“Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.” – Psalm 63:7
Dear Christian friends,
I was pretty sure when I moved to Crantock Road that I had left the robins behind. After all, the American robin is one of the great adapters- its natural habitat being dense shrubs and small trees, it has acclimated well to the American suburb. Even in a time when so many of our species of native wildlife is threatened, the American robin, on all observable accounts, seems to be doing just fine. Flocks love public parks, courthouse lawns, and suburban gardens. They stay very close to humans and human habitations because many of their natural predators (hawks, owls, fox and bobcats) shy away from us.
When I lived in the suburbs I waited each winter for the robins to arrive as the harbingers of spring. I loved to see the first red breast doing its quick bunny hop across the front yard, cocking its head in that funny little stance that has ornithologists arguing if it is looking for signs of a worm or listening for signs of the same. But my home on Crantock is shared by a huge flock of American crows (which eat baby robins), at least one grey fox, and an unknown number of owls that we hear regularly but rarely see - not exactly the safety and security of Eden Woods. So I was pleasantly surprised on the 1st day of February last year when I looked out my study window and saw that beautiful red breast, bent on finding a worm in the soft beds next to my house. I didn’t think it would linger; I could already hear the crows cawing in the front yard.
But it did stay. All spring, close to the house it hopped, cocked its little head, and dug worms. It built its little mud cup nest on top of my back deck light fixture, and hunkered down whenever we passed by. Two broods of eggs hatched from that little cup of mud and sticks.
All summer, out in the yard and in the edges of the woods, the crows hunted, the owls hooted, and the fox watched - beautiful, wild, and dangerous. But up close to the house, under my eaves, the robins nested safe and secure – just like me, nesting under the great wings of God.
Dear Christian friends,
Have you ever picked up paw paws and put them in your pocket? Or sung “Way down yonder in the paw paw patch”? Or – do you know what a paw paw is?
I have heard of paw paws all my life, but I don’t know that I’ve ever tasted one. They caught my attention when Vivian Howard featured them on “A Chef’s Life”, so I started reading around and found phrases like “America’s best kept secret” and “mystery fruit of the eastern US”.
Paw paws are native to eastern North Carolina and grow in great abundance in our wild areas (the few wild areas that remain). The fruit has a yellow- green skin with a soft orange flesh and creamy custard-like consistency that tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. Raccoons – turkey - deer - possum- fox – skunk – birds – all love paw paws. Humans too - or used to, back when we knew what they were.
So what has happened to the paw paw? Same thing that has happened to so many heirloom food varieties – they don’t mass produce well. They bruise very easily, and do not have a long shelf life – only 2-3 days after being picked. In addition, paw paws picked early and allowed to ripen off the tree can have a bad taste. So really, the only way to experience the fruit is to be at a paw paw tree during late summer and early autumn, and pick the fruit right off as soon as it is ripe.
So why don’t we grow them in our yards? Paw paws are beautiful trees which have a tropical look, but they are not favored because even though their fruit is delicious, their blossoms smell like rotten meat. Put that together with the short fruit period - go out of town for two weeks at the beach and you run the risk of missing the whole paw paw season – and you have a tree that just isn’t popular with NC gardeners.
Except. Except we already know that bigger doesn’t always mean better. We know fast and efficient doesn’t always mean best. We know what everybody else is doing is not necessarily the best way to do things nor what we need to be doing. We know some of the most special things in life take time to arrive and don’t linger long, therefore we must be mindful and treasure the moments we have. And now you know I am not just talking about paw paws.
So guess what I bought in January. Not that I am thrilled to have additional reasons for marauding deer to be investigating my business! but now, over in the corner by the fence line, four paw paw seedlings are nestled in and awaiting spring. We’ll see how it goes – I’ll keep you posted.
Grace and peace,
Dear Christian friends,
The New Year begins in stillness.
As I write these words, we are at the moment of the winter solstice – the time in the northern hemisphere when the earth is tilted farthest away from the sun. The nights are long and it seems, in a loose translation of the Latin word “solstice”, that indeed this is the time when “the sun stands still”.
My little patch of earth is also still these days. My flower bed is a jumble of brown vegetation and dry stalks, mounds of seedheads and leaves left intentionally to provide food and cover for the songbirds who are silent this time of year, and for the dancing butterflys who are gone but who have left behind eggs and caterpillars carefully wrapped in small leaf cocoons and hidden away. Even the small mammals are still - quietly planning, I suppose, the next move they will make in the ongoing battle with me over how to break through my carefully installed permastone, flower pots, and wire barriers in order to once again feast on my precious spring bulbs. Down at the pond the air is quiet and the water is still, the bullfrogs and turtles buried deep in the mud to ride out the cold.
