(I am grateful to Rex Nelson for his beautiful photograph of a yellow warbler.)
I am publishing this written piece in three places: one, as an excerpt under Caroline’s Books ~The Space Between Church & Not-Church; the others, as a blog post under the categories of God Talk (optional), and the space between . . . People ask me how I can expect to talk about spiritual themes, even religious themes, without using the language of churches. It’s a good question, and it’s definitely a steep learning curve. But . . . it’s possible and, for the space between . . . not only desirable but essential. I am including enough context in both postings to set up the drama I have entitled Yellow Bird.
For several years I taught freshman composition at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. Of a class of eighteen, perhaps two or three considered themselves Christian and had developed local church relationships. It was an election year, and because there was never a day in which politics didn’t enter into our conversations, it became clear that these three young people defined themselves as Republican, conservative, and evangelical.
Fall yielded to winter and then spring.
“We won’t have class on Good Friday, right?” one of the fairly self-righteous Christian students asked me. The students had already returned from their spring break.
“Why shouldn’t we have class?” another of the students wanted to know. “It’s not a holiday.”
“Well, it’s only probably the third most important day of the year,” the Christian student responded with some energy. “And it’s the only death that really matters.”
“For you, maybe, not for the rest of us.”
Not particularly wanting to see this go further, I said that we would be having class on Friday. It went further anyway.
“Why should I be upset about the death of Jesus. I didn’t even know him. I was much more upset when my grandfather died,” said another of the students.
I outlined their assignment for that Friday; they could have two weeks to do it. First, I wanted them to read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; I gave them several scriptural options. Then I wanted them to write or be prepared to tell a parallel story of a dying—just the dying. They were not allowed to use Jesus’ name, or any other scriptural language. And they were not yet allowed to move their story of death into one of rebirth. “On the day that the followers of Jesus would later come to know as Good Friday,” I reminded them, “all they had was the death. They did not know the resurrection. That’s what I am asking from you. “No language of the church at all,” I added.
“Can’t be done,” argued one of my evangelical students.
“Then you do it, too.”
I said I would, then immediately wished I could retract it.
Three or four days slipped by, each of them beginning with a meditative walk with my dog. On the fifth morning, I watched a yellow finch at the thistle feeder of my neighbor’s house, and suddenly, I had my story. I titled it “Yellow Bird” and wrote it as a drama in three acts.
Act One: Yellow Bird
I am the yellow winged bird
With a song so sweet I pierce the walls of even your heart,
Not with fear, do I pierce what you protect
Not with trembling,
unless it’s the trembling that accompanies joy.
The trembling that speaks to your longing for beauty.
For the beauty of long ago times.
Do you remember?
I am the yellow winged bird
Who called you ~ Come out from your anger and your hopelessness.
I teased you, You called it torment, but you didn’t mean it.
Laughing, you raced through the forest, snapping branches.
Our pleasure, nothing could contain it.
The freedom of long ago times.
Do you remember?
I am the yellow winged bird who loves you ~
And I have loved you since my very first day. Or yours.
We were young together, tender,
Spirit and heart, brooding, breathing, giving shape to our world,
Giving blood, and bone, and flesh to a dream of love’s joy,
The joy we piled high as the mountains.
Do you remember?
They were sun-dappled days in the beginning, all of them.
I was there, and I had a part in it.
It was my song that awakened each dawn from its slumber.
Rise up river. Rise up branches and leaves. Rise up, stones. Rise up you fishermen. Rise up to the morning.
Break your fast on my joy and the day will be glorious for you, and you did. You and your friends.
You made your pilgrim journey through the dry arid countryside. You walked the villages. I stayed close;
my song quickened your dirt caked feet and strengthened your back. I was tireless, as were you.
How could we not be, filled with the power and the vision of this magical universe.
We were on fire, all of us, and I, least of these, trying to do my part.
My yellow feathers exploded like sunbursts; no melody ever before in the history of the universe like the melody of my soul.
My song stretched along the light waves from the stars, stars which had long ago exploded in their glory.
I had been assigned a task, and I engaged it with everything given me.
Exquisite sweet song poured out from my breast, floated on the particles of the air throughout the countryside.
The dust turned rose.
Halcyon days. The crowds grew. You taught and they feasted on your words. They grew tall on your miraculous actions.
They found hope and healing. They came to know the creation. They came to know themselves beloved.
