The Quail – Desire and Slavery

For my Lenten Discipline this year, I’ve decided I’ll be reading (and blogging) about Debbie Blue’s book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. 

The Israelites in the wilderness in Leviticus decided they were tired of manna and started kvetching for meat. God said, “I’ll give you meat,” and thousands of quail blew in on the breeze. They were really happy, except “while the meat was still in their teeth”, they were struck by a plague and a lot of them died.

“Desire is huge and complicated. We long and we lack and our longing and lacking make us create beautiful paintings and poetry: I draws us to one another. We don’t just grow turnips – we desire more, so we grow heirloom tomatoes and spicy basil. We long for something other than processed food so we make organic gardens.”

So here are the Israelites, tired of wandering, and God gives them manna and quail to eat, and they still aren’t satisfied. They’ve been freed from slavery, but they still aren’t satisfied.

All that 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, God was providing for them – bread, meat, and water. Maybe God was trying to get them to let go of the idols they had in Egypt. We are still enslaved to idols.

“I don’t think the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, learning to know God – is mere an item of biblical history. These are stories that help us understand what our lives are like with God. We still wander, we doubt, we wonder if it has been foolish to follow God, because we often find ourselves in the desert. The quail in the Bible are both a sign of God’s extravagant care and a sign that the Israelites’ desires need transforming. We are not exempt from the desert wanderings – but how else would we be transformed?”



The Pelican – Sacrifice and Gift

For my Lenten Discipline this year, I’ve decided I’ll be reading (and blogging) about Debbie Blue’s book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. 

Pelicans are huge. Their throat pouches are expandable and their beaks are longer than the beak of any other bird ever. If you have a strong stomach, be sure to watch the pelican in St. James Park, London, eat a pigeon – alive.

Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare all use the image of the pelican: Jesus Christ our Pelican! O loving Pelican! oh Jesu Lord!

This probably came from the legendary belief that the mother pelican pierces her body to feed her own blood to her children to keep them alive. This image of sacrificial love is what led the poets to identify this bird with Christ. So the pelican turns up all over the place in ancient Christian iconography. That image lingers as a Christmas ornament for some Lutheran churches, and on the Louisiana state flag and seal.

In reality, the mother pelican doesn’t peck her breast to feed her young. What actually happens is the mother (and/or father) pelican flies far away, fishes and swallows her catch, and returns to the nest where she regurgitates the half-digested meal into her throat pouch, and the baby pelicans dive in head first to eat their fill. At some point, whether because they pass out from lack of oxygen or because they are sated, they fall out of the mother’s beak and lie inert on the floor of the nest. Then, as the mother covers them with her wings they come back to life.

Today, the symbol to the pelican as a sacrifice is much truer to the image of the pelican soaked in oil. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we saw photo after photo of pelicans drenched and suffocating in the oil. And that tragedy continues to this day with marshes and beaches still contaminated as we try to appease the great god of fuel. “Jesus didn’t die to sustain our noble ideals but rather to show where our noble ideals can lead: we will kill to maintain our order, to preserve what we think in right. We find some other that stands in the way of our manifest destiny and crucify it.”

Sacrifice is a prehistoric activity. The Hebrew Scripture keeps telling us that God does not want our sacrifice. Jesus pleads, “If only you learned what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.'”

“Clearly sacrifice moves people, but maybe God wants to move people in an entirely different way. God’s work in the world doesn’t work like a business – commerce or trade: give up this and you’ll get that – blood for love, the death of one thing so that something else can live. It’s a lot more creative than that. It’s not tit for tat. It’s grace upon grace upon mind-blowing grace.”

Maybe we need to quit using the rhetoric of sacrifice.

“We need to stop using so much oil. We need to give our children. We need to love the planet with a little more passion than we’ve shown. But maybe being attentive to the needs of the web of life that sounds you isn’t sacrifice. It isn’t putting something to death; it’s more like love – like learning to love with a little more passion, learning to give with a little more abandon.”

“People have been sacrificing a long time: we’ve sacrificed wetlands, badlands, innumerable species, trees, mountaintops, salmon streams – believing somehow that this is what is necessary to make our lives better, or to get what we want or what we think we need. But it isn’t working.”

