The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
January 15, 2008
The mysterious power of presence
When I wake up in the morning, I like to get a cup of coffee and sit in our spare bedroom—which used to be my father-in-law’s room for the eight years he lived with us—and watch the birds. I have some birdfeeders and a birdbath, and it is therapeutic for me to spend time with God there.
Well, usually it is. One recent morning there was a goldfinch sitting on my birdbath. And something seemed to be wrong with it. Usually a bird will alight, take a few sips of water, and then fly off. But this goldfinch was just sitting on the birdbath. It was really cold out there, and the bird had fluffed up its feathers.
It would occasionally preen, or take a sip of water. It even tucked its head into its wing to sleep a few times. But it just stayed there. Five minutes went by.
Something had to be wrong, I thought. This was not typical bird behavior. Maybe it was sick. Or dying. Maybe one of the hawks in the forest would see it sitting there and make a nice meal of it.
It was really hard to watch this bird not acting right, just a few feet away from me. I thought about whether there was anything I could do to help the bird. I did not want to disturb it because I did not know its condition. If a hawk spotted it, I could not save it. If it was sick I could not heal it.
Five more minutes passed, and I was feeling very disturbed. What I really wanted to do was walk away from the situation. I wanted to get up, go into another room, and pretend that I had never seen this. I mean, the bird was not my business. Nature is nature, and it’s a tough world out there, and watching this bird was really starting to bum me out. It was ruining the peace of my time with God. I thought to myself that I would have been better off not even knowing this bird existed.
By this time I had such developed such empathy for the bird that I had started crying, and I knew I couldn’t leave. I felt like I had to stay there on a vigil with the bird, until whatever happened to it, happened. Somehow I knew there was value in just witnessing what the bird was going through, in caring about the bird, and in not turning away from what I was seeing. I had the distinct impression that this was what God wanted me to experience in this particular time with him: just to be present with this bird.
At the 15-minute mark, a squirrel came up to the birdbath for a drink, startling the goldfinch, which flew away. I don’t know what happened to it after that, but I do know that I can’t get this experience out of my mind.
I thought of these words of Jesus: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”
I felt God had just revealed to me something of the depth of the love he has for the sparrows, indeed for the most humble parts of his creation. By compelling me to stay there and learn to care about the goldfinch, God guided me into a very Christian act, an act of awareness and simple presence.
It occurred to me that Jesus’ next words were these: “And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
About an hour later I went to Sunday worship at my church. It was “mission Sunday,” where three people who had travelled on a recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic gave short testimonies. They had not gone on this kind of trip before, and much of their testimony reflected this. They saw suffering and poverty. They saw things that didn’t make sense to them, and things that seemed horribly wrong. They saw things from which they wanted to turn away. But they didn’t. They were present, they experienced what God wanted them to experience, and they began to get an idea of the depth of love God has for the people in that country.
It’s going to take some time for them to come to grips with what they saw. They’re going to have to figure out why life is the way it is in the Dominican Republic, and what that has to do with them. That’s a good thing; in fact, it’s a God thing. When you give God even a little piece of yourself, he makes it very hard for you to go back to who you were before. Each of these people now has a place inside them that God is working on. They’re learning that once you start attending to God, he begins to do things with your life.
God does at least three things when we are present in situations where he places us. Life change is one of them. Gaining a new understanding of the depths of God’s love is another. But perhaps most mysterious is this: somehow by our presence and attention, God moves through us into the situation itself, into people’s lives.
I can’t tell you how this works, but I know that it does. I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of it in my life. It’s tied up in the Holy Spirit’s actions, and in our own lack of resources and need to rely on our Father. Prayer has something to do with it too. Somehow, when we allow ourselves to be moved by what we see, to come alongside someone’s suffering, to feel righteous anger and sorrow in the face of injustice, to know what it is like to be powerless to change things in our own strength… there is God, working through our simultaneous willingness and helplessness to advance his Kingdom.
I’m leading a small group in my church right now. We are looking at the issue of child soldiers and reading A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. At the same time, I’m also going through the book Children at War by P.W. Singer so I can provide context to the group. This is the most difficult study I’ve ever led. It’s affecting me and those I lead on a very personal level because the subject matter is so horrific, overwhelming, widespread and intractable. I can only read a few pages at a time in these books before I must stop, let the despair sink in, and pray a lamentation. I’ve been at it for more than a month, and the thing I keep coming back to is that I’ve become a witness to something I can do nothing about.
And yet—there it is again, isn’t it? God is doing something with me because I have dared to join him in witnessing this madness. God is showing me more of himself through it. And I am coming to more strongly believe that something does happen, something is changing in the world precisely because I know I have little power, because I need to pray, because I have joined with God on this journey.
I am convinced God wants to mess with our lives. He wants us to see things we cannot turn away from, and he wants us to go with him to those places. Sometimes it’s so we can help make something better. Sometimes it’s to draw others to him. Sometimes it’s to be with people whose circumstances you cannot change and let them feel your presence. Sometimes the point is to become more aware of human need—to take off our blinders—and to lift up that need to Him.
It all has a Kingdom purpose. Our job is to let God take us where he will, show us what he will, and use us as he will. Amen.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father."