Responding to the Risky God
By Michael Joseph Brennan
The Holy Spirit gently nudges us as an invitation to participate in something big and holy.
Scripture says that God cares about the birds of the air (Matt 6:26), and if you’re like me, you might be picturing beautiful song birds. Duck lovers might be picturing mallards. My neighborhood is home to Muscovy ducks which do not make pretty songs, and they are not attractive. They look more like turkey-geese with their red fleshy face skin. It turns out, however, that God really cares about this invasive and uninvited bird.
Outside, a team of Muscovy ducks gathered in a circle, making a commotion. On a typical day, you could see ten or more ducks flocking together, eager to eat the food my neighbor feeds them. Today the noise irritated me, since I was reading, fighting against heavy eyelids. However, I felt a familiar urge to pray. As I sat comfortably in my chair, in an almost soporific stance, I heard a voice in my head tell me to “get up.” I heard this as a call to something exciting, rather than a reprimand for being lazy. I started praying as I put my book away and headed outside, although I was unsure what to actually do or pray about. When I don’t know how to pray, I just start by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I try to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. One writer compares it to the front sail of a sailboat. Sometimes the wind is overwhelming; it fills the sail, and you can’t help but be carried away. Those times are rare, and today was more like a constant gentle breeze.
When I went outside, it looked like a duck prayer service was taking place with maybe fifty adult Muscovies. Three of the families had nearly 30 chicks between them. I suddenly realized that the commotion was due to one chick falling into the drainage grate in the middle of the lot. I rushed back inside my house to find an implement which would help me rescue the duckling, and I grabbed a bicycle basket. I prayed I wouldn’t have to watch the chick die there. I was uncertain about the heaviness of the grate; would I be able to lift it and reach in and make sure the chick would stay in the basket? Other questions raced through my mind. Why did God call me? What if I had fallen asleep instead?
Returning to the scene with my bicycle basket, I was both surprised and relieved to see a woman trying to lift the grate. She was struggling to get the leverage to lift it fully. I told her that I could lift it if she could reach in and rescue the chick. It took a few attempts, but thankfully the chick was saved.
When the woman walked away, I thanked God for calling me to be a part of this. I thought it was strange that God sent two of us and I asked Him, “Why do you care so much about these ugly ducks.” Almost immediately I heard an inner voice respond, “Why do you care about the chicks?”
Increasingly it would seem that God cares about the things I care about, and I care about the things God cares about. The more I spend time in prayer, the more apparent this seems to be. This is one aspect of what can happen when we “pray without ceasing.” Notice also that this duck mission didn’t start with me alone, it resulted from a partnership between me and God together. I listened to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as He urged me to pray.
I named this baby duck Bob because he was bobbing in the water. I checked on him every day for many weeks after that. Many would not label this as a spiritual activity, but I am not so sure. Perhaps I am weird in this way. But God chooses the weird, the broken, the hurting, and the weak to demonstrate His love to the world. It is a risky business for God to invite people like me, and probably you, to partner with him in this way. It is a partnership of love.
Christians would be united in saying that love is at the center of the Godhead, the Trinity. As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other in love, we too are invited to participate in this perichoretic love. What does it look like to be in this relationship? How should we behave? Orthopraxy is a fancy word for good and right behavior and many Christians follow a rules-based ethical code, for example, the Ten Commandments. However, focusing on rules can distract from an authentic relationship, because people are motivated out of fear and wanting to avoid shame and punishment. When people recognize this deep and profound unconditional love that God has for them, they are motivated to reach out to others to share that love. This is not based upon rules but upon a symbiotic love-relationship with God. When I’m teaching, I find I don’t have to worry so much about enforcing the rules if I am building authentic, positive relationships. When I enforce the rules rather than focusing on them or the lesson, the behavior usually gets worse. My students stop listening and they aren’t learning. I get angry and they get more frustrated. However, when I invest in professional relationships and show students that their learning is a partnership, they are increasingly motivated.
Sometimes we wonder why God would care about us if He is so big and we are so small and seemingly insignificant. Yet we care about all kinds of small and perhaps seemingly insignificant things, like puppies and ducklings. Being a good steward means taking care of each other and the planet. The Bible talks about being a servant, and although a servant obeys his master, the Bible also suggests that we have free will. I am convinced that I had total freedom to ignore this nudge to rescue Bob, but I want what God wants. In that way, God invites us to be co-creators. And God hasn’t stopped taking care of creation, in fact, God is still creating. He invites us to co-create with Him. Participating in creation involves taking care of others; both humans and animals, as well as the planet. This is the meaning of stewardship.
Jesus would not call ducklings invasive. He would call them his beloved. He would hang his reputation on saving ugly ducks; many would say that it’s a risky thing to do. Likewise, we can regard our enemies like those ugly ducklings. It’s hard to invest time and effort in loving them. It is easy to love the lovable. But our enemies or the misfits of society, those ugly ducklings, the “least of these,” these are the ones we need to love.
I think we all have opportunities to respond to that quiet whisper, that gentle nudge. Sometimes it can be as simple as checking on a neighbor, or smiling at the sad-looking person in the grocery store. I once felt an urge to see how my grandma was doing. When I went to visit her, she told me about the wonderful time she had with her friends on a cruise a few days earlier. The next day I received a call that she died in her sleep. I was the last one in my family to talk to her, and I am forever grateful to God for that nudge.
It’s risky for the ducks to hang out in the parking lot. It’s risky for me if I drop the grate in the hole. It’s risky for God to put the care of vulnerable baby ducklings in the hands of someone who might not care if they survive. It was risky for God to send Jesus to earth!
Bob is doing well. He’s the prettiest one out there. Sometimes he checks on me too.
Question: What does it feel like to be nudged by the Holy Spirit?
Michael Brennan is the English department chair at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach and an editor for The Weight Journal. He is working toward a Doctorate of Ministry and Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.