“To everything there is a season”. I am reminded of Zechariah, who had to be forced into silence in order to become aware of the full significance of the baby his wife Elizabeth was carrying deep in her womb. It is a great paradox: that sometimes we have to stop trying so hard to in order to get what we really want. When we are trying desperately to figure out the solution to a problem, often it is when we get our mind on other things that the answer comes and sits on our shoulder. It is when we stop looking so hard to find the missing car keys that we notice them right in front of us. And when it comes to prayer – often it is when we stop talking to God and sit in silence that the holy presence surrounding us becomes most clear.
By the time you read these words the days already will have begun their slow march toward the summer solstice, adding one minute of daylight per day. The daffodils, the first herald of spring, will be starting to send up their green shoots. But let us not lose the significance of God’s gift of a New Year that begins in stillness.
Grace and Peace,
Dear Christian friends,
The daffodils are starting to bloom.
Last fall we were rushing to get the fat bulbs planted before the ground froze. I shoved my bulb planter into the earth, lifted up the dirt, and promptly screamed. “Oh good, it’s a salamander!” said the biologist who lives with me, the same one who has long since given up running to see what is wrong every time I scream. “Good?” I asked, as I bent over closer to the little black thing with four legs and spots. “Yea, the presence of a salamander indicates a healthy ecosystem” he said, dropping it back into the hole where it gratefully slithered back down into the dark.
Later that night I cruised the internet and discovered that if salamanders lose a limb, or even some organs of their bodies, they have the remarkable ability to grow them back. This regenerative ability is closely studied by scientists who hope to harness their secrets for use in human medicine, particularly in brain or spinal injury treatments.
But salamanders are in trouble. They are amphibians, a unique group of vertebrates containing over 7,000 known species, and their numbers are threatened worldwide. According to AmphibiaWeb, a worldwide amphibian documentary site, nearly one-third (32%) of the world's amphibians are threatened, representing 1,856 species. Amphibians have existed on earth for over 300 million years, yet in just the last two decades there have been an alarming number of extinctions, nearly 168 species are believed to have gone extinct and at least 2,469 (43%) more have populations that are declining. This indicates that the number of extinct and threatened species will probably continue to rise.
It’s a race against time – to harness the secrets of the universe given to us by God before the results of our human exploitation of the earth shut the door on those possibilities. “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness” Daniel says of God, yet in our human arrogance we overuse, abuse and destroy, rather than treasure, protect and notice the hidden things of God’s creation, such as the lowly salamander’s remarkable ability to regrow a leg.
But there are still places where salamanders thrive. I look out across the edge of my pond where the daffodils are poking their heads up out of the dark earth, and think of the little black creatures with spots. They are out there, waiting to catch our attention, waiting to be considered important enough for us to demand their habitat be protected, waiting to share their miraculous God-given secrets with us.
Grace and Peace,
Dear Christian friends,
This morning the trash monsters had been at it again: those folks who drive backroads in Johnston county and leave bags of trash burst open on the side of the road. Sometimes it is household garbage at the end of my driveway, sometimes it is beer bottles and drink cans in the woods nearby, once it was an old green couch down in the creek, and today it was a half eaten meal from Wendy’s by the mailbox, complete with the telltale signs that critters found it before I did - the only ones out here who are in any way appreciative of the mess left behind.
I often wonder what people are thinking when they toss out the leftovers of their lives. Do they think someone else is going to clean it up? Do they just not care if it gets cleaned up? Do they think since no one saw them do it, it isn’t a problem?
Whose responsibility is it to care when everybody thinks it is someone else’s problem? You know, the old “somebody sure needs to ...” Somebody sure needs to clean up that mess… help those people… do something about that … (fill in here with anything, really). Me? I am just too busy, Lord. Got too much on my plate. I’m sure someone will get it done… I’ll be sure to point out this problem to someone who will be willing to help. Maybe I can help more when I retire.
November is the month we stop still in our tracks and say … ME. It is my responsibility to help with this problem. Whether anyone is watching or not, it is still my responsibility.
Whether I will directly benefit or not from this problem being solved, even then it is my responsibility to help out in any way I can. Because I wear the yoke of a servant. Because I have picked up my cross in the name of the one who carried his for the whole world. Because I am faithful to the God who created this world, and I want to leave it better than I found it.
And yes, we do this all the time, so why November especially? Because this is the month we fill out our pledge cards and bring them proudly to church to commit ourselves by putting our money where our mouth is. Because this is the month we say Happy Thanksgiving - thank you Lord for all you have blessed me with, and now, here I am. Send me.
Proud to be your pastor, First Christian,
There is a world traveler in my pond.
