White-Tailed Deer

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Lenten Devotion

March 31, 2023

Audio of this Lenten Devotion:

Deer in our backyard, Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

  My family and I moved to the North Shore of Long Island last spring. We quickly discovered that the clergy who lived in the house at 3 Oakfield before us were breaking the law. They had fallen in love with the abundant white-tailed deer that live in our St. James neighborhood. They fed them dried corn from long, plastic window boxes on the backyard deck. The Trustees warned me about what they had been doing—how it was illegal—and showed me a shrub chewed clean of leaves from the ground to 4 or 5 feet. Deer height.

    After we moved in, I found a large bag of dried corn in a coat closet by our front door. I threw it away. Later, when I was seized by love for the deer that wander our neighborhood and visit our yard, I wished I had kept some corn to share with them.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

     My name is Karen Crawford. I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Smithtown. I have been enthusiastically watching the wildlife in my neighborhood and especially my back yard since January, as part of a project in a Doctor of Ministry program with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The project has included some Sunday messages and Lenten devotions, inspired by thoughts and experiences with wildlife and people, Scripture, and readings.

      The deer truly are our neighbors. They live up to 10 years and spend all of their lives in about one square mile; some of them have been here longer than my neighbors and me! The deer like to forage for food on the edges of our backyard—where it is overgrown with wild plants and shrubs. No pretty flower beds here—no delicious day lilies, tulips or hostas and other expensive annuals or perennials that deer enjoy.  Just a tangle of vines that connects wild growing things from ground level to the top of trees, split by nature and age. I know the trees are a big draw for the wildlife that come here, including the deer.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

     I often see them, when I least expect them, standing in the backyard, looking at our house, probably waiting for someone to come out and bring them something to eat. They see me feeding suet and seed to the birds, and they hold onto hope. When I see them, I have to pause from what I am doing and watch them. I am drawn to their quiet beauty and grace. I forget the worries that I was carrying before I saw them. A feeling of peace settles on me.

Photo by Jim Crawford

     Seeing the deer reminds me of how we are meant to share our environment with other creatures God has created. That we are not alone and are called to live responsibly and gratefully, loving our neighbors—animals and human—and desiring no harm to any of them. It doesn’t make me angry that they are in my yard or walking down my street, leading us to drive slowly or even stop our cars so that may safely cross.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

    I know my feelings about the deer—my love for them, despite the challenges of sharing our suburban environment with them—are not shared by many of my neighbors. I was afraid to talk about the deer in my Lenten devotions, for this reason. I know people have strong feelings about them—and I understand their feelings and share some of their concerns.

     I have heard about the near extinction of native plants, such as the Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid, partly because of the deer’s eating habits.

Image From U.S. Forest Service:

We are losing the understory of our forests, and so we are losing habitats for other species. [1] I can’t help but think, though, how we have destroyed the deer’s habitats by building communities and roads where there used to be lush forests. White-tailed deer were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago and perhaps it is a miracle that they survived at all. Neighbors swap stories of collisions and near collisions with deer on the roads, and yes, it is dangerous driving. We have to be especially watchful of the deer crossing roads in Suffolk County, especially at dusk and dawn, when they are most active–and yes, there is also rush hour traffic.

    I, too, am worried about Lyme disease. It is spread by black-legged ticks that use the deer for unwilling hosts. Lyme disease is a terrible thing! But I am not ready to blame the deer for the ticks! If it weren’t the deer, the ticks would find other unwilling hosts. Maybe we should look for more ways to control the tick population that wouldn’t hurt our environment, as well.

       I believe the answer to our struggles with the deer population isn’t to cull more deer or to sterilize them or to find a way to move them somewhere else. This is their home. The deer haven’t been known to thrive when they are removed from their environment.

      I have faith that there must be a better way to co-exist more peacefully. The better way may involve changing our attitudes toward the deer and seeing them truly as our neighbors and Creation kin. The better way forward won’t involve treating them as domesticated animals. They are wild creatures and should be left to live as God intended! I don’t believe the answer is to feed them corn, no matter how I long to help them with their nourishment, as I do for the birds. A better way to co-exist may mean not reacting to their presence as if they are a nuisance and intrusion, but to think more creatively about making a natural space for them in our communities. A better way to live together would be to not see them as unwanted visitors, trespassers, as they graze by the side of the roads on green growth and on the edge of forests and our backyards, where they may find food and shelter.

      God’s people felt differently about deer in ancient times. They had a completely different attitude. Deer were needed for their meat and skin and admired for their beauty, grace, speed, agility, and resilience. Scripture can lead us to see the deer and ourselves more clearly.

      The Hebrew Bible is full of deer imagery. The psalmist cries out in his need for God in 42:1, “As a deer pant for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”  “God, the Lord, is my strength;” says Habakkuk 3:19 (ESV), “he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” The Lord answers Job’s questioning by pointing to the Creator still bringing forth life in 39:1. “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does?” Jacob, in Genesis 49:21, blesses Naphtali, likening him to a “doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.” The prophet Isaiah speaks of redemption in 35:6, when the mute will sing with joy and “the lame man leap like a deer.” Proverbs 5:18 encourages marital fidelity with, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.” Deer are linked with romance and courtship in Song of Solomon (8:14) “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.” And in 2:9, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.”

     My wonder for the deer increased when I learned about the white, white- tailed deer in New York state. About 200 of them live in Seneca County, in the Finger Lakes Region. Deer Haven Park, a refuge of 3,000 acres, opened in 2017 on land that formerly housed an Army munitions storage facility. [2]  I am hoping to take a drive there someday and see the deer, up close. I wonder if they will steal my heart, like the white-tailed deer in my neighborhood?

White deer at Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

      The deer in Deer Haven Park are not albino; they are leucistic, lacking pigmentation needed for the hair follicle to produce brown fur.  The recessive gene that causes leucism is rare among deer, [3] but the fence that surrounded the base isolated and protected the white deer from the rest of the world and led to the leucistic population growth.

     The white, white-tailed deer reserve is, in a way, a story of redemption. The place that supplied the means of war for more than 50 years was begun by the abrupt displacing of 162 families from their homes with only a few days’ notice. It has become a place of grace and peace, life and beauty for God’s creatures. Family members of those who lost their homes when the munitions storage facility was built have returned to visit, walk the empty lots where homes once stood, crops were sowed and reaped, even sifting through what is left of personal belongings.

     But most of the visitors to the park, open only for limited bus or guided auto tours, come not to remember or imagine a painful past, but to see if they can catch a glimpse of the wildlife, now free to roam, mostly undisturbed. They come hoping to see the rare deer.

White Deer at Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

      Science explains their white coloring, but not the way people feel when they see the white deer.  “They are mystical creatures, as mysterious as the munitions facility itself,” says Dee Calvasina, author of a column and a book about Deer Haven Park. [4] White deer are the stuff of myths and legends. The Celts believed they were messengers from the Otherworld. Native American stories predict that “when a pair of all-white deer is seen together, it is a sign that the indigenous peoples of the Dawnland will all come together and lead the world with their wisdom.” [5]

White Deer at Deer Haven Park at deerhaven.org.

The white deer live in family groups with brown deer, as if they see and know no difference.    

Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

Looking out my window overlooking Oakfield, I daydream of the white, white-tailed deer coming to visit with their brown counterparts. In my dream, our eyes meet. In their gaze, they speak wordlessly.  “Want to come out and play?” they ask.

       “I’ll be right there,” I say.

