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March 16, 2009


            A severe storm last spring brought a tiny kitten to our door. I named her Stormy. Apparently abandoned by her mother, the little black and white feline needed a home. I consulted with a veterinarian friend about proper care for the kitten. Stormy has recently celebrated one year at our house. She had all of her shots. She has been spayed so she will not be responsible for additional orphans. She is fed twice each day. Taking in a stray kitten is a long-term commitment.

For the past two weeks I have been dog sitting with Jersey, our daughter’s pet beagle. Jersey requires a good bit of tending. I have been her primary caregiver for this visit. Things have gone very well. We have avoided a couple of near altercations between Stormy and Jersey. Taking care of a dog demands a commitment.  

I enjoy feeding songbirds. Rather, I enjoy watching the feathered friends that visit our yard. They are somewhat like our children. Feed them and they will come.

Recently I was replenishing the bird feeders in our yard. It was the afternoon that our part of the world was under a winter storm warning. As I funneled seeds into various feeders, I realized that I had made a commitment to the birds that visit us.

That night, as the snow was falling, I gave some thought to that simple fact. One of the ways to define our lives is through the commitments we make. One way to evaluate our lives is to examine how well we honor those promises. A key question for me is, “Have I been faithful to the promises I make as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a pastor?” 

            The snowfall in early March drew an amazing array of birds to the feeders in my yard. Black oil sunflower seed, black thistle seed, and suet enticed congregations of diverse attendees.

            The unseasonably warm weather that followed brought a flurry of feathered activity. Nesting has begun.

Our yard has been alive with birds through the winter. Not only are birds inundating our feeders, they are also harvesting the last berries from shrubs and fruit from wild cherry trees. Those birds that thrive on insects have arrived. Robins hop through the emerging grass seeking earthworms. Bluebirds perch on the power line searching for tender grubs in the lawn below. Mockingbirds swoop from tree to tree flashing white chevrons on their wings.

Some of our visitors are passing through and will migrate north to the mountains. The goldfinch will linger until the males turn bright yellow. Last year, a rose-breasted grosbeak hung around for only a day or two. Cardinals, bluebirds, Carolina wrens, nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, and titmice will nest here in our yard to raise their families.

Short-range migrants, like thrashers and catbirds, have arrived for the summer. Long-distance migrants, like swallows and hummingbirds, will soon show up ready for steady meals and secure places to nest.

For country folks, purple martins arrive mid March expecting to find clean gourds on tall poles welcoming them home for the warmer months. Chimney swifts will soon be swirling and twittering overhead.  Whippoorwills will sing their tranquilizing, though monotonous, melody through the cool spring nights.

Each of these feathered friends brings their own gift of grace into our lives. The clear-throated song of a perky Carolina wren and a solitary wood thrush are enthralling. The brilliant colors of bluebirds, cardinals, and goldfinch become flying flowers in the garden. The aerodynamics of tiny darting hummingbirds and soaring red-tailed hawks are equally amazing. Seed and suet are small investments for the rich return received from these tender feathered mercies.

Our son Erik died in November eight years ago. November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to feel like winter. The day of his funeral dawned gray, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to plummet through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we went to the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty, “Lord, you know this will be a hard day for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?” 

We interpreted the snow as a gentle touch from God, a gift of grace in the midst of our grief; a symbol of hope. 

In late February the following year, I conducted a funeral for a church member at Greenlawn near where Erik’s grave is located.  At the conclusion of the service, I stopped beside our son’s newly placed tombstone.  A bluebird was perched atop Erik’s gravestone.  I called Clare on the cell phone to tell her about the bluebird.  Suddenly,  the bird flew away. 

“Just wait a minute or two.  Maybe he will come back,” Clare said. 

Sure enough, the bluebird returned.  He perched on Erik’s marker and was soon joined by his bluebird mate.  Two bluebirds on our son’s marker gave us a new symbol of hope.  Bluebird nesting boxes in our yard invite these lovely creatures to make their home near ours. They are reminders of a divine commitment greater than our own.

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5)


Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009 



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