by David Phelps
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
August, 2010One day last year, as I was taking mom home from lunch, I saw what looked like gulls on the parking lot of the local strip mall in my small home town. “Nonsense,” I thought to myself. “They must be pigeons.” However, when we got closer, I realized that they were indeed gulls. Years before, our family had seen what our then-young daughter, Monica, referred to as “lake gulls” in Chicago near Lake Michigan. But the nearest large body of water in this instance was Carlyle Lake, about 14 miles away, as the crow—er, gull—flies. What, I wondered, were gulls doing sitting on a strip mall parking lot 14 miles from the nearest body of water? “Lake gulls” were one thing but “parking lot gulls”?
A few weeks later, I saw more gulls along the highway several miles from town in a marshy area. “Marsh gulls?” I wondered. Could they possibly be the same gulls I had seen previously? Over the next few days, I continued to wonder about the gulls.
I saw the gulls one last time on a country road north of the cemetery on the day of mom’s funeral. Monica saw them too. They were sitting in a field where water had collected. It wasn’t wet enough to be a marsh but it was apparently wet enough for gulls. Whether they were the same gulls I have no idea but I doubt it. Afterward, I remembered that the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove when Jesus was baptized (John 1:29-34). Perhaps, I thought, God’s presence might be represented by some other bird, such as a gull.
The Bible doesn’t say much about gulls, except for the dietary restrictions in Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15, but it does mention doves and other birds. Noah released a dove to see if there was dry land outside the ark (Gen. 8:6-12). When the dove returned (vs. 9), he waited seven days and then released the dove again (vs. 10). That time, the dove returned with an olive leaf in her beak (vs. 11). Noah waited seven more days and released the dove again but it did not return (vs. 12). That was when Noah knew that it was safe for him and his family to leave the ark.
When the Psalmist was surrounded by adversaries, he yearned, “‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove! / I would fly away and be at rest; / yes, I would wander far away; / I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah’” (Psa. 55:6-7 ESV). And later, he likened God’s people to doves: “Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts; / do not forget the life of your poor forever.” (Psa. 74:19 ESV). We are God’s people too and that means we are also God’s “doves” and that God will watch over us as well.
Jesus didn’t talk about gulls and rarely mentioned doves, but he did make a reference to sparrows: “‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.’” (Matt. 10:29-31 ESV). He was warning the disciples of a time of coming persecution and letting them know in advance that God would be watching over them.
I know now that I’ll think of mom from now on whenever I see gulls. Perhaps she’s flying somewhere like a dove. Perhaps she’s one of God’s doves. I know that she was “of more value than many sparrows,” just like the rest of us, and that she is in God’s care. I also know that God is with me in my loss, just as God was with the first disciples.
Each of us is worth a great deal to God but how do we respond? Do we behave as if God loved us? Do we share that love with others? Are we signs of God’s Spirit like doves or gulls? What comes to mind when people see you? Me? Can others see God’s presence in us? I pray that they can.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22 ESV.)