I like birds. I’ve been watching them for years. I have often said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that my life verse is Matthew 6:26, “Consider the birds of the air.” Jesus makes reference to them in terms of the Father’s care for them. They neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
But there are other things to be learned from them and even from seeking to see them. Where you place yourself matters. At the most basic level, you need to get outside or be able to at least see outside.
Recently I’ve been chasing a particular bird, the Western Tanager. My chase has been motivated by three things. First, it is a striking species, yellow and black with a red face. Second, as the name implies, it only occurs in the western part of North America. Since I am getting ready to move east again in a few days, my chances of seeing this particular bird are limited. Third, I have never seen one. In birding parlance, that means if I see one, it would be a “lifer,” a new bird for my life list.
Many birders keep a list of species they have seen, and I do as well. It serves as a record of what I have seen and can serve as motivation to get out and see more. It makes watching the birds into a game because it is a means of keeping score. I can look back on my list and remember where I have been, and what I have seen.
But there are challenges. As has been noted by many, birds have wings, and they use them frequently. There is no guarantee that you will see a particular bird. Many migrate, and all move from place to place.
If you don’t care what birds you see, just getting outside is sufficient to see something most of the time. Eventually, if you want to see new things, you have to go to new places. My travels around the country and to different parts of the world have aided in my endeavor to see new birds.
My favorite birds tend to be those on or near water. I like waterfowl, waders (herons and related birds), and shorebirds. Part of the attraction is they tend to be fairly easy to observe. Songbirds such as warblers and tanagers are smaller and more active. They spend their lives in the midst of trees, which have a habit of getting in the way of seeing them clearly. They rarely sit in one spot and allow you to look at them for a long time.
But I have seen almost all the waterfowl of North America, and the waders as well. If I want to see new birds, without traveling great distances, I need to look in other places, which brings me to my main point here.
No matter how long I stand by a lake or the ocean, there are very slim odds I will see a tanager of any type. They are forest birds, and spend their time feeding in trees, often in the upper canopy. While it is theoretically possible they might come to me, my chances of seeing them increase when I go to where they prefer to be. I have to place myself in their habitat.
So that is what I have been doing, spending more time in the forested areas of the Pacific Northwest. Today it paid off and I saw a Western Tanager.
I told you he was good looking, didn’t I?
It has occurred to me in the past several days of looking in trees that there are some parallels to our spiritual pursuits as well.
Place matters. Of course, this is not all about geography, but it plays a part. More important is the place we put our hearts and minds. God can speak to us anywhere. Just like it is theoretically possible I could see a tanager anywhere. But if I am seeking a tanager, I am more likely to be successful if I go where one is likely to occur.
For us to find closeness to God, we are more likely to do so in certain places or states of being. It is possible for me to find inspiration on Facebook, but it is much more likely in prayer, worship, or spiritual reading. Just like I can’t really complain about not seeing any tanagers if I spend all my time on the beach, neither can I really complain about spiritual dryness if I don’t spend time in prayer.
Not only that, but I need to have an idea what I am looking for. I need to know that it is possible to see tanagers, to find peace, or grow in holiness. If I have no idea what some of the possible outcomes of prayer are, I am less likely to achieve them.
I placed myself on a rock at the edge of a forested area, I played a recording of the call of the Western Tanager, and I had the experience of spending about 15 minutes watching one and being able to photograph it. There was no guarantee that would work, but without placing myself in that situation, I could pretty well guarantee I would not see one.
Now I need to consider what other rocks I need to plant myself on for a while.