Once upon a time, there was a farmer who decided not to go to church on Easter Morning. He’d been going his whole life, but a few years earlier he had decided that he was old enough to stop pretending that what went on in church was important enough to get up early for on his only day off.
This year his wife had harrumphed when he announced that he wasn’t even going to keep up the bare minimum of appearances required to be a Chreaster (a person who attends church only on Christmas and Easter). The whole thing was ridiculous, he said in his calm, practical way. If there was a God, which there could be, despite the utter lack of evidence, why would he or she care so much what we did? Why didn’t God just show up in the sky every few years to confirm his existence and provide some clear, practical instructions for us to follow? Why all the drama? Why ask us to believe that some guy who probably didn’t bathe regularly was actually God and that his gruesome death provides for our salvation? Ridiculous.
He suspected that his wife thought much the same, but held on to religion almost out of superstition. Sort of like knocking on wood when you say something that could come back to haunt you. You know it can’t really do anything to protect you, but it’s such a small gesture to make. Might as well not take the risk in case there is some truth to it after all.
So his wife rolled her eyes at his little outburst and got up for Easter service all by herself. She didn’t put any particular effort into being quiet about it, though. She knew he was a light sleeper and had been awake from the moment threw back her covers with a little extra force while getting out of bed and went to the shower humming loudly. He said not a word through her entire performance, but she knew he was only pretending to be asleep when she left. And came back in to grab something she forgot before leaving again. Just to be sure he wasn’t actually still asleep when she left.
After the third time his wife had left, the farmer waited a long moment before peeking out the window to watch her car pull out the driveway. He’d said his piece and the conversation was over. But he knew that sometimes his wife needed a little time to adjust to not getting her way. Better to feign sleep than get drawn into a pointless argument over it.
Just as his wife’s car drove past the mailbox, a bird flew right into the window he was looking out of. The farmer was so startled, it took him a moment to realize what had happened. He looked down and saw a small downy woodpecker laying on its back on the ground below the window. He tried looking to see if the bird was breathing. He was too far away to tell, of course. But just as he realized that he’d have to go down and look if he wanted to know, he remembered the barn cats. He quickly put on a shirt and rummaged around the top shelf of the closet until he found an old shoe box.
Every farm has to keep a few cats around. There’s just no better way to keep the buildings from being overrun with rodents. The farmer kept a small community of semi-feral cats around, making sure they were fed and even neutering them. But, while he loved to see them hunting mice, it always bothered him to know that they were probably also hunting birds.
There wasn’t much he could do about that under normal circumstances, but he wasn’t going to just sit by and wait for the cats to show up and drag this one bird from right under his bedroom window. If the bird was dead, he would bury it, like he had with his mother back when he was a boy and had found a dead bird in the yard. If it was alive, he knew someone who took in injured birds he could bring it to. Hopefully it would recover, but if not, well, at least he wouldn’t have to see it die.
The farmer had always had a soft spot for birds. He used to sit with his grandpa, watching them come to the birdfeeders he always kept on his back deck. “They move about like the thoughts of God,” my grandfather would occasionally say. The farmer had no idea what that meant, but he did view birds as one of the most purely beautiful parts of creation. Sure they poop everywhere, but how can you hold having to poop against a creature?
By the time the farmer reached the bird under his window, it was beginning to recover from the stun of having the sky turn solid right in its flight path. It had struggled back to its feet. All it wanted to do was just sit and rest for a while, but it wasn’t safe on the ground. And now some huge, many limbed creature was approaching holding what appeared to be a black hole. The poor bird panicked and thrust itself into the nearest bush, desperate to at least get off the ground.
Watching the bird struggle, the farmer realized that the bird was injured and in a panic. And further, if it didn’t calm down, it was likely to make its injuries even worse. The farmer tried to move as slowly and calmly as possible. He made little whistling noises, meant to be reassuring, but for all he knew might as well sound like “you look tasty” in bird talk.
The bird would sit quietly, clearly conserving its energy and wait until the farmer was just about to have her within reach to use a burst of energy to move away. Over and over, the farmer would slowly and patiently work his way towards the injured bird, trying to figure out how to capture it without injuring it further. And over and over, the bird would hop out of reach.
