Back in the Bible Days, folks were always looking for signs. God gave Noah the rainbow sign as proof of his new covenant:
And I establish my covenant with you;
neither shall all flesh be cut off any more
by the waters of a flood; neither shall
there any more be a flood to destroy the
And God said, this is the token of the
covenant which I make between me and you
and every living creature that is with you,
for perpetual generations.
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall
be for a token of a covenant between me and
People needed to see, to believe.
Christ became frustrated with those who followed him, always looking for signs and miracles:
And then Jesus said unto them, Except ye
see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.
Like those who followed Christ over 2,000 years ago, we look for signs, too. We may not
expect to see God in a burning bush, or interpret a comet as a word from God, but we still turn to him, looking for guidance. Sometimes, he speaks to us in ways that we never would expect.
This was one of those times.
The Fall of 1997 was a time of great confusion for me. At that time, I was a member of a Lutheran church with a Scandinavian heritage, and it fit my need to worship very
comfortably. I was baptized by my Uncle Harold, who was a Lutheran minister, and my grandfather and grandmother Rasmussen were Lutheran. A year earlier, I had been asked by my pastor to open the church for the Menís Chorus of the black Baptist Church across the road. The church was under construction and the Lutheran church had offered the use of their sanctuary for practice for an up-coming concert. I had always had a great love for black gospel, and when I heard the Menís Chorus, I was overwhelmed. In the ensuing year, I went to hear them whenever I could, and was invited to join the Chorus. For awhile, I was attending both churches every Sunday morning, but the time came when I had to make a decision. While I loved the Lutheran church, I felt that God was leading me to join the Baptist church where I was singing. What I needed was a sign. Not that I prayed for one, exactly. But, God gave me one, anyway.
In those days, I went for a daily walk ďIn the Garden.Ē I had come to rely on my walks as a
time when I could draw close to the Lord and look to him for guidance. My ďgardenĒ was the
neighborhood where I was living at the time. I came to the garden alone, seeking that
closeness with Jesus that the song so beautifully captures.
On this particular morning I had a remarkable experience that I recounted in a letter to my dear friend, Art Thieme.
The Black Sparrow
Through all of this, Art, I think that we have just been reminded that on matters of faith, we are beholden to no one else. Iím sorry that Iíve disrupted peopleís lives, but itís hard to sustain a real funk when I am so delighted with my own spiritual revival.
Iíve got to tell you a story, Art: a true story. It happened to me yesterday. Yesterday morning, I woke up with the chorus to a song in my head. It may never become a song, but there it was, and after running it through my head a few times, the first couple of lines of a verse came out. The song in itself isnít important, so Iíll not even bother to put the lines down in this letter. The song came out because I was feeling such frustration because there is a wedge coming between me and people I really care about, even though we share the same basic faith.
When I went for my morning walk, the song was buzzing around in my head. Halfway through the walk, I passed the Catholic Church where I was married (my first marriage.) Itís on my walk, so I pass it every day. It just turned out that there was a morning Mass (this was Columbus Day) and it was just getting over. On the spur of the moment, I decided to stop in and say a few prayers. I felt the need to take a few minutes to talk with the Lord about my situation,
seeking guidance from him.
Walking back, I was lost in thought about all thatís been happening to me, when I noticed a
sparrow on the lawn next to the sidewalk, no more than three feet away from me. I was walking on a heavily traveled, noisy street, so I was surprised that the sparrow would be standing there, so calmly. I would have expected that he would have flown away long before I got that close to him. He looked to be healthy and downright plump, if anything, so I didnít think that there was anything wrong with him. There was something unusual about him, though. He was completely black: a black beak, even black legs. He had very sleek, beautiful black feathers, as black as a crow, but much more lustrous. Iíve seen black squirrels and an albino sparrow, but Iíve never seen a black sparrow. I was taken aback by the whole experience. So, I said, ďGood morning, Mister Sparrow! and how are you on this beautiful day?Ē (I had been reading Uncle Remus, and
it was only later that I realized that I was in a Tar Baby situation.) And Mister Sparrow, he said nothing. But, he didnít hop away. He looked me straight in the eye and cocked his head to the side. He took a little sideways hop or two, but made no effort to leave. So I asked him straight out, ďWhy arenít you flying away?Ē And Mister Sparrow, he said nothing. And then it hit me. I suppose the connection was understandable. I was so immersed in reaching out to a black church and causing so much consternation because of it that it made sense that Iíd be carrying on a conversation with a black sparrow. So, I asked the only other logical question I could think of. ďDid you come from God?Ē Hey, Moses saw God in a burning bush. There are all sorts of Southern folk traditions about spirits appearing in the form of a bird. Leave it to me to have the Holy Spirit appear as a black sparrow, rather than a white-winged dove. But, Mr. Sparrow didnít have anything to tell me, Art. He just casually hopped across the sidewalk, three feet away from me. No hurry. And then he hopped under a hedge. And I stood there in the brilliant fall sunlight and tears welled up in my eyes. And I said to myself, ďPraise Jesus!Ē
ďThank you, Jesus.Ē
Was it a sign? Was God trying to tell me that I should pursue my embracing of Union Baptist Church? Or was it just a black sparrow? Itís kind of hard to come up with any empirical answer to that one. Personally, I took it as a sign.
His eye is on the sparrow.Ē
For the record, I taught bird classes for several years, and there is no such thing as a black sparrow. After this experience, I looked in every bird book I had, and they donít exist. Tell that to Mister Sparrow.