(Song sparrow nest courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, March 4, 2012)
Daily Office readings for March 4, 2012:
Psalms 24, 29 (morning)
Psalms 8, 84 (evening)
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
To this day, I still follow the pattern of my grandfather and hose the nests of sparrows and swallows off my house. I still hear his answer when I asked him why swallows and sparrows were unwelcome, when we had let other bird nests, such as orioles, remain undisturbed.
"Because sparrows are messy, and swallows terrorize the dogs."
I had seen both, so I really had no argument. I remember my childhood mind thinking there sure were a lot of inconsistencies when it came to birds. Sparrows sang beautifully, but everyone complained bitterly about their unattractiveness at the bird feeder and their penchant for fecal mayhem around the patio. I was told swallows were "good" birds in that they ate mosquitoes and other nasty flying bugs, but they swooped mercilessly at me and my rat terrier dog Peetee. All said, though, the bottom line was that swallows and sparrows were not going to find a home under the eaves of my grandparents' house--and I have to admit that to this day, they don't find one under the eaves of my house, either.
The ancient Hebrews, at times, must have felt like they were constantly getting the hose, too, as often as they found themselves in exile. Psalm 84 was very likely one that was sung by pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, according to some scholars, as well as one sung in times of exile. From the opening line onward, we are invited into a sense of yearning for a home that transcends physical boundaries, and invited to willingly go on pilgrimage, even if that journey goes through Baca (literally, from a Hebrew word for "weeping," or "tears.")
The Hebrew word that is generally translated as "sparrow" in English actually means any nondescript little bird, whereas "swallow" has a more specific counterpart in Hebrew, often used to emphasize a nomadic or migratory quality. It's a particularly interesting pair of birds to ponder in the early days of Lent--a time when we are often feeling a tad unsettled and drab as we are trying to adjust to a new spiritual practice or address our sense of withdrawal or craving over a chosen Lenten sacrifice.
It's a reminder that God's altar is a place of worthiness despite our own inconsistencies and incongruities. We are welcome at God's table, no matter how drab our feathers are, or how pitiful our songs sound. We are loved and cherished no matter how badly we've been mauled by the neighbor cat, or no matter how many white cars we've plastered with mulberry-stained droppings. We have a home safe enough to lay the eggs of hope and feed the hatchlings, if only we choose to fly there. Are we ready to stretch our wings and find our way home?