St. Bede’s Sparrow

During the 7th century, King Edwin of Northumbria was trying to decide, after hearing the teaching of the missionary Paulonius, whether to allow Christians to preach in his Kingdom and whether to convert to Christianity himself. He consulted some of his advisers, the final of which gave him this sage advice:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in
comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the
swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit
at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes,
while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed,
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out
at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry
tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he im-
mediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter
to winter again. So this life of man appears for a
little while, but of what is to follow or what went before
we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine
tells us something more certain, it seems
justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

The above quotation from “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by the Venerable Bede, is likely more legend than history. But what a powerful image of the fleeting nature of life! King Edwin’s adviser knew that this life is short and that what comes before and after is vast and mysterious. He also knew that some certainty could give life purpose and meaning. Even the Christian mourns the dead and trembles at the thought of losing his grip on life, yet we live lives anchored in hope that what we do here, in the short time we are here, matters. There are some glimpses of eternity found scripture but in the end we don’t know that much more than Edwin’s adviser. We only know in whom we have placed our trust, and that He will be waiting in whatever awaits us in that vast world beyond.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Donkey


When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

-G.K. Chesterton

This lovely poem by G.K. Chesterton reminds us that Jesus came to redeem the rejected and despised. It is a telling of Palm Sunday from the point of view of the donkey. Chesterton builds on the detail found in Luke’s gospel that the donkey chosen for Jesus to enter Jerusalem with had never been rode upon. Such a creature must feel rejected. The donkey is a creature considered to be unnatural and a half breed. One beaten and abused. Yet it is this creature that takes place in the triumphal entry. As disciples, we are called to see even the most despised creatures as children of God and to be agents of redemption in their lives. Because the truth is all of us were among the rejected when Christ chose us.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Clock Man


“How much will you pay for an extra day?”
The clock man asked the child.
“Not one penny,” the answer came,
“For my days are as many as smiles.”

“How much will you pay for an extra day?”
He asked when the child was grown.
‘”Maybe a dollar or maybe less,
For I’ve plenty of days of my own.”

“How much will you pay for an extra day?”
He asked when the time came to die.
“All of the pearls in all of the seas,
And all of the stars in the sky.”

-Shel Silverstein 

“As for man,” the Psalmist declares, “his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more.” How much would you pay for an extra day? As Shel Silverstein’s simple little parable reminds us, our answer may depend on our age. I’ve had many an old timer tell me that “youth is wasted on the young.” As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, it is important for us to remember that while we have hope in a resurrection, that does not mean our time is any less precious. In fact, it is all the more so. We have a limited time on this earth to be part of God’s Kingdom-building work. We only have a limited amount of time to show Christ’s self-sacrificing love to others. One day spent serving and loving is more precious that all of the pearls in all of the seas, and all of the stars in the sky.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Book Moth


A moth ate words. To I who wondered it seemed
A remarkable fate, when I learned of it,
That the thing had devoured the speech of a certain man.
A thief in the dark of night, chewing through proverbs,
Replacing them with himself. That unwanted guest,
Was no whit the wiser for the words he ate.

The Book of Exeter

I can still remember coming across this poem as a child in a bright orange paperback on my Mother’s bookshelf titled, “Anglo Saxon Poetry.” I remember reading this poem and being disappointed in the riddle. “It’s a moth,” I thought to myself, “It’s right there in the first line.” I quickly lost interest and moved to other things. The wisdom of this simple parable was wasted on me. It wasn’t until I flipped through the book as teen who was hungrily devouring poetry that I chanced upon the riddle again and found much in it worth contemplating. There is a difference between being a reader who simply chews through words and is not made any wiser and a reader who understands and internalizes what she is reading. When Ezekiel is given the prophecy he is to set before the people, he encounters it in a vision of a scroll which he must eat. When the 1st Psalm declares that the righteous “meditate” on God’s Word day and night, the word “meditate” is the same word used for “chew.” We are called, as disciples, to devour scripture. But there is a difference between memorizing verses, stories, and bits of theology, and actually applying that wisdom to our lives. When we read the words of scripture, we must put them into practice. Otherwise, like the book moth, we will be no whit wiser for the words we ate.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

In Heaven


In Heaven, Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind
Presently God said:
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered: “Oh, my lord,
“Memory is bitter to me
“For if I did good deeds
“I know not of them.”
Then God in all His splendor
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass,” He said.

-Stephen Crane

This parable in poetry, by the famous Naturalist, Stephen Crane, rewards a little meditation. On first read, the poem is about humility. It calls to mind Jesus’ own words that “he who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” On further thought, though, we find a second, more central insight: the little blade of grass was not filled with any kind of false humility; the little blade of grass was the only one that saw itself clearly. It is important that Stephen Crane uses grass for this illustration because of the sheer absurdity. What can a blade of grass really do to distinguish itself from another blade of grass? Are not all blades of grass exactly alike? And what can a blade of grass do in the way of good deeds? Do not all blades of grass live in the same fashion? Only the little blade of grass saw his existence clearly. There are countless more insights to be gleaned from this deceptively simple poem, but the one I settle on is this: true humility is found in seeing ourselves clearly, not as the triumphant heroes deserving of what good comes our way, and the victim in every misfortune, but as simply another blade of grass made special only by the attention of a gracious creator.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Wind


Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

-Christina Rossetti

The wind is an enduring and powerful metaphor for the presence of the invisible God. You need not look further than the 3rd Chapter of John’s Gospel for an example of this parable. My personal favorite version of the wind metaphor is this poem by Christina Rossetti. The image of the trees bowing in reverence calls to mind Moses shielding his eyes as the Glory of God passes by on Mount Sinai.  In Hebrew, the word for wind is “ruach.” This word can also be translated as “breath” or “spirit.” I love the idea that wind, breath, and spirit are all mixed together in this mystery called God. That which animates the trees, animates us. It is a divine gift: God’s holy gift of Himself. No one knows what this gift of God looks like, but perhaps when we see people bowing their heads, we can know that He is near.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Each Day…


Each day as dawn approaches,
the King sits in majesty
and blesses the holy creatures:
To you, my creatures, I speak,
before you I declare—
Creatures who bear the throne of my glory
with all your heart, and willingly with your soul—
Blessed is the hour of your creation,
and exalted is the constellation
beneath which I gave you form.
May the light of that morning continue to shine
when you came into my mind—
for you are a vessel of my desire
prepared and perfected on that day.
Be silent, creatures of my making,
so I might hear my children pray.

-Author Unknown

This anonymous poem, translated by Peter Cole and published in Poetry Magazine, is part of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. This tradition is all about seeking to enter into God’s throne room through prayer and meditation. The Kabbalah tradition has resulted in some captivating descriptions of what that most holy of places is like. I love this beautiful little scene of morning in the throne room as the King of creation blesses the angels who He refers to as “creatures.” It is only those who are praying down below who are called “children.” “What is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou cares for him?” the psalmist asks. The Apostle John adds, “Behold! What great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God!” More amazing to the ancients than the notion that the God of the universe should be surrounded by splendor and majesty, is that He would care enough to listen to our prayers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…