Several years ago I went to a conference at a facility in Richmond, Virginia located near the James River. I had the opportunity to get up early and walk the trails a little before the full sunrise. It was a peaceful meandering in a lovely setting. But then the sun rose and all of a sudden there was this intense sound coming from all directions. It was the birds, singing a full-throated welcome to the morning. It’s a phenomenon appropriately called “the dawn chorus.” It lasted only a few minutes, it was beautiful as it was fleeting, I was awestruck. It was truly divine.
It is great to be able to pause like that and have a change in perspective. A change in perspective is part of what we are trying to accomplish in the Season of Creation. This is an opportunity to look at scripture in an entirely different angle. One of the things that comes through when you change your perspective is that Creation Season leads us to consider a “positive theology of nature.” That is, nature, as we saw last week, not just as the backdrop of human endeavor. Nature with its own divine purpose. This is not to say that we worship nature, rather, that we should respect it as part of God’s creation. A positive theology of creation invites us to care, enjoy, discover, the presence of God in the world around us.
But it may take getting out of our concrete habitat to be able to appreciate this perspective. A positive theology of nature would inevitably conclude that the dawn chorus I heard was a hymn of thanksgiving, a song of praise, a tribute to the Almighty, rather than just birds signing in pavlovian reaction to the light or some other instinctive trigger. It would mean that the birds are aware, at some level, of their Creator. It would mean that the Creator cares for them like he cares for us.
Isn’t that what we heard in the gospel today? Jesus tells us that God cares for ravens and lilies. A beautiful metaphor to remind us that everything has value in God’s creation. We may be at the top rung, but that doesn’t mean that we can step on other species. In fact, it may mean that it takes a whole lot of other parts of creation to prop us up. The dawn chorus reminds me that in God’s grand scheme of things, we are all “marvelously made.”
Do you know what the official State bird is for New Jersey? It is the goldfinch. It was a bit alarming to read in the Daily Record yesterday that we might lose our state bird. According to an article in the journal Science (American Birds in Crisis, Sept 2019) research shows that since 1970, bird populations in the US and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or a loss of almost 3 billion birds.
For the Goldfinch apparently, the warming of its natural habitat is making it seek cooler breeding areas. If our temperatures rise one more degree or so, we will have to look for another bird to represent us at the national level. The article mentioned the bird’s distinctive plumage and song, and I realized that I don’t think I’ve seen or heard one in a while.
That should concern us. It’s one thing to say that the goldfinch might just have to move elsewhere to survive. It’s another to realize that finding a new habitat and thriving in it, may not be possible. How do we respond to this news? How do our actions reflect a positive theology of Creation? We have to become convinced that the life of the goldfinch matters.
“Consider the ravens:” -Jesus says- “They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them…” trying to get us to focus on what has real value, on what matters.
Are we listening? We have been at a similar crossroads before.
Way back in 1962, the seminal environmental book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. It was a real turning point in how we looked at nature. The book documented the effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson brought to the attention of the public, but especially politicians and policy makers, the results of her research. And “It spurred a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” (Wikipedia) We know these policies work because bird species, such as the American eagle, which were on the endangered list, have made a remarkable recovery.
It’s interesting that all these years later, we are again faced with the prospect of a silent spring. The issue is different now, it’s not pesticides but climate change or global warming. The challenge again is for us to make enough lifestyle changes in order to save them and perhaps us. The birds aren’t the only ones. Many scientists believe we are on our way to a mass extinction. That is, when major environmental change happens worldwide that threaten entire species at the same time.
It is believed that previous mass extinctions were due to cosmic events, like an asteroid hitting the earth and the dinosaurs died. This time is different, though, this time it directly attributed to human activity. Put simply, our choices from what we eat to what we drive to the clothes we use, all contribute to this potential disaster. So perhaps we need to take a page out of 1962 and do all we can to reverse this trend before it’s too late.
Thinking positively, or believing positively, the Gospel today reminds us that God provides for all his creatures, ourselves included; so for all the dire warnings it is important to remember that God is on our side.
Of all God’s creatures, we alone have the capacity to ask questions, and even to worry about what’s going to happen next. But, since Jesus’ time we seem to be more preoccupied by what we are to wear and what we are to eat, than we are about what we are destroying. If we want to stop worrying then we need to heed the warnings and act. We alone have the ability to change our perspective and imagine other outcomes. We are to trust God’s providence, yes, but we also need to learn our place among God’s creatures in the divine ecology.
This Sunday is an invitation to consider inverting our assumed dominance in the created order, we need to shed that sense of entitlement that comes from being at the top of the food chain, and accept the responsibility of ensuring that future generations will be able to hear the birds sing.
I, for one, look forward to the dawn of a new chorus where all God’s creatures join together in a single song of praise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Photo: (c) Audubon Society
Audubon Society – audubon.org
World Wildlife Federation – worldwildlife.org
The Nature Conservancy – support.nature.org
BirdLife International – birdlife.org