Friday, June 11, 2010

The Graced Wenham Swamp

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of canoeing on (and briefly in) the Ipswich River. I have caught glimpses of the river as I have driven about the North Shore, but that is a very different thing from snaking through its length – it is a bit like looking at faucets and sinks with no sense of the pipes behind the walls.
The highlight of the trip was spending the night in the midst of the Great Wenham Swamp, an entity I had known up to this point only as a Great White Space with intermittent green brushstrokes on the town map. Here, just a few miles from GCTS, I felt I was in the New England equivalent of the Atchafalaya Basin or the Everglades – no alligators or poisonous snakes (though the mosquitoes did their level best to fill the “threatening animals” category), but plenty of water, plenty of wildness…and most importantly, plenty of birds.
I had been a low-level birdwatcher in the days before the flood of work and family commitments swallowed up the discretionary time necessary for standing around in the woods and waiting for things to turn up. My sightings were mostly happenstansical. I sat by the pond at the end of the road of our house in Duxbury and looked up to see inches away a Cedar Waxwing, with its sublime coloring and its punk-rock-sunglasses eyeband. I almost literally stumbled upon a brilliant blue Indigo Bunting on a path just off Route 20 in Waltham. I was astounded by the size of the wings and the bright red head of a Pileated Woodpecker I spotted while wandering in the woods at a church picnic in Townsend. A friend at work gave me a copy of Birds of North America and I was hooked, (or netted, as the case may be).
But that was long ago. I am now restricted to what flutters into our suburban neighborhood – the usual assortment of sparrows and crows, with the occasional cardinal or goldfinch to brighten things up. Even here, of course, strange and wonderful things can pop up – a pair of wood ducks alighted on our neighbors’ tree one morning a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they were wood ducks right away, but a google search of “ducks in trees white bands on head” kept turning up “wood duck” in response, and I had the diagnosis confirmed by Rick, a friend of mine who actually knows what he is doing in the ornithological realm.
He was in fact there with me in the Great Wenham Swamp. He showed me a few of the wood ducks flying past our little island hideaway, along with a Baltimore Oriole; my delight at the brilliance of its plumage (viewed through high quality binoculars) was matched only by my delight at the fact that it looked exactly like the picture of the oriole that adorns the Hamilton- Wenham Little Leaguers’ caps. While Rick describes himself as only a moderate birder, he was able to identify birds by calls and flight with remarkable ease.
It struck me then, as it has struck me before, how the experience of birdwatching reflects so closely the experience of God’s grace .(It also is an experience of grace, of course, if you appreciate birds). You can put yourself in a position to see certain birds if you choose the right time of day and the right setting, and if you keep your eyes and ears open…but you can’t make them come. They come when they want. In the same way, the gift of God’s grace will come and go as he pleases. But by patient attendance on his Word and consistent fellowship with his people, we can be in a position where the likelihood of finding his grace increases exponentially. But it is never under our control -- which is just as well. Wood ducks will very occasionally pop up on suburban streets; and the grace of God will sometimes appear where you least expect it.

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