The Gift

Photo by Christian Spencer

This beautiful photo by Christian Spencer reminds me of the day when a gentle thud caught my attention. This sound was curiously familiar.  As a bird lover, I know immediately when one has been temporarily blinded by the sun’s reflection, causing it to crash heavily into one of the many windows in my home. I rated this sound similar, yet lighter, reminiscent of one human finger placing a single sharp rap on a pane of glass.

I hurried to the kitchen window that wrapped itself around the right back corner of my house, offering a magnificent view of the tree-filled backyard. Scanning the bushes and grass close to the house, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I rushed down the steps and reached the bottom just as one of my dogs, Charlie, who had been roused from a nap by the sound, arrived there. We headed in the same direction, stopping at the hydrangea bushes lining the flower bed beneath the window. There, on a single leaf, lay a hummingbird. I scooped up the tiny bird before Charlie could get the notion to do it himself, and headed back up the stairs into the safety of the house. Charlie remained for some time, sniffing for the source of the odd smell that lingered in the air.

Once inside, I opened my hand. Cradled there was one of the most spectacular beauties of Mother Nature, tiny and still. The bird’s eyes were shut. It was stunned by the impact, but it was still alive. I saw it breathing, and with one finger pressed lightly against its chest, I felt the rapid beating of its heart.

Braving the likelihood of having to refuse another invitation to tour my aging neighbor’s beer bottle collection, I ran next door to get witnesses to this event. On the doorbell’s second ring, Marie, the old man’s wife, slowly opened the door. Through the screen, she motioned for me to come inside.

“Thanks, Marie, but no. I want you to come outside to see what I have in my hands.”

“Robert, come here and see what Regina’s got,” Marie hollered back over her shoulder into the cavernous hallways of the house.

Soon Robert appeared, smiling from ear to ear, ready with his invitation for the tour. But Marie spoke up before he could.

“Look,” she said, pointing to the little mass of metallic green feathers.

“Well, would you look at that,” Robert replied. Surprise spread over his face as he saw the tiny bird. He had probably come to greet me with thoughts of familiar things – a tour, the weather, how high the grass was growing and when he’d get around to cutting it. What he found as he opened the screen door to join us on the porch was most likely not in the realm of his imagination. I watched his face as he stepped out into the beautiful spring day. Wrinkles he had borne like badges of honor for all he’d seen during his 85 years of life seemed to smooth out in awe of what he now witnessed.

I told them the story and answered their questions as best I could. When they were satisfied, we all fell silent—a new occurrence in the six years we had known each other.

The bird remained still, its eyes closed as both Marie and Robert took turns gently and lovingly stroking its tiny body. Touching the bird allowed each of us to know for sure what we were experiencing was real. It was so soft and downy, small and helpless, yet its powerful heartbeat was proof of its tenacity to survive.

After a few more minutes, I told my neighbors goodbye. I felt such a love connection with them for sharing the experience with me. But now, something called me to be alone with the little bird. I returned to my front porch and got comfortable in one of the chairs.

I was reluctant to leave it alone, fearing it would perish to a wandering cat. It was beautiful, small, vulnerable—and yet displayed a magnificently strong design in such a petite package. I was torn between wanting to keep it and praying for its full recovery.

It was a male Ruby-throated, the widest ranging of all North American hummingbirds. I remember as a child growing up in South Texas, they were constant visitors throughout the spring and fall. The tiny bird was common in Central Alabama, too. I often watched three or four competing at my feeder. Almost invisible, they dove, and darted, and dive-bombed, and somehow miraculously avoided colliding with each other. Cheeping and clicking, they delivered strong protests to others who tried to compete for a spot to rest or feed. I thought them civilized representatives of a natural world with often cruel and uncaring aspects. They are two-inch-long powerhouses of fierce independence. Hummingbirds are always ready to courageously defend their territory, but in a way in which the birds never seem to get hurt. I thought how wonderful it would be if humans, too, could find ways to settle differences without hurting one another.

Sitting on the porch holding the bird, I was content. Rescuing birds, squirrels, mice, and other creatures from nature’s harsh realities is one of the things I do. It’s a common occurrence for me to make a box for a family of robins upended from their nest by a thunderstorm, or find a new home for the mice I might discover while spring cleaning. This, however, seemed a different and more enlightening connection to the natural world.

I had witnessed hummingbirds so many times but never had been this close. Their wings beat so fast they often seemed more fantasy than real. A blur of color flitting from here to there so quickly my eyes could not follow. Nevertheless, here one was, real and still in the palm of my hand. I was able to see up close how its little clawed feet curled slightly and to study the perfectly uniform feathers that covered its small body. The vibrant, iridescent colors of its wings and throat were truly amazing.

We sat together for several more minutes. With each moment, I wondered if it was going to make it. Tenderly I stroked its chest, watched, and waited.

Suddenly it woke up. Flipping up from its side, it sprang to life. It hesitated for a split-second, seeming to gather its bearings. Then it was off, propelled rapidly upward by its awakening. As it cleared the porch, it made a half-circle and returned to where I was sitting. It hovered in front of me, about two feet from my chair, and remained for what seemed a full minute. Never taking its eyes off me, it stayed back, yet was close enough that I could feel a slight breeze from the rapid beating of its wings. As it looked at me, I thought surely it was saying thanks for plucking it off the leaf and keeping it safe for the past half-hour.

I will never know exactly what the little bird was thinking as it made one final circle above my head and flew away. Later I found some tiny feathers on the porch that must have fallen from its wing or tail. They weren’t green like its body, or red like its throat, but white and black and gray. Today I still have those feathers in a very special bowl.

