After a lengthy time away from my “From the Backyard” posts, its nice to have back to back weeks with material to reflect upon. For starters, this week blessed me with my first Milky Way capture of 2021. And, as with all images, it comes with a story.
This past week, the middle school and high school I oversee as Dean experienced the tragic death of one of our middle school students. There are few things more challenging than walking with a family through the unexpectant death of their child. A sea of questions emerge that return to a core struggle: How could God allow this? After 17 years of priesthood, I’ve come to only one, “good” answer to this question: I don’t know, but I wish God didn’t allow such things.
For some, the answer of “I don’t know” seems unsatisfactory at best. The irony is that when I walk with families who experience this type of tragic lose, it is the only answer they are comforted to hear. We then talk about how we will love each other as a family of faith through these difficult times and pray that clarity be given – even if it means a direct heart to heart with God in the afterlife.
Perhaps its a deficiency in my faith, but I’ve never expected or demanded God to answer all my questions. All I seek is for God to love me through them. This approach also resonates with a core truth of my ministerial life: I’ve never seen someone come to faith on arguments of truth alone, but I have seen people come to faith that have been the recipient of authentic Christian love.
So, what does this have to do with my picture above? One morning this past week, I woke up at 4:00am. I could tell I wasn’t going to fall back asleep so I decided to pray a little. “I need some stars.” This simple sentiment got me out of bed, into my car, and off to a quiet location outside of the city I live to do some stargazing. By the time I arrived, sunrise had already begun and I didn’t get the image I would have hoped to capture. At the same time, I didn’t care. The chilly time of prayer I offered for everyone and everything that happen this past week was far more fruitful than this picture. Amazing how when I feel like l need to reground myself in God, I prefer to look up to the stars above.
Part of this prayer also evoked a sense of hope in my heart as I realized we’re slowly coming closer to “Milky Way” season and the warmer weather that accompanies this shift in the night sky. This also means that spring is coming to my home state of Wisconsin, awakening a plethora of “Spring Weather Folklore” that we Wisconsinites love to banter about this time of year.
The symbol of Wisconsin spring folklore is a bird: The Robin. Growing up, I was taught that the first sign of spring is when you see your first Robin. Ever since childhood, I loved to see this bright orange harbinger of spring. However, since then, the folklore has deepened. When I moved to western Wisconsin, I was told you had to see three Robins before it was spring. Then, it was increased to four. After that, I was further corrected that it needed to snow on the Robins three times before it was spring. Poor little birds – How will our spring folklore torture this little bird in the years to come?
I hope its obvious I don’t take these tales of spring folklore too seriously. At the same time, even if we can poke holes in our favorite springtime symbols, they endure for a reason. Does a Robin mean that spring has definitively arrived in my home state? No, especially since some Robins stay in Wisconsin all winter long.
Do I believe that we only have three snowstorms until spring begins? Dear Lord, I hope not! I’m officially done with snow, but I also know that we can get snow even as late as May.
So, why do I take annual delight in looking for the first Robin of the year? The reason is that my lived experience tells me that the first Robin of the year gives me hope that the warmth of summer is close at hand. Some years, that hope gives way to warmer weather sooner than other years. Nevertheless, the lived experience of our seasons shows me that there is some value to these symbols, even if the precision of their meaning can fall apart rather quickly.
What really gets my hope burning strong is when other symbols of spring coincide with the arrival of Robins: The return of Sandhill Cranes, Killdeer, Horned Larks, and the sound of the crack of a wooden baseball bat at spring training in Arizona and Florida! Okay, the last example isn’t a bird, unless you’re a Cardinals, Blue Jays, or Orioles fan.
Does any one of these feathered guests definitively state, “It’s spring in Wisconsin?” No. Yet, when one is attentive to our creative world and begins to see the culmination of these beautiful creatures, it slowly shows a trajectory for our season, giving us confidence that warmer weather is ahead.
And this is the connection I see between the restful birdwatching and stargazing I’ve been doing and the frustration we feel when God seems absent from our struggles: If we are attentive to God, neighbor, and the world around us in prayerful contemplation, symbols begin to emerge in our lives that may not fully answer our questions, but provide a trajectory that gives us confidence that hope is coming like spring. The key is to remain attentive to God, neighbor, and the world. If we don’t, the symbols we need most can pass us by like birds on the wind, having never heard their sweet song of hope.
Spiritual exercise: How is God calling you to be attentive this week? What are the symbols of the natural world that God is presenting to you to provide a trajectory to your life? A good scientist and a good person of faith need to be attentive to the natural symbols before them. Let our attentiveness to these symbols draw us closer to one another and the God who both created and sustains these symbols.