What’s wrong with this picture?
A robin has returned to its nest, only to find an unexpected addition to its clutch of eggs.
Robin eggs are easy to spot. Their striking color has long been described as “robin’s egg blue.” That speckled egg, on the other hand, is clearly going to hatch into a brother from a different mother. It was laid by a brown-headed cowbird, a member of the blackbird family known for its cleverness as a brood parasite.
Cowbirds are squatters. Since they never make nests of their own, they force other birds to raise their young.
A cowbird hen will wait until a more enterprising species – robins, for instance – have finished crafting their nest and laying their eggs. When the host birds are off running errands, she will swoop in, lay a single egg, then get out of there fast. The whole process takes less than 10 seconds. Ornithologists tell us that cowbirds have been known to pull this fly-in-fly-out trick on 247 other species. A single female can lay up to 70 eggs during one season.
Some host birds aren’t fooled. They immediately identify and eject the alien egg.
Other hosts, who apparently struggled on the math portion of their SATs, don’t seem to notice their nursery is now plus-one.
Then the eggs hatch. Within a few days, the cowbird chick almost always proves to be larger and more aggressive than its “siblings.” Everyone in the family quickly discovers that the biggest baby gets the biggest breakfast. The host chicks may even be muscled out of the nest.
And just like that, the cowbird population grows while other species struggle.
There’s something about this reality that exasperates many birdwatchers, as well as anyone who thinks that justice ought to prevail in the world. After all, it sure seems as if the planet would be a nicer place with more robins, warblers, and hummingbirds and a lot fewer drab, conniving cowbirds.
But the cowbird’s behavior, upon examination, turns out to be disturbingly familiar to all of us.
Sports psychologist Jim Loehr notes that whatever we choose to feed will grow. What we allow to be crowded out of our lives will starve. “Invest energy in patience and it will grow, like a muscle. Conversely, if you invest energy in impatience, then it will grow. By giving something energy, you give it life.”
This is true when it comes to your job. And your relationships with your kids. And your ability to play a musical instrument. And your spiritual disciplines. Stop investing energy, and such things will inevitably begin to falter.
Compassion, generosity, trust, and integrity all respond to the degree of energy we choose to provide. If they get nothing but the leftovers, they will be pushed out of our lives and die of starvation. As Loehr puts it, “When we give something energy, we grow it. When we give something extraordinary energy, it grows extraordinarily.”
This seems to be what Paul has in mind as he closes his letter to the Galatians:
Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. (Galatians 6:7-9, “The Message”).
Note that turn of phrase, “letting God’s Spirit do the growth work.”
God’s indwelling Spirit not only helps us discern the true condition of our hearts – “You need to starve that desire, and feed this one instead!” – but gives us the strength to do what we could never do on our own.
Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by accident, but by purposeful activity.
Yes, every now and then someone randomly selected from the crowd at a basketball game and given the chance to win $10,000 by sinking a half-court shot, actually succeeds. But everyone, including the shooter, knows that shot had a lot more to do with luck than skill.
We can’t go through life counting on “lucky shots” when it comes to walking with God and other people.
If you must, out of the blue, respond to someone who has seriously hurt you, forgiveness isn’t likely to “just happen” – not if you have spent your life feeding the hungry chick of bitterness, while starving the more deserving chicks of compassion, empathy, and love.
As Paul puts it, nobody fools God. We can’t suddenly pull ourselves together spiritually when things get tough – not if we have systematically ignored the Spirit’s nudges.
But today is a new day. Today we can begin again.
Feed the new life to which you have been called. Starve the habits and attitudes that you know are peace-killers, joy-killers, and hope-killers.
When it comes to walking with God’s own Spirit, we don’t have to end up laying an egg.