But Wait, There’s More!

Last night I went to Liberty to hear a lady from the Houston Audubon Society talk about bird migration.  Which she did, with many  slides, in the dark. It was very interesting.  But my eyes were heavy.

When she finished her talk she called for lights.  And then, behold, she lifted a covered birdcage from the floor and set in on a table.  From the birdcage she drew forth a beautiful Purple Martin, name of Emilio.  Seems Emilio smacked into a window as a youth and sustained brain damage.  He can’t see, he can’t feed himself.  But he can sing, like an angel.

After telling his story and giving us time to admire him, she put darling Emilio away and lifted a large box to the table.  From this box she drew forth…a swallow-tailed kite.  This creature had fallen from her nest as a baby, mangling herself, but surviving.  She’s grown now. One wing is useless, she hasn’t got much of a swallow tail, she has zero coordination.  But oh that sleek, noble, beautiful white head!  Those fierce orange eyes! I was pleased to hear she shares quarters with a rescued Mississippi kite.  An interspecies friendship.

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After her story was fully told, back she went into her box.  Another box even larger was hoisted to the tabletop.  There was a great commotion going on inside it.  The bird lady said it was this bird’s first time to be shown in public, and it could be a disaster, but she’d had a chat with the bird about proper behavior, so they were going to try it.  Quoth the audience, “What kind of bird is it?”  She wouldn’t tell.  She opened the door of the box, struggled mightily with the creature, and brought forth … a turkey vulture.  This we were not expecting!

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This two-year-old young lady had a close encounter with a car in west Texas, necessitating partial amputations. So, like the other two birds, she can never live on her own.  Instead she gets mice and rats without having to work for them, and lots of human attention — a burden she must bear.
The bird lady pointed out her huge nostrils.  Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell.  Black vultures, not being quite as blessed, follow them around.
One thing that surprised me was the color of her feathers.  I had pictured  a rusty musty black.  Not at all.  She’s a dense sooty black, a look that suits her.
Another surprise:  vultures have long been considered raptors.  But now we’re thinking they’re more closely related to storks.
Hmmm.  The stork bringeth, the stork taketh away?
The bird lady had withheld her food all day, because a turkey vulture’s inclination when overburdened by life is to throw up.  Sure enough, when the bird lady went to stuff her back in her cage, the bird tried to throw up on her.  But it was only a dry heave. I admire the spirit of both ladies.
To have a vulture in the room was strange.  You could see her intelligence.  And her keen appraisal of us, turning her eyes from one face to another.  I tried to look as alive as I could!

Heart for Hawks

So I’m at my computer, putting together a prayer guide for the month of October.  I had just put the finishing touches on Day 1:

The Christian church continues to observe the season we call Ordinary Time, which runs this year from Pentecost Sunday to the first Sunday of Advent. We call this season ‘ordinary’ not because it’s common but because it’s ordered and numbered, as in mile markers on a journey. How wonderful that each new day offers an on-ramp to heaven!

I was viewing this with some satisfaction, with little expectation of affirmation beyond that, when down swooped an angel.  He perched on the back of a patio chair, just beyond my window.  Here he is:

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A poor image, I realize, but it’s a wonder my thunderstruck self was able to operate a camera at all!  He stood there a while, surveying the patio, the spring-loaded chair trembling under the weight of him.  He turn his back, he ruffled his gorgeous feathers:

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He stretched his magnificent wingspan, turning this way and that.  Then he winged over to the fountain, where he had a refreshing sip of water before departing.

Broad-wing? Red-shouldered?  I was too rattled for close observation.  But he gave me just enough of his time.  That’s often how it is with angels.

I offer you what I beheld through the screen. Tis all I can do!

Love,

Eastern Phoebe

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Budding Naturalist

At twenty months my granddaughter has not been still for a long time.  But today she was recovering from a tummy bug, not up to full speed.  After we had drooped around the house a bit, doing next to nothing, I decided we needed some fresh air.  We sat a spell on the front porch, as in days of yore. This time, though, rather than perch upon my knee she chose a low chair close to the bench where I sat.  Ah, she’s growing up!  She examined the dirt on the bottom of her feet.  She twirled a yellow leaf from a gum ball tree.  Then she came and sat by me on the bench.  Again, a whole lot of companionable nothing.  Time passed. A dark swallowtail butterfly fluttered by.  She said, “Hi.”  After a pause, she aimed an air kiss at where it had been.

