If you fold your hands together in just the right way, as if you were housing a tiny bird between your palms, leaving a small opening between your aligned thumbs, you can blow into the cavity and call owls.
Once when I was probably ten years old my Dad put me in a deer stand before dawn in the breath-freezing days of December. The stand was just three two-by-fours making a small triangle among three tree trunks; a few grey planks laid across this basic frame made a small platform about ten feet off the ground just big enough for a little numb-nosed boy to sit and watch for deer. On this particular morning, I remember, the voices of two owls called to one another through the cold stillness of the quiet woods.
One was far away, but though his hooting was faint, it was clear and haunting. The other owl answered and seemed much closer. These mysterious creatures were out there somewhere, entirely unseen, holding counsel across the tenebrae in their own strange veiled tongue.
Historically, the human imagination has not always held owls in high esteem. In the Middle-Ages they were associated with ugliness and malice, even Satan. But I grew up hearing their haunting calls in the woods as a kind of eerie invitation towards the Good Darkness; like being invited to come under the shadow of some great ineffable Wing in the midst of the world’s bewildering night.
I had learned to cup my hands to make a sort of handy ocarina and mimic owl calls. My Dad could make the calls with just his mouth, but the architecture of my throat and vocal cords would not allow for it at that time, besides I loved the magic of summoning an owl voice from my own unlikely palms and blown breath. So I shaped my hands and worked to position my lips across my thumb-knuckles—just so—until raspy breath somehow began to body into tone and voice. Once I had my hands around that invisible owl songbox, I blew “Hoo Hoo, Hoo Hoo, Hoo Hoo-are-yooooou?” And I waited. Dawn seemed to wait with me.
I’ve known folks whose lives have been worn down to fear and despair by years of sad circumstance beyond their control. This morning, reading in Mark chapter five, I watch a woman who has been suffering sick for twelve years as she sneaks through the crowd and lays her hand on a piece of the fabric that Jesus wears. She is healed, and as soon as she is healed, she begins to slink back as the crowd passes on toward Jairus’s house where his daughter lies dying. Maybe you know this story? The clandestine healing is not hidden from Jesus and He calls the whole bustling, shoving, excited crowd to a complete halt, saying, “Who touched me?” The tone of the disciples’ answer is a kind of, “Seriously, Jesus?” Everyone is touching Him; He’s like a spoon stirring a pot of boiling noodles in that crowd.
But Jesus isn’t content to let this woman sneak away without a face to face meeting.
Whatever hopes she had of disappearing from the scene unnoticed are dashed. You may have heard it explained before that in that cultural moment a woman who touched a man who wasn’t her husband, son, or father could be stoned to death on the spot — has she been healed one minute only to be killed the next? Surely terrified, she sheepishly raises her hand at His summons and explains herself as best she can.
“Daughter,” Jesus says. In that one word, He dismisses her fears of punishment and offers her complete access to Himself. No more sneaking. No more need to.
The power to heal had been obvious to her, the love of God had not been.
It’s as if the gist of Jesus’s word to her is, “Daughter, I’m so glad you reached out. I’m proud of you for coming to see Me. Thank you. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, don’t worry, just say so. Go in peace.”
Healing would have been enough for her, but not for Jesus. He wanted to meet her and tell her he loved her, making sure she knew she had been relocated into a new membership in his Family.
Back in the Spring, I sent an email out to a handful of friends in Colorado; I was feeling out the possibility that, since I couldn’t tour due to Covid, I might spend September and October in Colorado writing for a new recording project instead. I wondered if it would even be feasible since I’d need a place to live and work, ideally, for two months; but who would take on a wandering songwriter for that length of time? That’s a lot to ask, but I would never know if I didn’t ask. I was amazed when my initial tentative email came back to me with generous encouragement; Steve and Terri Moon even offered their basement bedroom for as long as I needed it. But wait – what if I need it for two months? (Maybe they’d skimmed the email and missed that part?) Yes, they said, two months was fine. Incredible.
The Summer passed and after I did finally begin my drive towards Colorado, the thought lingered in the back of my mind that this whole crazy idea of living with the Moons for two months as their “composer in residence” might implode. This would be a new experience for them and for me.
There is too much to tell – maybe more than words can tell; the Moons so deeply welcomed and cared for me during those two months that it was really quite painful to leave their home when the time came. I had called out and was relieved to discover my voice received, understood, and gifted back to me through the soundings of deep friendship and love. I wrote in a small post online one day:
“Hospitality is life-giving. I have experienced a year’s-worth this Fall. Hospitality is also, I’m realizing, a way others offer us to ourselves, affirm our gifts, and give us their blessing as we seek to discover and exercise who God has called us to be. In other words, we love because we have been loved first.
The Moons and other friends at hand have given me such love. I don’t ever want simply to go if I’m not being sent out from the fabric of family. Without that contextualization how can I ever understand and hold to what I’m about?
We hold on when we’re held, and Jesus has hid his hands in the hands of some real good ones out here. I’m feeling amazed by that and really grateful.”
It’s no coincidence that those two months turned out to be the most fruitful season of writing and songwriting I’ve ever experienced. Seventeen new songs sprang up for the thirty-three song trilogy of albums I’ve been dreaming of making for a few years now. As an artist—no, as a human being, I come to life when I’m loved well. Just having a place to work was enough for me, I thought, but Jesus knew that wasn’t true. The Lord put good arms around me.
In Steve and Terri Moon’s basement bedroom, I wrote the lyrics, “When we are held / we can hold on / And if we are held / we can let go.”
“There’s so much to be thankful for, and so much to be forgotten,” says songwriter Eric Peters in his song The Old Year. There’s plenty to let go of (this year especially), but in the hollow of our palms that seems to collect only frozen breath, quite often some new voice can gather to sing. How the air can rush in and somehow whirl into tone, timbre, and mysterious language beats me. That little ocarina shaped from shivering pre-dawn fingers in a dark wood has a strange way of sounding out in the December cold. It searches through pale crystalline grass, shadowed pinewood sentinels, across miles.
Dawn waits as we wait. And in the motions we make as we touch our own hands together we discern a kind of faith-keeping. We call out because someone is there. A feathered wing, a wise eye, a hearing ear. We wait. The wonder is the arrival of a conversation we suddenly discover ourselves to be folded into. The owl responds. Another breathing thing out there breathes back our breath in its own voice, giving our call back to us, making us members of a brood housed in these hollowed-out places beneath the shadow of Living Wings.
The featured image of the small songbird awaiting dawn is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her generous permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.