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Jackdaws in my tree

19 February 2011

I have been looking at something happening in recent weeks. Just sitting and watching has reminded me of some words of Martin Luther, the rumbustious Reformer (1483-1546) to whom Evangelicals owe so much – doctrines like ‘justification by grace through faith’ and the ‘priesthood of all believers’, which I might write about another time. He had great struggles in spirit and mind, and a dangerous life. He came out into the open with his 95 Theses nailed on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 and at the Diet of Worms stood up to the challenge from church authorities:

‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.’

Those are memorable words, but not the ones I am thinking of just now. Looking back over all that happened in his life, Luther said:

While I have been sleeping, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, it is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing, I have let the Word act. It is all powerful, it takes hearts prisoner.

While I have been sitting at my desk, writing sense – or nonsense? – I have also been looking through my attic window at the high branches of a tree outside.

Jackdaws1
Weeks ago, two jackdaws started building a nest. They found a promising fork – it is a very friendly tree. I have never seen a nest being built. Every morning, except that day when those high winds came, they worked for two or three hours. Then they disappear. Where do they go? The work is very hard, I do not begrudge them their rest. They break off twigs with their beaks, two feet long or more.
Jackdaws2
Then they have to get them through the tangle of branches on the tree, which is like holding a broom horizontally and trying to get it through a door without getting blocked. Sometimes they get pushed back and have to flutter to stop crashing, but they are very good at recovering themselves, holding on to the twig and then looking for another way to the nest site. They spend a lot of time arranging the twigs and trampling them into place.

I keep thinking they must have finished, but they come back the next day to do some more.

They work in such harmony, as it seems. They know how to do this wonderful engineering. How do they know?

There was a funny episode in the early stages. A big black crow came and sat on the tree. He could not help being a menace. It looked as though he wanted the nest. Or maybe he was just miserable and did not want them to have it, even if he could do nothing with it. He was, we must remember, a lonely crow. The jackdaws did not dare attack him. But they took up their stations about a metre away from him, on each side. Whenever he moved, they moved in concert to block his path to the nest-site. They kept formation and supported each other. Eventually, he got the point and flew off. The tree is theirs – for this year.
Jackdaws3

Hilary asks, Do they stay together from year to year?

I wonder when they will decide the nest is ready and they can start the family. They go on fussing like perfectionists. Nothing is too good for the family, is it? Do they wait for the leaves to come out so that they will have some cover over them? If a bird is sitting on a nest and it rains, do they not get wet and cold? It’s all right for the tits, they have a box if they want it, but at present they seem to be flitting around irresponsibly as if there were no tomorrow.

Life in its simplicities is wonderful. Nestmaking by instinct, living an anxious busy life, like Luther, but drinking beer with your friends, because deep down and over all, you can see God’s Word does it.

Nest-making reminds me of another thing about Luther. He was a monk who was called out of the single life in the monastery and given Katherine von Bora as his wife. He thus was able to talk about the liberative blessing of marriage as a good and valid way of being a Christian and a human being. If marriage was despised in medieval piety as second best to the monastic life, marriage is now often in danger of being despised as a restriction on our free individuality. Luther was far from a perfect man, but he was was enriched, improved and encouraged by his wife.

During one very difficult period, Luther was carrying many burdens and fighting many battles. Usually jolly and smiling, he was instead depressed and worried. Katherine endured this for days. One day, she met him at the door wearing a black mourning dress.

“Who died?” the professor asked.

“God,” said Katherine.

“You foolish thing!” said Luther. “Why this foolishness!”

“It is true,” she persisted. “God must have died, or Doctor Luther would not be so sorrowful.”1

That got through to Martin. Depressed in and about himself, he could not concede the God he knew in Jesus Christ was dead and finished. His wife was a good preacher of the Gospel to him. Two jackdaws can see off the black crow.

1 http://www.lemstone.com/firstchapter.asp?mode=view&index=1283

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