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photo by Amelia’s aunt Katy

A fish crow called its group together with a doubled-up nasally caw.  I said, “That right there is the voice of a fish crow.”  She solemnly repeated, “fish crow.”  We practiced the nasally caw. We watched the congregation wing by.

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Wikipedia

Then, high above, I heard the wondrous sound of  Mississippi kites.  I could just make out the two of them, pinpoints swooping in front of a brilliant white  cloud.

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Wikipedia

I explained to Amelia that although the high pitched call of a kite is something like a broad winged hawk’s, the two birds of prey are nothing alike. The kite is small, dashing, elegant.  The hawk is bigger, darker, stockier. The kite catches insects, such as grasshoppers.  The hawk catches small creatures such as mice.  She registered this in silence, then got down and sat on the doormat with her back against the front door.  So we went inside.

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“May we ever enjoy Your consolations.”

This morning I arose with a powerful need for some lecture notes from 2001.  Once breakfasted and into my files, I knew I was in trouble: Years and years of notes, in disarray.  Undated documents.  Dated documents scrambled.  The good news?  In making what year-stacks I could, the exhilaration of lectures past suffused me.  It was so wonderful, such a privilege, to be in all those decades of lecture halls. I’m so grateful for the fierce compulsion to learn.  I’m confident there will be more! The bad news? The very notes I need are not there.  Loaned out, I suppose.  But still, a trace of their excellence lingers, in my files.

One thing I’ve learned is the futility of attacking memory head on.  Memory needs to be approached obliquely, with clear breathing,  with easy expectation.  If Memory sees I’m moving casually about my business, she just may appear, with a wink and a nudge.  Or not.   I’m still waiting!

And the wait can be such a delight.  After much rain the backyard is drenched with sun. And activity.  What sounds like the corner of the roof being broken off is merely a squirrel, convinced he’s the one to master the baffle on the birdfeeder.  No, he is not.  A wild rabbit is easing along the hedgerow. A rollicking wren breaks cover, allowing a heart-stopping glimpse of his tiny self.  The teenage cardinals are pestering their parents.  All’s right with the world.

But where are those notes, and what did they say??

Darling Trickster

 

I spied her on the patio at twilight, standing on the brick edge of the fountain, hands on the edge of the jar, having a nice drink.

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In that moment my long afternoon at the computer dropped away. Perhaps this creature with her guard down was my reward, my breathing space for deadlines met and then some?

She dropped to the pavement, ambled over to the birdbath. She leapt nimbly up, rocking the concrete bowl a bit with her weight, recovering, steadying herself to stand astraddle. She took another long-ish drink.

Then she hopped down as if to head back to her private queendom.  But then she saw me looking at her.  I thought she would run.  But she locked eyes, then to my surprise meandered over to the foot of the glass door, where she stood looking up at me.

What magic is this? I dropped to the doormat and there we were, eye to eye.

Here’s what I saw, and it won’t take you long to guess.  A “short and wide facial region” fronting a “voluminous brain case.”  A pointed snout, with black nose aquiver at my proximity. Curious, intelligent black eyes, which never once dropped my gaze.  Gray fur. Slender black forepaws.  And – surely you know her by now! – an adorable black mask.

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image-copyright Dreamstime

So I’m entranced, absorbed in her bright eyes and her quivering nose and her delicate hands. I’m calling this little trickster my darling, my sweetheart (I call green lizards that, too!)  And my husband is freaking out.   Well knowing her tribe’s propensity for unruly behavior, not to mention destruction, he wants me to come away from the glass. But he settles for my promise not to open the door.

After a time of inter-species gazing, delicious to me and of unknown significance to her, she remembers her to-list.  She strolls to the grass under the birdfeeder, where she checks for seeds, just in case the cardinal family has left any.  Then she saunters over to the grass under the Chinese elm, where she roots around a while for who knows what.  Then she mosies out of my sight.

Did you know raccoons are smarter than cats and only slightly less smart than monkeys?  Would you be surprised to hear they can “use situations to advance their intelligence”?

I’ve heard tell of a domesticated raccoon named Melanie who allegedly can ride a bike, clap, dance, and ring a bell.  Hmmm.

