THE CORONAVIRUS AND GOD’S CREATION
By Dr. Riley B. Case
Could God use a phoebe, or a chipmunk, to speak a word to me about response to the Coronavirus? Maybe. Read on.
The house wrens were back, several pairs, choosing which wren houses are their preference. The tree swallow pair had already claimed their box by the pond. The bluebirds were here but they moved on. An eastern phoebe claimed a spot above our deck. A hooded merganser was on the pond. An eastern kingbird pair was hanging around but continued north. The rose-breasted grosbeak came and went. Birds arrive in order. I mark February 22 for the first sign of spring; that’s when the red-winged blackbird is supposed to show up. The grackles come on February 24. Some years it is reversed. Meanwhile the barred owl is booming a mating call in the woods across the creek; he gets a jump on everyone else. The turkey vultures come March 10; the chipping sparrows on March 16. After that it is new arrivals daily.
It was about the time of the chipping sparrows when reality about the Coronavirus hit. Orders came from my son-in-law doctor and my daughters. Ruth and I are vulnerable. We are to be confined to our home. No eating out; no grocery shopping; no ball games. When one of our family visits to bring food, or whatever, if we share a meal, it was to be in the garage at a long table, they at one end and we at the other (it has loosened a little since). No church services; no meetings; no visitors. If I were still actively preaching I would come up with sermons so to instruct others: hold on; things will not always be this bad; keep praying; let’s see where we can help. One poll shows that among God-believers 31% believe the virus is a message from God that we need to change our ways. But I am not preaching. And the advice is trite anyway. The truth is: the news is bad; the virus is spreading; people are dying and losing jobs and fearful.
I didn’t ask for a word from the Lord but it came anyway. It was through the phoebes. The phoebes were here early, out of order. They’re flycatchers and they’re not supposed to come until there are flies to catch. They’ll starve. I was dispensing this wisdom to myself while watching the phoebe perched on a shepherd’s crock; then, as if to teach me a lesson, the male flew up for a bug, then another, then another. Then he looked at me. The Lord (and the phoebe) sent me a message: “You’re not as smart as you think you are: we have this situation under control.”
I am a long-time bird watcher. Twenty-one years ago, I planned our retirement home to be a bird sanctuary. After forty-four years of parsonage living, I wanted to make up for small yards, unproductive garden spots and lack of wildlife. Ruth and I purchased a 6.5 acre property at auction. It had a creek and about 3 acres of woods (creek bottom). We added a pond, a tall-grass prairie area, three native wildflower plots, two gardens, four landscaped mounds and a side yard bounded by the wildflower plots and mounds and meant to remind one of a par-three golf hole on the North Dakota prairie (Ruth is from North Dakota).
For twenty-one years the property has been a blessing. Still, I have always been a bit cautious about claiming too much of God in nature. It’s because of my evangelical convictions. Nature talk diminishes the importance of Scripture and the church. I am suspicious of identifying God with frogs and blue skies. When we sing, “in the rustling grass I heard Him pass” I do not sing lustily. I have been in church camping all my life with fourteen years as a camp director. I always reminded my counselors: this is about Jesus, not maple leaves.
But this is a different year. And, if I am to be confined to home it might as well be with God’s creation. The crocuses, due March 15, were a few days late this year. It was a cold February; maybe global warming isn’t advancing so rapidly after all. But when the flowers came, they exploded in bloom: crocuses, daffodils, narcissus, jonquils, and tulips, each in its own order. The flowers are on the mounds and are so plenteous we have run out of room for them. The fruit trees are beginning to blossom. I found some parsnips from last year I did not even know were there. They are still good to eat. I encourage my flowers and vegetables to reseed. This year the larkspur is so abundant it will have to be treated as weeds. Last year it was the prairie coreopsis. For several years it was bachelor buttons. Soon to come: cosmos and amaranthus and spider plant.
The verse of a song keeps running through my mind: S
ummer and winter and spring time and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness, to thy great
faithfulness, mercy and love
(vs. 2, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”).
It is our family hymn. Sixty-seven years ago Ruth and I were falling in love when our college choir was singing the song. But in sixty-seven years I had not realized that the verse has a Biblical basis. It is God’s promise after Noah and the flood, when the rainbow was in the sky: “…
while the earth remaineth
seedtime and harvest, and…summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease
.” (Gen. 8:22) The word came after what was the worst devastation in history, the flood. And it connected in my heart with the Coronavirus. The Lord impresses us, even in the littlest things, that he is a faithful God.
I have a problem; my place is like an encroaching jungle. For most of the twenty-one years I’ve been here I have used hired help. The youth group, needing to raise money; grandchildren; men of the Rescue Mission and women from Open Arms, the sheltered home for women. But the virus is making that impossible. My faithful helpers are under confinement. I am an old man and all the work is on me. But for the moment I rejoice even in the jungle. I mow and pull the weeds, and prune the fruit trees, and uncover the plants in pots buried in wood chips meant to protect them through the winter. The mounds have been mulched with wood chips for twenty-one years. The wood chips decompose and turn to compost. I add clippings and more compost from the county waste management site. I marvel at the soil. I run it through my fingers. It is black and loose; it grows anything. It is God’s way of creating life out of death. Last year the strawberries, which double as ground cover in the mulch, produced 102 pounds of berries.
I hate to say it, but I am rather glad the General Conference was canceled. Had I been in Minneapolis I would have missed much of this. Maybe God is in it. The denomination is on its way to division and we could use some extra time to prepare and think things through
I walk in the woods. One Sunday afternoon it occurred to me (again from the Lord, I think) that I used to make snide remarks about persons who missed church services and claimed they were just as close to God walking through the woods. At that moment God impressed upon me the irony of the moment. I was rejoicing in the God of the woods and had not been in a church building for six weeks. The message from the Lord: perhaps you should repent for being so judgmental.
What have I learned in these days? That God sometimes can speak through a phoebe or a chipmunk or a handful of black composted soil to remind us of what a great God he is.
Morning by morning new mercies I see, all l have needed thy hand hath provided, great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”