By Doug Priest
It was spring break, two years ago, when I had my epiphany. Our daughter was home from college, and while she and my wife jogged, I walked along behind. Just ahead of me, a bird crossed the sidewalk. The bird looked vaguely familiar, but I could not place it. That night I got one of my daughter’s biology books off the shelf, and there it was, a bird I should have known by sight, a northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus, for those who care).
Spotting an unknown bird and then identifying it with the help of a guide took me back to my years as a child in Africa, where I later served as a missionary. Back then I was really into birds, and East Africa had lots of them. Living in the bush allowed me to see different birds all the time; it was a birder’s paradise.
But then we moved to Singapore, an urban island nation with some 3 million people. There was so much to learn and so many people to meet, my birding hobby was left behind. When I transitioned from Singapore to Indiana, the pace of life increased. I often walked the parks for exercise, but birds were the last thing on my mind.
Until the bobwhite. Seeing that bird and then identifying it brought back waves of memories, like being able to point out the difference between saddle-billed marabou and yellow-billed storks. Since that incident, I have become an avid birder, which is just one step below being a rabid birder.
Basically, a rabid birder does nothing but bird. It takes a lot of time and money to be a rabid birder, but I have a job, so I bird when time (and money) allows. In the two years since I took up birding, I’ve identified more than 300 of the 800 birds in North America.
Webster defines epiphany as: (1) an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity; (2) a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi; (3) a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into reality or the essential meaning of something, often initiated by some simple, commonplace occurrence.1 Obviously, I’m using the third definition.
Or am I? And that’s the point of this article. If God created the world, if the heavens declare the glory of God, and if God leaves a witness of himself through things like rain, then surely we can know something of God through his creation, even if it is only a commonplace occurrence.
My birding has brought me to an ever growing respect for God and his wonderful creation. And it has led me to a book by a well-known Bible teacher.
I have been reading the Bible noting every passage where birds are mentioned. John Stott writes this:
It was Jesus Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount who told us to be bird-watchers! “Behold the fowls of the air” is how the King James Version renders his command (Matthew 6:26). Translated into basic English, however, this instruction becomes “watch birds!” So we have the highest possible authority for this activity. Moreover, he meant more than that we should notice them. For the Greek verb employed here means to fix the eyes on or take a good look at. This will certainly include our study and appreciation of their plumage and behaviour.2
About this same verse from Matthew’s gospel, Martin Luther advised us to let the birds be our theologians, noting that we have as many teachers and preachers as there are little birds in the air.3
A pair of nesting peregrine falcons in downtown Indianapolis have been together now for several years. Each year they return from their separate migrations, delighting in their renewed companionship. As she nests, he brings food. When the eggs hatch, she ferociously defends her brood. When the chicks are ready to fly from their nest 450 feet above the street, she encourages them to go. They teach us great lessons about the bond between wife and husband, parenting, and leadership development.
Caring for the Environment
Through bird-watching, I have increasing respect for those who see a direct link between their faith and caring for the environment. I find myself picking up trash, questioning the cutting down of forests without a corresponding planting of new trees, and wondering about things like the effect of pesticides on birds, animals, and humans. I also find myself wanting to delve deeper into theological questions regarding the environment.
Mark Stanton and Dennis Guernsey penned the article “Christians’ Ecological Responsibility: A Theological Introduction and Challenge” through the American Scientific Affiliation. In it they use the usual categories of systematic theology as an outline for developing an ecological theology. They write:
We believe that an ecological theology includes the understanding that God the Creator has entrusted his creation to the stewardship of humanity. Christians, as the recipients of God’s grace, have a special calling to manage well what he has given (1 Peter 4:10). Based on the etymology of the terms and the statements of scripture, it is possible to state our role in this manner: Christian = Steward = Ecologist.”4
Is that not a logical conclusion? As Christians, should not our stewardship extend to the environment? Should we not, in the name of Christ, claim back our rightful place within the ecology movement? Should we not point others, not only to the creation, but to the Creator?
The Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists recently issued this statement:
The beauty, joy and health of human life on earth depend deeply upon the wide variety and great richness of plant and animal life God has provided. This abundant life brings immense and continuous praise to God (Psalm 148), leaving all people without excuse about knowing God’s divinity and everlasting power (Romans 1:20). Beholding God’s creatures and the whole creation supports our spiritual well-being, while living in a world that sustains creation’s marvelous variety protects our physical welfare.5
Where will this end? Am I destined to become a tree hugger? Will I take up Ronald Sider’s quest for Americans to replace their SUV gas-guzzlers with compact economy cars? Should I quit buying books and do my reading online and use the library more? Will I begin to advocate to keep snowmobiles out of our National Parks? I do not know.
What I do know is that when I walk through the park on a Sunday afternoon delighting in the variety of warblers and thrushes, I will have opportunity for reflecting on these things.
1 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1999, 443.
2 John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers (Dartmouth: Baker Books, 1999), 9.
3 Ibid, 10.
Doug Priest is the executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship. He hopes to one day see a Great Skua.