Wisdom's delight

Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum, of the nearsighted, stumbling opossum, whose only defenses are a hiss, a hideous scowl and a rank scent emitted in terror. Let us rejoice in the pink-nosed, pink-fingered opossum, her silvery pouch full of babies, each no bigger than a honeybee. May your young thrive to ride upon your back. May they fatten and grow large and stumble off on their own to devour cockroaches and carrion and venomous snakes. May their snuffling root out all the ticks in our yards and all the snails in our flower beds. When they faint in the face of marauding dogs, we call back our baying hounds and wait for them to wake. We cheer when they rise and shake themselves. We send them with our blessings as they blunder back into the night.[1]

Margaret Renkl writes columns in the New York Times about life in her backyard, her backyard being the American South as well as, quite literally, life around her suburban Brentwood home. “Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum” is the opening line of her Praise Song for the Unloved Animals, in whose stanzas she also invites her readers to

consider the whine of the mosquito, the secrecy of the spider, the temper of the wasp — who among us could love you? Who could love even one of you, bearing your poisons and your pain into the heavy summertime air?

And she answers, with wisdom and delight, “We could.”

We could love you if we remind ourselves that no creature is made up only of poison, that no life is only a source of irritation or pain. We could love the mosquitoes for feeding the chittering chimney swifts wheeling in the sunset…We could love the spider for spinning the silk that holds together the moss of the hummingbird’s nest, the silk that stretches as the baby birds grow. We could love the wasp for eating the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. We could love you all if only we remembered the [chimney swifts] and the hummingbirds, if only we remembered the taste of … tomatoes still warm from the sun.

To me, modest but growing delight in the lumbering, nearsighted opossum came late in life, but tomatoes still warm from the sun, together with peaches so juicy that you can only eat them over the sink, have defined the taste of summer for me for as long as I can remember. But wait, don’t close your eyes and drift off just yet to your garden of Eden with its fruits of every kind, for Renkl’s earthy psalm has yet another verse.

Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door. Understand that she is finding too the tiny bald mice in the corner of a drawer full of painting rags — the tiny blind mice hidden in the soft remains of ancient bedsheets fallen to ruin. Pity the young of the poor field mouse, born for just this purpose. Always there are mice — more mice than the world could ever hold if not for [the good order] that includes this beautiful, sinewy creature, this silent celebration of muscle and grace.[2]

Margaret Renkl sings of unloved creatures, and sharing her verses she invites us to behold, to watch, to understand, to pity, and to love — to love the unloved creatures not for what they do for us, but for the unique place they inhabit in the interconnectedness of all living things. She looks at her lawn in April and she delights.

The flowers I love best are the tiny ones, so tiny they’re mostly invisible from a car window. Exquisite little flowers, most of them smaller than my pinkie fingernail, are blooming all around my house right now, and they have wonderful names: woodland violet, spring beauty, daisy fleabane, pitcher’s stitchwort, bird’s eye speedwell, yellow wood sorrel, purple dead nettle, creeping Charlie, stickywilly, dandelion and a host of others I can’t name.

“Most people call them weeds,” she writes, and you can almost hear her heart breaking. “Most people don’t love them.” You can tell, she wants us to love the unloved creatures – she wants us to see them, learn their names, watch them, marvel at them, begin to understand them, love them, not for what they do for us, but for what they are and how they participate in the miracle of life, each in its own wondrous way.

Anybody who’s paying attention would see them for the gifts they are: flowers that arrive, through no effort at all, to feed the bees and the butterflies. But Americans generally aren’t paying attention. Too enraptured with the idea of a lawn that unrolls from the street to their very door, a carpet of green that remains green even when grass is supposed to be dormant, they see these homely little wildflowers as intruders, something to be eradicated.[3]

In the passage from Proverbs we heard this morning, Wisdom speaks in the first person.

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.”[4]

She seeks to lift her voice above the fray of conflicting voices, all vying for the ears and attention of all who pass by; she wants to persuade all who hear of her inestimable worth and authority. Claiming an intimate association with the Creator and the creation, she hopes to capture our imagination and eventually our allegiance.

Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when [the Lord] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

She recounts God at work in carving, anchoring, stabilizing, establishing, circumscribing, and setting boundaries to shape places where life could flourish.And in all that, she is no detached observer. Every step and facet of creation is graced by her playful, attentive, and delighted presence. William Brown writes,

By her own testimony, Wisdom revels in a world that is both secure and enthralling, a world of discovery and delight. There is no chaos lurking around the corner, or under the bed. It is a world in which fear is banished and joy reigns. As a child grows in wisdom by interacting with her environment, so Wisdom actively engages creation in her delight.[5]

And she clearly expects the delight of her playful and attentive engagement with all God’s creatures, in all their wondrous complexities and relationships, to be contagious… that you and I would want to see the world, and ourselves in it, through her eyes… that we would fall in love with life and the wondrous gift that it is… that we would know ourselves as beloved children in whom God delights, and learn to see each other and all of creation with equal delight.

Have you seen starlings flock together in flight? Have you watched them whirling and wheeling, diving, darting and swooping in tight, fluid formations and marvelous synchronicity? It’s a spectacular mass ballet, a dance of multitudes moving like a single body, but not like a North Korean birthday parade, not at all like that. I just learned that we call it a murmuration, ranging from small groups of a few hundred starlings in a ball to undulating seas of millions of birds that might block out the sun.[6]

You watch them and you go, Wow! and you can’t help but wonder, “Do they know we’re watching? Do they know how breathtakingly beautiful this is? Is there a choreography? And if so, who’s the choreographer? How do they communicate with each other? How to they do that, murmurate?”

In 2008, a group of scientists in Italy set up cameras around the rail station in Rome, and they filmed several starling murmurations. Then, after reconstructing their positions and movements in 3-D computer models, they were able to show the rules that were being used. “What they found was that starlings sought to match the direction and speed of the nearest seven or so neighbours, rather than responding to the movements of all of the nearby birds around them.”[7] Seven neighbors – almost has a biblical ring to it, doesn’t it?

“Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise,” is one of the sayings collected in the book of Proverbs.[8] Another says, “Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.”[9] But not a single verse about the opossum, not in Proverbs, nor anywhere else in Scripture. Yet wisdom still calls us to go to the opossum and consider its ways, and be wise.

Jesus taught us to consider the birds of the air. Perhaps he only meant to use them as examples for a life free of worries, but perhaps he also meant to teach us to go to the starling and consider its ways, and be wise. Perhaps he would delight— and I believe he would— in the surprising observation, that for thousands of starlings to move as one, it doesn’t take a bird king or a chain of command from general to platoon leader, but only that each pay attention to seven neighbors. How about that, church?

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/opinion/praise-ugly-unloved-animals.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/nature-lawns-environment.html

[4] Proverbs 8:1-5

[5] William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63, no. 3 (July 2009), 288.

[6] see some great pictures of murmurations at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/01/photos-murmurations-starlings/579286/

[7] https://phys.org/news/2019-02-starling-murmurations-science-nature-greatest.html

[8] Prov 6:6

[9] Prov 26:17

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