Eels are mysterious, fascinating creatures that are enough like snakes I squeal when one comes up on a fishing pole, but they are vital and intrinsic parts of the life and health of freshwater ecosystems. Like massive armies they forge up our rivers and streams, consuming massive quantities of worms, mosquito larvae, and decaying debris, thereby keeping our waterways clear and healthy.
Eels begin their lives in the warm waters of the Sargasso Sea. From there they begin their mysterious and elusive migration onto continents and into freshwater rivers, lakes and streams. They live as freshwater fish until it is time to spawn, at which time they reverse the whole process and return to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce and die.
In the time they live as freshwater creatures, eels can be found in every river, ditch and watering hole across the land. They are extremely resilient and resourceful creatures, propelling themselves over wet grass, digging through wet sand, and traveling underground waterways to reach their destinations. By forces of nature I do not begin to understand, some find their way into my pond on Crantock Road.
All the way from the Sargasso Sea to my little pond. Then, by some unknown cue, mature adults will suddenly turn and reverse the process – head back downstream to return to the sea where their life began, the place where they will spawn and die.
From the Sargasso Sea to my pond and back again. A reminder to me that all of life on this huge, beautiful planet is interconnected, dependent upon each other for survival, flowing into each other and out again as we dance the ancient mysterious dance of life to which the Creator set our feet at the dawn of time.
Does the Creator intentionally weave us together in this great web of life, each strand dependent on the other for survival? Does the Creator endow humans with the ability and the responsibility for caretaking the web which is the joy and the delight of its Creator? My study of scripture, my experience of the church as the place God’s creative glory is worshipped, and the eel in my pond all tell me the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes”.
Proud to be in the yoke with you, First Christian,
(P.S. Thanks, Marty – for being my pond partner and for giving me the article on freshwater eels!)
March 1, 2017
I knew Spring was coming the morning I came out of my bedroom and found the hawks playing on the front yard.
Google “do animals play?” and you will find a plethora of opinions across the range of scientific study. For years, animal study has been dominated by hard core behaviorists who presume a Darwinian history of life in which all animal behaviors evolved simply as mechanisms to become a fitter survivor. Recently, however, some scientists are beginning to entertain the possibility that sometimes animals stop and engage in behavior that has no survivalist benefit but that is – well, just fun.
I have watched this pair of red shouldered hawks for two nesting seasons now. I have watched them teach their young to hunt, sometimes using a little “tough love” as the hungry juveniles fly and screech after mom and dad “I don’t want to grow up! Feed me!” I have heard the screams of their prey – not my favorite sound. I have seen them fish and practice aerial flight maneuvers. I have watched them preen on the branch outside my window, and heard them sound a warning whenever the dogs get too close. But this morning they were playing – flying low and chasing each other across the yard, standing on the ground and then flying straight up as if to see who could get to their favorite tree branch first, darting back and forth across the yard from the tree branch to their favorite perch on my flower bed fence.
Christians have always known that joy is a part of creation. Our ancient texts tell us that when God created the world, the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. That the Leviathan was created to play in the sea. That amazement and joy flooded the disciples on that great first morning, the morning the world was recreated and made new by resurrection. That the day is coming in the bright light of God when the nursing child will play without fear over the hole of the poisonous snake because none shall hurt or destroy on all his holy mountain. Joy is a part of creation, and play is simply an expression of joy.
But now the coffee in my cup was cold, and I was late for work where the message light was already blinking and folks were getting impatient. Later that day I would begin planning Lent, the 40 days we walk close to the cross on our way to Jerusalem. Yet out on the horizon Easter is waiting, and spring… and on the front lawn, the hawks were saying thank you to their creator by just enjoying being alive.
Proud to be your pastor, FCC-
Dear Christian friends,
There was a dead deer in our pond in October. We discovered it one morning after it apparently was struck by a car on Crantock road and lived just long enough to topple unceremoniously into our mud. As Marty hitched up the tractor and pulled the deer out with a chain, I wondered what would have happened if we had been out of town when it died. What would have happened to the new stock of grass carp we had just released? What about all the furry wild critters that depend on the pond for drinking water? If we hadn’t been at home there would have been only, as the native Americans used to say, “death in the water”.
Everybody needs a break from time to time, a chance to get away and get perspective, but the deer reminds me of just how important our day-to-day life and work is. Minding the store. Counting the beans. Checking in on the neighbor. Showing up at work on time and prepared so others in the community with us can carry on with their lives.
Making a difference in our small corner of the world, one word, one action at a time. What would have happened if the shepherds had not been at their post, keeping watch over their flocks by night? What if the wise men had not been faithfully watching the stars as they came into view each evening? What if Joseph had not been willing to stay put and shoulder his responsibilities?
They would have missed Jesus.
Love to my church family this Christmastide,