At a funeral in our Micah community this year, the brother of the longtime friend we were remembering showed me a picture of a birdhouse he had been building. A tall red shaft rose up through the center and several smaller houses crisscrossed up the sides in a bright blue, yellow and green. Engraved around three of the entrances to each birdhouse were the names and lifespans of their mother, father and now our recently passed friend.
“It started off as one,” his sister clarified. “And then it just turned into a way to remember the whole family.”
For longer than I have worked with homeless neighbors, this friend of ours lived in tents, abandoned buildings, in hotels and on couches. Oh, the irony that his life would be commemorated with a permanent home for the winged creatures of God’s creation.
Birds, often symbols of change or spiritual messengers, are also how we at Micah often talk about what it means to love our neighbors.
Sometimes we are the hummingbird—rapidly darting in and out of the problem with swift and purposeful solutions. Tirelessly, we pursue the sweetest nectar, gently nudging people toward healing and freedom from the burdens of their past.
There are moments, however, that the posture of an owl is a more suitable way to lead a neighbor through their season of change. Owls perch and listen. They float and strategize. They hover in a realm of the unknown, quietly waiting for the moment of opportunity. Master of the complex, the owl specializes in the hard things, the scary places; and it ruffles no feathers with patient, calculated maneuvers.
But if I have come to appreciate anything in the almost 15 years of this work, it is that a third way—a spiritual one—so often transcends whatever impact we imagined ourselves capable. We are ultimately affirmed that justice has been done and kindness has been loved when we find ourselves in the place of the cardinal—the little red bird so bold and striking in color that we don’t even have to be looking for it to notice its special presence.
The cardinal manifests beyond statistics, solutions and even healing. It is the place where reconciliation occurs. It is watching a person who believed themselves incapable, find themselves worthy of relationships, purpose and stability. It is hearing members of the homeless community say “my people” when they talk about the volunteers, churches and supporters they intersect with. And it includes being thankful when the last human solution we have is walking a neighbor to the grave and being able to say they were our friend.
As our community begins the turn of a new decade, I challenge us to pause and reflect on the birds that we have been and the birds we wish to become. The problems solved, the presence extended and the spaces created for God to show up makes Fredericksburg a just, kind and humble community.
The long slow work of God often begins with one very distinct purpose. But when the we come together as a whole community of birds loving neighbors, miracles occur ways we never could have imagined.