February 7, 2021
I read a beautiful essay about hummingbirds this week, written by Brian Doyle back in 1997.[i] I learned that a hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser and beats ten times per second. Each hummingbird visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest.
Your life might feel like a version of a hummingbird’s right now. Your attention darts from one thing to another. You keep going and going and going and moving and moving and going some more. Get the kids set up online for school. Start the laundry. Sign on to Zoom for work. Move the laundry to the dryer. Make some phone calls. Deal with e-mails. Make some appointments with doctors or dentists. Pay some bills. Empty the dishwasher. Take a kid to a practice or a game. Pick up a kid. Get some groceries. Cook supper. Load the dishwasher. Send more e-mails. Life in constant motion.
But here’s how you’re not like a hummingbird. Hummingbirds have incredible metabolisms. They have what Brian Doyle describes as “race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate.” He adds this description:
Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen…The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.
We might envy the hummingbird that metabolism, that ability to do so much so quickly within each and every day. But we do not envy the cost of that frenzied flying. Two years isn’t a very long life, is it?
When we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel, he’s still in the early days of his ministry, but it already shows some signs of becoming like a hummingbird’s life, moving from last week’s teaching in the synagogue and calling out demons to more of the same this week. The gospel of Mark has a particular sense of urgency, using the word “immediately” more than 40 times to show how Jesus and his followers move from one thing to the next thing to the next.
Jesus demonstrates that sense of urgency when he hears about Simon’s mother-in-law. He goes at once, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. And suddenly she is fine. The language here – “lifts her up” – is resurrection language.[ii] It’s the same language we’ll hear at the end of Mark’s gospel when Jesus himself is raised up from the dead. So Jesus is not just about life after death. He also summons us to life before death. A life that is about more than constant movement.
How do we know this? Well, do you remember what Jesus does after all the teaching and the healing and the exorcisms? It was easy to miss, but the gospel says that “he went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.” Jesus goes someplace quiet, away from other people. He rests. He prays.
The quiet doesn’t last long. He’s barely managed to let go of all those demon voices that have been taunting him and clamoring for his attention when his friends show up demanding more. Simon and the others hunt for him. Hunt him down. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.
All of you who have perhaps hidden inside a bathroom to try to get a moment’s peace. Jesus understands your situation.
He went out to a deserted place and there he prayed. I wonder if that small fragment within this story of otherwise constant movement is meant to remind us of something important. Jesus invites us to times of solitude and prayer. He knows that they are hard to come by. He also knows that they are life-giving. They are one way that God lifts us up to keep going.
I keep thinking about those two questions from the beautiful passage we heard from Isaiah: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Those questions summon us to notice that God has created all things and is in all things and has been present with us from the foundations of the earth.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
And my answer, honestly, on many days is “no.” I haven’t known. I haven’t heard. I haven’t been still long enough to listen to what God is saying to me. I sometimes imagine God’s voice like that of a parent who knows I have been a distracted child: “Christa, did you hear me? Are you listening?”
Too often I’m missing God’s voice because I’m functioning more like a hummingbird than a human. Keep moving. Keep flying. Do the next thing and the next thing and the next and pretend I don’t need to pause or breathe or rest. These questions: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” tell me that a time of prayer does not have to be about stringing the right words together in the right way. Prayer is mostly about listening. Being still for even a few minutes and listening for God’s stirring within me.
I often find that my rabbi friends are good about reminding all of us to take some moments for sabbath rest. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg asked this week: “What if you didn’t need to do any work to be worthy of love?”
There might be other reasons you have to work, of course. I mean, I’ve met your kids, and they like to eat. A lot. But many of us work like we’re scared that if we stop even for a moment, the whole world will come crumbling down around us. We forget that God loves us no matter what, and God’s love does not depend on what we do. God’s love is not about what we accomplish or how quickly we accomplish it. God’s love is about what God does. And that love never fails us.
God does not expect us to be hummingbirds. God expects us to be human.
Listen again to those closing verses of today’s Isaiah passage:
29 [The Lord] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
I hope you will take some time this morning or later today to listen to the video here on our Facebook page of Carol singing “On Eagle’s Wings.” It’s based on this Isaiah passage, and it invites us to rest in the peace and the promises that only God can give.
In the words of the hymn:
And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] Thank you to Barbara Lundblad for highlighting several aspects of this passage in her “Preaching Helps” essay for this Sunday, found in the January 2021 issue of Currents in Theology and Mission.