Hoeing In the Garden 4c – “His Eye is on the Bluebird?”

“Why do I feel discouraged?  Why do the shadows come?  Why does my heart feel lonely?  And long for heaven and home…?”  (His Eye is on the Sparrow)

“His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is one of the most beloved hymns in the repertoire.  It was one of my mother’s favorites. We sang it at her funeral.   In times of challenge, loss and despair, the words, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me,”  must have given her comfort.

Field sparrow head.JPG

Have you ever wondered why the hymn writer chose the sparrow – one of the most ordinary birds, to remind us of  God’s love and care for His creatures?  Judged by its appearance, the sparrow doesn’t fare particularly well compared with its more brightly decorated peers.  It’s buff-colored garb wouldn’t garner any beauty awards, that’s for certain. It’s a plain, humble, ordinary bird. 

      It is likely the hymn writer took his lead from the scriptures, where several references to the sparrow, remind us of God’s faithfulness and abiding love.  In Luke 12:7 (NIV), Jesus reminds his followers:  “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows,” and in Psalm 84:3 (NIV), the Psalmist states, “Even the sparrow has found a home, the the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar…,” the image of motherly care and nurture, described so beautifully in the hymn.

But why the sparrow?  Why didn’t Jesus, and subsequently, the writer of the hymn, denote a ruby red male cardinal, an orange-feathered  Baltimore Oriole, a brilliant bluebird or the magnificent Pileated woodpecker?   Wouldn’t you feel more important and worthy of God’s care and attention if He likened you to one of the more colorful, conspicuous – stand-out birds?

Let’s take a closer look at some of these plain, colorless, ordinary birds.  Perhaps there’s something we’re missing.

Let’ begin with the The American Tree Sparrow. Why the word “tree” was added to his name remains a mystery, as he shows no special interest in trees, preferring instead to flit about brushy thickets and hedges, to nest atop a mossy hummock, or rest in a tuft of grass.  Where eating is concerned, however,  his name is more appropriate.  The  name, “sparrow,” is used for small, brownish, seed-eating birds and the tree sparrow is, without a doubt, one of the most prodigious seed-eaters.  Weighing scarcely an ounce, it devours an average of one-quarter of an ounce of weed seed every day.  Scientists have estimated that tree sparrows wintering in Iowa, consume more than 875 ton of weed seeds every year.  Turns out he’s a hardy soul to boot.  Even when winds are at their bitterest temperatures, hovering near zero, in the central and northeastern states where they live, flocks of tree sparrows dot the frozen fields and prairies, tittering musically as they browse among the heads of weeds, grasses and sedges that poke above the snow.  Pretty amazing…

American Tree Sparrow

Though all sparrows line their nests with hair, the chipping sparrow, is dubbed “the hair bird,” in many parts of the country, because of the  vast quantities of hair it uses to line its nest. Horse hair is the chippy’s lining of choice and where horses abound, you might spot one tugging at a swishing tail, then flying off with a long, dark strand of hair trailing from its bill.  But, with the passing of horses from the American scene, chippys now mostly build their nests out of thin rootlets, then line the little cups with precious hairs from horses, dogs, cattle, deer, rabbits, raccoons, or – watch out, – even humans! – whatever donor they can find.  Where there is no hair available, they will substitute feathers or fine rootlets and grasses, which also make a soft, resilient pillow on which to cradle the birds’ eggs and tender featherless hatchlings.  These guys are pretty impressive…

Chipping Sparrow

The clay-colored sparrow must have been near the end of the line when nature’s treasures were being distributed in the bird world.  While wood-warblers, cardinals and orioles received party-dress finery, this fellow seems outfitted like a chain-gang worker, clothed in uniform gray and commonplace brown.  And, while sparrows are generally undistinguished for their musicianship, the clay-colored  species, announces himself with a sonorous, insectlike call of three or four buzzes.  So where are the redeeming qualities?  Well, while this fellow, personifies the word “ordinary,” perched atop a bush on a summer’s morning, he has a distinctively “gentrified” air about him.  His soft gray and crisp brown feathers are subtly woven like a fine English tweed, well cut and expertly fitted. It’s their parental instincts, however,  that make this bird so endearing:  The male feed his mate while she nests and the female, an expert impersonator, lures predators away from her hatchlings by feigning an injury that promises an easy meal – but hardly ever delivers it.  Absolutely fascinating.  These birds are growing on me…

