The spiritual practice of silence has been important to my learning the ways of peace. Silence doesn’t always quiet my anxious thoughts and feelings. Something in me wants to get noisy and busy again so I don’t have to see how strong my anxiety is. Silence has often been more diagnostic than therapeutic for me.
So, in a particular moment of silence, sitting in my backyard on a sunny spring day, I was seeking to enjoy the presence of my Father in heaven. I felt the approach of familiar anxiety. But I also noticed the sound of birdsong surrounding me. One bird had a song that was a rapid-fire burst of chirps. She seemed nearly as insistent as my anxiety, but her message sounded something inviting, like, “I’m happy this morning. I’m well cared for. We have a Maker who watches over our lives. We are loved. It’s why I sing this morning.”
I heard the wisdom of Jesus in this. I heard Jesus inviting me to pay attention to the birds, as he invited a crowd to do on a hillside two thousand years ago (Matthew 6:25-27). The birds seemed to be reminding me that they do not go without. Without shopping or farming, they find a daily meal even in our back yard.
In the spirit of Jesus’ birdwatching advice, I’ve taken to saying to myself, “Jesus just might be right about worry.” I’m not actually much in doubt about this idea. But my guts sometimes harbor a different sentiment than my cognitive confidence. Reminding my anxiety that Jesus might be right is my way of backing into truth. Jesus says that my noisy anxious thoughts and feelings do not have the last word.
The more I speak with leaders about hurry, the more I realize that a common form of soul hurry among us is anxiety. It’s certainly true for me. My friend and bishop, Todd Hunter, once said in a sermon, “If it can be done in anxiety, it can be done better in peace.” Doesn’t that sound like kingdom wisdom? Doesn’t it seem rather obviously true?
But, honestly, the first time I heard it, something in me rose up in strong resistance. Part of me disagreed with this word of wisdom; something in my gut questioned. I found myself wondering whether I’d get much done without my anxiety. I worried that I might not press myself to the same high standards that anxiety often pushed me to. I was strangely viewing my anxiety as an asset when Jesus was telling me that it was a liability.
BIRDS AS MENTORS
What does Jesus have to say about my worrying? How about his teaching on anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount? The idea about doing things better in peace drew me back to the original wisdom of Jesus, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25).
How does Jesus want to help me overcome my habits of worry? He suggests a bit of birdwatching. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26). Jesus wants us to notice that the birds don’t appear to live in anxiety. They are not frantically worried about their next paycheck, or their next bill, let alone their next meal. Unlike us, they don’t even do the work of sowing, reaping, and saving, and yet the Father cares for them.
I’ve taken Jesus’ encouragement literally. Little by little, I’ve set up various birdfeeders in our backyard. There is a tray feeder with mixed seed that draws many different birds. There is a tube feeder with Nyjer seed for the goldfinches and other small birds. There is a suet cake feeder that has drawn woodpeckers, scrub jays, crows, and even a stray squirrel. Also, we keep a grape jelly and sugar water feeder for bright yellow hooded orioles when they’re up visiting from Central America.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know each bird’s name and habits. They’ve become my friends. I’ve loved unexpected visitors, like the little Pin-tailed Whydah who decided the tray feeder was his personal domain. I find myself giving thanks for a family of scrub jays hanging around for a season. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed when some migrate in and back out.
Most of all, though, the birds have become my teachers in non-anxious living. I keep a downstairs office at home with a sliding glass door that looks out on all these feeders. At any moment, especially an anxious one, I can look out and see the birds enjoying what I’ve provided. And I can remember in that moment that what is provoking my anxiety is not outside the Father’s provision for me. This reminder has been helping.
The care of God for his creation, such as the birds, is an expression of pure grace. God’s provision is more like a gift than a paycheck. Grace precludes any orientation to earning, but my anxiety tends to be rooted in an earning perspective on my life and work. Do I or don’t I deserve what God provides? The birds don’t seem to be wrestling much with this. God isn’t assessing whether I deserve what he gives moment to moment. God’s nature is generous, and so God’s interaction with me is rooted in grace.
God cares for the birds who aren’t doing much to change the world. They are precious to God, but we, made in his image, are far more precious to the Father. If God graciously cares for little birds who are here today and gone tomorrow, how much more will God care for women and men made in his very image who will live forever? In light of this reality, anxiety is a less realistic response than confidence and peace is. This isn’t a condemning correction. This is a simple, kind statement of kingdom reality. We have a Father who cares for us well and constantly.
My anxieties are a kind of soul amnesia. I forget that God is constantly caring and providing for me. Perhaps this is why God invites us to “remember” so often in Scripture. Remembering the care of God is a good practice for our souls.