The farmer was tired and frustrated with this pointless dance, but couldn’t get himself to stop trying to rescue the bird. If he left it there, especially as tired as it was from avoiding capture, the barn cats would have it for a snack before he got back in the house. He just couldn’t get himself to stop and let that happen. Yet he couldn’t spend his entire day trying to capture some bird too dumb to let itself be saved.
Simply standing guard and keeping the barn cats away while the bird recovered wasn’t really an option either. He could just see himself trying to explain to his already irritable wife why he was going to spend Easter sitting under their bedroom window instead of visiting with the family over the fancy meal his daughter was making.
“If only I could find a way to convince the bird to trust me. I’m just trying to help. Maybe if I was a bird, I could talk some sense into it. Hell, I bet I could talk the damn thing into hopping right into this box. Of course, we might both get eaten by the barn cats. I’m not sure I care enough about the bird to go through all that for it.”
As he sat on the ground, trying to think of how to either catch the bird or convince himself that it was OK to just let the barn cats have it, the farmer’s wife returned. Immediately, the farmer was embarrassed that he’d been chasing this bird so long that his wife had already gone to church and back. He didn’t realize that she hadn’t even made it to church.
She had gotten to the parking lot and realized that it really didn’t make any difference if she went in or not. She didn’t know any of these people. No one was keeping track of whether she showed up or not. If God was, he probably wasn’t really fooled by her twice yearly church attendance anyways. She realized that she’d much rather spend her morning with her dear farmer who loved her even when she was mad at him for not letting her have her way. And he always made her laugh. Suddenly, it was very clear to her that there was no better way to spend Easter morning than with the person she loved, enjoying each other.
So she had driven home, meaning to make up for her behavior that morning by showering him with some love and affection. She was surprised to find him sitting on the ground with a shoe box in one hand, looking frazzled. He looked up sheepishly as she approached him and explained to her about the bird. To his relief, she didn’t laugh or ask why he was so worried about one bird out of a million.
Instead she leaned back on her right leg, staring into the bush where the bird was currently resting with her brow furrowed the way it does when she’s thinking. After a moment, she suggested a way for them to capture the bird working together. They laughed the first few times they came so close and failed, but after a few minutes, they had managed to usher the poor, tired bird into the box and shut the lid. Thankfully, the bird didn’t thrash around and settled down to rest.
By the time they had caught the bird, there was just enough time to get cleaned up for Easter dinner at their daughter’s house. Now the farmer was particularly glad he had skipped church this morning. Because of that, he had he saved the bird from the barn cats. And even better he’d be able to bring the bird with him to show his grandkids.
The truth was that part of his peevishness about Easter service was driven by his anxiety over Easter dinner with his family. He loved his grandkids fiercely. He reveled just to be in their presence, but it was hard to know how to connect with them when he didn’t see them all that often. Usually he asked a few awkward questions about things he knew they didn’t really care about; school, being good for mom and dad, being a good brother or sister or pet owner or whatever he could think to ask. The kids would answer politely and patiently, but were always happy to escape to go play.
The bird worked like a charm. He’d shown the bird to them, told them the story of how he and grandma caught it, let them gently pet it, shared bird stories and talked about barn cats and predators and about caring for those who needed caring for. It was good.
There was one part of the conversation which stuck with the farmer as he and the wife drove the miles out of town back towards the farm. It was something one of his grandsons had said. He had been telling the story of how he had wished he could be a bird so he could convince the injured bird to just jump into the shoe box. And his 8 year old grandson has looked up with his big, round eyes and said, “that’s what God did! He wanted to help us, but we were afraid of him, so he became one of us. That way we’d trust him. And we’d follow him even though he died. Because if he could die and come back, then we don’t have anything to be afraid of. It was a good idea, but I don’t know if it would work with birds.” Obviously the child, unlike the Grandfather, had gone to Easter service that morning.
He’d asked that child if he would be willing to take the bird home with him. Gave him instructions for caring for the bird while it healed. His daughter and her husband might not appreciate having an injured bird thrust on him. But the farmer figured it served them right for dragging the kid to Easter service. Besides, He knew that whether the bird lived or died, his grandson would call to tell him all about it. He’d tell the boy how the farmer’s grandfather, the boy’s great-great grandfather, used to say, “birds move about like the thoughts of God.” He wondered if it would make any more sense to the boy than it had to him as a child. It would be good.