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Life: Sparrrows

An excerpt from Courtney Ellis’s neweset release, Looking Up.

Published on:
June 20, 2024
Read time:
6 min.
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I spend my life shepherding others through grief. I am softspoken at the hospital bedside, calm at the memorial service, clear at the graveside committal. Though I’ve buried congregants who were also dear friends, mentors, second family, my tears come later; I’ve trained them to wait until the drive home so I can keep my focus on those who are rawest in their own fresh grief. Their pastor is not their daughter, after all, nor their mother or sister or best friend. I have a role to fill, to be the one who points to the shepherd in the valley of the shadow, not to my own grief. This is one of the unseen burdens of ministry: to grow to love people deeply, to hold their fears and secrets and confessions and hopes tenderly, and then most often to mourn them alone. 

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But today I am a granddaughter first. Today I have the airplane seat I need, one that gives me a fighting chance to make my connection and get home in time to tell my grandfather I love him before morphine takes away his pain and his presence. To the gate agent, I wasn’t a passenger or a pastor, a ticketholder or a problem to solve. I was a person like him. It was the “Sweetie” he said when I explained I was on my way to see my dying grandfather and that I needed a seat closer to the front to make my connecting flight that bowled me over. A word of tenderness in an impersonal, harried terminal at 5:49 a.m. Nothing breaks through a meticulously constructed dam of professionalism and self-control like a little bit of kindness. 

I stuff my bags into a bathroom stall with me, lock the door, and crumple into tears.

Much of our modern economy is fueled by uniformity. 

But one of the marks of God’s good creation is that even seemingly indistinguishable things are never exactly the same. Each wildflower is special. Every mustard seed will produce a slightly different tree. The very ground beneath our feet pulses with holy, diverse microbes. 

And then there are the sparrows. 

Sparrows are everywhere. They live in every corner of North America, from the southern tip of Mexico to northernmost Canada, and nearly every country on earth. There are thirty-five different types of sparrows in the United States alone, and an estimated 140 worldwide. Just hiking the trails within a five-mile radius of our home I’ve encountered House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, California Towhees, Lincoln’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Vesper Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and one particularly curious Fox Sparrow. Sparrows are the wild grasses of the bird world, blending into the landscape in ways both unnoticed and ubiquitous. Christmas decorations feature turtle doves and French hens, swans and peacocks, but sparrows are all Ordinary Time. There is a lot of Ordinary Time. 

It can be easy to despise what is familiar or ordinary. We hunger for newness and novelty. Birders will travel mile after mile for a glimpse of a rare species, but tell an avian aficionado you’ve seen a sparrow and they will likely shrug. We’ve all seen a sparrow, usually when we weren’t even looking for one. 

Even if you’re really into birds, sparrows aren’t that interesting at first glance. They tend to be smallish and roundish and brownish, lacking the flash of their more colorful songbird cousins. Birders call sparrows “LBJs”—little brown jobs. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, cats and crocodiles were revered and feared, while sparrows showed up only as a determinative, added to make another word mean “small, narrow, or bad.” Even their collective term is derogatory: a group of sparrows is known as a quarrel. They often snap up newly sown seeds and steal precious grain intended for people or livestock. In the late 1950s, China instituted a campaign against “the four pests,” including rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. As people worked to decimate the sparrow population—often by banging pots and pans until the frantic birds, afraid to alight on their usual perches, fell to the ground in exhaustion and were then quickly netted or speared— the obvious thing soon happened: insect populations exploded. Even pests have their places, often to keep other pests in theirs. 

Even with 1.6 billion House Sparrows and 319 individual species of New World Sparrow, every one is individually crafted, much like the normal, humble days that each come to us but once.

Yes, it can be easy to take what is familiar for granted. We want to escape from the daily grind; we long for new experiences and perspectives. 

Yet common things are precious to God, knit into the fabric of his purposes. It’s one reason God uses plain old water for baptism, and bread and wine—ever-present and easily affordable in Jesus’ day—for the Lord’s Supper. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River not because it was particularly holy but because it was right there. Jesus points to wildflowers, planted by no farmer, tended by no gardener, to remind us of the Father’s providence. He speaks of seeds and coins and fields and trees. Jesus talks about the weather not because he’s making small talk but because the simple things that make up our days have profound stories to tell about who God is. About who we are. About how and what and whom God loves. 

