Shelter in What Place?

By JIM NICHOLS

One way to make people happy is to carry a baby into a store. Taking one of these little ones out of the house was one of my favorite events of being a father. Once they get to be two years old or so the pleasure wears off for everyone (including the two-year-old), but, until then, carrying a baby makes you nearly famous. People approach smiling and just generally turn happy. That, in turn, made me happy. That baby made everybody happy just by being present. Now that we no longer have babies in the house, I am the one making the approach and becoming happier.

What does a baby require of us? Warmth, security, protection, comfort as best we can. Shelter, in general. It repays us with happiness.

During predicted violent weather events, knowledgeable forecasters often request that we “shelter in place.” Stay where you are right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a reapplication of the phrase as an important way of decreasing the spread of the infection.

The word “shelter” is a powerful word. Usually, powerful words are words of action and activity, but “shelter” has a passive nature to it. Perhaps that is why we often associate it with apparent negatives such as weakness or hiding. I believe that is unfortunate. Hiding and shelter may be important parts of life. Even biblical. Not only for ourselves, but also for others near us.

Our family has lived in two different houses in recent decades. Both were new constructions and, as such, lacked anything that one would consider landscaping. No grass, no flowers, no bushes, no trees. Developing growth has been a challenge, but has had its pleasurable moments. I have found that I like planting small trees and watching them develop slowly. Not all starts have been successful. In some cases, I might have had the wrong expectation.

At one point, I wanted to plant a couple of pine trees. My view of a pine tree is a triangular one such as a Christmas tree—wider at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top. Knowing we lived in a relatively arid land, I chose Afghan pines (scientific name, who cares?), recommended as requiring little moisture. They were initially small, perhaps two feet tall when planted. Twenty years later, they are about five feet tall, if that. They are not triangular shape at all, even with my selective pruning. They look like bushes, not trees. They do not look like the pictures. They have not died, but they often look ill. 

“Christmas tree” pine as envisioned by Jim Nichols

Each year I have hoped for them to morph into real trees, but it has not happened. A tree expert said they were not getting enough direct sunlight because of the house and other trees. They were doomed for growth. More than once, I have contemplated cutting them down. 

We have birdfeeders and birdbaths. There is a limited variety of bird types, but they are all creative in color, song, and behavior. They are, unfortunately, afraid of us humans and when we open the back door, they fly away. Some of them fly into the Afghan pines for shelter.

That is apparently the function of those Afghan pines; they are shelter for the birds. My expectations for the pines were misguided. I was looking for a Christmas tree; the birds were looking for shelter.

The scriptures (especially Psalms) are full of references to hiding places and shelter with God. In these references, God is doing nothing other than providing a presence; there is no other “action.”

It is a brief season of life for a parent with a baby.  However, the ability to be a shelter extends into other seasons.

Even Emily Dickinson identifies this simple concept when she says, “I find it shelter to speak to you.”

Perhaps we are looking too much for action and solutions. It is reasonable that God may value our tears, compassion, and presence more than our words and abilities.

Just as a baby in a store makes people happy by its presence, so too a bush/tree makes birds happy by its presence. Maybe simple presence is a powerful key to offering shelter.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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