A text from my wife. It was a picture. A robin perched on our kitchen windowsill, staring directly through the glass and at the camera lens.
“I think this bird is waiting for you,” I read.
“I know. I’m coming.”
My stomach had soured as the faces of children forced their way into my news feed—more guns, bullets, bodies, and more bullshit.
How could you let this happen, God? How dare you. Explain yourself!
As the information came in and the death count went up, I gathered my thermos, backpack, and glasses and silently slogged to the church. Slouching at my desk, I managed to pass a few hours with a semblance of productivity. But my heart had not lifted an inch. I was just another pastor possessing the same scriptures and platitudes everyone in my Connecticut parish had heard years earlier after the Sandy Hook shooting. I had no answers, no semblance of God’s presence. If one of my parishioners came to me for encouragement, I couldn’t offer a single defense for God.
The text of the robin beckoned me home.
I quickly closed up shop and sped home. I hoped my wife spoke accurately, as animals had a pattern of showing up during crises throughout my life. Ringneck snakes, Virginia opossums, red-tailed boas, black lab mixes, American toads, and tabby cats are among the animals who have arrived during times of need, and I would welcome such a visit now more than ever.
Creeping up the driveway, I craned my head around the holly bush and found myself looking up at the tail feathers of a bird focused at the window just beyond its beak. Its feet gripped the small ledge, proving its determination to fix itself in front of the pane of glass.
Instinctively I raised my hand toward him, and as I neared his breast, he turned toward me and moved his clasp from the wood panel to my index finger. Perched on my pointer, I brought his body close to my face as he settled into place. We walked hand in hand into the house, where my wife stood waiting, half-smirking and fully intrigued.
The robin and I stared at each other for a few minutes, silently locking eyes. Eventually, he began to screech, squeak, scream, and sing while fixing his gaze and his nails on me. The silence returned, then a bit of theatrics once more. Finally, I walked him to the back porch, took a breath, and raised my hand. Immediately he took flight, quickly rose, and within seconds disappeared beyond the highest tree in my purview.
In Genesis 1:2, we find our planet in a state of darkened chaos. The text says, “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.” And moments before the lights come on, we learn that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Elsewhere in the scriptures, the Hebrew word translated as “hover” describes the behavior of a mother bird protecting and teaching her chicks.
At the baptism of Jesus, we famously experience the Trinity in a single frame: The Son in the water, the Father speaking from above, and the Spirit descending like a dove, flying down and landing upon Jesus, empowering him for the road ahead.
Shortly after the robin departed, I pondered the Spirit-like quality of my visitor, who found me in a place of despair, demanding answers from God. The Robin stood on my finger, a presence of protection, teaching, and empowerment.
The Spirit-empowered life encompassed every aspect of Jesus’s life—every circumstance, every feeling, every response. I thought of this spirit-animated life as a different bird sat on my hand and my mind found the story of Jesus facing the death of a friend. In John 11, Jesus asks to see the tomb that held his recently deceased friend Lazarus. When he arrived, Jesus became overwhelmed with grief. The violence that haunts us met Jesus and invaded God’s heart. His response was not dignified. He cried hysterically, crumbling over the death of this person he loved so much. Jesus’s life revealed a fulsome, embodied response to pain, offering something doctrinal precision never could.
The weeping Jesus is a picture of God who is heartbroken about death. There is no agony we feel that God hasn’t known. But the alighting Spirit attuned Jesus to his ever-present Father. In the face of death, Jesus’s behavior refuted any claim that God is indifferent toward human suffering, as he freely wept over the very problems we cannot answer.
After his ministry, Jesus promised the Spirit that had descended on him as a dove would descend on his people, empowering them to continue his work in the face of persecution, death, doubt, and loss, landing on human hearts, helping, teaching, and comforting God’s children. The Spirit has descended upon us, giving us the ability to live attuned to the ever-present Father and holding our hand when the violence of death is too much.
I don’t claim the Holy Spirit came as a robin to visit me, but I don’t doubt God was up to something. On that day, the robin offered me a glimpse of a gentle, comforting presence amid doubt and despair, inviting me to follow Jesus to the tear-stained soil at the tomb’s entry.
That could sound insensitive to the real victims. I don’t mean it that way. I know I am privileged to be disturbed by violence bi-proxy, heartbroken over the deaths of other children, not my own. What I know of humanity is that we attempt to ration God’s kindness according to the degree of tragedy, but what I know of God is that he is willing to meet each of us in our disorientation. God is the perfect Father, and through Jesus, we are his daughters and sons, and he is more than able to descend upon each of us. And if the Spirit’s goal is to lead us to continue Jesus’s work, we are invited to answer violence and death in the same way as Jesus: Weeping. The Spirit, our comforter, makes space for us to respond vehemently to suffering when there is no satisfactory apologetic available.
The scene at the tomb didn’t end with Jesus weeping. After a somatic release, he told the men to remove the stone. He then roared into the tomb and demanded his dead friend Lazarus come out, which he promptly did. The Spirit doesn’t only descend like a Father’s hand, rubbing our backs as we cry in confusion. The Spirit, our helper, reminds us of where the tears of Jesus lead. The end of Lazarus’s first death in our mind, the atrocity doesn’t end in death; it ends in life. Jesus commanded life to spring up where death had already visited.
God isn’t afraid of my doubts and questions; he understands completely. And the Spirit doesn’t rush me past my weeping; his presence is a witness to every tear. When I struggle to find a defense for God, he meets me in my confusion and pain in ways I don’t expect. I don’t have the answer, exactly. But with a robin on my finger, he has freed me to weep and ensured me that he will have the last word on everything worth weeping over.
Cover image by Simon Godfrey.