Photo from https://deerhavenpark.org/

Let us pray. Holy God of Creation, during this season of Lent, we ask you to create in us clean hearts, and that you would put a new and right Spirit within us. We repent of our self-centered ways, our failure to love as you love. We thank you for the wonderful wildlife that live all around us as our neighbors. Help us, more and more, to see them as your creatures and our kin. Help us to find a more peaceful, loving way forward to coexist and even to be a blessing to our neighbors, animal and human alike. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.


Calvasina, Dee, Tiziano Thomas Dossena, and Dominic Anthony Campanile. Beyond the Fence:

       The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park. Idea Graphics LLC, 2022.

Clemente, T.J. “Deer, Deer, Everywhere.” Hampton.com on Aug. 20, 2022.

Hanberry, Brice B.; Hanberry, Phillip. “Regaining the History of Deer Populations and Densities

       in the Southeastern United States.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. Aug. 27, 2020; 44(3): 512-518.

Muller, Peter. “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.” Accessed January 5, 2023.

Private Life of Deer. “PBS Nature Videos.” Accessed January 5, 2023.


      [1] Taylor Beglane, “Deer Are Ravaging Long Island Forests.” Stony Brook Press, April 18, 2019 at https://sbpress.com/2019/04/deer-eating-and-diseasing/#:~:text=The%20story%20is%20similar%20all,of%20Environmental%20Conservation%20(NYSDEC).

    7 Dee Calvasina, Beyond the Fence: The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park, 7.

     [3] Peter Muller, “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-white-deer-at-the-seneca-army-depot

     [4] Calvasina, Beyond the Fence: The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park, 6.

     [5] Peter Muller, “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-white-deer-at-the-seneca-army-depot

Unbind Him and Let Him Go!

Meditation on John 11, Selected verses

Fifth Sunday in Lent

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

March 26, 2023

Audio file of Pastor Karen sharing her message:

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c 1255–1318), The Raising of Lazarus (1310–11), tempera and gold on panel, 43.5 x 46.4 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

 So many people came to our church beautification day yesterday! Thank you to all who came and worked! We gathered with a shared mission—to clean and de-clutter, throw away what was no longer useful and make room for a new age of ministry. Together.

I was also given a guided tour of the oldest parts of our building, dating back to the 1800s. Bill Russel, John Agostini, and I crept down to the basement under the sanctuary and climbed up ladders and narrow wooden staircases to the bell tower. It was quite an experience, watching as Bill turned the ancient gears that changed the clock hands on three sides of the tower so that the time was accurate to a couple of minutes.

They let me ring the bell!

It was an historic moment. We decided that I am not only the first female pastor to climb to the bell tower, but probably the first female and maybe the first pastor to do so.

But more important than firsts for our church history books, we were making good memories together—all of us who came to serve our church yesterday. It wasn’t just about the work, the tasks that we were doing. It never is! It’s about the stories that are shared. Strengthening relationships. Growing in faith and hope. It was an opportunity to care for one another and care for our building, our place of worship and ministry for nearly two centuries.

I was thinking about this last night. Just before my first congregational meeting with you, a year ago, when you confirmed my call to ministry with you, I shared a message on Mark 2 about the man with paralysis. His friends tried to bring him to Jesus for a healing. When they arrived at his Capernaum home, they couldn’t get to him, because of the large crowd. So, the friends removed Jesus’ roof and lowered the man down on a mat in front of him. Jesus commented on the remarkable faith of the man’s friends, forgave the man of his sins, and said to him, “Take up your pallet and walk.” And he did! He was healed!

If it weren’t for the man’s friends, he would never have reached Jesus. He would not have been healed.

 “We need each other,” I remember saying. We need each other. With the Spirit, we can do powerful ministry together. We will find our healing and wholeness when we serve Christ together.

In John chapter 11 today, we read of the raising of Lazarus. But most of the story is about the faith of his two older sisters, Mary and Martha. We met them in Luke 10, when the sisters were hosting Jesus and his disciples for dinner; Martha was doing most of the work of preparation and serving, while Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet, hanging on his every word.

Martha says to Jesus in frustration, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.”

Martha is experiencing different emotions in John 11 after Jesus delays for seemingly no reason coming to Bethany after he receives a plea for help from the sisters. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days! There is the stench of death.

 Martha confronts Jesus outside the town, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She’s saying, “It’s your fault Lazarus is dead!” But she hasn’t given up hope in Jesus’ power to heal. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 

Most Jewish people during that time believed in the resurrection of the dead and peace on earth as markers of the messianic age, Amy-Jill Levine says.  Conservative and Orthodox Jews continue to affirm this belief in their daily prayers, and it is central to our Christian faith. But it isn’t enough for Martha at this moment. “She wants Lazarus with her now, not at the end of the ages.” (Signs and Wonders, 122)

Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

With Christ’s statement, “no longer does eternal life mean something later,” Levine says. “It means something now.” (122)

“Yes, Lord,” Martha says, even before he heals her brother, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

She brings Mary to see Jesus. Mary says the same words Martha has said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

The Jewish community has come to mourn with Mary and Martha. Sharing the burden of grief is a communal calling. We are not meant to grieve alone.

Jesus sees the people weeping with Mary—and he starts to weep. He orders the stone at the front of the tomb be removed. He prays and says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 

 The man awakened from death will be forever changed from the experience—as will the community who will always see him as the one Jesus raised from the dead. Many people come to believe in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus.

He comes out of the tomb still wrapped from head to toe in his graveclothes.

I used to wonder why Jesus tells the community, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Couldn’t the One who raised him from the tomb after four days do the final unbinding? Jesus doesn’t really need help, does he?

But then I remembered how this is true of ministry, in general. The Lord never needs our help seeking and saving the lost! Christ claims us as his own and chooses to invite us to join him in his ministry. Follow him!  He wants to be in a close relationship with us! He wants to help us be in close relationship with one another!

It’s so easy to become burdened with the graveclothes in this world. That happened during the worst of the pandemic; church buildings closed, and we could only do virtual ministry. With congregations separated, we were vulnerable to division, fragmentation, and hopelessness!

We needed to be together in person, serving the Lord, helping each other live abundant and eternal lives by faith in the One who IS the resurrection and the life!

Friends, we are on the right path. And we will continue to find our own healing and wholeness, united in Christ, serving Christ together.

Unwinding and unbinding people of the graveclothes of this world, with the power of God’s love.

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for this wonderful year of ministry that we have shared together in Smithtown. We have learned and grown in faith and faithfulness and have been abundantly blessed. We have loved, more and more. May your Spirit continue to empower us to do your will, serving and caring for others, seeking to unwind and unbind people of the graveclothes of this world. Help us to live new, abundant, and eternal lives, available to us right now through believing in the One who IS the Resurrection and the Life, our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord. Amen.

Chickens at the Post Office!

Lenten Devotion

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

March 2023

Audio of Pastor sharing this devotion:


“See! the chickens round the gate
For their morning portion wait;
Fill the basket from the store,
Let us open wide the door;
Throw out crumbs and scatter seed,
Let the hungry chickens feed.” [1] 

                                                                                                       —The Chickens by D.A.T.

I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment at the post office. I waited and fretted in a black chair next to a locked door labeled, “Passport Office.” Did I have the right paperwork? Would I be, for some reason, denied? Would my passport arrive in time for a summer vacation?

Something catches my attention and I look up as a young woman enters, carrying a little boy on her hip. She notices a woman walking quickly behind her and invites her to go in front of her. Now she holds my attention—a woman who is kind and patient in a place not exactly known for kindness and patience. I watch as she is called to the glass window and asks for her package. In a moment, the room is filled with the sounds of PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEP. The little boy on his mother’s hip breathes a happy sigh. “Awwwww!” he says, bringing his ear closer to the box on the counter.