Raccoons are curious, tidy (when not wreaking havoc), and enterprising. They’re determined, playful, and they like to rearrange, knock things off balance even, just to see what they can get away with. The mask and the prison-stripe tail might be your clue that they’re resourceful thieves.

As to their thievery, in my research I found this gem of a quote:

“We can choose to fight against the playful thief, such as Raccoon or Time, or we can choose to play along with them. We can choose to give rather than have a thing taken from us. We can choose to let go rather than to cling without purpose or meaning.”

I’m happy to play along with you, little trickster friend, my adored and now-named Queen of Sheba!  But please don’t shred my fence or strew my garbage.  Just saying.

 

 

 

Finding My Voice

Yesterday I traveled to Houston to attend an all-day class called “Wise Up! Four Biblical Virtues for Navigating Life.”  Our teacher was the delightful, beautiful, learned, engaging, down to earth and very funny Dr. Alyce McKenzie of Perkins Seminary, SMU.  I arrived hungrier than I knew, and she fed us. Did I mention it was a wonderful day?

Among the rich food she served: She told us that when her young preaching students wonder what new thing they can do with such an old, old Story, told so many times, she redirects them to this truth–the Eternal One is waiting for your voice.  Your voice — unique, and never heard before.

Wonderful!

Got me to thinking about the first time I spoke to a large group about something that deeply mattered to me.  The year was 2000 and I was a painfully shy young thing of 46.  Dr. Jim Killen stopped me in the hall at church one day.  He asked me to give a short faith testimony, in worship, before the whole congregation.  Okay then!  Did I mention our service is televised?

Well, I did the usual stammering about inadequacy.  I asked him what in the world I could give the congregation?  He asked me, so very gently, if perhaps my family was going through a time of testing.

Why, yes we were.  And as a matter of fact, I had just had a related experience I could not explain, but which brought me great comfort. Perhaps Jim guessed there was some “new creation” percolating in me? Who knows. Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I had just received a mandatory opportunity. [Thank you Alyce McKenzie for the new term!]

Well, I am an obedient soul.  Mostly. My testimony flew together.  But still, the dread was there.  These people love me, yes.  But will I do a good job?  The morning came. My heart was burning with anticipation.  And terror.  But I was not without some tools in my toolkit:

And so a trembling Methodist girl sat alone in her living room, played some gorgeous Jewish worship music on the stereo.  And then I began to recite a Zen poem, over and over, all the way to church, all the way up the aisle to the podium.  And lo, my legs held me up, and I preached.  I preached it, sisters and brothers.

As I processed out of the sanctuary with Dr. Killen, now of blessed memory, he said one word to me, which has rung down the years:  “Magnificent.”

Goes to show what the Spirit can do, if we cooperate. I had found my voice.

Would you like to hear the Zen poem, by a long-ago person named Do-gen? I recommend it to you:

“Midnight. No wind, no waves. The empty boat is flooded with moonlight.”

And so it was. I emptied my boat, and it was flooded with Presence.

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Faith Witness to Trinity United Methodist Church, Beaumont, Texas

Sunday, July 16, 2000

 

Dr. Killen’s sermon today is going to be about Somebody Who Loves Us.  I want to share with you what know about this Somebody.  The picture I see of Him in the Bible is Somebody who for some wonderful and amazing reason is passionately in love with humankind, who loves each of us with a constant, unwavering, undying love.  Whatever our priorities are, His priority is to love us.  This Somebody has been showing His love in a special way to my family lately, teaching us how to find courage and joy in the midst of pain.  I have seen His hand at work throughout our ordeal, and I have never doubted that He is with us, but I had a particular experience this past Good Friday that made Him more real to me personally than He has ever been.   It started with a letter I wrote to Him one sad Thursday afternoon, looking for some answers.  I figured it might help to just lay it all out before Him.  The letter is called Mystery.

