Learning to love the least of these, my brethren.
One of my favorite things about our new house is that it has several big windows, which look out onto a wooded yard. Given how the house sits on a sloped lot, and the land falls away in the back, it can feel at times as if you’re on the side of a mountain. I love it.
We have a lovely window over the sink in the kitchen that looks toward the neighbor’s house, and right outside is a mature dogwood tree. It’s bare now, of course, but I cannot wait for spring to creep forward a little further, so I can watch it bloom.
My mother-in-law gave us a bird feeder for Christmas, and when we opened it up, I knew exactly that we ought to hang it outside the kitchen window from one of the dangling branches of the dogwood. So we did. I went to the store and bought ten pounds of seed. I filled it up and fashioned a hook from which to hang it. And then we waited.
It didn’t take long for a flock of birds to arrive. They were gorgeous. I’m no Audubon, so I cannot deliver a rundown in Latin, but there were blue birds and finches, cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers, jays and warblers and whippoorwills.
And then there was the Tufted Titmouse.
This fellow, with a little crest rising from the back of his beady skull, comes along and lights on the feeder. He glances around to scope out the situation, checking to see who’s watching.
I’m watching. From the kitchen window. My cup of warm coffee in my hand, my heart full of warmth and birdsong. I’ve been watching all morning as a veritable zoo of feathered friends stopped in to sup.
Titmouse, assured that he’s alone for the moment, pokes his stubby little beak into the feeder, and begins shoveling seed out and onto the ground twelve feet below as fast as he can.
I cock my head, unaware of how I’m already mirroring my new friends’ habits, unsure of what’s going on.
Titmouse shovels and shovels and shovels. I’m interested now–leaning in close to the window as a cascade of bird seed showers away. My white shirt must have caught the Titmouse’s eye, because he startled and flew away. I leaned back, satisfied.
He returned a few minutes later. The shoveling re-commenced.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever bought birdseed at the store, but it’s not free. In fact, when you put it on the scale next to the food we humans eat, there are some varieties that cost more. Granted, I wasn’t filling my feeder with hundred dollar bills, but the sight of this Titmouse making short work of an entire tube of seed, the sight of all the food being tossed aside, was tough to stomach.
I tried to stop him. I leaned back in close to the window. He’d fly off for a while, but he’d always come back. I tapped on the window. Same thing. Startled for a brief moment. Then back, stubby beak ready to wreak havoc once more. I picked up a heavy knife and really walloped the window. No effect. Soon, he became so accustomed to the man screaming and hurtling things at the window five feet away that he didn’t bother glancing around to give me a second look.
Know what made him give up? He found something. Some kind of seed. I’m guessing there’s one in each ten-pound bag of standard grade bird feed. Mine must have been in the absolute top of the tube, because Titmouse had to throw out the rest to find it. One little bitty kernel of goodness. He grabbed it up, flew over to an oak tree, and practiced a series of pecks to carefully break open the delicacy’s shell for consumption.
Meanwhile, all the pretty birds were down on the ground, out of sight from my window, feasting like a busload of starved dingoes at the Golden Corral.
I filled the feeder. Hung it out, convinced that the momentary beauty, the parade of likable, gorgeous winged creatures who arrived before the next Titmouse made his landing, was enough.
It didn’t take long for this to happen.
There are plenty of lessons here: that it’s silly to think I can command nature to do my pretty bidding with a bird feeder on a tree; that perseverance pays off; that oftentimes solving one problem leaves you entirely vulnerable to another.
The Tufted Titmouse is a particularly unremarkable bird. He is gray and cream-colored, and save for the tuft atop his head, he has no distinct feature or quality to make him worth paying attention to. So I took great anger at the fact that this normal bird had the audacity to waste my bird seed. I fumed while the rainbow of colorful finches and woodpeckers and cardinals hopped along the ground and chomped away happily out of my sight. And then the squirrels….
Yes, there’s a lesson here. The Titmouse, though cursed by yours truly, is one of God’s creatures. As is the squirrel. Sure, I’d like to reserve my bird perch for exotic, fun-to-look-at species only.
Sure, I’d like all of my friends to be models. I’d like my house to be a mansion, my car to be Italian, my piano to be grand, and my rugs to be Persian. And on and on.
Somewhere in my head there’s a verse of scripture from the book of Matthew in which Jesus compares how we treat “the least of these, my brethren,” and how we treat Christ himself. Love the Lord, the savior said. And love your neighbor. These are the two greatest commandments.
So here in a minute, after I click “publish” on this blog post, I will slip on a pair of shoes and trudge out to the dogwood on the side of the house in this freezing cold morning. I will feed the birds. And the Tufted Titmouse. And the squirrels. And I will try to laugh at my own futility, out-smarted again and again by creatures with peanut-sized brains. I will do my best to try to love the Titmouse.