“Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty,
my King and my God.” Psalm 84:3
One Sunday morning years ago, I sat in a big Afrikaner church in Pretoria, South Africa, a beautiful place, new, spacious and worshipful. The church was full, the liturgy was familiar--I was struck by how much the worship itself was akin to a Sunday in my own hometown, thousands of miles away. Even though the pastor spoke Afrikaans and I had no clue what was going on, our mutual Dutch roots were unmistakable.
For all its problems—then and now—South Africa has to have one of the most accommodating climates in the world. Behind immense security walls, doors are frequently left open, as they were in that beautiful church—big doors, openly admitting more than sunlight and warmth that Sunday morning, as you can imagine.
Language prevented me from following the sermon, but so did what looked like sparrows flitting across the front of this huge church. I worried about what the English call “poo,” but no one else seemed to; few seemed as distracted as I was, in fact. Those sparrows appeared to be not unwelcome guests. Rather accommodating, I thought, for the architects of apartheid. Perhaps the memory sticks in my mind simply because no one else seemed to care. In a way, inviting sparrows to Sunday worship was sweet.
That Afrikaner church comes to mind when I read this verse because that church was, on that Sunday morning at least, a sanctuary for sparrows. I didn’t see nests in the uneven bricks of that soaring front wall, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. What the exile (the singer of this psalm clearly is not where he’d like to be) envies is the fact that, while God’s dwelling place is a sanctuary for sparrows, it’s certainly isn’t that for him because, simply enough, he’s not there. And he wishes he was—even the sparrows and swallows have a place there, after all. Call it “righteous envy” maybe.
But not long ago, coming back from a little Sabbath at a waterfall, my wife and I spotted what might have been a muskrat, although he looked rather gray, more like a beaver. I was driving, so I couldn’t look closely; but we both saw him toddle along until he got to a furrow in the river bank, tucked in his legs, and zipped, kid-like, down into the water, where he was undoubtedly more at home.
We both had to giggle at what a waddling tub of lard he seemed to be on land, how painfully graceless as he trudged along the road. Once in the water, however, he stroked himself well beyond the reach of coyote or fox or even eagle. Once in the water, he was as lithe as a loon.
That muskrat/beaver would be an unwelcome guest in any church in the township. But I’m wondering if I can’t push the psalmist’s intent a bit because nobody knows for sure what joy he is invoking here: is he thrilled at swallows in the belfry of his temple, or is he simply observing God’s creatures at home in their elements, the places where they can nest, where they can have their young?
That Sabbath, I’d have chosen the second option.
If it’s a mark of my age that I can take more joy from a fat old muskrat than I could have a decade ago, then there is some joy in growing old and knowing in my soul that even sparrows have their nests and beavers their marshy sanctuaries.
That’s a sermon all its own.