After a brief time, the woman carrying the box of PEEP PEEP PEEP PEEPing chickens and the boy still attached to her hip approach me on their way to the door. I can hardly contain myself.

“Do you have chickens?” I ask, excitedly. “Have you raised chickens before? Do they need an incubator? What kind of chickens are they?” The questions keep coming, before the woman can answer.

The woman smiles and is pleasant. Yes, she has raised chickens. No, you don’t need an incubator after the eggs hatch. No, they won’t go outside, just yet. These chickens will lay eggs that are a dark chocolate brown, she explains, pressing thumbs and fingertips together to show me the size of the large eggs. They are called “marans,” she says.

Cuckoo Marans from Cackle Hatchery at https://www.cacklehatchery.com/

Call them; now how fast they run,
Gladly, quickly, every one!
Eager, busy hen and chick,
Every little morsel pick;
See the hen, with callow brood,
To her young how kind and good!

With what care their steps she leads!
Them, and not herself, she feeds,
Picking here and picking there,
Where the morsels nicest are. [3] 

                                                                                                         — The Chickens by D.A.T.

One more question before the woman and little boy leave the post office. This one is addressed to the little boy. “Are you going to name them?” I ask. He nods shyly.

I want to ask more questions, but I realize that I am a stranger and here on Long Island, maybe you aren’t supposed to engage in long conversations with strangers in a post office. I want to ask, “Can I come home with you and see your chickens?”


I have this powerful desire to write a story about her chickens. Instead, I decide to write a Lenten devotion, even though these are not technically “wildlife” and they have not been encountered in my backyard.

But they are still in God’s Creation—and is it just a coincidence that the woman and her boy would pick up their carton of chickens at just the moment that I was also here, waiting for the passport office to open? I don’t believe in coincidences. I know this was one of those joyous moments that the Lord has planned for each of us—if only we are open to the Spirit and able to recognize what is meant to be a blessing, something to strengthen and encourage us in our walk of faith.

By now, I have practically forgotten my passport appointment and the summer vacation. I am happily present and not worrying for the future, which isn’t easy for me. A grey-haired gentleman with tattoos on both arms holds open the door to the Passport Office. His smile welcomes me.

I am answering questions and following directions, while I am thinking about—yes, chickens! What would it be like to care for pet chickens that lay dark chocolate brown eggs? Where would we keep them? What would we feed them? What would we do when they grow big? Would the neighbors complain if they turned out to be roosters, rather than hens?

As she calls they flock around,
Bustling all along the ground;
When their daily labors cease,
And at night they rest in peace,
All the little things
Nestle close beneath her wings;
There she keeps them safe and warm,
Free from fear and free from harm. [4]

                                                                                                     —The Chickens by D.A.T.

As I leave the post office, I think about how Jesus loves chickens. In Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, passages that we sometimes read on Palm Sunday, he likens himself to a hen with his chicks when he looks upon the Holy City of Jerusalem with sorrow. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!”

The chicks remind me of a God who is always searching for us, seeking us out, caring for us especially in times of anxiety or fear, wanting to embrace and feed us with God’s love—wanting to gather us with all God’s people, safe and secure beneath God’s wings.

Now, my little child, attend:
Your almighty Father, Friend,
Though unseen by mortal eye,
Watches o’er you from on high;
As the hen her chickens leads,
Shelters, cherishes, and feeds,

So by Him your feet are led,
Over you His wings are spread. [5]

                                                                                                   —The Chickens by D.A.T.

Throughout Lent, I have been trying to pay attention, PAY ATTENTION, to the beauty of God’s Creation and the Presence of God’s Spirit, wherever I am. I have looked at Creation with a new understanding of my connection to it and through it to God. My understanding has been shaped by the words of Scripture, theologians, writers, and poets.

Gerard Manley Hopkins famously writes in “God’s Grandeur” how

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.[6]

John Calvin writes in his commentary on Psalm 104, verse 1, “In comparing the light with which he represents God as arrayed to a garment, he intimates, that although God is invisible, yet his glory is conspicuous enough. In respect of his essence, God undoubtedly dwells in light that is inaccessible; but as he irradiates the whole world by his splendor, this is the garment in which He, who is hidden in himself, appears in a manner visible to us.” [7]

 I have taken seriously Sally McFague’s urging to pay attention to the natural world with a loving eye and not an arrogant eye, [8] which objectifies and seeks to use, dominate, or discard, rather than seek a relationship of mutual respect, kinship, and care. I have asked God to reveal where my heart needs changing—and I have seen God working in me, beginning with my frustration with squirrels, as I shared in my Ash Wednesday message.

The other day, Jim and I were watching squirrels wrestle over sunflower seeds in my feeders. The tiff led to a fight, which led to a chase and one squirrel free falling from the top of a tall tree. The squirrel landed on the hard ground—and lay there, a long moment, unmoving.

Shaking, I pull on my shoes and jacket and step outside. I don’t know what I can do to help him or her, but I have to see if the squirrel is all right. As I draw closer, whispering comforting words, the other squirrel runs away— uninjured—but the squirrel that had fallen took another moment, before it hobbles off in another direction, dragging its back left foot. I struggle to hold back tears at the thought of the pain he might be suffering from his injury—and the possibility that he was just made vulnerable to the cruel side of Nature—when animals eat and fight other animals, particularly weaker ones, to survive in the wild.

With my heart seized by Agape for the injured squirrel, I pray for healing. I ask the Lord to forgive my arrogance and open my heart to love all creatures, once again, a prayer lifted up many times, and yet, I still need more help.

The next morning, I watched three squirrels eating from the bottom of the feeders, alongside a variety of birds, with absolutely no animosity between them. I thought about the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah 11 that we often read in Advent. I prayed for peace—peace with God, peace with one another, peace within ourselves, just as we are. For how can we love as God loves, if we don’t begin with ourselves? This is my favorite part of that passage:

The wolf shall live with the lamb;
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the lion will feed together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Let us pray….

Holy God of Creation, Father and Mother to us all, thank you for Jesus and his love for all creatures, especially human beings, though he was scorned and rejected. Thank you for helping us to recognize your loving provision for us and your presence in Nature, which forever sings your praises. Thank you for these sparkling Holy Spirit moments, when we know you are whispering to us and seeking to bless us with something as small as the PEEP PEEP PEEPing of chicks in a post office and a little boy’s “Awwwwww.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

        [1] Poetry, Pick Me Up, “The Chickens By D. A. T,” November 4, 2022. https://pickmeuppoetry.org/the-chickens-by-d-a-t/./

       [2] https://www.cacklehatchery.com/product-category/baby-chicks/dark-brown-egg-layers/

       [3] https://pickmeuppoetry.org/the-chickens-by-d-a-t/

     [4] https://pickmeuppoetry.org/the-chickens-by-d-a-t/

     [5] https://pickmeuppoetry.org/the-chickens-by-d-a-t/.

    [6]  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44395/gods-grandeur

    [7]  https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom11.xiii.i.html

    [8] Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature (MN: Fortress Press) 33.

“Lord, I Believe!”

Meditation on John 9: 1-25 & 35-38

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 19, 2023

Pastor sharing her message:

Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco, from the Met https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436572

They showed up one late afternoon, unannounced, when my husband, Jim, and I came back from a leisurely walk.