Each one, treasured, valued, forgiven, everyone, everywhere, beloved.
The crowds multiplied.
I sang ever louder. I never rested until the sun set low over the river at the day’s end.
We slept in the bounty of the world’s spirit, resting in a safe embrace.
Act Two: Broken-Winged Yellow Bird
But it changed.
Little by little it changed. You could hear it in the whispers exchanged behind the hands which protected lips.
You could see it in the questions formed in the eyebrows of the people.
You could touch the shoulders and backs, now rigid with doubt and a measure of fear.
Voices grew angry. Ever angry.
They grew in stature.
I sang ever louder. And louder.
Until my own sweet song was wrapped and suffocated in a web of fear and distrust, greed and deceit.
The noise was deafening.
The fighting filled the air.
There was talk of betrayal.
Of selling information for silver.
They threw elbows and shoulders and punches.
They threw stones.
They laid traps.
One mid afternoon, a careless rock.
Heaved by some unidentified hand.
A young boy, perhaps,
Caught me unprepared.
The bones in my own wing, snapped.
Snapped with a crack like the branches of the trees in the forests under your feet.
I had not ever before known pain.
Now, broken-winged yellow bird,
My song, too, has broken, but not my singing. I must still sing.
I, who have never known fear, am afraid. I am diminished.
But trust me, I have not stopped singing,
never will I stop singing my song that speaks to your longing
For the safety of long ago times.
Do you remember?
I no longer cut an explosive brilliant yellow swath through the clear crisp air.
Battered and crippled, I am knocked to the ground. I stumble under your feet, both human and hooved.
I am dust covered, heavy winged. My feathers, caked in dirt laid down from hundreds of years of travel.
I can no longer keep up.
And no one is watching.
There is no one to help.
I hop. I drag my broken wing through the ruts that the carts have etched into the ground.
I am ever watchful, prey to anything that catches my sudden and inelegant movement.
I am vulnerable; I cannot protect even myself. I am helpless.
Still, I have a job to do, and so I sing; It is my only song, my only gift.
Act Three: Yellow-Winged Broken Bird
Then one day it’s over.
We are wakened from our restless garden slumber, by swords and shouts, threats.
They take you away.
I follow, desperate, but I can’t keep up.
My song has turned to a high shrill wail.
Clouds of dust kick up in front of me, dust so deep and so thick I cannot see.
I cannot breathe.How can I follow when I don’t know where I am going?
I enter the dust.I enter the dark.
I enter the blindness.
I dig my own tunnel,
I tunnel deep into the heart of terror and despair,of dying and death.
I am the yellow-winged broken bird.
My breast is too heavy. I can no longer sing.
There is no song.
No one is near you;
you hang from the tree.
You are dying. You have died,
and the universe seems to die with you.
It is over; it has ended.
Yellow-winged broken bird is dying.
Do you remember?
With that writing, once again I was struck by the power that lies in the unsaying of God, and how, by such unsaying, the web of the universe becomes at the same time more deeply interconnected and more sacred. I walked into my Friday class, loins girded, anticipating with some anxiety but mostly hope and excitement, a reflective conversation at the intersection where church and not-church meet. I was eager to hear what the students had brought into the exchange.
To a person, church and not-church alike, they had been unable to stay with the death experience in their writing, without jumping straight into the rebirth.
My piece was depressing, they said.
There was a better ending, they said.
Everybody knows that Jesus didn’t stay dead, they said. It ought not to have surprised me but it did, that so many heard the Jesus narrative in my piece.
“Does the Jesus story have value, then, in our culture?” I asked them. The evangelical Christians had no trouble with the question, but quite a few of the others did, and so they considered for several moments before commenting. It does have a certain value, quite a few of the students agreed. But it’s not the only story of its kind.
We reflected on the death and life cycles of nature, of the seasons of the year. Someone mentioned the ivory-billed woodpecker. They wanted to talk about deer shot during hunting season for their meat, and how the meat then gave life to other life.
It was a cohesive experience of engagement at the intersection, in which we’d set out boundary markers about listening, about not trying to fix someone’s thinking or to change someone’s mind. One of the young women, in expressing her appreciation for the conversation, thanked the evangelicals in the group. She had had experiences before with what she referred to as “Jesus conversations” and had been reluctant to open herself up to the possibility of proselytizing directed at her.