Hilarity ensued at the campus chaplaincy at my alma mater in Chicago a few years ago when a Very Serious Professor had been invited to give a talk on a Very Serious Subject. While she was talking, a bird flew in, apparently down the chimney, and the chaplain, the chair of the board, and several students spent the next half hour trying to catch it and get it out, while other students and local Episcopal dignitaries were deciding whether to be amused or mortified. The Very Serious Scholar was undeterred by such trivialities, and continued her talk on whatever Very Serious Subject it was. Nobody remembers a word of it, though I’m sure it was very good, or at least Very Serious. The funny thing is that if the evening and the talk had gone as planned, it probably would have been entirely forgettable. As it is, we still tell the story almost a decade later. The distraction, the embarrassment, was actually the main event! This lesson is repeated frequently in my life now that I am the parent of toddlers.
When I think of that abortive lecture those many years ago, I am reminded that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a bird, often serving to point to Jesus. And as the Gospel of John puts it (a few verses up from this week’s Gospel reading), the wind (or spirit) blows where it will. But like Jesus, who in last week’s reading showed up and wreaked havoc in the temple, the Spirit often shows up unexpectedly, when something else is on the program. We often put a lot of effort into talking over it, or not noticing it at all.
On another occasion, on one of my first visits to an Episcopal parish, back when I was still discerning whether to leave the denomination in which I had been formed and join the Episcopal Church, I managed to get to church a bit early. I was looking around the church before the mass started at what a delightfully odd bunch of people we were whom the Lord had brought together on that day. I saw professors from a nearby university. I saw people from a nearby residential treatment facility for people struggling with addictions. I saw working class people, wealthy people, and homeless people. And while it was a majority white congregation, I saw most imaginable skin tones. And then there I was, an ecclesiastically adrift Ph.D. student who wasn’t sure what I was doing in life. And as I looked around, I spontaneously recited a half-remembered verse of scripture, which happened to be Psalm 84:2: “The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God,” as our prayer book renders it.
We often talk about Lent as a time to be deliberate, and rightly. But we could also talk about it as a time to stop trying so hard not to notice what is all around us. The bird shows up all the time. Sometimes, we might even notice that we are the bird in the temple. And far from a pest or a distraction, we have been welcomed. The more we are freed from self-absorption, the more we actually are the main event, pointing to Christ as the Spirit of love.