Watch the pelicans flying along the beach just touching the tops of the waves. They are beauty and poetry in motion. O loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord! Maybe we humans aren’t really capable of destroying God’s world. We need to keep trying for the possibility of life lived not at the expense of other life.



The Pigeon – Purity and Impurity

For my Lenten Discipline this year, I’ve decided I’ll be reading (and blogging) about Debbie Blue’s book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. 

As I said last time, I know a lot about birds. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could still learn anything about birds. But Debbie Blue surprised me when she said that a dove and a pigeon were the same bird! Pigeon comes from the French word pijon and dove is the English word for birds of the Columbidae family.

The dove is the symbol for the spirit of God that hovered over the water at creation, and brought messages of the flood receding to Noah, and announced Jesus’ parentage to John the Baptist. We tend to think of doves as the essence of purity, but in ancient civilizations the dove represented passion, jealousy, anger and sex. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess was the patron of war, fertility and love; Astarte was the goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war; and Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. The dove was associated with all of these goddesses.

Pigeons/doves are so plentiful, we hardly even notice them. Perhaps that is like the Holy Spirit – always around, and consequently unnoticed. As the author says, “Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that – fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong – it isn’t pure as the driven snow. Maybe we got hung up on purity. Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we’ve been mistaken about what holy means.”

I know I’m going to spend a lot of time this Lent trying to notice – trying to remember to see God as creative – watching the “rats with wings” as some people call pigeons. Maybe I’ll see God there.


Consider the Birds

For my Lenten Discipline this year, I’ve decided I’ll be reading (and blogging) about Debbie Blue’s book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. 

If you know me in real life, you know that many/most of my sweatshirts are adorned with pictures of birds.

From my earliest memory, my grandmother never said, “See the pretty birdie!”

No, she always said things like “I heard the white-throat sparrows this morning. It must be almost spring.” or “The mockingbird must have a nest right outside the back door because they dive-bomb the dog when she goes outside to do her business.”

By the time I was nine or ten, I could tell the difference between a white-throat sparrow and a house sparrow. I knew the papa cardinal was the bright red one while his mate and babies were drab brown with a little shade of red underlying the crest on their heads. I knew that robins like to play in the spray of the sprinkler because it softened up the ground to allow them to more easily find their breakfast of a nice fat worm. I knew the right kind of bird feeder to get to keep the squirrels out of the birdseed and to make it more difficult for the big birds to hog all the goodies.

Now that we live in a different part of the country, I’m having to learn new birds. The white-crowned sparrow and its distinctive call is new to me. While I grew up with red-headed woodpeckers, I never saw a flicker before we moved to the Pacific Northwest. The bright blue of the blue jay outside my window in the south has been replaced by the inky blue-black of the Steller’s Jay (although they still make the same raucous sound).

So this Lent, I’m embarking on a different kind of bird search. I’ll be reading Consider the Birds to find out what I can learn from birds about the Bible. From the introduction:

“Birds are everywhere in the Bible, from start to finish. God hovers over the face of the water in Genesis – the ancient rabbis suggest – like a bird. Birds gorge on the flesh of the defeated “beast” in Revelation. They are the currency of mercy – the birds of sacrifice. They bring bread to the prophets. They are food for the wanderers. Abraham has to shoo them away from his offering, and a pigeon goes with Jesus on his first visit to the temple. God is a bird who carries the Israelites on her wings – a bird under who feathers we will find refuge. Jesus compares himself to a he. He tells us to ‘consider the birds.’ I love a guy who says that.”

Lent is an old Anglo-Saxon word for Spring. Here in Washington State, the days are beginning to get longer. There are rustlings in the bushes. It’s time for me to fill my bird feeder, again. It’s also about time to drag out the hose and fill the bird bath. The rains haven’t completely finished, and there’s still the possibility of a freeze, but I’m looking every day in anticipation of the robins returning to peck around on my lawn and listening for the “see, see, pretty, pretty me” of the white-crowned sparrow.