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Burning Cities & Emotional Support Chickens

This is my “coming out” post. I’m coming out in support of chickens as emotional support animals. I know this revelation will come as a shock to many, and will be met with sneering and judgment from others. But I have Jesus on my side, I think. Before I get to Jesus’ own appreciation of chickens, let me share my chicken story.

While I had heard some chatter from Keri and the kids about wanting to get chickens during quarantine, I had not yet consented to this new venture in suburban farming. If you know Keri, you will not be surprised to hear that one Saturday morning when I decided to sleep in, I woke up to a much quieter house than usual.

Much quieter.

Keri and the kids had “snuck” out to a “pick-a-chick” event and soon returned with a cardboard crate of baby chicks. A few weeks later, she came home with 6 more. Ready or not, I was a chicken farmer. I had 3 kids plus 10. Over the summer months, I came to embrace this new hobby and love these little creatures. Uncle Brent came down with lumber and we converted half our shed into a coop, and built a sprawling chicken run paradise out back.

The chicks grew into hens, the hens grew into quirky characters, those characters were given names such as Larri Bird and Stevie Chicks, and the gang grew into pets. Somehow, someway, these defenseless creatures broke through my defenses and built a little nest of joy in my besieged heart. (I hear you judging me right now, and I’m prepared to take it. I love my chickens, so you can just cluck off.)

I spent the last weeks of summer camped out on the picnic table next to the coop, with my lap top open and blue reading chair facing my funny new friends. Their ‘bock, bock’ and bobbing heads made circles around me while I pondered faith in an age of alternative facts. They pecked my toes while I read the Eastern mystics. They flapped their wings while I felt the weight of a world gone mad on my shoulders, and they squawked while I tried to speak pastoral words into the lives of my own frazzled flock.

Yes, I’ll get to Jesus’s emotional support chickens shortly. Don’t get your feathers in a bunch.

There’s a reason “chicken” is also an adjective. They are skittish and panicky animals. They are anxious and cautious creatures. They stay close to their friends and don’t wander too far from the coop. (Except that time I had to crawl through barbed wire to rescue them from the neighbor’s dogs.) They don’t jump up into your lap and ask to be petted. But that somehow makes it even more special as they learn to trust your voice and flock to you when you come calling.

Spirit is the name of our favorite chicken: she’s golden colored, warm and approachable. She is calm and peaceable; lets you hold her and doesn’t frighten easily (hence, all the photos). Spirit is possessed by a more trusting, less anxious spirit; a fitting name, don’t you think?

The kids love them of course, and take turns collecting eggs and letting them into the run each morning. The chickens have gradually expanded the radius of their comfort zone, now showing up and pecking on the back deck door, or perched like a dog on the front step waiting for a bone. They love to sneak into the garage and perch on my tool box. Yes, they shit everywhere, but that’s the price of companionship. We do the same to those closest to us, metaphorically speaking.

If you haven’t noticed, the fabric of our society has been coming apart at the seams these past months. Our world is groaning with the pangs of a pandemic, and our nation is convulsing from the conflicting ideologies that divide us. We have three main choices for how we will respond to the evening news or 24/7 media madness: war, weep or escape.

Some grab their political pitch forks and go to battle. Others try to escape the madness through Netflix, fantasy fiction, and darker forms of escape. Still others find a deep sadness rumbling in their gut, and the depressing and disturbing news cycle makes them want to weep over our world and nation.

Jesus was among the weepers. I am among the weepers.

In a moving scene in the Gospels, we find Jesus on a hill overlooking his own beloved city in turmoil. With tears welling up in his eyes and a deep desire to spare them the pain of their looming self-destruction, he utters these gut-wrenching words:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Luke 13:34).

Here’s the skinny: God’s covenant people living in Jerusalem, called to be a light to the nations and to resist the ways of worldly power, had become drunk on a political vision that is ruining their witness and will eventually end in their destruction when Roman soldiers march into the city in AD 70. Jesus came as a messenger to awaken his people to their political idolatry and their disastrous direction, and show them a different path to peace and a different kind of kingdom politics.

