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After a few weeks on the job as the solo pastor of a small church, I quickly learned the wisdom of something my preaching professor had told our class: When you’re a week-in, week-out preacher, you become like a single mother on the edge of poverty—you can’t afford to pass up that dime on the ground. Anything in your path that might help you down the line with a sermon illustration, with an object lesson for a children’s message, with a quote for Bible Study—you pick it up; you tuck it away for later. Let those who have ears to hear listen to this advice!

It was this advice that made me pick up a fallen bird’s nest I found whole on the ground after a windstorm. Aha—a sermon illustration about the interesting materials that make up the nest! A Mother’s Day Children’s Message about a mother’s skill, love, and care! I put it in my office in a little bowl. I did indeed use it from time to time in this or that service, but it began looking a little forlorn—brown, dry, cast-off.

A couple of years later, I found an egg on the grass by our home. It was a delicate shade of light blue, a robin’s egg I suppose, fallen from above somewhere. There was a crack where it had struck the walk, and the liquid insides had run out, but it was mostly still whole.

A light went on in my head—I went to my office and popped it into that darn nest. Together, the egg and the nest looked nice; the effect was more than the sum of its parts. As a week-in, week-out preacher sometimes on the edge of hermeneutical poverty, I used the nest and egg again in a Mother’s Day Children’s Message, and again in a sermon illustration—“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Would you believe that some years later, I found another egg? This one was gray—“dove gray”—and into the nest it went. And then, just a few weeks ago, another, one of an intense blue-green color. It joined its fellows. Some of you reading this might be pastors—I don’t need to tell you that I’ll take out the nest again, now with its snug little trio of diverse occupants, come Trinity Sunday next year!

Here at our church, our most recent Bible Study followed Todd Billings’s new book, The End of the Christian Life, wherein he suggests that one way that humans (with our out-sized view of our own importance and centrality) can begin to embrace our mortality is to, as he calls it, live small. Billings remembers a day after his own cancer diagnosis when he and his young son were in a park near their home, and his son began to pick up acorn caps off the ground—but just certain acorn caps, such that the boy would search very carefully through, picking some up and discarding most, until he had an impressive collection of what he felt were the perfect ones.

Billings joined in this search, and later reflected that these moments of “living small” assisted in coping with his dread diagnosis, helpfully reframing his view of himself as a creature—a small thing compared to a big God. He writes, “When preoccupied with my own worries, I make my actions the center of what’s happening in the world. But they’re not. The Lord is the center, the central actor in the drama of the world. I only have a small role. I’m among the creatures.”

I like the thought that, as over the years I found the nest and each of the trinity of eggs, I was living small. To notice, to find, to observe, and then to let those tiny things in the natural world take on meaning in your life, forming and shaping your thoughts—it’s Christ-like.

“Consider the ravens,” Jesus said, and, “Consider the lilies, how they grow,” encouraging his disciples to live small, as a creature, properly oriented, should. May we consider the dime on the ground in our time of need. May we consider the wind-blown nest, notice a tiny fallen egg, and discover the perfect acorn caps. May we receive everything–every little thing–that God gives.

Emily Ratering-Youngberg

Emily Ratering-Youngberg is the pastor of First Reformed Church in Little Falls, New Jersey. She’s married to a math teacher, and they have two teenagers. Emily also sews and collects science fiction first editions.

3 Comments

  • Rev. Nolan Palsma says:

    Nice reflection, Emily!

  • Keith Mannes says:

    This is cool! Thank you!

  • Tom Bartha says:

    Two fine pieces of writing over recent weeks, Emily. Looking forward to reading more of your observations. ,” This one reminds me of the friend who mentioned decades back that “everything counts,” and that even the smallest seemingly insignificant moment may well serve as a sermon illustration somewhere along the line. So true!

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