A cloud of black shapes had gathered in the tall trees of my back yard. The black shapes, moving and swaying and shrieking, covered the lawn and the feeders set out for woodpeckers and songbirds.

A scene from that classic Hitchcock movie, The Birds, flashed through my mind.

The Birds original movie poster from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_(film)#/media/File:The_Birds_original_poster.jpg

I did what any person might do, the first time a river of grackles and starlings descended on their property. The sound was almost deafening.

I yelled as loud as I could. “Get out!!”

Some of them flew away, surprisingly enough. But many stayed in the trees, waiting for us to go inside, as we inevitably would, so they could come and empty our feeders and intimidate the smaller birds that visit our yard.

Jim, who seldom sits outside, sat down on a deck chair, and I sat next to him, guarding the food we had set out for “nice birds” and wondering what to do.

“You know, they are just going to come back, right?” I asked Jim.

He answered, “I can sit here for a long time.”

Later, I googled “grackles and starlings” and found articles about “bully birds.” Anne Lisbon writes in, “10 Natural Ways to Keep Grackles and Starlings and Other Bird Bullies Away From Your Bird Feeder,”

“Grackles, from the blackbird family, are beautiful birds to watch. They shimmer in the sun with their iridescent blues, purple and greens like peacocks showing off. They are also super smart and fascinating to watch in flight. Their tails round up and turn into a rudder, steering them as they fly….

Grackle from All About Birds at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Grackle/photo-gallery/485161

“Many define grackles, starlings and pigeons, as pests. Crop growers see their fields being damaged by crows and blackbirds. Homeowners see them as bullies. Grackles scare their beloved songbirds from their bird feeders and steal their food.” [1]

She suggests building a cage around bird feeders, feeding birds only at certain times of the day, and steering clear of seed mixes and sunflower seeds, which the blackbirds love almost as much as they love SUET. She suggests buying a suet feeder that requires birds to eat upside down. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees can comfortably feed that way, but starlings, grackles, and other black birds, not so much, she says.

    I already have caged, tube feeders for the small birds; and I cut back on the seed in the open hoppers. I did buy two of the upside-down suet feeders, but none of the “nice” birds, so far, have figured them out! I saw a grackle hanging upside down, though, picking at the suet. They are smart! I’ll give them that!

    The truth is, there isn’t an easy solution to bullies in the world—not among birds and not among human beings, whom Jesus calls us to love, even those who act as enemies to us.

   Bullies in the community of faith are the subject of our gospel reading in John today. They are the religious authorities, the ones in power! They go after Jesus when he gives sight to a man blind since birth. They criticize him for healing on the Sabbath and label him a sinner, to keep him from teaching and healing in the synagogue and attracting followers. They start rumors that are effective at dividing the community.

The authorities demand that the man be brought before them. They fiercely interrogate him about how he received his sight.

The man says, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 

They go after the man’s parents, who are too frightened to answer their questions! If they say that they believe that Jesus gave sight to their son, they will be outcasts from the community in which they have lived their lives. None of their friends or family would be able to associate with them without being expelled, as well. They wouldn’t be able to earn a living, worship, or have a social life.

The bullies are in complete control—or at least they were, until the day of the miracle. This one act of God’s kindness stirs chaos, suspicion, and perhaps fear. Because bullies are often afraid of losing control.

This passage is less about healing than about what happens to a community in the aftermath of a miracle—and how some refuse to see the loving presence of God and the Light of Christ because it will mean changing their way of thinking, changing their way of being.  As one scholar (Richard Lischer) says, “the cure takes exactly two verses; the controversy surrounding the cure, 39 verses.” [2]

So why does Jesus do this? After all, he doesn’t heal every sick person. He doesn’t give sight to everyone who is blind. He chose this man and this miracle to show that, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” as his disciples were led to believe. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And many would come to know through this miracle that Jesus IS the Light of the world.

The religious leaders question, for a second time, the man whose eyes are opened in more ways than one. He answers carefully and honestly, “I do not know whether he is a sinner,” he says of Jesus. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 

At the end of the passage, he will be driven out of the faith community. And Jesus will seek and find him. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he asks. “And who is he, sir?” the man answers. “Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 

    “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he,” Jesus says.

    The man answers, “Lord, I believe.”

Last night at dinner, Jim told me that he saw our Norther Flicker with the yellow tail and black spots, on the suet, again. He took a photo.

Northern Flicker in our backyard; photo by Jim Crawford

Other woodpeckers, cardinals, robins, and small birds have returned, and though grackles and starlings are still coming daily, we are seeing the large flock, less and less.

Starlings; photo by Jim Crawford

Jim says to me, “You know, grackles and starlings are all part of God’s Creation.”

My experience with my bird project demonstrates to me the inevitable disappointment we experience whenever we try to do something good, no matter how small. Something out of our control will happen! But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do—or that we need to change everything about how we are doing it. What we need is a change of heart and a new attitude.

I hope you know that I am not just talking about my birding project, now. This happens with jobs and families, with our callings and in our church families when we do ministry together. Things won’t always go as planned. But new opportunities for ministry open up, and we will later look back with wisdom and insight gained from the experience, and say with gratitude and praise, “Oh, that’s what God was doing!”

Sometimes we who are sighted are blind to the Wonder of God, shining with bright beauty all around us. We need to ask God to open our eyes to the miraculous in our lives, in our church, in our world—to turn our gaze to the blessings of every day.

May you and I permit the Light of Christ to shine through us, moment by moment, so that others may see and know Jesus, and say with all certainty, “Lord, I believe.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the Wonder of your Creation—for all the plants, animals, birds, and human beings, formed in your image. Open our eyes, Lord, so that we see people with your eternal perspective, your unconditional love, your lavish grace. Give us a new attitude, when we need it, so that we walk in your ways without stumbling and do your will. Open the eyes of our faith to the miracles of everyday blessings, shining Christ’s Light for all to see through our obedience, kindness, generosity, and service. May we say with all confidence, “Lord, I believe.” Amen.

[1] nature-anywhere.com/blogs/bird-feeding-academy/10-natural-ways-to-keep-grackles-pigeons-starlings-and-other-bird-bullies-from-your-bird-feeder-from-your-bird-feeder2

     [2] Richard Lischer, “Acknowledgement (John 9:1-41)” in Christian Century, 2012.

The Power of One Woman’s Testimony

Meditation on John 4:5–30, 39-42

Pastor Karen Crawford

Third Sunday in Lent

March 12, 2023

Pastor shares her message:

My husband is a big fan of basketball—professional and college. Lots of basketball being played on our home TVs these days. I have been learning about “March Madness.”

But while the games are playing, I look out the window and say, “Look at the purple finches! Look at the red-bellied woodpecker!”

He invites, “Do you want to watch basketball with me?”

I answer, “I have to work on my sermon.”

Jim shared a heart-warming Associated Press basketball-related story with me a few weeks ago. Did you hear about Sister Jean? At age 103, she has published a memoir, Wake Up with Purpose: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years.  [1]  She tells her life story, offers spiritual guidance, and shares lessons learned. “The beloved Catholic nun captured the sports world’s imagination and became something of a folk hero as the chaplain for the Loyola Chicago men’s basketball team that reached the NCAA Final Four in 2018.”

