When I close my eyes to recall my childhood memories I find myself standing in the middle of a forest on a warm summer day. The trees are rustling all around as the wind plays among the branches. The sun is rising steadily, chasing away the damp and dew of night. The forest is alive with leaves so green it makes my heart ache. I am standing on a lone dirt path that weaves its way among the forest branches. Ah, I say to myself. Here is a happy memory.
Farther down the path I see my father standing, gazing into the dense canopy with binoculars in his hand and a bird book in his pocket. Inevitably, some bird has caught his eye. My father has hawk eyes that catch everything. Perhaps it was the flicker of the bird’s wing in the sunlight or its erratic movement from branch to branch. He sees animals and birds from great distances whether he is standing still or driving by in a car. He has fine eyes for bird watching.
My eyes are not as sharp as my father’s. I have weak eyes, the eyes of a child. I can not see as I ought to and it takes a while for me to focus my eyes on the bird. They blend so well with the green foliage and are such tiny creatures. Sometimes I get frustrated when we go bird watching. It takes me a long time to find them even with binoculars.
But no matter. For now I run forward to see what my father is looking at. I run forward because I am confident that my father will point out to me what he sees. And just as confident that he will have patience until I finally see it.
When I was 13 years old my father and I would go bird watching many Saturdays during the summer. I wasn’t perhaps a willing participant at first. My father would wake me before dawn when the whole house, the neighborhood and the world were still sleeping. We would drive to the bakery in South Holland, grab something to eat and continue down the road to whatever our destination was that day.
Sometimes we stayed local and went to nature parks close to home. Sometimes we traveled over the Indiana border and into Michigan. Our destination then was Buchanan where they had a beautiful forest trail along a river. Sometimes we would even head towards Chicago and would go bird watching in the Chinese gardens behind the Museum of Science and Industry. There we would run into ornithologists from the local universities who would always refer to me as a “young fledgling.”
We saw a large variety of migratory birds during that season. In the meadows and tall grasses we saw many kinds of warblers, finches, hawks, hummingbirds, swallows, and red winged black birds. Along the banks of rivers we saw kingfishers, blue herons, ducks and geese. In the forest we saw more warblers, Baltimore orioles, brown creepers, Cedar waxwings, red headed woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, and black capped chickadees. We even had an occasional spotting of my favorite bird, the Indigo bunting.
Although my heart wasn’t willing at first, it soon grew to be. I came to love those early Saturday mornings as we walked among the treasure troves of nature. These forests came to be sanctuaries for me, restful places where my father and I could gaze upon the handiwork of God. Our only requirement was our silence. Everything else was given to us abundantly. Fistfuls of beauty and delight were ours for the taking. And although the noon day sun would beat upon our backs, to us it didn’t matter. We walked on. The day, the forest, the truth was ours for the taking. Here we were kings, subduing and conquering in love. And so we walked on. After all, it has been given to us, my father and me, to have and to own those summer days.
Soon the leaves began to change their colors to that of a burning fire. Some began to fall. Then all. And then the cold wings of the north winds swept down and covered us in blankets of snow. The birds flew south to lands where the sun didn’t have to reach as far. But we knew they would be back next season.
We never went bird watching again after that summer. There was no specific reason why we stopped going. Life was moving on and we went with it. The next summer I had a job and worked Saturdays and then high school came and went and soon I moved away. Sometimes the migratory patterns of the human life are as unavoidable as those of the songbirds.
But I didn’t fly away empty-handed. My father gave me a lesson to keep with me for always. He brought me to the forest and pointed out to me what I needed to see. Here, he said. This is the handiwork of God. This is the creation that groans and travails. Look. Listen. See. And although it may have taken me a couple of years, I now realize what he was pointing me to. I only wished I would have seen it all along. My father handed a truth to me, as all believing parents do to their children. He placed it within my hand and said, now hold fast. And, by the grace of God, I took the lesson and placed it in the pocket of my heart. I take it with me wherever I go.
When I close my eyes to picture the covenant that God has with his people in Christ, I often picture the forests that my father brought me to. It is perhaps a weak comparison and for that, forgive me. And yet there are so many similarities that it would be foolish of me to ignore the meaning of it.
See, as I child I was weak, blind and unaware. I was lying on the highways and byways of my spiritual life naked, cold and destitute. In and of myself I didn’t understand what covenant life could be, how beautiful and glorious it was. Then my heavenly Father took my earthly father, molded and prepared him and called him to be the tool that he would use to open my eyes. My earthly father brought me to the forests and said, See this bird? See this creature? Upheld and sustained by the might of his hand? What tender care! What magnificent love! If God cares for this creature, how much more does He care for you?
The covenant of grace that God has with his people and his people only is a beautiful sanctuary of eternal shade. Here is where we find the rest for our souls. Within this covenant, this forest of grace, there are so many beauties for us to look upon. It’s as if you and I were walking upon a trail of eternal wonder, pointing out to all the glorious birds of truth to each other. See that? That bird is mercy. Isn’t it a marvel? See that creature that flies with grace? That is the patience of our heavenly Father. Your eye could not gaze upon anything more beautiful than that.
The wonder of this covenant is that we don’t have to go anywhere to experience it. It abides in us. We close our eyes and there it is. Given to us by the hand of God, to have and to enjoy. The shade cools us from the heat of the sun, the beauty of it all delights us. And it was nothing of our own hand but given to us so freely.
And as I walked the earthly forests with my father so now I walk in the forest of covenant with my heavenly father. It’s so beautiful. So peaceful. I walk on in this forest and truth, subduing and conquering, a king forever. I walk on because it’s been given to me, to have and to own the eternal summer day.