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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Even the Sparrow

The little country church of Alula, Iowa (population 543) looked like any other country church in Iowa, and, indeed, like those scattered across the heartland of America.  Pastor Chad stood on the concrete steps, hand on the black iron railing, noting its familiar rectangular shape, its neat spire rising from the roof above the front door, and the tidy graveyard adjacent with headstones dating back to the early 1800s. The chapel exterior, like all other chapels of its type, was painted white with black shutters for the windows.  'And the paint's not flaking away', he noticed; the congregation of this chapel in Alula, Iowa had not let the building fall into disrepair. Which is why Pastor Chad was so shocked when he opened the front door and stepped into the building.

Pastor Chad admired chapels such as this, and he liked to stop and visit them when he travelled. He carried his camera with him and photographed their pews and pulpits, their simple stained glass windows and solid wooden doors. He photographed them both for nostalgia and delight, for historical documentation and aesthetic appreciation. On this trip, Pastor Chad had arranged to be met by one of the local deacons, who would tell him something of the history and charm of this unique, but wholly familiar country church.

The clean and unremarkable exterior of the building however held a surprise. Inside, along the ceiling and tucked into the corners, in the windows and joists were bird nests – wattled walls with twigs and branches and bits of string and straw.  Sparrows and swallows and other birds he could not immediately identify – finches, perhaps, and was that a raven cawing above the altar? – flittered and flew about the room. It was more rookery than sanctuary.

Clutching his chest, Pastor Chad turned to retreat. 

Back outside again, with the fluttering of wings contained discretely behind the doors, Pastor Chad was greeted by the local deacon, dressed in jeans and blue work shirt. He wore a tattered John Deere cap on his head. “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “We had some difficulties with one of our cows this morning, but all’s right now. You’ve seen the chapel, I take it?”

“Yes. It’s… It’s…” Pastor Chad stammered.

“It’s really something,” the deacon beamed.

“It’s full of birds!” Pastor Chad exclaimed.

“Just like the good book says.” The deacon’s grin widened.

“Just like the good book…? Whatever do you mean?”

The deacon’s grin faltered a bit; his eyes narrowed. “Like the psalmist says…”

“The psalmist!?” Pastor Chad interrupted.

“Psalm 84,” the deacon explained. “O God, living God, even the sparrow finds her home in your house, and the  swallow a nest for herself where she may put her young, O LORD of hosts, my God and my King.”

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