“At my age I’m always happy when I wake up,” she begins her memoir. “My alarm clock goes off each morning at 5 a.m. It takes me a couple of seconds to shake off the cobwebs. Then I sit up quickly. If I don’t, I might fall back to sleep. Can’t let that happen—I’ve got too much to do. First, though, I say a prayer. I put my feet on the floor and sit on the edge of my bed. Oh, God, thank You for bringing me this day and for letting me serve You once again. I then get myself cleaned and dressed and into my wheelchair. I don’t use the chair because I’m old. I broke my hip, and then I got shingles. I am hoping the chair is only temporary, but I’m not complaining. I know I’m blessed to have the chair and the ability to move those wheels, as well as plenty of people who are willing to push me around. Now that I’m clean and settled, I can begin my daily thirty-minute morning meditation.

“I take out my iPad and…study my gospel reading for the day. I guess there aren’t too many 103-year-old nuns using iPads these days—there aren’t too many 103-year-old people, period—but I’m pretty comfortable with modern technology. I’ve always said, if you’re not moving forward, you’re going to get left behind real quick. Adaptability is my superpower…

“When I was studying to be a sister, I learned to set aside time each day to sit quietly and think. Now, if I notice I’m distracted, which is natural, I try to get myself back to God. When you have so much on your mind, it’s easy to be distracted. We’re human beings, after all. Finally, I set aside the iPad and look out the window of my apartment at The Clare, an assisted living facility for senior citizens in downtown Chicago.

“The city is so peaceful at this early hour. There’s a hotel across the street, and I see lights in the rooms start to come on. I think about the people waking up in those rooms, and I pray that they will find joy on this day the Lord has made. I can see a corner of Lake Michigan peeking out from behind the hotel. I call that my piece of the lake. Sometimes, when the water is nice and calm, I can see sailboats out there. I think about those people on the boats and pray that they will be safe and enjoy their time on the water.

 “As I continue to pray and meditate, I consider my work for the day. …. on what’s going to be good about the day ahead, as well as what I’m not looking forward to. That’s okay, though, because I know whatever problems come up, they will get resolved. I trust that God has His plan in place. … I think we could all be a little happier and more productive if we set aside quiet time, especially at the start of our days… I believe that (God) listens to me as I talk to Him about my friends, my activities, and what I hope to do in my ministry at Loyola. Other times I like to sit by the lake and enjoy the beauties that God has created and shared with all of us. I thank Him for such gifts.

“Along with that time for reflection, I also understand we all need a pat on the back once in a while, including from ourselves. Before I go to sleep each night, I think of all the good things I did that day. That way I know I will wake up happy in the morning. Although, let’s face it, at my age I’m always happy when I wake up. And when I do, I sit up and start my morning ritual all over again, awash in gratitude that once again God has empowered me to wake up with purpose.” [2]

Our Gospel lesson takes us to Jacob’s well in Samaria—where Jesus has purposefully gone, sending his disciples off on an errand. When he asks for a cup of water from a woman who lives in a community that doesn’t “share anything in common” with his own Jewish community, he begins an important theological conversation. This unnamed woman has become famous over the centuries for her work in bringing Samaritans and others who have heard her story to come to know and follow Christ.

Don’t miss that it is scandalous that Jesus is speaking alone with a woman at the well in the middle of the day! Wells are not just places where people draw water. They are social gatherings, where men and women meet and fall in love or have marriages arranged. In Gen. 24:10-27, Abraham’s servant finds a wife for Isaac at Jacob’s well. In Exodus, Moses meets his future wife, Zipporah, at Jacob’s well.

Jesus talks with the woman about her marital status! What is he thinking?? If the number of times she has been married doesn’t cause eyebrows to raise, surely her living with a man who is not her husband will?! He shows himself to be divine when he says he can satisfy “the kind of spiritual thirst, expressed by the psalmist: ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ ” (Ps 42:1-2) [3] The living water “suggests a holy provision of basic human needs and an endless connection to God in Christ. The Samaritan woman may not understand how a request for well water has turned into something deeper, but her appetite for spiritual nourishment is awakened.” [4]

I needed to re-read this passage and the story of Sister Jean yesterday. I was weary and needed to be reminded of my source of joy and refreshment! Not anything in this world! I felt grateful, as I believe the Samaritan woman at the well did, at the end of her conversation with Jesus. The empty water jar is left, forgotten. She who was hiding in shame runs to the city and says with excitement, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Her Samaritan neighbors are stirred to meet Jesus because of the power of one woman’s testimony.

“It is no longer because of what you said that we believe,” they say, “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Jesus saves, dear friends. We merely point out the way! May you be empowered to share your powerful testimony of what God has done. You never know how many lives you have touched. Don’t grow weary of doing well, no pun intended!

Sister Jean, at 103, believes Loyola’s amazing run to the Final Four has given her a “holy opportunity.” “I can’t say I planned to live this long or decided a course of action that would allow it to happen. I just followed my instincts—and my calling to serve God….

 “I meet with the team before every game to offer a team prayer. I also pray with the fans shortly before tip-off. Then I watch the action from my wheelchair right next to the court. From where I sit, I can see everything that happens, including all the instances when the referees make a bad call—and I pray that those guys will get better eyesight.

“Sometimes, the players will stop and hug me on their way off the court. There’s nothing like hugging a sweaty basketball player after a big win. I may be an old nun, but I know my hoops. “On the day after each game, I send emails to the coaches and players offering my analysis of the game and a scouting report for our upcoming opponent….”

In the spring of 2018, Sister Jean reached a level of notoriety when her Ramblers made a Cinderella run to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. “Every time we took the court, we were the underdogs,” she writes, “but our guys showed such great fight and teamwork.” They won four straight games. With each win, the press developed a bigger fascination with the old nun in a wheelchair wearing a maroon and gold scarf and Nike sneakers with the words ‘Sister’ and ‘Jean’ stitched onto them.

“By the time we all arrived in San Antonio for the Final Four, I was such a big deal that the NCAA set up my own press conference. They told me afterward I drew more reporters than Tom Brady did at the Super Bowl. At one point, a reporter asked how it felt to be a national celebrity. ‘International celebrity,’ I corrected. … This nun was flying.”

The tournament ended with their loss to Michigan in the Final Four. “I was disappointed, of course, but I was so thrilled for what those players and coaches had accomplished… I believe this was all a part of God’s plan.

“All I ever wanted to do was serve God, and my way of doing that has been to work with young people to educate them, encourage them, give them spiritual guidance, and help them live out their dreams…”

What are her plans for the next 100 years? “I hope to do what I’ve always done: use my words to help others learn, grow, serve God, and serve one another.” She hopes when people read her book, they will be able to wake up the way she does.

“I want them to wake up happy. I want them to wake up with purpose.

“And I want the Ramblers to win.” [5]

Let us pray.  Holy God, thank you for your wonderful plan for all of us. Help us to seek you in the morning and quench our spiritual thirst with your Living Water. Guide us so that we walk with you and become more like your Son. Give us courage to speak to those who are marginalized and share your unconditional love and grace. Empower us to wake up each day with hope and a godly purpose—to learn, grow, serve and know you more, and love one another. Amen.

     [1] Luis Andres Henao, “At 103, Sister Jean publishes memoir of faith and basketball.” AP,

 February 16, 2023.

      [2] Schmidt, Sister Jean Dolores. Wake Up With Purpose! (pp. vii-x). Harper Select. Kindle Edition.

     [3]  Andrew Nagy-Benson, Connections (Year A Vol. 2), p. 72.

     [4] Ibid.

     [5] Schmidt, Sister Jean Dolores. Wake Up With Purpose! (pp. x-xiv). Harper Select. Kindle Edition.

The Chickadee!