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asks. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” 

The commonness of sparrows is part of their glory, their ordinariness one piece of what makes them special. Sparrows are everywhere, but even within their vast populations, a single bird is unique, with a slightly different marking pattern, personality, history, nesting spot. Even with 1.6 billion House Sparrows and 319 individual species of New World Sparrow, every one is individually crafted, much like the normal, humble days that each come to us but once. 

Sparrows are also a reminder that God’s care is not dependent on our own transcendence or charisma or beauty. Everyone notices a peacock, but sparrows can blend in until we stop seeing them at all. 

God never does.

Hours later, waiting to board my final plane in Detroit to get to my dying grandfather’s bedside, a House Sparrow sails down from the rafters. I feel a pang of worry for him—how will he survive indoors? What will he eat? Then he flits over to an overflowing trashcan and shakes loose a yellow Potbelly’s wrapper, liberating half a sandwich. Oh. 

A few years ago I wouldn’t have spent any time with this sparrow, ready instead to crack open a novel or browse an airport bookstore. But today I watch him, his strong beak, his gnarled feet, his gray breast and cinnamon cap, his attuned-but-not-fearful glances at passersby. He makes quick work of the sandwich bread, dissecting it with the precision of a picky preschooler whose potatoes touched his peas. 

I’ve heard a variation of it from half a dozen people now: I wasn’t a birder until the pandemic. When everything shut down and I found myself at home, I started looking out the window—really looking—for the first time since I was a kid. 

This was my story, too. In March of 2020, a few days before the world shuttered, my friend Michelle pointed out a perky Black Phoebe perched on our string lights, flicking its tail and surveying the backyard grass. It came back the next day, and the next. As the president held press conferences and the NBA shut down and I waited on updates about a nearby pastor friend headed to the hospital and then sent to the ICU and then put on a ventilator, I watched the phoebe and it watched me back. A question bubbled up: What else haven’t I been noticing? 

I’m bringing with me a bundle of experience with death and dying, hospital bedsides and hospice visits and graveside committals and church funerals, but professional experience falters in the face of personal loss.

The pandemic sparked birdwatching as a new interest for hundreds of thousands of people. In the face of sickness and death, a teetering economy and school shutdowns, churches moving to digital worship and a contentious election simmering on the horizon, thousands upon thousands of people began looking up.

This brings me back to my grandfather’s failing health and grim diagnosis. I don’t know how the waves of anticipatory grief will hit each of us within the family, individually or collectively. I’m bringing with me a bundle of experience with death and dying, hospital bedsides and hospice visits and graveside committals and church funerals, but professional experience falters in the face of personal loss. It’s why surgeons are ethically prohibited from operating on family members—there is no real objectivity, no possible critical distance when it’s your loved one open on the table. 

Ready to read the whole book?

Looking Up: A Birders Guide to Hope Through Grief is available now.

We may think we know how we’ll react when it is our turn to sit on the knife’s-edge, the thin place between heaven and earth, sending our own prayers up in quiet desperation, but the truth is that not one of us knows for certain. I spend my life walking with others through their grief, but I do not know what it will feel like to hold this particular one so closely and to witness it mirrored in the eyes of those I love. 

I’m not ready. 

But the kind gate agent at John Wayne airport in Santa Ana California and my contemplative recollection of sparrows have done their work. I made my connection back in Chicago. Now I’m boarding in Detroit. The House Sparrow finishes his sandwich and takes to the rafters again. I stand, shoulder my bags, and walk toward the jet bridge. 

I’ll know more soon enough.

Courtney Ellis
Courtney Ellis is a Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and the author of five books, most recently Looking Up: A Birder's Guide to Hope Through Grief  with IVPShe hosts "The Thing with Feathers" podcast, all about birds and hope, and resides in southern California with her husband and three children.

Adapted from Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief by Courtney Ellis. ©2024 by Courtney Ellis Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com

Cover image by Cédric VT.

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