The neighborhood slept on as I enjoyed my morning coffee, no morning commuters or children walking to the bus stop. It was summer, and it was early. Almost too early for me, as I rocked slowly on the front porch, sipping my coffee. Decaf now, because of heart palpitations, but still, it felt like wakefulness running through me.
I’d brought books to the porch with me, and eventually, I would read a few chapters. But something caught my attention across the street. Squirrels, first one then another, crawled up the pole in my elderly neighbor’s yard to eat some of the corn off the cobs she regularly put out for them. I thought about the clump of “weeds” I’d pulled from our landscaping just a day or two earlier, only to find kernels of field corn hanging from the bottom. The squirrels had this kind of regular transaction: withdrawal from the corn feeder in my neighbor’s yard, deposit in mine.
As a squirrel shimmied back up the pole, two birds floated in to clean up the corn that had fallen to the ground, both full-bodied pigeons with shimmering green heads and gray and white wings. They murmured and cooed as they gobbled up the grain, barely noticing when a small white rabbit hopped up to join the smorgasbord. From somewhere in the trees above me, the coo-OH-ooh-ooh-ooh of mourning doves.
I wanted―even needed―to look away, to attend to the reading and journaling at hand. This was my quiet time each day to nourish and care for my spiritual life. That’s how I often think of the first hour or two of the day, soul care. I lie in bed, or sit on the porch as I’d done this day, and pore over the Bible, bits of poetry, or other books relevant to my life and faith. Then I pray, often through journaling, and sometimes I dream and imagine on the page, too. It’s my time to reflect on what’s going well in my life, areas I feel like I’m joining God in his kingdom work on earth, and what’s not going well, areas where my own choices, or occasionally others’, are wreaking havoc on the rhythms and structures of life.
This was my time, and today the squirrels and pigeons had me distracted. I couldn’t stop watching. A second squirrel had scampered down a tree, across the sidewalk, and over to the corn pole. He sat at the bottom looking up, waiting for the other squirrel to finish. I wonder how long he’ll wait, I thought, just seconds before I saw him shimmying up the pole, too. The first squirrel would have none of it. He left the cob and bolted down, sending the second squirrel on his way. The pigeons waddled out of the way. The bunny just watched.
I did too.
What if this is the reason I’m out here today? The question bumped around on the breeze around me. I looked at my unopened Bible. What if God is here now, enjoying the squirrels and the pigeons just as much as I am? And then, what if the best way to care for my spiritual life in this moment is to care about the squirrels and the pigeons and the rabbits? And not just any, but these very squirrels and pigeons and rabbits that are directly across the street?
It seemed like a paradox, that the spiritual would be tied so directly to the physical, that my thoughts toward the divine would make it no higher than the very earthly scene playing out before me. What could squirrels teach me about faith? What do pigeons know about suffering? What could a rabbit offer about sacrifice and atonement?
Maybe more than I know. In Psalm 19, David writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And iIn Psalm 62, “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” Paul says something similar in Romans 1: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made …” It’s hard to imagine that the dappled light on my back porch could have anything to do with God’s purposes in the universe. Yet as I watch the light and shadows intermingle, watch them dance together in the breeze making magic on the concrete, it’s even harder to imagine it doesn’t.
In her book Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World, Jen Pollock Michel writes about the mystery of finding God present in every corner of life, both the “sacred” and the “secular.” The reality comes to her during an Advent observance that she thought would be spiritually exhilarating and turned out to be completely boring. “Despite all my spiritual intentions, Advent plunked me down, not in reverie but in the housekeeping,” she writes.
“[I] never expected to find God in such ordinary places. But that’s one of the surprises of the incarnation: that God should stoop to dignify our skin and this little patch of land called earth. It’s a paradox that the spiritual life, for all its presumed holiness, can be so distinctly unspiritual.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular paradox as I spent the past several months roaming the prairies and forests of a nearby state park. As part of a grant I received, I’ve been learning about the history and resources of property to write about it and lead a writing workshop there. Though this kind of nature writing is different than my usual fare, and the time I spend at the park different than my usual days scouring books and websites perched over a laptop, I found those experiences strangely spiritual. My thoughts often turned toward the Lord as I observed the expansive prairie sky. As I hiked, I found comfort in the purple coneflower and milkweed, in the song of the red-winged black bird, and in the serenade of the chorus frogs. Comfort I hadn’t known I was seeking when I drove past the park gate and parked near Trail 2 day after day.
Maybe that’s the way I’d describe that morning on the porch watching the squirrels, too: strangely spiritual. And strange indeed is the paradox by which we all must wrestle: the things that are most spiritual, the things that care for our souls and bring us deeply into the presence of God, are often the things we wouldn’t call spiritual at all.