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The hummingbirds of public life

The hummingbirds of public life

By Marshall Scott

This has been a hard summer. It has been the hottest summer of recent, and perhaps not so recent, memory. The gardens have suffered, both at church and at home. With a blessing and a little water we’ll get zucchini and crookneck squash, and perhaps a few watermelons in the church garden. The bush beans will survive, as will the poblanos and the sweet peppers. On the other hand, cucumber beetles have brought wilt, not only to the cucumbers, but to the musk melons.

Trying to get the most out of the church garden has meant the garden at home has been neglected. Beans and butternuts are doing well, and I have hope for my hot peppers; but the squirrels got more peaches, and the robins more blueberries, than we did.

The heat has been hard enough on the plants themselves, but it’s also been harder on us. However great the commitment, when the temperature is approaching 90 degrees, and the “misery index” 100 by 9:00 a.m, the most intrepid of us are as wilted as the cucumbers, and at greater risk. It has been a hard summer for the garden and the gardeners.

And life goes on. The best evidence is around two glass cylinders hanging in the back yard. They are hummingbird feeders. They have been up for a while, although it’s been too early for many hummingbirds. We thought we might see a few migrants early, or perhaps an individual strayed from a nest. But while we’ve waited, the feeders have still been busy. We have been feeding The Sisters. “The Sisters” is our family term for social insects we encounter. Right now, it’s honeybees. We’re happy to have them, of course. Despite the heat the beans and peppers are blooming. On top of that, we think – we hope at least – that we’re sustaining a hive in a time when colony collapse is taking too many.

And now the hummingbirds are starting to arrive. We have seen two. If this summer is like the last two, we’ll have three, four, even five at a time. We will hear the hum and see flashes of green and red – and go through an awful lot of sugar.

What we find most dramatic about the hummers, at least in our back yard, is their aerial combat. It’s easy to see why the Aztecs identified their god of war with hummingbirds. They are territorial, and will fight one another with a ferocity that might seem shocking in so small and bright a creature. In our presence two have collided in midair with a thump we could hear ten feet away. We have seen one hummer drive another to the ground from eight feet in the air.

What is striking about this is that they appear to be territorial for its own sake. I don’t really mean that they have a concept of “territory.” It’s just that they’re not territorial for any of the reasons we expect. There is more than enough food to go around. By the time it’s all over, we may have four feeders out, feeders that we’ll fill every day if we need to. There are also the beans and the peppers. Their young have already fledged, and so they’re not protecting nests. Anyway, we’re too far from the streams where they nest.

No, more than anything else it seems that they can’t stand one another’s company, at least when they’re not breeding, and they want control of their space and its resources. They will stake out territory and spend great amounts of energy – energy that is surely precious to a creature that lives so fast! – to keep others away. It’s not about a functional need, at least not one visible in my own back yard. It’s just instinctual.

I could wish, I suppose, that we had that excuse, we humans. We are quite prepared to stake out territories of our own, territories based not on perceived need but on an assertion of rights or of rightness. And when we do, we are also prepared to defend them fiercely, even at the expense of resources that we know we could better use in other ways.

Look at all the recent unpleasantness in our own government. I find it fun (if not perfectly apt) to think of our members of Congress, and especially in the House of Representatives, like hummingbirds. Granted, some are flashier than others. However, they are, as a class, creatures focused intensely on a short season – from one election to the next. And all too many seem to have staked out “territories” in the “marketplace of ideas” (not to mention the territories of their own offices), territories that they defend as if there were no tomorrow, and not enough of today to go around. When I think about it, I can identify with Paul in Romans 9 when he expresses his despair: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people,* my kindred according to the flesh.” (Romans 9:2-3)

After all, these are my representatives. I know I didn’t vote in each election, or even vote for all of those who officially represent me and my district and my state. Still, I am within the real territory, the geographic and not the ideological territory, that they have been elected to represent.

Sadly, and all too consistently, they claim their ideological territory not their own names but in mine. Worse, these days they claim it to be in my interest. My problem is that what they want to claim is not in my interest. Even without reference to faith, it’s demonstrably not in my interest. Look, for example, at the information collected for Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative. That’s where I found a paper on “The Health Benefits of Volunteering.” It’s also how I found my way to a working paper at the Harvard Business School, “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal” (Aknin et al). According to the abstract, “Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness…. In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.”

But, of course, I can’t simply consider this without reference to faith. As a Christian I am reminded again and again that I am called to share with others, and not simply defend my own territory. I am told that all that God intends can be summarized in demonstrating my love of God by loving neighbor. I am reminded that what God wants of me includes doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly – not fiercely, not defensively – before God. With each new Episcopal brother and sister I commit again and again to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being, and not simply those in my territory. It seems to me that I am called to pursue this end with all my resources – including those that I pay out personally, those that I delegate to the Church to use, and those I delegate to my government to use.

When I’m sitting on my deck, the aerobatic combat of the hummingbirds can be entertaining and in its own way beautiful. When leaders start acting like hummingbirds, defending ideological territories and hoarding resources, it ceases to be productive, much less entertaining. When they claim to do it in my name, it becomes offensive. God grant me grace to work, pray, and give for the spread of the Kingdom, as much in my civic life as in my personal and ecclesial life – and to call to account those who fail in that effort, claiming to do so in my interest. For it is not hoarding and selfishness that are in my interest, but generosity and giving, as a person, as a citizen, and as a follower of Christ.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.


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Benedict Varnum

I appreciate the thoughts here. It also provokes me to wonder: it’s all well and good, when we have the resources, to simply keep adding hummingbird feeders until each has a “territory.” But where does the metaphor land? Is it an apt description of the diversity of Christian denominations today? Flashy hummingbirds diving at one another until one group or another declares for a novel space? Is God looking down with a similar benevolent disappointment as we decide in our belligerence to have a new church?

What of the places where we cannot add a feeder? The drama of the US government in the last few weeks (and, you know, the months and months of anticipating that led up to it) seems a good example. What do we say to other hummingbirds? Do we stop our own diving and pecking, hoping to allow for a moment’s peace to break into the cycle of violence? Or do we keep up our own swooping, hoping to defend those vulnerable that lie within our territory, the over-pecked, the driven-to-the-ground.

Thanks for the thought-provocation, and best of luck with the garden!

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