Chimney Swifts

At a retreat center at dusk on a September evening I saw chimney swifts flying in a circle the shape of an elongated doughnut, maybe the size of the stands surrounding half of a basketball court.  Their wings flapped very rapidly and they made lots of chippering noise, kind of squeaky.  Round and round they went above the center’s bell tower.  And then as they circled, the birds began to drop into the tower, one at a time.  It was a magical sight.

Long ago Chimney Swifts used to settle in hollow trees, holding onto the inside of the tree trunk because they are not able to perch like songbirds.  When the land was cleared and chimneys appeared, the Swifts adapted.  As I watched the birds, I couldn’t tell how they knew whose turn it was nor how their flapping flight stopped as they turned straight down to drop into the tower—one after another.  All I could conclude was that they are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Our creator is an awesome God.

It appeared that they depend on being in community.  The circling together seemed to create the conditions for them to be able to enter the bell tower opening one at a time.  They never pushed or shoved or rejected anyone.  There was room for all.  I think we humans also are created to be in community, in relationship.  Some Christians see the Trinity as demonstrating that point.  We are not independent, self-sufficient individuals.  We succeed best when we care for and cooperate with each other, when there is a place for all.  The individual survives best when the whole group thrives.

When the birds had all entered the tower and night had fallen, the loud chippering sounds we had heard became deep quiet.  I suppose they were resting or asleep.  Their behavior brought to mind the experience of entering into contemplative silence or into unprogrammed Quaker worship.  At the beginning our minds can be loud and chatty.  Gradually we center down.  And eventually we rest in the quiet, abiding in a God who loves all.

Queries:

What has led you to sing a song of praise of our Creator?

A time of busyness and activity and a time of quiet and rest are both important in our lives and faith.  How are those times balanced in your life?

Prayer:

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95: 1).  Spend time in nature, or in whatever lets you see God’s wonder and calls forth your praise.

For further reflection:

“ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where you want to be, . . .  [Simple Gifts]

“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.”  [Dear Lord and Father of Mankind]

Dryness

There are times in life when we feel dry.  Things that have been important to us lose their luster and don’t give us the good feelings they used to.  This certainly happens in the spiritual life.  Going to church, singing in the choir, being in the silence of Quaker meeting for worship, or practicing a habitual spiritual discipline—any of these can go dry and seem to lose their life. The same can happen in a work situation or in a marriage or other special relationship.

Where to find life in dry times will differ.  But I do think it can be a big mistake to jump too quickly out of the situation.  I’m convinced that, when the problem is dryness (and not some serious issue that is being ignored or missed), there is a lot to learn from staying put and inward searching.  Sometimes too much busyness or responsibility for too many things can cover and hide what is happening.

Perhaps, too, the dryness may be an opportunity to grow in love of God for God’s sake instead of for our own good feelings.  In that case staying put, continuing to show up and be faithful, for the good of the other (God, our co-workers, our partner or family)may be what gives life, whether we feel it or not.  Loving God is not about having warm fuzzy feelings, but about service.  Borrowing from a rabbinical idea, that service is to love the Lord our God with all that we are.  This means being faithful to our commitments even when our hearts are not warmed by doing so.  Dryness is not likely to last forever.

Queries:

What is your spiritual condition now?  And the condition of your work and relationships?

What is it for you to love God?

Prayer:

Get a blank, unlined piece of paper.  Quiet yourself.  Randomly write on the paper words that arise for you in your prayerfulness.  When you have enough, reflect on the words.  Link them together, in groups or as a whole.  What is the prayer that emerges?

For further reflection:

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalm 42: 1-2a).”

“There are times of dryness in our individual lives, when [Quaker meeting for worship] may seem difficult or even worthless.  At such times one may be tempted not to go to meeting, but it may be better to go, prepared to offer as our contribution to the worship simply a sense of need.  In such a meeting one may not at the time realize what one has gained, but one will nevertheless come away helped” (Berks and Oxon Quarterly Meeting and Extension Committee, 1958).

Waiting

My friend was in the hospital for several days, unconscious and on a respirator. No one knew what was wrong or what the outcome would be. All we could do was wait. His immediate family members were with him, doing what they could to support him. They waited to see doctors, waited for tests and test results, waited to see if he would be transported to another hospital, waited for him to wake up—waiting, waiting, waiting. It is surprisingly hard work. [Fortunately at this time he is largely recovered.]

In Quaker expectant, waiting worship, those gathered wait for a settling into the quiet and calm, a sense of the Presence, a word of inspiration or guidance received inwardly or spoken by someone gathered, a leading of the Spirit. The waiting involves the passing of time. It is not always comfortable.

In addition to letting time pass, the word “wait” can mean attending, giving attention to. Today we refer to the people who take orders and serve food in a restaurant as the “wait staff.” Their job is to pay attention to the customers, find out what they want, respond to their requests, make sure they are satisfied.

The waiting in Quaker worship is also an attending. It is being in relationship with the divine, being present with, listening inwardly, quieting oneself so as to be able to hear and respond. It involves showing up regardless, so you’re there when something happens. As a child my younger son didn’t talk much about what was going on with him. If he did talk, it happened most often when I tucked him into bed. I tried to tuck him in every night, and then when he wanted to talk, I was there.

Regular attendance at meeting for worship, taking time routinely for prayer, makes a difference. We learn to wait, we develop relationship with the One who loves us, we become practiced at paying attention and listening. So when there is something we really need to hear, or to say, we are there and ready.

Queries:

What is waiting like for you?

To wait—have time pass—when you don’t know what will happen is hard. Some say that waiting—attending—on God makes a difference as the time passes. What has been your experience?

Prayer:

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130: 5-6).

For further reference:

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. . . .” (See Isaiah 40: 28-31).

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27: 14).