Holding the hummingbird was a miracle. It was an opportunity that taught me to appreciate the things I love, to cherish each moment, and to courageously get back up when life throws a punch. It was an awesome privilege to be given thirty unforgettable minutes when time stood still and I held the most exquisite creature in my hands, to feel its warmth, and to marvel at its magnificence. That little bird taught me to pay very close attention to life, because often the best gifts really do come in the smallest packages.

Where I Stand

My journey of faith has been cyclical. There have been periods of deep belief when I took scripture literally and accepted the fundamentals of Christianity without question. Though that was early in my life.

There have been times of moderate faith when I sincerely examined my beliefs and searched for answers to my nagging questions. Is the Bible without errors? Is the Virgin Birth necessary? Why is there a hell? What is sin? What if there wasn’t a resurrection? Can’t the crucifixion be enough? Isn’t Jesus dying in love sufficient? Why is Christianity the only true faith? And many more questions.

And there have been times of honest doubt. Times when it all seemed trite and superficial, arrogant and superstitious. When God was little more than a jealous tyrant and Jesus a good but misunderstood teacher. When the church was a clique and membership catered to the wealthy and the influential, the ones who chaired all the important committees and ran the budget process. And the poor were looked down on and rarely recruited. And the uneducated were sidelined and left out of key decisions. And worship wasn’t dignified and sacred, inspirational and affirming, wise and instructive, but hoopla and chatter, bands and raised hands and the atmosphere of a sporting event or a band concert. Little more than hype and stimulated emotion.

Today my beliefs are centered around the puzzling and often desperate longings of humanity. Actually, any authentic faith I ever possessed has always been from that focus. I tried for years to make it the core of my ministry, the theme of my preaching, and the heart of any worship where I was a leader.

Sometimes it was misunderstood. Sometimes it was criticized. But often it was gladly received and accepted.

I do not attend church now, even online. I quit actually attending some years ago. I was broke and had no tithes or offerings to give. When I left I was never contacted by my pastor. The associate pastor called to remind me I still had a number of books left in the small office I used. I left them there for the church library. I didn’t take the lack of contact personally. It’s a large church and members come and go. But I often emailed the senior pastor and praised his thoughtful and gifted preaching. Sometimes he would reply.

As time has gone by I have a feeling of loss about the church. It seems in crisis and has been suffering from a lack of meaningful influence for far too long. I am certain it still provides comfort and affirmation to many loyal to its services. But I don’t see the Christian Church adding to the health of society. Or ministering to the enormous needs that exist in this country. Or taking a courageous and highly public stand against racial hatred, police brutality, gun violence, the judgment of gays, the demeaning of women, the worship and hypocrisy of politics and politicians, and the offensive diluting of the essential teachings of Jesus Christ.

Conservative evangelicals and even the majority of Christians have always thrived on a sense of embattlement. Historically, it was the fight against sin and satan. More recently, the battle is against Democrats, the liberal media, and socialism, which is really human services to those in need, the very thing Jesus taught and modeled. They fight gun legislation and abortion rights and care little for the consequences of their harsh judgments and wildly cynical outrages.

I have no use for these things. Or the leaders who promote and profit from them. And I am stunned by the gullibility of those who support them.

Give me the quiet of nature. The giggles of children. The affection of pets. The sacredness of love that endures. Let me be overcome with the brilliance of sunsets and the cool breezes that float off the ocean. The rhythm of the seasons. The independence of wildlife. The calm of a spring rain shower. The cleanness of snow. The clutching of autumn leaves turning colors before they let go. That, to me, is spiritual.

Here is where my beliefs are born and restored. And in them I find the divine, the holy, and the unexplainable beauty that softens my humanity and strengthens my resolve and helps me be okay with myself and with all those I love and to the stranger I do not know.

It may not be a conventional faith. But it’s mine. And I make every effort to serve the meaning it provides.

Join Reverend Moody and me in conversation on this week’s podcast –

Small World of Belief vs. Vast World God Created

The Art of Bucket Filling by Reverend Britt Skarda

Are you a bucket filler?  Basically, those who are bucket fillers treat others well. Studies show that if we want our children to thrive physically, spiritually and emotionally, we must fill their buckets.  We must praise them, affirm them and encourage them on their journey toward full maturity.  Indeed, we must be about the business of filling the buckets of all people for the sake of building up.  Bucket filling has the power to transform.  Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this phenomenon is found in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well.

At a time when “bucket filling” was rare—in a culture where lepers were required to cry “unclean” as they moved from place to place—where women were forced to hide behind screens in the synagogue, separated and hidden from men—where the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan as far as the religious elites were concerned, Jesus broke down barriers between people.  He ignored long-held social and religious restrictions that had separated people for centuries.  Wherever he went, Jesus proclaimed the good news that God loves all people.  Jesus was the ultimate bucket filler!

The pinnacle of Jesus’ bucket filling came at a place called Sychar where he encountered a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  Both Jesus and the woman showed incredible courage that day.  One brave and thirsty man asked for water from someone whose gender, race and religion made her the wrong person to serve him.  One brave and generous woman gave water to someone whose gender, race and religion make him the wrong one to receive.

These kinds of encounters, whether accidental or intentional, have the power to change us—to fill our buckets and the buckets of others.  Whenever someone invites us to step up and do something outside our comfort zone, they are not emptying our bucket, they are filling it.  They are forcing us to draw deep within ourselves—to ask ourselves “What does it mean to be faithful?  What does it mean to follow Jesus?  What does it mean to be filled with the living water that gushes up to eternal life?”

Britt Skarda, Senior Pastor, retired,  Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, Little Rock, AR 

*Inspired by the book How Full is Your Bucket?, Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, 2004.

Join Regina and Reverend Skarda for Episode 6 – Love is a Verb