The Little Birds and The Branch
April 10, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
As we approach Good Friday, I am reflecting upon our struggle to find stability amid our fears and our call to lend that stability to others who need it.
History & Culture
Hello in There
Written and Sung by John Prine
John Prine singing his ballad "Hello in There."
Listen to John Prine.
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When are you the little bird, and when are you the branch who supports the bird?
In 2010 a French film Of Gods and Men made its debut. The movie tells the story of nine Trappist monks in the monastery of Tibirine, a small village comprised largely of Muslims in Algeria. It is the story of how the monks struggled with their circumstances during a decade of armed conflict between government forces and extremist Islamic rebel groups. Amid violence and terror, the monks ultimately made the decision to stay in the village until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996.
Each monk struggles in very human, real ways with the decision of whether to stay and face a likely death or whether to leave and return to France to find safety and begin a new life.
At one point, several of the monks are visiting some of the villagers in one of their homes. They are having an honest conversation about their mutual concerns in the face of the rising violence from the extremists. One of the monks, Celestin, speaks openly to the villagers about the brothers’ fears and their uncertainty about whether they will choose to stay in such unsafe circumstances. He says to them, “We are like birds on a branch; uncertain when we’ll leave.” The woman to whom he speaks responds, “No, we are the birds. You are the branch.”
No, we are the birds. You are the branch.
In these days in our world, many of us feel like the little birds looking for the branch.
We are afraid, uncertain, seeking some stability in our unsettling new landscape.
It can seem strange to realize that others might see us as the branch. Like Brother Celestin, we may not have considered this possiblity in the midst of our own fears.
Yet, it is true. I suspect each of us has moments when we are the little bird and moments when we become the branch, lending another our stability. Becoming the branch involves a certain relinquishment of our own ego-needs, our own anxieties, and reclaiming something more fundamental: our connection to the Divine within us.
On this holiest of days, Jesus relinquishes his very human need to have the cup before him pass. On this day, we receive again the invitation to do likewise, to relinquish our need to have reality be what it is not. What does this even mean?
Does it always involved martyrdom? No. Though, for some of us in certain circumstances, it might. What it does involve is going to the deepest ground of our being to discern the call of God upon our lives in this moment.
For us, this work does not typically happen in one dramatic moment. Instead, our relinquishing looks more like that of the monks. We wrestle, we grieve, we seek clarity about what to do. We try, feebly, amid our own fears to find the ground of our being, day by day, one small turn at a time. Here, in the center of our humanity, we become the branch.
Each time we die to the illusions our ego tries so hard to present to us as the truest reality, we awaken just a little bit more. And as we awaken, the eyes of our hearts open. And we see the light. The light within us. And the light within our neighbors.
This is not a once-and-for-all event in us. The church calls it sanctification. And it is a process. We wake up; we see; we fall asleep. And then, we begin again. And so it goes.
Sooner or later, you will be the branch for someone else, some little bird who will desperately need your holy presence. And sooner or later, you will need a branch to support you, when you find that you are the little bird.
This night, I offer only one lesson. “Hello in There,” written and sung by John Prine. To me, it is a ballad to each person alive to be the branch for another little bird. To see beyond the pain that the years have brought, beyond the fatigue and grief, to see the little bird within. And to say, “Hello in there."
If you do nothing else with your life than this, you have done exceedingly well.
In the sixteenth century, a Hungarian theologian named Pécselyi Imre wrote a poem for use on Good Friday which has become one of the most compelling articulations of a Christian theology of the goodness of the cross I have ever heard. It’s called The Tree of Life.
There in God's garden stands the Tree of Wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations;
Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion, Tree of all beauty.
It's name is Jesus, name that says "Our Savior!"
There on its branches see the scars of suffering;
see where the tendrils of our human selfhood feed on its lifeblood.
Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage;
our greed has starved it, our despite has choked it.
Yet, look! It lives! It's grief has not destroyed it nor fire consumed it.
See how its branches reach to us in welcome;
hear what the voice says, " Come to me, ye weary!
Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give blessing."
This is my ending, this my resurrection;
into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit.
This have I searched for; now I can possess it. This ground is holy.
All heaven is singing " Thanks to Christ, whose Passion
offers in mercy, healing strength and pardon.
Peoples and nations, take it, take it freely!" Amen! My Savior!
From the proverbial tree of life in Genesis to the tree of the healing of the nations in the middle of the city of God in Revelation, these words cover the breadth of a Christian poet’s understanding of why today is, indeed, good.
Today, the branch endures. Nothing has choked it. Nothing has starved it.
Take it freely, little birds, take it.