There are still five baby birds flying back and forth between front porch rail and nest glued to the corner, right above the swing, with bird spit and heaven knows what else. It’s just plain gross-looking. But it works—for them. And my husband steps out yesterday, coffee mug in hand, being bombarded by too many swallows to count, and asks aloud . . .
“What’s with all the relatives?”
I laughed loud.
Just five baby birds and it seems the whole extended family has to show up, all at once, making us feel mighty uncomfortable, even unwelcome, in our own home. And they are bold, these little flying machines. Zooming in from all directions, squawking, their beady eyes focused, beaks aimed straight at our faces, they abort course at the last moment before poking out our eyes.
Sounds like some relatives of a different ilk.
Relatively speaking, some are worse than others when it comes to expectations. Some expect all relatives to bow down at the altar of family, putting family first above all, even God. Some relatives believe that, no matter what, family is sovereign. And the family rules might go unspoken but they are heard, loud and clear by all.
So, what happens when one or two swallows decide they no longer can swallow the relative ways? When they go their own way, deciding they will no longer worship the golden calf of family? When one family must make choices for the sake of their own nest of birds?
Feathers get ruffled! That’s what happens.
Feathers get bent all out of shape and sometimes squawking and pecking and dive-bombing begins in an attempt to protect territory. And sometimes the squawking and pecking isn’t direct. It’s directed, but not direct. The female feathered, once thought of as friends, squawk and peck behind backs, for years, so it’s learned.
And one of the female feathered—she decides to use a relatively calm gathering to dive-bomb the unsuspecting with a festering, two-year-old grievance. A papa bird invited relatives to a meeting to update them on one of his birds with broken wing. Near the end of the meeting, a particular bird decides to drop something big, right in the middle of the room. An elephant.
“I think it’s time we all addressed the elephant in the room,” she proclaims.
Now she’s a bold bird, and a smart one too. She knows how to slice carefully for good.
How did we get onto the subject of elephants when papa bird was talking about one of his baby birds, now grown, with still broken wing, who will never be able to fly from the nest? And he just wanted the relatives to know—to understand—to care—to know how to care for a disabled bird when the mama and papa are no longer able.
After trying to tell truth painful about one loved, he asks if anyone has any questions. And then . . .
The elephant comes in. The huge beast that apparently we were supposed to see that everyone else sees because they have all been talking . . .
The elephant lands.
Right in the middle of conference room table.
The bird proclaims she is hurt that the birds leading the meeting did not attend a family function.
Two years prior to this relative gathering, the event had occurred a jet flight away, the weekend before high school final exams for two birds, both with special needs. And the one who pointed out the elephant had seen the family with special needs birds several times over the past two years, never chirping a word, at least not directly.
So this papa and mama who held this meeting, they discover they’ve been being talked about, a lot, by relatives. And their behaviors have been interpreted, a lot, by relatives. And the relatives have decided they’ve been offended, a lot, so one bird says, speaking for all who refuse to speak. They just look down at table and let her go on.
And the papa who just bared his breast took the arrow. And the mama saw it penetrate, felt it pierce, felt it herself, and she stood up shocked that an elephant would be dropped, that a two-year-old grievance would be aired in the midst of raw and vulnerable and man-hand wiping his own tears over broken-winged bird. So the mama excuses herself from the room and sobs in a public place where stranger in stall number two asks to help.
Can she help relatives understand how hurtful they’ve been with behind-the-back “sharing their hearts”, forming conclusions, never involving the ones with whom they have an issue? No. Woman in stall number two can’t do that. But it’s nice to feel cared about, even by a faceless stranger in a stall next to hers.
And the relatives back in the room? They leave the wounded papa and go down to dine, their appetites still intact. Because that’s how family deals with conflict. Except, the head of the flock. She is having none of it. She will not stand for two of her birds, remaining upstairs, hurting, trying to make sense of the senseless. The two birds are squawked at, once again, being told to understand the high stress of the bird who sliced the breast. The wounded are supposed to get over it immediately and snap back into a system like Legos and have fun and pretend nothing ever happened? Is that what it means to straighten up and fly right?
And when birds don’t fly right? When birds choose a different flight pattern? It can send a flock into a frenzied fight for survival.
Next morning, the bird who left the room sobbing the night before tells the the bird who uncovered the elephant that there needs to be a future conversation. The elephant bird stands with a drop-jawed look of mocking shock on her face. Once the confronter is far enough away, she says, loud enough for all around to hear,
“She’s a fucking crazy woman!”
And the surrounding relatives flock around her to find out what happened. Another long conversation followed behind the backs of the departed.
The profane gavel judgment was hard to swallow, especially when heard through another party several weeks following. In fact, the words weren’t swallowed. They were confronted. But some relatives don’t like confrontation and they fly away to a place where they don’t have to deal.
Though the dive-bombed family tried to initiate communication with all relatives in attendance at the elephant dropping, most ignored requests.
Ignoring, denying, behind-the-back talking, and name-calling are the knives that slice families apart. And now two birds and their flock have had to forgive. They have moved on.
And what does forgiveness look like, from this flock’s perspective?
Forgiveness means releasing bitterness. Forgiving means wanting what’s best for the other, praying blessing not curse. But forgiveness might not mean togetherness like before. Forgiveness does not mean burying truth or exposing oneself to unhealthy patterns. Healthy relationships are reciprocal and honest and direct, committed to love and truth. And healthy relationships set healthy boundaries. When health is absent, it’s OK to love with limits–to honor. Honoring does not mean fusing. Honoring does mean we have to be enslaved or abused.
So two years later, one family has re-feathered its own dive-bombed nest. And it spends time with its relatives occasionally. And the flock is at peace again.
And these swallows here on our front porch? They’re a feisty bunch, protecting their own. I get that. Soon they’ll fly beyond the front porch to who knows where. But I know they’ll be back, come spring. They always come back. That’s family. Next time, though, we think we’ll help them live in the barn where barn swallows belong instead of encouraging them to camp out on our front porch, soiling our swing, leaving us to clean up their mess.
Around here, our flock lives by this rule . . .
If you make a mess, clean it up.
Some birds don’t agree, relatively speaking.
So if you want to enjoy the peace of a porch swing, sometimes you have to kneel and clean up the mess made by others you’ve let nest a little too close to home.
Kneeling down. Cleaning up mess.
Because we’ve all made a mess of things . . .
And Jesus came to clean up all that He never messed up.
And He didn’t use a hose or a spatula or rubber gloves.
He used Himself—the bloody mess we made of Him with our slicing and our piercing and our flying away in fear.
I guess I can clean up a little bird mess, relatively speaking, by allowing Him to clean up my heart. God knows, I still need scrubbing.
And maybe, just maybe, relative birds will fly back some spring and sit on our swing and we will all see that we’re really not so different after all. We all make messes. We all need cleaning.