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Just a Number

So John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. ~ Mark 1:4

Every birder has a bit of the twitching bug, that is, there is at least a spark of a desire to makes lists. Of course, every list has to have some rules, like what to count and when to start. January 1 is one of those obvious starting points. It is when the year list begins. While not totally arbitrary, it is really nothing more than an agreed upon date to begin each year. There can be multiple starting points, indeed, some cultures mark other times as the beginning of the year. Just like the date, each species add to the list becomes significant through this process of assigning numbers. This doesn’t make the bird any more significant, even if the number is “special,” it just adds a layer of interest to the pursuit.

I set out on New Year’s Day with the intention of adding a life bird as an early entry on my year list. Leaving home just as the sun was rising meant that the crows leaving the roost became my first species of 2024 and it was early enough that the neighborhood House Sparrows where still asleep. They were also quiet when I got home, so was able to keep them off my year list for the first 24 hours; an odd little “victory.” I arrived at the neighborhood where the target bird had been reported visiting the feeders and took up the vigil, at first with only two others, but soon with more than a dozen. It took about an hour, and though the looks were not long, they were good. There was my 14th year bird, my 388th life bird, a tremendously out-of-range Hepatic Tanager.

The thrill in the experience comes from creating a compelling story. We all make meaning through engaging with story whether or not we are consciously aware of it. When we read about John the Baptist dunking people in the Jordan River, we are tempted to think of it as a novel practice. The truth is that he was using an existing ritual to create new meaning about the forgiveness of sin. Then, when his cousin, Jesus, arrived, the new story took a radical turn and became the commissioning of the ministry of the messiah. All of this rich symbolism came from a simple, common practice...washing with water.

That’s how this spiritual journey always plays out. We are challenged with seeing the commonplace imbued with significance, prompting us to consider divinity. Martin Luther suggested that we recall the power and importance of our own baptisms, every time we wash our faces. That is a reminder that we don’t simply receive understanding, we make meaning, sometimes through repeated practice. Even the pesky House Sparrow held significance, albeit briefly, when it became year bird number 33.

Prayer: Holy Storyteller, be with us as we discover the uncommon in the midst of the common. Amen.


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