("St. Francis Preaching to the Birds," Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.
--Saint Francis of Assisi's "Sermon to the Birds" - c1220
I've been dealing these last few months with some long-buried memories. As expected, all the bad ones came to the surface first, like scum. But over time, the bad ones have subsided to some degree and long buried good ones have started to surface.
It had been a while since I had been in the pulpit for one of my lay preacher stints at Trinity. As I started to work on this thread earlier in the week, I actually started thinking for the first time ever about "where my preaching comes from." As I've said earlier, I've had a lay preacher license in our diocese now for almost a year and a half. It's something I have thoroughly enjoyed as one of my ministries. But I have spent much of my early time with this license mostly exerting a lot of mental energy making sure I'm "scholarly correct" in my themes. As a non-seminary trained person, I have felt a little academically less qualified than the collared set, and it is my nature to dwell on the things in which I feel less competent and capable.
Meanwhile, the "heart" part of it has been more or less evolving on its own, without much interference from my frontal lobes.
About a year ago, the first time I had the opportunity to supply for the Presbyterians, I was nervous about the fact that unlike at "home," when all I have to do is preach and the priest presides, I would also be responsible for leading their worship from start to finish.
My Priest Associate had tried to put me at ease by saying, "Well, didn't you ever play 'preacher' as a kid?"
"NO!" I shot back. "I rode my bike, played ball, and played with action figures and building toys like Tinkertoys!"
I realized just recently, that statement wasn't accurate.
I had been asked a question in a different venue that went more like this: "What are some things you remember about your earliest awareness of God?"
When I got to thinking about it, two memories popped into my head that I had long forgotten. I have found that I really don't remember much at all about my childhood. I have bits and pieces, and I have recollections of stories other relatives have told me, but not a lot of stories that I actually remember. What I tend to remember are the "moods" associated with the stories. I tend to remember "stories told TO me" better than the actual experiences. I kind of remember themes of the experiences. Many of these stories in my memory run together into some almost "prototype" stories, and they actually seem to be more than one story quilted together.
But as I pondered this question, the first memory that emerged was I could remember me, sitting on my grandparents' porch with my two dogs, "telling them about my Sunday School lesson." As I sort of thought harder about it, I could remember I often did that, or told them a story out of the Bible. I remember the dogs sitting and cocking their heads and listening intently to me. I also remember having "Dog Eucharist" on the porch with them, with saltines and water.
The other memory I had came to me when I recently went back to the cemetery where four generations of my family are buried to pay my respects. The gravestones of both my great-grandparents and my great-great grandparents look like a lectern, with an open book carved on the top in stone. Time has weathered the stones so I don't know if any particular Bible verse was chiseled onto the book.
As I stood out there and looked across the cemetery, another memory popped in my head. When I was old enough to ride a bike, I used to ride out to the cemetery and play in the cemetery. Sometimes other kids would go with me, and sometimes I would go alone. I remember making up stories about the names on the graves and we kids telling them to each other like ghost stories. But what I remember about those trips alone was there were a lot of times I climbed onto either my great-grandparents' or my great-great-grandparents' headstones and told the stories in my Sunday School lessons.
So I realize that when the question was posed to me the first time, I was thinking along the lines of "playing with other kids." When it got asked of me in a different way, I remembered that I "preached" to my dogs, and to the birds in the cemetery. That was a time I would never have ever seen a female doing that in real life.
What's odd is I really don't remember much at all about BEING in Sunday School. That is just kind of a fog. I remember the mood, though. I remember I didn't care for it much. I don't remember why. I wonder if it was because I didn't sit still well, or tended to blurt out the answers, or something like that. I remember liking "big church" okay but not really liking Sunday School all that much. I don't remember winning any prizes or any of my Sunday School teachers in particular.
But yet one of the things I remember feeling pretty good about was preaching to animals and birds. I find it interesting that a good memory of the process was telling the stories, not so much learning the stories. Both these memories are memories of being outdoors.
It makes me realize why things like the recent course I did on "Praying with the Elements" had value to me. Some of my earliest, deepest connections and awareness of the presence of God occurred outside, and they involved wanting to share the stories. It makes me realize that much of the core of the spiritual parts of me have not moved far from what really rooted me to God.
I find myself being incredibly grateful for them.