Devotion for Second Week of Lent 2023

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen sharing her Lenten Devotion, The Chickadee!:

Barbara Almstead photo, used with permission from Butterfly Garden of the Soul at https://www.facebook.com/butterflygardenofthesoul
Barbara Almstead photo, used with permission from Butterfly Garden of the Soul at https://www.facebook.com/butterflygardenofthesoul

“In Walden wood the chickadee
Runs round the pine and maple tree
Intent on insect slaughter:
O tufted entomologist!
Devour as many as you list,
Then drink in Walden water.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fragments on Nature and Life


Hello there!

My window is open in my office, overlooking my front yard. And though I cannot see any birds from this view, I can surely hear them. One of my favorites is calling right now, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!”

I can listen to these sweet songbirds all day long and never get tired of their voices, especially in this noisy environment of our Long Island suburb; traffic, planes, and trains roar by at all hours of the day and night. But when the sun rises, the chickadee is one of the first birds, along with the dark-eyed juncos, to visit the bush by my back door and the tube feeder beside it.

My name is Karen Crawford. I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY. I live in St. James with my husband and one of our sons, a cat named Liam, and a toy poodle named Minnie. Throughout Lent, I am posting weekly devotions to inspire my flock to joy and wonder about God’s Amazing Creation, as part of a doctor of ministry project with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Their full name is “Black capped chickadee,” and, unlike some birds, they look and sound like their name. They range in size from 4 ½ inches to just under 6 inches, with the males slightly larger and longer than females. Also, unlike other birds, the males and females have the same color patterns. The male Chickadee isn’t flashier than the female. In addition to the black cap, they have a kind of black bib and short beak. Their bodies are white, rusty brown, and grey, with a slate gray tail.

I was talking to my friend, Peg, the other day about how much I like the Black-capped chickadees, but I am not sure if I also have Carolina chickadees, which look like the Black-capped, but are smaller. My birds look like teeny tiny balls! The Carolina Chickadees’ range includes our area but doesn’t go as far north as the Black-capped chickadees. The most obvious difference between the two species is that the Black-capped chickadees have white on their wings.

Scientists have been seriously studying the songs and calls of Chickadees since the mid 1970s. They have identified 13 distinct types of vocalizations that communicate different kinds of information. This information includes the “pecking order” of the birds, says writer Li Shen in the May 11, 2009 story, “Chickadees: What They Say and Why They Say It” at the Northern Woodlands website. “For example, the call that sounds approximately like “t-seedl-deet” is given by a bird higher in the order to warn off a lower-status bird. It would mean something like, ‘Buzz off! or ‘This is MY food!’ The chatter call, a rapid “chi-chi-chi-chi,” is given by the dominant bird, when it has driven off a subordinate, as if it were saying, ‘That’ll teach you!’  A short “czeet” whistle may serve to keep other members of a flock together while a particular bird is foraging—as if it were saying, ‘Here I am.’

Li Shen goes on, “Other calls respond to danger.  The high ‘zee’ warns of a fast-approaching predator, while the familiar ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ is used for a more stationary predator. Ornithologists have determined that the number of ‘dees’ increases in proportion to the threat. Thus, a chickadee will deliver perhaps five ‘dees’ when threatened by a large slow-moving predator bird, but as many as 23 ‘dees’ when endangered by smaller, quick and agile birds. The “chickadee-dee” call is used by chickadees as they gang up to scold a predator.”

This tells me that this tiny, adorable bird is bold and courageous to be willing to scold larger predators.

Barbara Almstead photo, used with permission from Butterfly Garden of the Soul at https://www.facebook.com/butterflygardenofthesoul

The songs and calls and cute appearance of these birds have inspired writers of prose and poetry, such as Hilda Conkling’s “Chickadee.”

The chickadee in the appletree
Talks all the time very gently.
He makes me sleepy.
I rock away to the sea-lights.
Far off I hear him talking
The way smooth bright pebbles
Drop into water . . .
Chick-a-dee-dee-dee . . .

The Black-capped chickadee is the state bird of Maine and Massachusetts and the provincial bird of New Brunswick.

Reader’s Digest: “A Welcome Sign from Every State in America.” Photo by VISIONS OF AMERICA/JOE SOHM/GETTY IMAGES

In 2014, the Black-capped chickadee was named the official bird of Vancouver for 2015. In 2022 the Black-capped chickadee was named the official bird of Calgary, Alberta. The bird is prominently featured on the standard Maine license plate, as well as welcome signs on major roadways in Massachusetts.

Barbara Almstead photo, used with permission from Butterfly Garden of the Soul at https://www.facebook.com/butterflygardenofthesoul

Although I am not an old movie expert, I do faintly recall a 1940 movie called, “My Little Chickadee,” a Western, staring Mae West and W.C. Fields. If I remember correctly, this was his nickname for Mae, who plays a singer from Chicago named Miss Flower Belle Lee. She is traveling on a stagecoach when she and other passengers are held up by a masked bandit. Mae has a fling with him and ends up being hauled before a judge. Wikipedia tells the story like this. “Offended by her indifferent manner, the judge asks angrily, ‘Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’ She answers, “No, I’m doing my best to hide it!'” She’s then run out of town and hops a train to Greasewood City, where it picks up conman W.C.Fields. He convinces her to marry him, persuading her that he is rich, when he really isn’t. I wonder if Fields’ character understands how bold and courageous Chickadees are when he calls Mae West, “My Little Chickadee”? Probably not. Knowing Mae West to be bold, brave, funny, saucy, and clever, she plays the Chickadee part 100% accurately.

Chickadees stay with us year-round. They are permanent residents, who get to know their habitats and wildlife and human neighbors. When I go out to fill my feeders, at least one Chickadee stays nearby to eat or watch from a bush while I am pouring seed into the hoppers. I think he or she is anticipating how the meal will taste—and they don’t want to be late for the meal or share it with another hungry bird or squirrel. It amuses me how they take one sunflower seed from the feeder, quickly fly back with it into the bush to hammer it and eat it, and then return to the feeder for another. Black- oiled sunflower seeds seem to be their favorite, but they also love insects, especially caterpillars, and berries.

It’s remarkable the way that Chickadees, like squirrels, will bury their uneaten food in various sites to save for later. They bury their food under “bark, dead leaves, clusters of conifer needles, or in a knothole” in a tree. (Wikipedia) Miraculously, unlike the squirrels, they have a long memory of where they have hidden their stashes. They go back and dig them up and eat them later.

Chickadees are not exclusive to their kind. They will flock with other birds, such as the tufted titmice, warblers, and nuthatches. One of the most unusual things about them is that they are able to withstand the cold temperatures of winter by lowering their own body temperatures as much as 12 degrees Celsius to conserve energy.

I have heard from various sources that Chickadees may be taught to eat from our hands. A lady on Youtube makes her own suet with peanut butter, corn meal, lard, and sunflower seeds, and we watch as a Chickadee feeds from a ball of suet in her outstretched hand. I confess, I am not ready to hand feed the birds. I am not sure that I am ready to be that up close and personal with those sharp beaks or to encourage the birds to chase after me for food.

But knowing this about Chickadees, how they may be tamed and taught, makes me admire them even more and praise the God who created them.

 I have this feeling, when they are watching me fill up the feeders, that they trust me and that maybe they WOULD eat right out of my hand, if I had a ball of homemade suet with peanut butter to offer them. I provide food for them every day, no matter the weather, to supplement what they can find in nature. I bundle up with boots and coat and head out the back door, even when it rains or snows. I come out with fresh fare—pouring the leftovers onto the ground for the doves and squirrels and restocking with new. I have heard that mold can grow on soggy seed and this can be toxic to birds. And believe me, these birds know the difference between stale, wet seed and fresh out of the bag seed. Like human beings, they have their preferences.

