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After years of dramatic early-summer encounters with black bears on my porch, I finally learned to take down my bird feeders when the warm air has settled in. What’s harder, I’ve discovered, is determining when it’s okay to put them back up. Sometimes the ground has gone frozen and white before I remember.
And so it was that one morning not that long ago I finally got around to filling my feeder and hanging it from the front porch beam. I had all but forgotten about it when, a few hours later, as I was doing chores around the house, I heard a most lovely sound. The birds—chickadees and juncos mostly, with the occasional nuthatch hanging around—were chattering and singing. I went to the window and there they were, dancing in delight as they hopped and flew around the feeder.
It occurred to me that I had done that: I had made the birds happy. And knowing that this simple thing (finally putting out some birdseed had set these little creatures to singing brought me much joy—a deep, heart-opening joy. It is one thing to realize that we are all connected, but another gift entirely to understand that our happiness is all bound up together—and another still to recognize our place in what poet Mary Oliver calls “the family of things.” 1
As we begin another year, it is easy to feel overwhelmed—already, on the morning of the very first day. Already there is no end to the number of people offering countless tips, innumerable resolutions, and myriad perspectives on how to make this year better than the last, how to be happier, healthier, and thinner, how to make our lives better and the world less horrible.
There is, apparently, no end to these guides, and because some of their words are quite wonderful and wise, I’m not going to go into all that. I’m not even going to take the bait from Ecclesiastes and try to discern what time it is. Not that discerning the season isn’t always appropriate and wise, but in a church that exercise is best undertaken together, through community dialogue, rather than a one-way meditation.
No, my new year’s offering to you is quite simple. You see, that day when I watched the birds flitting gleefully about my feeder and listened to their excited chattering, when I realized that I had contributed to it in some small way and felt my heart fill with joy, it was as though for a fleeting second I had stepped into the very heart of God—the God who made us in their own image, the God who calls us beloved, the God who longs to see our bellies filled and our hearts healed, our longings fulfilled and our wanderings brought home, all our strivings ended our our divisions dissolved.
The writer of Ecclesiastes gets a bad rap sometimes—“all is vanity” and all that. But it seems that, as much as anything, he is talking about perspective—the importance of having it and, when necessary, adjusting it. It seems to me he is saying that the most fundamental perspective of all is understanding our place in the family of things and acknowledging our connection to, and our dependence upon, our loving creator.
It’s as if we were hungry little chickadees, and he is inviting us to trust that the consistently overwhelmed woman who lives on the other side of the glass really will take care of us.
It is as if we were powerful but frightened humans, and he is beckoning us to trust that the consistently loving Holy One whose grace pervades all things wants to care for us and see us made happy and whole.
It’s right there in the text:
I know there is nothing better for them to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.
It is God’s gift. It is God’s great desire that her creatures—dependent, needy, sometimes foolish and even hateful—have reason to dance and sing.
Just as we love nothing more than to make our partners, children, and grandchildren happy, just as we love giving children reason to squeal and tails reason to wag, so God delights in caring for and delighting us. Just as we long for a world where all will have enough and everyone can live in peace, even more is this the driving desire of God’s heart.
It seems to me that we could do worse—much worse—than to begin this new year with a fuller awareness and a deeper appreciation, of how much God longs for our well-being and happiness. There will be time enough to talk and pray together about the times we are in and the resistance that they demand of us. There will be time enough to plant and pluck up, to break down and build up, to weep and to laugh, to find and to lose, to struggle for justice, to make peace, to dwell in love and hope.
But for now, right this very moment, in the breaking morning of a brand new year, perhaps it is enough—no, more than enough—to remember that God loves us so much that she dwells among us. To rejoice that God loves us so much he is making all things new, even now.
Perhaps it is enough to trust that we will not starve to death, that we will not shrivel to nothing for lack of love. Perhaps it is enough to remember where the holy feeder hangs and trust that it will show up again, right on time, full to overflowing, for us and for all. Perhaps it is enough to want to make God happy and to realize that our health and happiness, our enjoyment of all God’s great gifts . . . makes God downright delirious with joy. Perhaps it is enough to live in awe of this reality, to dwell in wonder, to offer unceasing praise for the holy delight that gives us life and keeps this world turning toward the light.
Perhaps we can begin this new year with an awareness of the Holy One watching us care for one another and the earth, listening to us sing, observing us as we dance through our days, seeing our eyes light up when we get things right—and weeping with joy.
Perhaps it is enough—this year and every year—to live into the truth of that Divine desire and delight.
The Sufi mystics have much to teach us about this. Toward that end, I could cite any number of poems by Rumi or Hafiz. Instead, I want to leave you with a poem from Denise Levertov. It is called “The Spirits Appeased”:
A wanderer comes at last
to the forest hut where it was promised
someone wise would receive him.
And there’s no one there; birds and small animals
flutter and vanish, then return to observe.
No human eye meets his.
But in the hut there’s food,
set to keep warm beside glowing logs,
and fragrant garments to fit him, replacing
the rags of his journey,
and a bed of heather from the hills.
He stays there waiting. Each day the fire
is replenished, the pot refilled while he sleeps.
He draws up water from the well,
writes of his travels, listens for footsteps.
Little by little he finds
the absent sage is speaking to him,
This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way–startled–
I find I have heard you. When I need it,
a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand, inscribed by yours: messages
waiting on cellar shelves, in forgotten boxes
until I would listen.
Your spirits relax;
now she is looking, you say to each other,
now she begins to see. 2
So may we look. So may we see and trust, understand and receive. Grateful and happy may we be. And so may we live this day and every day, this year and the next and the next, ever grateful for God’s gift, ever praising the Giver, ever sharing the joy.
Happy New Year!