Even the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may have her young – a place near your altar.
Imagine the hallowed halls of an art gallery full of the beautiful things that we treasure and highly value. The more valuable the object, the more removed it is from the touch of prying fingers, the breath of those who dare to move too close. If a movie wants to display something as being truly valuable, the object will be placed under a glass dome, high on a plinth, surrounded by laser beams that will set off an alarm if they are crossed. The plinth is set in the centre of a large white room and the treasure may only be seen from a distance and never touched. Everything is clean and pristine. When we see that scene we know that this object is a treasure, truly valued. Plebs like you and I should not go near. The room is holy ground.
I can’t think of a much greater contrast to that picture than the picture of a room filled with nesting wild birds. Birds are messy and noisy. Young birds especially so. If you’ve ever had birds nesting in your eves you will know very well the noise. All day and much of the long Tasmanian twilight the little chicks squawk. When Mum is away the noise abates slightly but when Mum comes back the volume goes back up: “Feed me! Feed me!” A whinging, crying, attention-seeking squawk.
And birds are messy! Droppings everywhere. There is no control. And seeds spread far and wide. Feathers drifting randomly, which then get stuck in the droppings on the floor… messy.
In the above verses from Psalm 84 we have a very strange juxtaposition: God’s altar the absolute holiest place – the holiest of holy places, and the nesting of birds with young. Not exactly two things that I would put together, myself.
I have felt this juxtaposition though when serving communion at church (at times I hand out the wine or the grape juice). Communion, for me, is one of the most holy parts of the Sunday service. It is where I, personally, meet with God for a moment of stillness, one-on-one. But it is a meeting facilitated by another human being – someone who tells me “this symbolises the body of Christ, his sacrifice for you” and because there are human interactions, sometimes things happen that are not neat and tidy.
People get offered the wine when they want grape juice and vice versa. The rice cracker delivery for the gluten free is postponed because the person can’t catch the priest’s eye. The little girl takes three dainty sips to drain the tiny grape juice cup and then takes her own sweet time deciding where to put the cup back in the holder. The person assigned to give the wine with you forgets to go to the next-but-one person and needs to be jostled into place. Grape juice gets spilled on the carpet of the step. The elderly man can’t kneel, or once down, can’t get back up. One side of the church finishes before the other and we need a traffic warden to direct us to where we should go.
But, if we keep our sense of humour (one of God’s greatest gifts) and extend grace one to another (another gift from God) then none of these happenings in any way destroy the holiness of the moment. God is with us in these moments.
God takes humans, fallible and messy, and makes us into his temple, that holy place where he lives. What a mystery!
I don’t think he wants us to be the untouchable, glass domed and surrounded by lasers type of holy. I think God’s holyness extends into every messy area of life. Yes, we are to be holy and I agree totally that reverence and awe and even some fear are important when approaching God – as C.S. Lewis says “He’s not a tame lion”. But perhaps true holiness is not the removal of every messy thing but rather an extension of an invitation to a loving God to join us in our mess – right where we are.
The nesting of swallows and sparrows is messy but it is also right and natural. Eating, drinking, laughing, crying, washing the dishes and doing homework – all of these are holy activities if we let God into them.
“Even the sparrows and swallows are welcome to build a nest among your altar for the birds to raise their young” (passion translation)
I wrote this post this afternoon and I found out this evening that a very good friend has unexpectedly passed away this afternoon. And I wanted to post this tonight because I think that Frank embodied these thoughts so well. He was not a shiny person on the outside. He would come to church in his massive army boots, socks pulled up to the knee (very smart and army-wise), white pleated shorts belted tightly and shirt tucked in. He would wear his long green apron to cook us all sausages. And then – apron and all – he would take his flag to the front of the church and jump up and down while belting out the songs at the top of his voice and praising God. He loved children and children loved him and after church he would set up the toy train set, or twirl the skipping rope, or take the kids outside for some archery practice. He loved model building and collecting (everything) and computers.
Frank was not the coolest kid on the block but he has to have been one of the most fun. And he loved everyone. Everyone. He showed me that God is there in the messiness of who we are and I’m going to miss him and wave flags at his funeral and look forward to seeing him when all the messiness is over.
“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere”