Signs of the Kingdom: Like a Chickadee

Date Posted: 
Thursday, April 30, 2015

By Louis Lotz

Now comes May. Leaves are unfurling, honeybees are flying, the rhubarb is up, and my eight-pound firewood splitting maul is put away in the barn. I do like May. 

I have a dozen bluebird houses mounted on fence posts out in the field. In one house I find an interloper. It’s a chickadee nest—six brown-speckled white eggs in a cup of grass, soft moss, and what looks like rabbit fur. The mother—I’m sure it was her—sits nearby on the top strand of fence wire, scolding me. There are enough house foreclosures in America nowadays; this dwelling was meant for bluebirds, but the chickadee can stay. 

Chickadees are fascinating. They survive frigid Michigan winters by growing a new layer of insulation overnight. Slowing down every bodily function so their system can convert whatever food they consumed during the day, the tiny bird awakens with a new vest of body fat to ward off the cold. 

Even more amazing, chickadees grow a new memory every year. According to an article in Developmental Neurobiology—don’t tell me you let your subscription lapse—every year millions of old cells die off in the chickadee’s hippocampus (the part of the brain thought to be critical to memory), and new ones take their place. Voila, a new memory. Happens every October. Why? Perhaps because winter is unforgiving, and birds must remember the precise location of every food source. Mistakes in memory are fatal when the temperature is below zero.

I’m pretty good at growing new layers of body fat. But growing a new memory, I’m still working on that. There’s a movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carrey plays the emotionally withdrawn Joel Barish, who hires the Lacuna Company to erase certain memories from his mind. Watching the movie, you find yourself thinking: There are a few memories I’d liked to have erased. 

I’m getting better at forgetting. The bad stuff is leaking out of me. Or maybe I’m just refocusing—remembering the good and minimizing the bad. But still, no matter how much time passes, there are some painful things I cannot quite assign to oblivion. I wish I could. When you think about it, pain comes not from what happened to us in the past, but from our holding on to those memories.

Lately, my mind has turned to that verse in Philippians, “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13). That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to purge our memories. It means that nothing hinders our growth quite like being mired in the past. Modeling Paul’s forgetfulness means we refuse to allow past sins and failures to affect our new identity in Christ. 

Forget what lies behind. Strain forward to what lies ahead, what God has in store for you. May is a good month to begin growing a new memory. Come on, let’s you and me go pick some rhubarb. 

Louis Lotz is pastoral leader of Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

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