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Sparrows in the Rafters

Like on most Sundays, I attend a local church with my family. This particular day the sun is its normal late morning self, lazy but benignly ruling the sky. The church’s downtown parking lot, littered by the typical urban debris – strewn paper, crumpled plastic wrappers, discarded bottle tops, broken glass, dust, dirt, pebbles and an irregular pattern of infernal weeds poking through the asphalt – is a checkerboard of automobiles. Congregants usher past the surrounding industrial rust and glare of the city into the foyer of the church building, a converted warehouse, now concert venue and coffee bar.

We find our seats and listen in as the pastor, Randy, in his usual eloquent yet listenable style, reads from and speaks of, a splice of New Testament passages pertaining to the provisions of God; lilies of the field, wisdom of lizards, freedom of sparrows, numbered hair follicles, manna, rest, fear, these sort of things.

The overhead fluorescent lighting beating my brow, I begin to feel the tickle of an approaching headache. I look to the brick walls, veined with gray-steel conduit, for distraction from the lights. There, I notice sundry bores in the walls, exposed cinder block, and a tangle of cables, speaker wires and electrical cords clouding the rafters, all so lifeless. And then I see a bird.

It is a summer day, and since our tent of meeting is old, quite unromantic and not at all well-sealed at its uppermost corners, this particular creature, a common female house sparrow, has smuggled her way indoors and is fluttering back and forth in the maze of beams and blown insulation 20 feet above our skulls. I hear its twittering and chattering as it restlessly hops off and on, back and forth, amid the orange steel structural supports, ductwork and rivets overhead.

The pastor, at one point, references the sparrows of the field and the hairs, if there be any, on our heads, but I am too distracted by avian shenanigans — that’s the ornithologist in me, so gleefully alert to birdlife. Randy continues to expand on the difficult-to-comprehend notion of God’s knowing, numbering and caring for humanity’s various tresses, and that of a redstart’s business in its day to day operations, flying, fleeing, roosting, singing, no fear whatsoever of famine, death, loss of home or feather. Then suddenly, as one might hope, I awaken to the irony, the chasm-deep irony, of the occasion at hand: a prime and living parable flitting about our very heads in a suitable and appropriate clash of cosmos and breath, story and fable, words and reality, feathers and flight, skin and spirit. I perch on the Providence of the moment.

How deeply, foolishly and complacently we live in the damnable small fears – fear of tomorrow, fear of rapture, fear of loss, of success, of failure, of being made a fool or of making one of ourselves, fear of fear itself. We are slaves to the self-worthy, self-sustaining creature life and are absolutely worn out from its burden, grief, shame and cold subjectivity. Fear is a living death, death a living fear. Such a prosthetic sanctuary becomes a hovel, a cold, inhospitable and sterile habitat. Can we honor anyone in this or any other life by being subjects to such small and hollow existences? Does such an existence honor God, the one who abolished the small fears in the first place? Do we honor the One who brought to life the life we killed by refusing the command, “Never be afraid”? Perch on the Providence of your moments, looking not for control, but for submission.

To live a day – O, to forge an entire life – that is broad, that is ocean deep, that is gleefully aware of hair follicle number 5008 on our pasty scalps, that is as boundless in bravery as it is trustful of hope. Where courage exists, there is faith nested securely in the fork of that terribly ancient and sturdy Living Tree, honest and pure, as that courage roosts above the domain of earth singing its melody safe and sound at either end of day. No man, no devil, no destruction can rid us of such a perch.

“Never be afraid, then – you are far more valuable than sparrows.” (Matt. 10:30-31, J.B. Phillips translation)

“(He) might also set free those who lived their whole lives a prey to the fear of death.” (Heb. 2:15, J.B. Phillips)

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