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Psalm 84: The Sparrow's Nest

by Carla Waterman, Ph.D.

I once read an indignant commentary on Psalm 84:3. The writer was appalled at the suggestion that messy birds would be allowed anywhere near the altar of God, let alone make their home there.  I laughed as I thought, “Oh dear friend, hast thou not a poetic imagination?” Apparently not. I find the imagery beautiful:

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts.

The swallows are most certainly welcome near the altar.  They make neat nests up in the rafters and love to congregate up there together. But the sparrow is my favorite bird. Its nest is messy but cozy, adapting whatever is available in its surroundings—grass, feathers, paper, string. However, the sparrow’s main instinct is not to be concerned with what the nest is composed of, but rather, where the nest is located. And thus the sweetness of the psalmist’s poetry.  A sparrow’s nest is near to the altar and close to the ground. It uses whatever materials are at hand, so long as it can remain in its quiet, holy home.

I recently had lunch with a passionate friend. Such longing to be “in ministry,” such intense desire to find that place to serve in the Lord’s house.  And I was reminded of Hild of Whitby, a Northumbrian abbess from the seventh century known for her wise counsel. She once wrote,

I have prepared a place for you, 
says the Lord, a place that is for you, 
and only you, to fill. 
Approach My table, 
asking first that you might serve.
Look even for the lowest tasks.
Then, the work of service done, 
You may look for you own place at table. 
But do not seek the most important seat 
which may be reserved for someone else. 
In the place of My appointing will be your joy. 
(Celtic Daily Prayer, HaperCollins, 2002)

If our goal is to be near the altar of our God, then we are free to gather whatever everyday materials are at hand to make our nest: straightening the chairs, making the coffee, listening to the friend.  The point is not the nest’s composition.  The point is the nest’s location.  Near to the altar.  Close to the ground.  Perhaps the sparrow is wiser than we know.

Carla Waterman has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, taught in the Christian Education Department at Wheaton College in the mid 90’s, and been teaching Spiritual Formation at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies and Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL for the past decade. She is the author of Songs of Assent  and an Anglican laywoman who seeks to live and help others live near to the altar and close to the ground