A member of one my adult education classes is in the high-risk category during this lockdown and has been told in a letter that she can have her window open a short way – the extent of her freedom (though if she owned a very spacious garden I believe she could use it at her discretion). These restrictions would drive me insane! Yet even with the window open just a crack, God’s reassurance comes flooding in. How exactly? It’s a rare place that has no birdsong at close proximity right now, and even in the normal run of things in the U.K. we can usually hear a bird if we stop and pause; a minute is long enough in the depth of winter, a few seconds in the summer, if that. Birdsong was the most quoted element from Rebecca Arendell Frank’s now famous testimony that came out of Wuhan as the pandemic took hold:
“Right now I hear birds outside my window (on the 25th floor). I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan, because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people. All day long now I hear birds singing. It stops me in my tracks to hear the sound of their wings.”
Hearing birdsong always lifts us. There is something about the constancy of nature here; the birds are still singing – oblivious to the virus – it’s an irrelevance to them. Today the birds sound like they’re really celebrating, which is appropriate on another level: it’s 75 years since the original V.E. day, and the village, decorated in red, white and blue bunting, is basking in a mini heatwave. Seeing the birds swoop and dive seems to instruct us that this is the right way to behave. The Lord has brought our country through worse and we don’t need to despair.
During lockdown the absence of traffic means all I can hear outside for most of the day is the birdsong. The harmonies, though unintentional, are stunning – the melodious blackbirds fluting in alto, the sparrows’ slow repetitive chirping, like an infant trying out new sounds, and on our walk today, the chiffchaff, with an even more exaggerated I’m trying to learn this sound as it tries out its name, over and over: ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’, and on. The woodpigeons refrain always sounds like they are staking their claim with ‘I live here, don’t you know’, and these familiar voices go a long way to making this alien world still feel like home.
There is a complexity to much birdsong though, too; Olivier Messiaen called birds ‘God’s own musicians’, and from Handel through to Mozart (who owned a starling for musical purposes), to Wagner, to Messiaen himself and more recently Jonathan Harvey, composers have long recognized birds’ innate musical brilliance and sought to imitate it. It’s as if their ability is better than ours, and more importantly, birdsong always makes me think of praise; this isn’t such an outlandish suggestion when you read from the Psalms. That the birds ‘sing among the branches of the trees’ (v.12) is one aspect of life that makes the writer declare ‘I will sing to the LORD as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath!’ (v.33) Psalm 148 takes it one step further and instructs the natural world to praise God, including, of course, the birds:
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you creatures of the ocean depths,
8 fire and hail, snow and clouds,
wind and weather that obey him,
9 mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all livestock,
small scurrying animals and birds,
11 kings of the earth and all people,
rulers and judges of the earth,
12 young men and young women,
old men and children.
13 Let them all praise the name of the LORD.
For his name is very great;
his glory towers over the earth and heaven!
14 He has made his people strong,
honoring his faithful ones—
the people of Israel who are close to him.
Yet even if birds are not deliberately singing praise (and we know that, at least in part, they are defending territory and attracting a mate), the fact that they are there at all, singing away, points us to God. He didn’t have to add this backing track of joy to our world, yet he chose to. How dull the world would seem without it! And I wonder how many birds are singing the world over at any one time? In our garden, even? The American Museum of Natural History estimates that there are between 40 and 60 birds per head for the world population, which is still astonishing, even despite the decline of many species over the years. That’s an awful lot of birds, and yet God hears each one, individually as well as corporately, just as he does our prayers and praise (though he listens to us all the more intently, hanging on our every word). I love to think about how God can hear all of our communication with him simultaneously. He sees his collective body worshipping without the walls in place. At this current time – and perhaps at other points in the future, as is sadly the case for many believers worldwide – we can’t see or hear the output of each other, but there’s something comforting in the thought that we’re never doing this alone. The cry of the persecuted or isolated believer mingles with those in a more happy, euphoric place, and of a vast angelic throng. Yet perhaps the greater the sacrifice on our part, the greater the meaning to him. In Revelation we read of ‘gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.’ (Revelation 5:8)
My own church is operating a twenty-four-hour prayer marathon every Sunday this month and it’s wonderful to dwell on how the baton is being passed invisibly, seamlessly, and how for God this is a constant stream of prayer and praise. Does this sound strange, considering the challenges we face? I think that, like the birds, we are meant to be joyful – designed to be, and we need it all the more right now. To be joyful isn’t to be happy. It is a decision based on who God is, not a feeling based on our current circumstances. When we utter truth about God, whether in speech or in song, we declare his goodness. Something happens inside of us when we praise. The birds, in their incessant chirping, remind us to keep going. Their song is constant and so is God’s love. So is his worthiness and reliability, that will never falter. His devotion to us is never muted. Let’s keep speaking and singing our love back to him – for somehow it renews us when we take our eyes off our troubles and look into the heart of our loving God. We know we can go on. What’s more, ours is a God of lavish celebration and he sings songs over us. Here is an astounding verse to meditate on today. Bear in mind that the Hebrew for ‘singing’ is said to refer to a joyful ‘ringing cry’… that’s the Lord Jesus’s celebration of you and me:
“He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”