MYSTERY

                   My father is missing.  His body lies in a bed at a nursing home, but he is not there. He is … where?  He is “in a coma.”  Across the room, in another bed, lies the body and remnant mind of my mother.  She is panting, agitated, her beautiful green eyes wide open, puzzled.  She cannot speak an intelligible word.  She has been this way a long time, but Daddy has not. Until four months ago he was strong, vital, active.  At seventy-three he worked full time and supervised the care of my mother at home. We all knew he was getting tired. We all knew he was sad. The strain of my mother’s condition was … well, no one can claim to know fully what it was like for him.  The grinding pain of it.  But he loved life, he loved us, and he had boundless courage.  He would never, never give up or give in.  So we thought.  The last morning of the century, the last morning of the millennium, he gave up. Something happened in his brain, a massive hemorrhage.  He was dressing for the day.  The sitter downstairs with Mother heard him fall.  The formidable mind, the sharp wit, the whimsical Daddy were … gone.  I saw him soon after, and I knew in my soul that he was gone.

Where have you put him, Lord?  He knows nothing of this new century.  His brain was hurt too badly to survive, but he did anyway.  He is strong, strong.  His body lives.  And now Easter 2000 is here, and we say, “Christ is risen!”  You are risen indeed, and all is glory now.  But where is my daddy?  Does he stand smiling at the face of the risen Eternal One?  Sometimes Daddy opens his eyes, his beautiful eyes. But they are vacant.  He yawns, he coughs, but he sleeps on.  What have You who made him chosen to do with him?  Ah, You are teaching us indeed to live with mystery.

Sometimes as he sleeps he has the blissful, purposeful look of infant-sleep.  He looks like a little boy, somebody’s beloved child.  And I know that he is.  He is God’s child, God’s boy, God’s teenager, God’s young man, God’s family man, God’s old man, God’s treasure.  “Jim” is written on Your heart, Lord.  Every name is special to You, Lord, but after all you had a brother named James.  You had a disciple named James.  You knew my daddy before he was conceived.  You played in the yard with James and ate with James and formed every atom in his body.  He is yours and You love him.  He believed in You and therefore he is and ever will be one with You.  Love never ends, and time is meaningless to You and to Jim.  But, oh, Lord, we who are left behind still have to live with time, and we cry.

Sometimes as he sleeps his brow is a little creased and I am not sure what is happening.  Is he vaguely aware of a little discomfort somewhere?  In some dim way does he hear Mother fussing? Or, is he fighting a mighty battle somewhere deep inside to come back to us?  Reason and medicine say he has gone too far away to be fighting any battles. His brother Paul says that Jimmy has finally met his match.  Probably that is true.  I feel that it is true.  But still he lives and I behold his face.  What have You done with him, where are You keepinghim?

Well, the next morning after I wrote my letter was Good Friday, and I had to go to the nursing home to sign some papers.  I was on my way up the sidewalk to the front door, alone, and suddenly our situation seemed so overwhelming that I thought my heart would break, and I had to will strength to my body to keep walking.  I remember thinking, “I could use some help here.”  Before the thought was half-formed, I felt a strong body next to mine, and an arm slipped around my waist to help me bear the sorrow. There was no earthly person there but me.  It was only for a moment, but it was enough.  I will know now, forever, that Somebody doesn’t mind if we question Him, Somebody is closer than we think, and Somebody loves us.  And I just want to say to Him right now what King David said in Psalm 63:  “For Thou hast been my help, and in the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy.  My soul clings to Thee;  Thy right hand upholds me.”  Thank you, Lord.  I love you. Amen.

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My parents, Edna and Jim Hambright, with David my firstborn, 1982

“Breathe on These Slain, That They May Live”

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“Wind from the Sea” – Edward Gordon

 

Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath;

prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath,

Thus says the Lord GOD:

Come from the four winds, O breath,

and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”

                                                                                                       Ezekiel 37:9

 

Once I had a teacher.

This truth he taught to me:

There are within each person,

four different ways to be—

 

The Hunter cares for ‘your space.’

The Warrior fights for ‘mine.’

The Headman orders ‘our space.’

The Clown can’t see the line.

 

He suggested all too clearly

that Head’s my inclination.

But the other three, he said to me,

await your invitation.

 

And this surprise enlivens

our each and every breath:

Four winds blow the stronger

because there is a fifth.

 

The fifth breathes at my center—

a Priest at the heart of me—

a holy hand, a calm command:

Blow, winds — strong and free.

 

My teacher was a Hunter

with heart and hands outreaching.

I hope I do him honor

by mentioning his teaching.

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