Spizella breweri.jpg
Clay-colored sparrow

The sage sparrow makes its home in sagebrush country out west, where it nests 6 to 18 inches above the ground.  Don’t plan on seeing one up close though, for this gray-headed ordinary bird is an elusive wraith and a master at hide-and-seek. The best an observer can hope for is a whispered psst and a twitching tail that drops quickly back into the sage.  It’s the nest that saves this bird from the Undistinguished Birds encyclopedia:  seems it has a weakness for comfort – it’s nest is typically lined with feathers, rabbit fur – even tufts of wool, when, serendipitously, sheep and sagebrush are found together.  The more I learn about these ordinary  birds, the more I’m liking them.

One last look at the Vesper sparrow. Outfitted in the usual gray and brown, the  vesper variety, is a songbird,  serenading us regularly, with it’s rippling, tinkling, summery melody, at twilight, under the evening stars.  The vesper belongs in the musical sparrows’ group (some sparrows buzz, some squeak, and others rattle one unchanging note), and while it’s song is distinctively sparrowy ( ordinary?),  the vesper – sometimes unpredictably, will flutter some 50 feet into the air and give voice to a wild, ecstatic melody.  Wild! Wow!  I love this bird!

Pooecetes gramineus -USA-8.jpg
Vesper Sparrow

I think I’m beginning to see why His eye is on the sparrows, rather than on the more colorful birds.  Colorless garb doesn’t mean colorless habits or traits. I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote about the ordinary:

“Every human being {bird/creature} is in the process of becoming a noble being, noble beyond imagination.  Or else, alas, a vile being beyond redemption…There are no ordinary people (birds/creatures}…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” ( The Weight of Glory/ In the Garden, pg. 134)

If what Lewis claims is true, that there are no ordinary humans {creatures}, I’ve done the sparrows a disservice.  Actually, in learning more about them and their habits, I’ve come around to see them as special – not extraordinary, perhaps, but certainly more than just ordinary.  I like to think that, like my mother, these birds are simple, humble creatures of God, fulfilling their particular, unique calling in life. Not to imply that my mother, or any human being, is to copy the lives or methods of the birds, literally, but rather, being infinitely higher in the scale of creation than they are, to adapt to her element – in my mother’s case, her life on the farm with Henry, as completely as the birds, the sparrows, do to theirs.

The scriptures teach that it’s what’s on the inside that matters. Beauty is only skin deep after all.  The rich young ruler was turned away because he valued money more than his Lord, the Pharisees, to Jesus, were as phony as whitewashed tombstones and children were held above the learned, because of their simplicity and humility.

“I believe that {C. S. Lewis’s quote, above} is true, but I didn’t use the term, extraordinary or noble for my mother because I knew it would have made her uncomfortable.  She never thought of herself a anything other than an ordinary woman of faith, who loved and served her Lord; however, her life is a testimony to what God can do when an ordinary person, like my mother, is totally dependent and yielded to His will.  That i what is extraordinary and it can only come from Him.  All of Him, none of self.  That use of the word, extraordinary, my mother would like.  The beauty of her story, is that what God did in her life, He can and will do for anyone who asks Him – for you.”  (In the Garden, pp.134,135)

And, so “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” it is and fittingly so.  “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; For His eye is on the sparrow; And, I know He watches me.”  (His Eye is on the Sparrow). Hush.  What is that I hear rising sweetly on the evening air?

Note:  Information used in “His Eye is on the Cardinal, the Baltimore Oriole, the Bluebird or the Pileated Woodpecker?” courtesy of Book of North American Birds, Reader’s Digest

Front CoverNote:  The memoir, In the Garden, portrays the author’s mother, Ellen, an ordinary woman, who became extraordinary by surrendering her will and ego to the will of God at every crossroads of her life.  She chose faith over doubt, acceptance over resignation, hope instead of despair.  “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” was her mantra.  After marrying the love of her life, Henry, Ellen lived her entire life in a house, on the hill, on a farm in west Michigan(the site of present day Country Dairy)rooting herself in the place where she believed God had planted her.  There she found her calling as a helpmeet and homemaker.  She transformed the house on the hill into a place of beauty and sanctuary for their family.  To view the memoir visit www.principia.com or www.janethasselbring.com.

In Hoeing “In the Garden,” the author revisits her mother’s story, cultivating and digging up tidbits of truth to provide inspiration and encouragement for the challenges of her life.



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