We, too, are prone to fly around when we don’t have to.
Let our schedules get out of line or our family pressures become a little heavy and we begin to flap our wings. Let us fall behind in an assignment or hear some bad news in the marketplace and we leave the perch and begin fighting the headwinds. We are so accustomed to agitation that sometimes even when everything is going well we become seized with an irresistible urge to fly around in a panic; we beat our wings against the sides of the cage, and desert the calmness to which we are entitled!
It’s hard to say why we do this. I once asked a young lawyer who had a lovely family, a great reputation, and a six-figure income why he continued to rush around so much instead of enjoying some of what he had. His answer was an adaptation of a quotation from Satchel Paige: “I can’t look back; they might be gaining on me.”
Perhaps our problem has something to do with a lack of centeredness, of what Buddhists call “bare attention,” or the capacity to be still and truly see the world around us. When there is no center, when we are not deeply and truly in touch with ourselves, we are all periphery; that is, everything happens out at the edge of who we are — the busyness, the false ambition, the intrusion upon our time — and we do not have the power to refuse it or to integrate it into our whole selves.
There is a beautiful picture in Mary C. Richards’ book Centering. She recalls watching a potter named Robert Turner sitting at the potter’s wheel in a workshop at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The artist was giving a demonstration of the potter’s craft. He centered the clay, and then, as the wheel turned, he pulled it open and upward into a cylinder. Instead of looking at the clay, he put his ear to it, and listened. “It is breathing,” he said. And then, says Mary Richards, “he filled it with air.”
Do you see how different that is from the way we usually behave? He was calm, deliberate, self-centered in the best sense. Aware of the world. Listening, seeing, taking it all in. Unflustered. Not flying around when he didn’t have to.
Too often we Christians forget that this is the way Jesus says we are to be. “Do not be anxious,” He said. Don’t get your feathers ruffled; don’t beat against the sides of the cage.
Why? Because God is God. It’s as simple as that.
Your heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air. He clothes the grass of the field. He knows what you need. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and you will have all you need. Wait on God until you surrender the reins of everything to Him. Then the anxiety disappears because you don’t have anything to be anxious about.
Consider Jesus’ reasoning. There are three parts to it.
I. God loves us.
Look at the way God takes care of the birds of the air. They don’t have great, complicated infrastructures like ours, yet they manage to survive. They don’t have barns or storehouses or savings accounts, but they go on living. And sometimes gloriously!
I once stopped to watch a hawk circle in majestic circling and swooping flight over some mountain peaks where the air currents made for obvious sport. I remembered that Jesus spoke of the glory of the birds and how they live unfettered and free.
God takes care of them and the grass, said Jesus. Don’t we know that He loves us more? When things have gone wrong, sometimes we don’t think so.
Ann Bloch didn’t think so. She couldn’t find happiness. She had been married two or three times. She had horrible memories of her childhood: fights between her parents, her mother threatening her with a meat knife. As a child she had spent many hours cowering under the bed in her room. Now rich and widely traveled, yet still unhappy, she had developed crippling arthritis and every morning a daughter had to brush her hair.
Ann became a Christian and began to explore the ways of faith. One day, after her mother’s death, Ann returned to the old home where she had lived as a child. The arthritis was vanishing. She climbed the stairs to her room, went in, and sat on the bed. Remembering the poor child who had trembled beneath the bed, she began to cry.
Then she heard a voice, she said, and felt as if the arms of God were around her, cradling her as she wept. The voice said: “You don’t ever have to be afraid any more. I am with you.”
The arthritis left her completely. She became a whole person again. The anxieties went away because she knew God loved her.
Il. We can trust God.
God knows what you need, said Jesus; don’t worry about whether you will get it or not. This advice from a man who died on a cross!
But the disciples, who were responsible for the four Gospels, saw no disjunction between the advice and the death on a cross. If God is trustworthy, they saw, then even death is nothing.
I think of those wonderful faith stories from the concentration camps, the death camps. Of the woman who, separated from her family and everything she loved, worked loose from her cell’s wall a piece of chalky stone and used it to mark a large cross on her blanket, then wrapped herself in the blanket and slept like a baby. And of the girl who, sentenced to die before a firing squad at midnight, ate a last meal of oat-gruel and water with her cell companions, then walked through the vaulted gallery to the courtyard as she said the Apostles’ Creed at the top of her voice, and her words echoed in the very hollowness of eternity!
“Though he slay me,” said Job, “yet will I trust Him!”
That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it?
Like the old man in my last parish who had been diagnosed as having terminal cancer growing inside him like a baby of death. I had interrupted his nap on the living-room sofa, and he was still running his hand through his hair and getting his bearings as we talked.
“I praised Him in the good times,” he said, “and I guess I can praise Him in the bad.”
Talk about not flying around when you don’t have to!
III. Everything looks different when seen in the eternal perspective.
That had to be the secret with these people, didn’t it?
“I consider,” said Paul, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (
“Seek first the kingdom,” said Jesus; then everything else falls into place; then you can see things from the eternal perspective. The long look helps us not get bent out of shape by anxiety over small matters or matters over which we have no control.
The young woman phoned me one day to talk about her husband. They had been married less than six months and she was very upset that he went to work all day, came home tired, and would not sit up talking with her about what she took to be a lack of passion in their marriage. She was talking divorce!
I said, “Wait a minute, dear, you’ve got a long time to go in this marriage and you haven’t been married long enough to be threatening divorce over a problem as small as this.” The long look.
Think about Jesus in the garden that night, facing the probability that He would be captured and crucified. It was a real situation — no mere dramatization. The Gospel says He sweat drops of blood; it was that real. And after He had prayed — had gotten in touch again with the love of God and remembered that He could trust God and saw all of what was happening against the backdrop of eternity — He came out of the garden renewed and refreshed and did not waver during the entire ordeal of the cross.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” demanded Pilate.
“You say I am,” He answered quietly.
And when they were crucifying Him, He prayed for the soldiers who did it.
No flying around when He didn’t have to. Quietness and confidence. In touch with His inner self. In touch with God.
And He said for us to be the same way: to remember the birds and the grass and seeking the kingdom.