Birds, Bones and Courage

Birds. Seasons. Migration.  Burial.

There behind the glass is this piece of centuries-old cloth from Akhmim, Upper Egypt. History dates the monks and poets of Akhmim to the first centuries of the Christian faith. Some of their writing survives; the faith of the weavers of linen survives for us too, in a blue bird and a cross woven onto one piece of cloth.

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It was a burial cloth.

The small plaque in the British Museum tells me that birds were closely associated with seasons, and commonly used in Christian Coptic artwork.

Seasons and death and burial and migration and — birds. Consider the birds.

(They have neither storehouse or barn, and yet their Father feeds them.)

There was a dead thrush on the sidewalks of London the day I arrived.

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I am sitting in the historic church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and there’s something wrong about the large cross in the front centre window. Up front, the choir is singing poetry of William Blake, Tiger, tiger burning bright….did the hand that made the Lamb make thee?

The hand that made the Lamb….

The cross in the window is one elongated circle forced into a grid.  It’s bending those rigid lines into curves and arcs and just one circle is making a network of certainty into an elusive cross. Why does it feel wrong? How does a circle make lines into crosses, how do birds die on sidewalks, and why did the God who make the Lamb make the tiger? Why did He become a Lamb?

When the October night gathers over London, I read Julian of Norwich. She begs God to fulfill a deep desire of hers: to suffer with Christ.

The sun rises again and I wander through Tate Modern and find framed faces of South African women who suffered for freedom. Whole minutes pass as gaze at the face of Albertina Sisulu. How to decipher that beautiful face? She is old in the picture. Her hands are folded in her lap. Her eyes are so patient, so forbearing.

Could I have your courage? Could I sacrifice too?

I saw bones in the British Museum. The ancient skeleton of a man from the place we call Northern Sudan. I watched a young boy drift from his school group, drawn to the bones. He came so close, nose touching glass, breath drawn short, eyes open wide. Horror and fascination chased each other across his face. His brown eyes were so, so big. Like they could hold the distance of over a thousand years and many miles. I wondered what he was seeing. What was I not seeing?

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Everything begins to blend. Bones and birds and lambs made alongside tigers; I am not Julian of Norwich. I am not Albertina Sisulu. I am not the Coptic Christian who wove a blue bird onto a burial cloth.

I don’t ask for suffering, and I don’t fight for freedom.

It snowed in Canada the week I arrived. I’ve lived much of my life in the tropical seasons, where we proclaim that God’s mercies are new every morning and He is faithful and dependable as the sun that always rises.

Winter is sharp icicles in my faith. Because the sun doesn’t come up when you expect it. The darkness seems to win. Birds migrate. Everything dies.

Winter comes to you. There is no escape. The cold kills – or puts to sleep – everything that was green and alive and beautiful. Everything you thought you knew about a place changes.

I don’t like accepting what I cannot change. I don’t like Winter. Death or burial or cold. But the God who made the Lamb made the Tiger. For centuries there have been blue birds in African tombs and hope that goes beyond burial. So I tremble like the last falling leaves on cold trees – and I beg faith.

To believe that the circle of God will bend my own rigid heart into another cruciform….

Like the cross in the window of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

 

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