What the Birds Teach Us: A Reflection for Earth Day

by Jeff Ritchie

My father loved to watch birds, and he passed on that love to his four children. Dad always had his eye out for red-tailed hawks and owls as we drove down the highway or walked through the woods. One day we were out in the country on a quiet, two-lane road when he pointed out a bird I had never seen: “There’s an indigo bunting!” Now that was a bird to behold. Such exquisite blue in a bird I had never seen. I became a bunting fan for life. (Many thanks to my college classmate, Brian Smith, and to Mr. Jack Zievis, a fellow resident of Atlantic Beach, for permission to use their photos.).

My wife, Megan, and I enjoyed indigo bunting sightings when we lived in Tennessee. Now in Florida, we have discovered another bunting, the painted bunting. When one frequented our bird feeder over several days last week, we shared the joy with our grandsons, Alex and Matthew. Now they are bird fans.

The late John Stott, pastor, theologian, and mission advocate, was also an avid “birder.” Some years ago, I was given a copy of Stott’s book, The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird-Watcher. After my recent painted bunting sighting, I decided to look at the book again and rediscover what Stott learned from birds about God, about life with God, and about our purpose on earth as God’s children. His book is a sustained reflection on a statement of Martin Luther, “Let the little birds be your theologians.” For Stott, nature study and Bible study should go together. 

Birds, first of all, reveal the glory of God in creation. Catch a glimpse of the beautiful red coat of a cardinal, the majestic soaring of an eagle, the plumage of a peacock, and one is ready to burst out in song, “All Creatures of Our God and King” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Worship is our first response to the beauty of creation manifested in birds.

Alex and Matthew looking at a painted bunting at our feeder.

Alex and Matthew looking at a painted bunting at our feeder.

The beauty of birds also offers a natural opportunity to bear witness to God with the people God puts in our path. Currently my primary “mission” is passing on what I have experienced of God and God’s ways to our grandchildren who live close by. The sight of the painted bunting last week gave me natural “talking points” about our Creator God with our grandchildren as we stood side by side peering through binoculars at this marvelous creature.

In The Birds Our Teachers, John Stott drills down deep into his subject, which he facetiously calls “orni-theology,” to unearth a plethora of lessons for faith and life. He observes and reflects theologically on the feeding of ravens, the migration of storks, the metabolism of hummingbirds, song of larks, the wings of a hen, etc. Each of the eleven chapters is worth studying in more detail than the length of this blog allows.

I want to share a couple of his overall concerns. Stott writes in the introduction of his book, “Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation. We ought to pursue at least one aspect of natural history” (p. 10). Stott has chosen to “pursue” birds, and he has done it well. What part of nature intrigues you enough to pursue as a child of the Creator who “shines in all that’s fair?”

As Stott concludes The Birds Our Teachers, he quotes Psalm 104: 12, 17: “The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. . . . There [that is, in the trees] the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the pine trees” (p. 94). Stott then observes,

Here, then is an early allusion to ecology, that is, to living creatures in their natural environment. God both plants and waters the trees; the birds sing and nest in them. Indeed, all creatures are dependent on their environment, and loss of habitat is the major cause of loss of species.

He goes on to point out that the prophets connect the disappearance of “the birds of the air” with divine judgment on those who do not repent and return to God even after many warnings. In Jeremiah 4:25, for example, the prophet sees coming judgment that will make the land a desert without people and without birds. 

Jeremiah and other prophets could say this because humans were created to till the earth and exercise stewardship over nature in addition to being in relationship with God and each other (Genesis 2:15). This is part of our mission as God’s image-bearers. When we destroy the natural habitat of animals and birds, when we pollute the land, sea and air – thus destroying the habitat of humans – we do the exact opposite of what God intends for humanity. 

Among the missionaries supported by The Outreach Foundation is a couple whose mission is directly focused on creation care and has a huge impact on people. Dan and Elizabeth Turk are Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-workers who have served the FJKM Church of Madagascar for over twenty years. Elizabeth works in health while Dan works with the FJKM’s Fruits, Vegetables, and Environmental Education (FVEE) project to address human and environmental needs. With per capita income less than $250 per year, many Malagasy people have difficulty feeding their families. On top of that, many of Madagascar’s endemic plants and animals are threatened with extinction due to deforestation. FJKM is responding to these needs by helping people grow fruits and vegetables to improve their nutrition and get out of poverty. The FVEE promotes environmental awareness by planting native trees at FJKM churches, seminaries and primary and secondary schools. Dan helps pastoral students learn to grow fruits and vegetables. The new pastors use these skills to help their communities and families achieve improved food security and nutrition. The FVEE has established a fruit center to help promote fruit growing, especially many of the world’s best varieties of grafted mangos, on a national scale. 

We thank God for the ministry of the Turks in Madagascar. What about us in our local communities and nation? What does creation care look like where we call home? In the words of John Stott, “Let’s resolve to do all we can to protect and preserve our unique God-given environment, and so continue to enjoy its God-given ‘biodiversity’, not least its fascinating birds” (p. 95).  

Jeff Ritchie
Mission Advocate

The Outreach Foundation