Dr. Milt Sernett
I dreamt of Martha the other night, thought it strange, and rummaged through my mind for the symbolic meaning of it all. Martha died in 1914 at the Cincinnati zoo, mourned by few except the custodians of Mother Nature's family. Perhaps the angels shed a tear too. With her death, Martha joined company with the Carolina Parakeet, the Great Auk, and the Steller's Sea Cow, all extinct. Martha, you see, was the very last Passenger Pigeon. Last seen in the wild in 1889, Passenger Pigeons once numbered in the millions but were slaughtered wholesale until only Martha was left to represent God's handiwork. Then she too died, leaving a hole in creation.
Though dream psychology, like talk of alien space invaders, amuses rather than enlightens me, I did consult Plough's Birthday and Dream Book, a curiosity found among my mother's personal effects after her death. Plough (manufacturer of beauty products in the 1920s and 1930s) believed that a pigeon in a dream means "wealthy marriage soon." I thought this ridiculous, since no one consulted my wife of nearly fifty years. Had I dreamt of a quail ("Good Omen"), a turkey ("Gain in business"), an owl ("Admiration"), or even a Jay Bird ("Visit from friends"), I might have been prepared to believe Plough, but Martha was clearly a pigeon.
So I set aside the dream book and reflected once more on the Passenger Pigeon. In the inventory of God's world, did the demise of Martha cause concern? The Bible is silent regarding the passenger pigeon, though doves and eagles abound. What difference did it make, that the passenger pigeon had once been and now is no more? When I pass from the earth (not in the Cincinnati zoo, I hope), will those who make the inventory of significant events take any notice? Will I have made enough of a mark on the world's conscience so that I will be missed? Such a jumble of February musings! I felt a spiritual kingship with the character played by the actor Jimmy Stewart in the old movie, “It's a Wonderful Life.” He thought his rather humdrum and ordinary life was small potatoes on the table of life, ruled as it is by the rich and powerful.
February is a good month for personal stocktaking. You may feel that the treadmill of daily cares has worn you down to the point where you do not make a difference. You cannot resign from life, but you'd like to. When the icy fingers of depression grip your heart, then think of these things. You are beloved of God. Like Martha, you are a very special creation--unique and irreplaceable. You may not be able to fly with eagles or coo like a dove, but you do have a place in the divine aviary. I have a banner in my study, made by a student at the seminary where I once taught. The hand of God, pointer finger extended, directs one's eye to the following text: "Milton, I have called you by name; you are mine." Isaiah 43:1 You should, of course, insert your own Christian name, thereby reminding yourself that in God's inventory you have a place reserved for all time.
I enjoy looking at old photographs, particularly those of family reunions, church picnics, city scenes, or any picture of crowds from a century ago. Rarely do I recognize an individual, so I try to reconstruct something of the lives of those whom history has forgotten. Like those you love and care for, these strangers laughed and cried, making the best they could of what life gave them. I suspect a percentage of them were crooks and scoundrels, maybe worse, but in the faces staring back at me, I see something of myself, family, friends, and neighbors. None of us has ever made Who's Who in America, yet collectively we belong to a segment of the tapestry of life without which the world would be the poorer. Pull on the thread representing just one individual and all others are weakened.
While in high school I worked at Harrison's Dime Store in Hampton, Iowa, and remember well the day early in the new year when we shut the doors to do inventory. At first counting everything one by one was enjoyable; by late afternoon tedium set in, and we would resort to counting the smaller things wholesale rather than individually. Thank goodness that the Lord does not weary of us. God knows us by name. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and perform miracles, he encouraged them by telling them: "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." (Matthew 10: 30)
In the same chapter of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that not one sparrow can fall to the ground without God noticing. This passage has troubled me over the years; I have been the agent of many a sparrow's death, indirectly, at least. On Uncle Charlie's farm, the sparrows that nested under the eves of the garage, chicken house, and other outbuildings were thought of as enemies. They stole corn and other grain. So at least once a summer, my cousin Walter and I armed ourselves with long sticks and poked baby sparrows from their homes. Some fell to the ground, a treat for the cats. Others we disposed of in the horse tank--to see if they could swim, I guess. I should have asked our Sunday School teacher there at the country Lutheran church in northern Iowa why God would be concerned about sparrows when they, like the crows in the cornfield, were dead set against our welfare.
I suspect that the answer lies in the observation that in the divine inventory of things, God cares for us all the more because even the lowly sparrow is not forgotten. Unlike the Passenger Pigeon, the common sparrow is unlikely ever to become extinct. Thus each time you look upon one, think how much more you are beloved of God and important to all around you.
Dr. Milt Sernett