A favorite time and place for me are mornings, on the deck in my backyard. When weather and schedule permit, it’s a place that brings me a lot of peace. I can hear the DFW airport receiving its inmates and launching its escapees. The busy freeway to the east hums at varying tones and my view is full of trees–Crepe myrtles on the east, Wax-leaf, White Oak and Pines on the south. But what I really enjoy are the birds. The energy, the songs, and the funny behaviors make me laugh. Yesterday, two sparrows pecked a bossy squirrel on his bum until he left. Fantastic.
I’ve had friends laugh in my face that I like birds. As if somehow my gruff exterior disallows something like this. To be honest, there have been moments where it did indeed embarrass me to admit it. But I was raised in the wide-open spaces of Western Nebraska and moments of peace, in nature, always bring a familiar sense of quiet to my busy life, my busy work, in my busy city. Escaping my call and task is not of interest. I’m not itching to get back to simpler times. It reminds me that God knows my whole story–from the country to the city.
In particular, it reminds me of a season of life for my Mom and Dad. After all of the boys left the house there were quite a few years that Mom and Dad had bird feeders out that would bring in a crowd. At first, when we would visit and watch the birds, I was bored. Dumb birds. After all, most of my early adolescence was me with a BB gun, imagining myself to be Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, looking for feathery enemies to defeat. But watching the delight on my Mom’s face when a new bird showed up was really enjoyable. She and Dad would grab the well-thumbed “Nebraska Bird Guide” on the counter and try to find out what it was. They would talk about the personality traits of the different species–she hated Blue Jays because they were bullies and had a real soft spot for the poor finches who were so tiny. We all eventually joined in as we noticed newcomers that none of us had heard of. My young children particularly enjoyed their antics as they played in the snow.
As Mom’s mind deteriorated, she still had a long time where she enjoyed the birds. But as time went on, she quit looking for aviary I.D.s and just watched them as they fought, played, struggled and fed; a certain acceptance that they were there–welcome guests–was enough.
My backyard at my present home in Texas is full of birds. A pair of Cardinals has spent the whole year with us, nesting in an overgrown Wax-leaf bush. They spend a lot of time together, but they quarrel a lot. Sparrows galore, Mockingbirds, Doves, Ring-necked Doves, Western Kingbirds, Bluejays, Crows and a finch I couldn’t identify rounded out this morning’s schedule. I sometimes catch myself wishing for a Texas bird guide to thumb through, and then I am embarrassed that I’m old enough to want that. But the Cedar Waxwings, Hummingbirds and Robins all seem to just show up–welcome guests.
But there is another player in my neighborhood who doesn’t bring peace.
He is a raptor that kills other birds and eats them. I’m pretty sure it’s a male Cooper’s hawk¹, but in any case, he’s a lethal element. You can tell when he’s around; the chattering, chirping, cawing, whistling, and cooing vanishes. I don’t even have to see the shadow of death to know he’s near. Twice I’ve seen this sky-shark take another bird in flight. I’ve watched countless chases of impressive aeronautical dodgery, and once he proudly killed and ate his lunch on my neighbor’s rooftop; in full view of my backyard devotions. He coldly looked over at me as if daring me to preach at him. I just sat there in awe. The feathers from the defeated flew into my yard and he didn’t care one bit. In spite of the pain and the seeming cruelty of the situation, I’m impressed by the radical focus of the Cooper’s hawk. There’s one thing he does–hunt. The other birds goof off, party, eat, sing, make love, fight over food, and argue–a lot. But Cooper (as I’ve dubbed him) only hunts or prepares to hunt more. He is singular in his attention.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the book of John. Early in my leadership journey, I didn’t spend much time reading the disciple that Jesus loved. No reason for that is clear in my memory, but it has been a gap. To make up for it, this whole year I’ve been slowly working through the red letters. A lens of leadership has been my hermeneutic and my, oh my, what a delight it has been so far. I have watched Jesus command his disciples to put their reputations in danger, to cross stormy seas and to feed people with no resources. On his own, he cleared the temple, broke a billion boundaries, walked on water and put the leaders in their place. His command of every situation is impressive and His intelligence is shocking. But recently, something I’m coming back to is His courage, focus and resolve.
In Chapters sixteen and seventeen, Jesus is explaining exactly what’s going to happen in the future. It says that he knew what was in their hearts and answered them before they could ask (16:19). Jesus told them that it was better for them if he left and that they, in fact, would have tribulation (16:33). He prayed for unity, described eternal life and foretold the weight of their future glory. But there’s something in chapter eighteen that jumped out at me with my lens of leadership. “So, Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth…” (18:4). Hold up there. Jesus knew what was coming…knew he was going to be brutally tortured and die. Yet he left a safe place with friends and walked out the door to meet his sorrow.
It’s hard to think this one through. Some of us want to think Jesus was only thinking of the final outcome of his resurrection; some prefer to think he knew every word that was about to be spoken, every stroke of the scourge that was about to dig out his back. Regardless of the level of detail, Jesus knew what he was facing. All the pain, all the humiliation, all the loss and separation from God. Then he went forth! He stepped into the noose, he didn’t hesitate, he didn’t shy away! He was focused on one thing–obeying the Father. A single reference point that showed his purpose and gathered all his desires into one thing. He knew that an individual love of his disciples wasn’t enough. His teaching wasn’t enough. He had to pay back something to God that we owed, yet was out of our reach, no matter how hard we try. Something had to be bought, and the only price valuable enough was his own life. For us, he went forth. For me. My mind can barely register this, and my heart leaps in my chest when some tiny kind of realization dawns on me that the words “went forth” are the hinge pins of my salvation. It’s been said over and over–he would rather die than live without us.
I revel in the idea that Jesus loves me as I am–I do. I get emotional thinking of how his presence has been with us as we have buried our family and friends, lost our babies and suffered for His sake. I love that Jesus leaves the 99 to find the one, the coin, the son. His kindness does indeed lead to my repentance. I love the idea of the laughing Jesus, the one who turned water into wine at a great party, who raises widow’s sons and saves little girls for their dads.²
But none of those things would matter if he had not paid the price, and for that he had to have the courage and resolve to go forth, knowing what was in store. One thing alone has allowed us all the things that are good. One movement, one step… one thing. He was desperately, amazingly, powerfully singular in his attention.
In my best moments, I want to be someone like Mary, who knew that “one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:42). Becoming focused on this is a goal for me. Someday, I will be able to honestly say with Paul that “One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,” (Phil 3:13) is my focus. I am growing in that there is only “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
If you’re like me, you might be tempted to think, “There are SO many more things to think about! This kind of pious wool-gathering leads to the kind of folks who are so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good!” (or some variant thereof that fits your personality).
Agreed, but those things come second. It is first the Vine, then the branches; first abide, then bear fruit. If I am to obey, a singular focus on Jesus will allow me to deploy all of my life and work in a way that brings love, light, healing, and strength to the world around me. He promised that it will work this way. My first job is to stay focused.
It is here that my leadership will be fully appropriate for my day and age. This is the pathway and the action required of me today and every day until I reach my rest. My leader has already paved the way for me to follow. Pray for me. I need help with this.
¹The internet says that the other possibilities are a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Grey Hawk or an oversized Kestrel (if any of you nerds are looking for answers).
² The story of Jairus’ daughter is especially poignant for me. You can read about it in Matthew 9, Luke 8 and Mark 5.