When I think of how the Chickadee trusts me, I think of what a big responsibility we have as human beings to gently care for our wild bird neighbors and to consider their needs, as well as our own.  But didn’t the Lord God give that responsibility to the first human beings when God Created the Garden and created man to till it and keep it? With every tree that is cut down and shrubs, vines and brambles removed, we are altering their habitat. We do this on Long Island, without thinking how it might affect the wildlife. We are all about pretty, tidy green lawns. Everything has to be perfect! I see heavy equipment in the fall and spring, with crews of lawn workers clearing off my neighbors’ tall trees and overgrowth, and reseeding the grass. In a matter of days, the homeowners have what appears to be a brand new, manicured lawn, free of weeds and vines. When we remove that overgrowth, we are taking away the homes, nesting and perching places, and food sources for many creatures, such as the friendly Chickadee. This is a good reminder that what people see as “perfect” may not be God’s intention for the Good Creation God has made. Let that encourage you when you talk yourself out of pulling weeds or blowing away the dead leaves, full of nice insects for our feathered friends to eat.

 And I think of how God wants us to trust, like the Chickadee, the One who provides for all our needs—body, mind, and soul–every day. There’s nowhere we can go to flee from God’s presence! During this Lenten season, I hope you will recall that God doesn’t want us to be afraid when we approach our Heavenly Parent in prayer. God wants to know us, just as we are, with all our strong personalities and sauciness like Mae West. And God wants to be known by us! Our sins have been forgiven! Our Good Shepherd has claimed us as His sheep through the cross and baptism.

God wants to hear everything—all of our many unique calls and songs—and assure us that we are safe, firmly in the grasp of the Master’s hand in this world and in the life to come. Nothing we can do can put us in danger of being separated from the One who loves with an everlasting, unconditional love.

We are forever God’s little Chickadees.

Will you pray with me? Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the marvelous Chickadee, with its adorable appearance that inspires poetry and cinema, its brilliant calls and songs, which lift our spirits throughout these winter days. Thank you for the opportunity to feed the hungry Chickadees and the way they teach us about trusting the source of our daily nourishment, for body, mind and soul. You alone are our God, our Provider and Protector. Thank you for your Word and Spirit that guide and strengthen us each day and for your everlasting, unconditional love. Amen.

God So Loved the World

Meditation on John 3:1–17

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Second Sunday in Lent

March 5, 2023

An audio file of Pastor Karen sharing her message:

On Thursday night, a group of women gathered at the church to pack about 86 cloth bags of school supplies for Church World Service to distribute to children in need. You provided the school supplies and/or the money to purchase them so that we could show the compassion and generosity of Jesus Christ to children around the world.

For this, I am truly thankful! You are living out your faith through shared mission in Christ’s name!

 Some of the women stayed to enjoy pizza and a movie called The Cokeville Miracle. The 2015 film is based on a true story—the Cokeville Elementary School hostage crisis of 1986.

The story takes place in a small, close-knit town in Wyoming, with a population of 500 something. It’s a kind of place where everybody knows everybody and their families. While I don’t want to spoil the movie for you by telling too many details, I will talk about the problem of the main character—a young police officer, Ron, who has a wife and two young kids. This is a Christian family with a habit of family prayer every evening, but Ron has a crisis of faith. He has seen something on his job that has led him to doubt and question a God who allows bad things to happen. Where is God? He wonders. Is there a God? He is no longer able to pray.

The next day, he decides to take a long drive to get his head together. While he is away, a madman, with a homemade bomb and guns, and his wife terrorize the elementary school where Ron’s children are students. The man threatens to kill a child every hour if a large ransom isn’t paid. He threatens to detonate the bomb if anyone tries to outsmart or overpower him.

With no police officers available and Ron hours away, there’s nothing anyone can do—but pray. And the whole town prays. Even the students in the classroom are asking God for help.

The bomb goes off. In the firy blaze, the children and the teachers escape from the burning classroom, helping each other to safety through windows and doors. One elderly woman, a teacher, goes back into the classroom, over and over, until all of the children have made it out alive.

A few days later, Ron is interviewing the people involved, trying to determine what happened. He hears a pattern to the stories—beginning with how it was a miracle that the homemade bomb didn’t kill everyone because it had the power to do so. But the greatest miracle was that after the children prayed, they saw angels all around, protecting them from the blast, directing the blast up and away from them. And the angels the children saw were people they recognized as relatives, some whom they had only known through photos because they had died long ago. Each story the children told was unique. One girl said the angel took her by the hand and led her out of the burning school—and then disappeared.

The children’s visions of angelic rescuers and protectors didn’t change Ron’s heart. He is still angry with God, unable to sleep, unable to pray. He has more questions. He wants proof that there is a God who loves the world. A God who isn’t far away, removed, uncaring, for the problems and struggles of human beings.

Nicodemus has doubts and questions, too. What has stirred Nicodemus to visit Jesus at night? The esteemed teacher in the faith community has seen the signs and wonders Jesus has done—and he believes the power comes from God. He has hope that Jesus can answer his questions. He wants to believe!

Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with easy answers. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus responds with astonishment, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

This passage may be interpreted as our own faithful response to believing in Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We must be reborn of Water (baptism) and the Spirit. It isn’t enough just to say we believe in Jesus. We have to live changed lives, as new people, claimed by and belonging to Christ.

But we also don’t have any control of the Spirit. So it’s not just up to us! Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

So, is it our choice to believe in Jesus and follow—or not? What role do WE play in our rebirth and our salvation? Paul hints that it is a divine and human process—our being changed—that continues throughout our lives.  He says in Philippians 2: 2, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

James in chapter 2:14-17 says that faith alone isn’t enough. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

If our example is Nicodemus, then we would play an active role in our life of faith—seeking Christ, alone, when we feel the restlessness of the Spirit. If our example is Nicodemus, then we are to bring our questions and doubts eagerly to the Lord, expecting not only understanding of spiritual truths, but to know God more.

Jesus never tells Nicodemus that he is wrong or isn’t saved. But he acknowledges that there are both earthly and heavenly things he doesn’t know—and that he needs to know for his prestigious position in the faith community. Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”   

Jesus slips in a reference to the healing of the Israelites, bitten by snakes in the wilderness, when Moses lifts up the serpent on a pole. Jesus is the serpent on the pole in our wilderness, granting eternal life and healing to those who believe when he is lifted up and gives his life as a ransom for many.

This God is not a faraway God who doesn’t care about the problems and struggles of human beings! This is a God who loves sacrificially and inclusively. There’s not one human being that God doesn’t love—not even a madman with a bomb in an elementary school or a police officer with a crisis of faith. God did not send the Son to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Did Nicodemus come to believe in Jesus after his night of questions and astonishment? Did he come to be, eventually, born from above? Well, I can’t imagine that his encounter with Jesus would be known and retold over the centuries if Nicodemus himself didn’t come to believe and share his testimony.

He makes another appearance in this gospel, asking questions of his colleagues in chapter 7, beginning at verse 50, pleading with them. “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of them,” (a Pharisee), trying to seek due process for Jesus, says,“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

Nicodemus will make a final appearance in John—after the Lord is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, receives permission to remove Christ’s body from the cross. “Nicodemus,” we read in 14:39, “who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”

Now that I have shared the story of Nicodemus, are you wondering what happened with the police officer who had a crisis of faith? Was he ever able to pray, again? Did he come to believe in the Cokeville Miracle?

