Birding is one of my favorite hobbies--going out with camera and binoculars, exploring a tract of wilderness, and trying to find some of the life that fills the forests. But one of the secrets of birding is that it varies wildly by season. During the spring and early summer, birding is often at its best--most birds are active in migration and mating, and they're decked out in their finest plumage. The males, in particular, sport brilliant colors and patterns during these seasons.
But fall birding is different. Unless you're at a migration stop, birds can be a little harder to find. And when you do find them, they don't look quite as glamorous as they do in the spring. Most birds undergo a period of "molt" during the late summer or fall, where they have to grow new feathers to replace the wear and tear of a year of surviving in the open elements. As such, they can have a tattered, mottled appearance. And even when their new feathers do come in, many species' winter plumage is decidedly less spectacular than it looks in spring and summer. The colors become more drab and restrained, and for some groups (such as warblers) they so lose their distinctive markings that they can become hard to differentiate from related species.
What does this have to do with Christian formation? Most of us try to judge each other by the standards of spring plumage. We put expectations on other people that they ought to be bright, cheerful, and overflowing with happy praise. When we spot sins in their behavior, or even personality traits that might simply rub us the wrong way, we are tempted to judge them against the high standards of Christian perfection. And we too, many of us, try to present our best face towards the world when we show up at church or invite someone over to our home; we try to give the impression that we've got it all together. And if some of our spotty plumage shows, or our drab ordinariness becomes painfully evident, we can often feel the weight of other people's unfavorable impressions of us.
But here's the truth of the matter: all of us, every one, are in the "molt" stage right now. We're still growing our feathers, still developing into the kind of plumage that our Creator intended for us. None of us is a finished product yet. One day we will be--we will shine with a spiritual beauty such as we cannot yet imagine--but right now our life and service as Christians is characterized by the fact that we are all mottled, patchy, and, on the whole, quite ordinary.
That's the reality of our condition. But there's another side to it, too. You see, when I go birding in the fall, and I'm looking to check off whatever species I might see, and hopefully find a new one that I've never seen before, it doesn't really matter to me what they look like.
If I see a ruby-crowned kinglet (as I did last week), and looking in its drab fall plumage exactly like twenty other dull fall warblers, I still get to check it off my list. Its identity and value does not change, regardless of how pretty its feathers may look. This is the way God feels about us, even in our current state of spiritual molt. No, we're not all spiritually radiant and glorious to behold, not yet--but that doesn't matter to God. We're still his children, whether our feathers are falling out or we're blazing with spiritual beauty. God loves us, even in our patchy brokenness. And we ought to love one another in the very same way.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.