Tragically, God’s people have chosen to kill his messengers rather than heed their warnings. And so Jesus wept. Why? Because the Way to peace was hidden from their eyes and he could only stand by and watch many of his fellow Jews run headlong toward their own self-destruction. Listen to the heartache of a weeping prophet:

“As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it, and said, “If only you had known on this day what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42).

As God-in-the-flesh weeps over his wayward people, and divine tears pool up in the jealous eyes of a Father watching his children set their city on fire, Christ reaches for a metaphor and chooses the image of a mama chicken and her young. Again, Jesus weeps: “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Luke 13:34)

No sadder words are found in the Bible than these five words on Jesus’ lips: “But you would not let me.” Second only to Jesus’ desire to show his people the true path to peace only to discover that “it is hidden from [their] eyes.”

So, why does Jesus choose the image of a mother hen and her chicks to capture such an emotionally distraught appeal to God’s wayward people? The image is as powerful as it is tender, and Jesus’ meaning should elevate the dignity of chickens in our eyes, as we see a snapshot of Christ’s self-sacrificial love foreshadowed in a hen’s self-giving love for her young. According to N. T. Wright,

[The image] is of a farmyard fire; the hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and, when the fire has run its course, there will be found a dead hen, scorched and blackened, but with live chicks under her wing. Jesus seemed to be indicating his hope that he would take upon himself the judgement that was hanging over the nation and city” (from The Challenge of Jesus).

While 21st century America is not 1st century Jerusalem, I have a feeling Jesus weeps over our nation these days just as he weeps over his entire world gasping for breath and longing for the path to lasting peace. Likewise, many modern-day prophets are weeping over the church in America, longing to show them Christ’s alternative Way to Peace, but being resisted by Christians drunk on political agendas that are flocking up our witness and leading down our own path of self-destruction.

I write these words as one such weeping prophet, from a hotel room in Colorado where I am spending two weeks with a spiritual director, trying to place my own scorched soul under the wings of God’s healing love.

Back in college, in my 21st year when my friends were hitting the bars and chasing girls, I was browsing Christian bookstores where I came across a painting that tugged on my heart. In fact, I have only purchased two pieces of religious art in my life. The first has Jesus sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he cries out to God to spare him the suffering he must undergo, but ultimately declaring, “Nevertheless, not my will be done, but thine.” The other print framed in my college apartment was of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing to gather under wings all who have ears to hear, but his tender plea largely falling on deaf ears.

So, why have I taken a liking to my chickens? Many reasons really. But one of the biggest is the way these funny creatures have offered a strange kind of emotional support and comedic company as I have sat up on my own hill, looking toward East toward Minneapolis, as it burned from riots this summer and the fires of dissension have grown hotter across the country.

I have shed many tears this year (though thankful I haven’t sweat drops of blood) as I have tried to speak prophetic words to Christians in America whose politics have blinded them from seeing Christ’s Way to peace. Just as God’s people in Jesus’ day were led astray by worldly political ambitions, so many of God’s people in America won’t let Jesus gather them under His Kingdom wings. They prefer to place their hopes under the wings of this or that political party.

While the world looks to roaring lions to bring law and order to our lives, followers of the Jesus see God’s power and love displayed in the motherly affection and protection of a barnyard chicken. Let us find our own courage and peace in the shadow of His wings and place our hopes in His Kingdom. Let us not be content finding our own shelter under His wings, but offer that same shelter and protection to others who may be afraid as more fuel gets poured on the fire each hour and as the flames grow higher around us.

Let your peace that surpasses understanding descend up on your people like a dove, or a chicken!, and guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,

for in you my soul takes refuge;

in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,

till the storms of destruction pass by.”

Psalm 57:1

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