What matters to me is your story. Do you believe that the Son of Man came to be lifted up, like the serpent on the pole that Moses lifted up so the people who looked on in faith would be healed?

 Do you believe in miracles or have you given up hope? Are your hearts and minds open and ready to be astonished and amazed by the work of the Spirit?

 Do you believe in the power of prayer, and do you pray to a God who isn’t far off, but has come near in Jesus Christ, a God who loves the whole world and has no desire for any to perish in our sins?

What matters to me is, “Do you believe?”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we believe in you. We open our hearts and minds to you and trust that you are here with us now and in your love for the whole world. We are ready to be astonished and amazed, like Nicodemus, who wasn’t afraid to ask sincere questions. We understand that there are many things about you that we don’t and won’t understand, but that doesn’t keep us from trusting in your Son. Stir us to hope, to believe in miracles and angels, all around! Teach us to pray boldly, confidently, and often, not waiting to come to you when there is a crisis, and our loved ones are in danger. O God, keep us from judging others as unredeemable, for you didn’t send your Son to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

Tufted Titmouse!

Devotion for First Week of Lent 2023

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Audio of Pastor Karen sharing Tufted Titmouse!

Photos by Barbara Almstead and Sonya Cole, used with permission
Above, Tufted Titmouse by Sonya Cole, used with permission; Below slideshow, Tufted Titmouse photos by Barbara Armstead, used with permission

“Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.” – Victor Hugo

Hello there!

I saw a tufted titmouse today!!

If you are a serious birder, you are having a good laugh at my expense, aren’t you? I don’t mind. I have only just begun bird watching here in my Long Island backyard. I thought for sure the titmice would have visited as soon as the sunflower seeds were poured into the hopper and the suet was hung from its cage. I’ve been waiting, wondering if I were doing something wrong to keep them away.

I guess the Lord is still trying to teach me patience—and to appreciate the blessing of all God’s creatures—those we see often and those we see only rarely, if at all, and, therefore may seem more special to us.

I was excited to see the titmouse at my feeder!

I have seen other birds, some more flashy and colorful, but not the very common and familiar grey and white titmice, with their adorable spike on the top of their heads and their big, round eyes, with a perpetual look of surprise. Peterson’s bird guide says the titmice habitat includes “woodlands, shade trees, groves, residential areas and feeders,” so of course I would expect to see them around my house and neighborhood. Yes, we have the noise of suburbia—planes, trains, and traffic—but we live in a community with homes on large, wooded lots and quite a few residents who enjoy feeding the birds. This works together to make a nearly perfect habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including birds!

My name is Karen Crawford, and I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York. I live with my husband and one of our sons in beautiful St. James.  I have served churches in Minnesota, Florida, and Ohio before coming to New York in May of last year.

 It’s been about a month since I started this particular birding project— for my own joy and to uplift the spirits in other likeminded soulsI  The idea for a Lenten devotional connected to backyard wildlife sightings came to me during a doctor of ministry class in January with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I am someone who has always enjoyed being outside in God’s Creation. I often feel closer to God outside than in. I sense God’s presence and feel connected to the plants and animals of the earth, which I see as our kin. We were all made by the One Creator, our God who is the Lover of all creatures. We all belong to the Lord, as we read in Psalm 24:1,“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” The Lord is as concerned with the well-being of animals as much as the people God formed from the dust of the earth and charged to name and care for creatures, with the same loving eye that our God of Wonder cares for us.

 I like to take walks and watch for wildlife. It’s as much for my emotional and spiritual health as for my physical health that I walk. I find myself talking to God while I walk, without forming words in my mind to pray. It may be more accurate to say that I am listening for God through all the sounds and voices around me—both natural and manmade.

I have been feeding birds since my first church in Minnesota in 2011. What inspired me to start feeding the birds? Honestly, I think it was because the winters in Minnesota are SO long— much longer than I was used to in Pennsylvania. And I worried about how wildlife can survive with such frigid temperatures. Then, it lifted my spirits to look out my window and see the birds at my feeders in Minnesota, especially when it was too cold and icy to go for a walk. With every bird that came for a visit, I felt a thrill of excitement. I still feel that way! I feel as if I am in the presence of something sacred and holy, strong yet fragile, when I watch the birds.

Do you know that there are Baltimore Orioles in Minnesota? As a native Marylander, it surprised me that our state bird had wandered all the way to Minnesota—and in winter, of all times to visit. Amazing! The vivid colors of the Orioles just took my breath away! A Swedish-American farmer named Bob in my congregation was feeding the Orioles grape jelly and orange slices in his yard. He hammered baby-food jar lids to our deck to use as feeding dishes for the sticky grape jelly. This was all new to me!

Something funny that Bob told me just came to mind. He said, “There’s no use feeding the birds if you can’t see ‘em eat.” He said it with a chuckle, but he was speaking seriously. What he meant was that watching the birds eat at his feeders was something so delightful to him that he didn’t want to miss it by erecting a feeder too far away or with an obstructed view from a window in his home. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the birds’ well-being or if they ate or not! He was admitting that he was both feeding the birds and nourishing his spirit.

I feel so connected to the wildlife that if I see one in trouble or hurting, I feel emotional pain. When a bird flies into a glass door or window of my home and injures themself, I feel so sad. I believe this feeling of sadness comes from our Creator, who suffers with us when we are hurting, too. Suffering is expected when we love with God’s love, with Agape, which seizes us with such passion that it cannot be ignored. We must respond to it, and share it with others.

Bob was the one I called when what I now think was a house finch found her way into my basement in Minnesota, and I couldn’t get her out. She was frantically flapping and banging against the windows, which were sealed shut for winter. He asked me what kind of a bird it was, as if that would help him decide the best way to help it. I didn’t know, at the time. He laughed and said it must be a LBB—a little brown bird. We did help the bird find its way to safety through an open door in the kitchen, finally, but not before it frantically flew from window to window, bringing terror to my heart that it may gravely injure itself—due to making one bad decision with the best of intentions (trying to keep warm)—and ending up in the wrong place.

In this holy season of Lent, the image of God as the sheltering bird in Psalm 36 and our being invited to take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings captures my imagination and touches my heart. I am stirred to want to know, love, and serve the God of all Creatures and help my animal and human kin.

I hope you will come back and visit me here each week in Lent, while I share thoughts and sightings of backyard wildlife, stories of encounters with God’s people, and lessons learned on this journey of faith. Feel free to share your thoughts and photos.

May you be blessed when you take uninterrupted time to be with the God of all Creation, who longs to be with you. May you be graced by the wonder of wildlife sightings close to home—and the love and joy of the Spirit.

I leave you with this wonderful passage from Psalm 36, verses 5 through 9:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains;
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

Let us pray.

Holy One, we praise and thank you for your precious, steadfast love that extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds, and your righteousness like the mighty mountains. We ask a blessing for all your creatures—those we see often and those we see rarely, if at all. We give you thanks that you care for and save humans and animals alike—and the psalmist’s promise that we may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Open our eyes to see your glory in the natural beauty all around us and sing your praises, like the birds. Teach us to walk in your light and treat our human and animal kin with the same love and tenderness you lavish on us. Cleanse our hearts and fill us with your joy that overflows, spilling over all who inhabit the earth, sky, and sea. Amen.

Consider the Birds

Pastor Karen shares thoughts on faith, scripture, and God's love and grace revealed through backyard wildlife.

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