Every flock has its’ rare birds. After years shepherding the faithful, I realize we have some unique specimens in this flock that flaps and flutters after Jesus Christ. Martin Luther spoke of our Christian species as a sort of cross-breeding: sinner and saint
The longer I serve the more stories of strange rare specimens I collect. I hope I better understand Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7 and Luke 16. “Do not judge… for with the judgment you make, you will be judged.” “People may think many things; God knows your heart”. It is easy to spot flaws, missing feathers, and spiritual crow’s feet. I hope I am learning to remember everyone is a child of our Creator, no matter how rare a bird they might be. Only God knows their heart.
The Story of Mrs. Martha R. Bird
I once helped one of God’s Rare Birds cook a meal for a church league children’s basketball banquet. My two hours in the kitchen with Mrs. Bird stands out as one of the most uncomfortable times in my ministry. Two of the three real cooks refused to talk to each other. Awkward does not cover it. As a seminary student I could find no helpful words, I moped around almost speechless.
Mrs. Bird would say: John, tell Linda we need to set out more beans. Linda would reply, John, tell Mrs. Bird before I put out the beans. She needs to tell me where she put the big ladle!” Mrs. Bird smirked: “John, tell Linda she can find it in the sink.” Poor John stood speechless as well, caught in the middle, absorbing blows from two people he loved. The ugliness of the kitchen stood in sharp contrast to the beauty of the banquet hall. The old tables covered with table clothes, trophies, streamers, little basketball doodads and cake. Mrs. Bird had prepared a feast for the neighborhood children. Children, whose parents rarely made games and could not afford nice shoes, gave out trophies, or saw their children win an award. We leaders of the flock often act like chickens. Afraid Mrs. Bird might storm out and unable to think of what to say to ease the tension in the kitchen, I chickened out and said nothing.
Now understand that those two hours might have been Mrs. Bird’s worst day in the kitchen. She was never openly warm, but that day was equally unpleasant and unusual.
Mrs. Bird, a very imperfect saint, cooked a meal each Wednesday night that fed about 150 people. She did this for years, often covering shortfalls in the donations herself. Mrs. Bird did all the shopping and then prepared a very fine meal. For me and many others this would be the best meal they ate all week. She served the meal on real plates with cloth napkins, flat-wear and glass glasses. John, her husband, manned the dishwasher. Mrs. Bird shopped or cooked all day Tuesday and Wednesday. The wonderful smells drifted into my office, and she often fed me twice on Wednesdays.
Of the 150 who ate with us, about 25 kids came from a trailer park near the church. They walked over or their parents dropped them off on the edge of the church yard. Their parents did not stay for the free meal, perhaps ashamed or intimidated. As youth director, these 25 unsupervised kiddos fell under my care.
One Wednesday Night, I stood in line behind the youngest of our trailer park children. One of the youngsters bypassed the tongs and reached his little 5 year old hand right into the serving line, grabbing a piece of baked chicken. I stood ready to instruct the child: “Buddy, we need to use the spoons”. As the five year-old pulled his hand back admiring the clutched chicken, one of our church members slapped his little hand. Her look rebuked his bad manners. Buddy wept more from rebuke than physical pain. I held his little quaking shoulders, murmured comforting words but otherwise stood there speechless.
Suddenly, Jesus stood among us.
Jesus was maybe 60, a little chubby and wearing a dirty apron. In my mind’s eye, Jesus wielded a huge wooden kitchen spoon like a cord of whips. Jesus breathed heavily like a person about to have a heart attack or ready to overturn the tables in our fellowship hall. Jesus’ eyes burned brightly as he stood into the full measure of Mrs. Bird’s frame. She spoke with a coolness that came from somewhere holy. “Let the little children come unto me and do not hinder them, for to such as these belong the Kingdom of God”. Mrs. Bird was many things, but no Bible quoter. The Word delivered, Jesus spun around in her low heels and headed for the kitchen.
As Jesus entered the kitchen, Mrs. Bird reappeared, spinning around to catch the eye of the hand slapper. Her wooden spoon bobbed and weaved like a war-club. The crusty cook added additional spices to a Jesus’ Word which she had already well delivered. Mrs. Bird spoke hot: “Oh, just remember this. I make this meal for those little hands: so little bellies might have one good meal each week. Don’t you ever do that again, or you can fix this meal for your friends.” The anger dropping off, she finished her flaming dish: “Maybe you might sit with some of one these precious children one night. You both frankly might learn some manners”.
Up until that moment I had no real idea why Mrs. Bird spent 12 hours cooking each week. I thought maybe she cooked for the joy of feeding people. I thought maybe she loved to hear me rave on about her lemon pie or chocolate crumble cake or homemade rolls or buttery potatoes or crisp almost fried baked chicken. I had no clue where her heart was.
No, Mrs. Bird spent 12 hours cooking in order to feed those trailer park children. She cooked for those who cut in line, who forgot to use tongs, which lacked manners, whose’ shirts carried stains that never washed out, who whined: “Yuck, I don’t like this” more often than “yum, this is good” and who had to be made to say thank you.
Where some people saw hands that might contaminate them, Mrs. Bird saw hungry bellies. I am always amazed how Jesus can use our imperfect lives to bring healing and hope to a broken world. Thanks be to God for Mrs. Bird and for countless other flawed members of the flock who wobble after Jesus.