by Pastor Doug Kings

One spring when we were living in New Mexico, birds made a nest in a pine tree in our front courtyard. We watched the construction process and then, when mama established herself on her eggs, anticipated the hatching of a new family.

Now the visibility of the nest should have been a clue that there could be problems ahead. Soon the eggs hatched, and little open mouths were visible waiting for bug morsels brought by their parents. It was great fun until we realized we weren’t the only ones watching this activity. One morning a couple of large pinon jays appeared and in minutes swooped in and made off with the little brood as their lunch for that day.

We were horrified at the slaughter. And angry at the jays for—what? For being jays and doing what jays have always done? Well, yes. And put that way the absurdity of our reaction is obvious. But couldn’t they have made an exception this time? No, of course not.

Our shock was probably more than that of the parents. Stunned and distressed at the moment, within a short time mom and dad flew off, perhaps to do it all again. Hopefully they learned something about better nest placement. And while I’m still thinking about the loss of their newborns years later, these avian parental wanabees have probably long since returned to the ground, as the Bible says, “earth to earth, dust to dust.”

In a recent column for The New York Times, Margaret Renkl is more honest and circumspect in her appreciation of the natural world. In “The Nature of Joy”, Renkl describes the pleasure she has drawn from 28 years of watching the parade of flora and fauna in her Tennessee backyard. From them she has come to understand joy in a new way.

While I was watching the robins from our living-room window, a tiny cottontail emerged from the depths of the pollinator garden. The wee rabbit would take a bite of clover and then leap straight up. It would take a bite of violet and then dash madly around the circumference of the pollinator bed, leaping and twisting in midair. I can’t tell you how much delight I take in watching a young animal’s deep pleasure in existence, enjoying the power of its beautiful young body in a beautiful old world.

But Renkl appreciates this natural joy amidst the harsh natural realities of her own backyard.

Joy is not a given in the natural world. The baby rabbit I watched cavorting in the pollinator garden was almost certainly born in the nest next to our backyard brush pile. I have seen no other survivor from that litter, and their mother is still the lone adult rabbit in the yard. By now she has surely hidden another litter somewhere nearby, though I haven’t stumbled upon it. I may never see those kits at all, just as I may never see any baby Carolina wrens. Most of the young in this yard do not live to see adulthood, for this yard, like the great world, is full of predators and other dangers.

Can we be truly joyful in the world we live in? Can we experience joy when we are aware of war and illness, indifference and cruelty, disaster impending and experienced? Can we live knowing death is all around us? Renkl says we can if we will observe and learn from what’s happening in the natural world that is our home.

I think the ever-present threat my wild neighbors live with must tell us something about the nature of joy. The fallen world — peopled by predators and disease and the relentlessness of time, shot through with every kind of suffering — is not the only world. We also dwell in Eden, and every morning the world is trying to renew itself again. Why should we not glory in it, too?

Many people view the book of Ecclesiastes as the gloomiest in the Bible, a real downer. But I actually I think its writer has come to much the same realization as Renkl. For Ecclesiastes the issue is not so much suffering as the seeming pointlessness of work and wealth. The only answer is to simply enjoy the moment. It’s why we’re here.

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.  (Ecclesiastes 2)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air … consider the lilies of the field….” Perhaps with such words in mind, Thomas Aquinas said that the first book of scripture is the creation itself. It has much to tells us if, as Jesus says, we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Our culture is continuously telling us that happiness is a commodity for purchase. Only with a steady stream of new toys and experiences can our lives to be truly enjoyable. Renkl says watch the birds and bunnies in our own yard and learn a different lesson.

Happiness is not arriving on an Amazon truck but is in this moment, here and now, in the simple reality of being. As Renkl says, suffering is real but we live in Eden, too. God tells the first humans in Genesis 1, “be fruitful and multiply”, just be who and what you are. Living alone is enough to provide us, and all creatures, true joy.

Blessings in your life and ministry.