She pulled out dry grass. Then she hopped into a bush to weave it in. Alerted to the new construction project, all of us kept tabs on it and celebrated as the robin, joined often by her mate, completed a fine round condo. Soon four eggs, colored, yes, robin’s-egg blue, nestled in it.
She began sitting duties. To avoid unsettling her, mostly we watched from afar. Except when she left, we allowed ourselves to gaze right into the nest built just inches from a window. We also took in the dramas that erupted when bad birds or squirrels drew too near.
At last the big day came: nest turns maternity ward. Commotion everywhere. Soon an image arrives that seems almost cliché come to life: Papa or Mama with a fat, dangling worm.
Then tragedy. Nest empty. No little birds. A bad thing has befallen the robin family. Deflation hits our human family.
Just one more nest emptied by a predator. Just one more reminder of how truly nature is, as Alfred Lord Tennyson famously put it, “red in tooth and claw.” But the nest had seemed so alive, its bird family such a sign of spring, new beginnings, the ability of even tiny brains to prepare for, give birth to and care for children. It was hard not to ponder what to make of the stillness and its mute testimony to the reality that things go not only right but often wrong.
I wondered what this might say about human families. And I found my mind wandering toward all the torn pieces in those many circles of family radiating back from and in front of me. I thought of that shotgun ending a life in that pasture. Of that broken pelvis leading to the meningitis that killed her when, as taking the meds became once more a struggle, she jumped out her window. Of the predisposition toward anxiety and depression that seems to run through generation after generation in one family wing. Of those who to a child once seemed giants have been felled by strokes, cancer, dementia.
I thought of how often over the years I’ve heard from or about those suffering faith crises when the trust that “God will take care of you,” as Civilla and Walter Martin put it in their gospel song, smashes into the reality that this woe, that frailty, the relentless winding down age brings will end at a graveside ceremony where those gathered will seek assurance that God does still take care.
And I thought this: If faith is to be worth much at all, then it needs to face squarely the predations both robins and people face. Does faith pass the test? Often not. We keep faith alive by telling ourselves stories of the times it seems God does care and not telling of the times God seems not to care. I will confess to being tempted to leave church in anger when I hear one more account of how amid the bodies mangled by this accident or that disease, the one giving testimony was miraculously spared by a loving God. Yes? So God was on lunch break when the babies were stolen?
I know which answers to the riddle of vacant nests and a caring God leave me feeling empty myself. I don’t know how to solve the riddle. In fact, I’d guess it can’t be solved. I protest against simplistic evocations of God’s care. Yet does it get us any farther to commit to faith in “Life’s a [word not appropriate for The Mennonite] and then you die”? Plus it so happens, “Be not dismayed what’er betide,” the first line of the Martins’ song, can draw my tears.
And what am I or we to make of this: In delving into the history of “God Will Take Care of You,” I learned that Civilla also wrote another favorite, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” But not robins, right? Except Civilla isn’t so easily dismissed: She wrote “Sparrow” after visiting the Doolittles, one long bedridden, the other confined to a wheelchair. Yet brightness surrounded them. When asked why, reported Civilla, Mrs. Doolittle said simply that “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
A day after I found the nest empty, two robins scrambled off the roof near the nest. Down they flew to the lawn to pull at worms. If they were the bereft parents, God’s eye on their children hadn’t spared them. I doubt their robin theology was better than mine at making sense of that riddle. Still, amid death, they were alive. I dared hope that if not in the answers they and I don’t have, then at least in our riddles God lurks.
Michael A. King, Telford, Pa., is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House LLC and editor of DreamSeeker Magazine.