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Psalm 91:1-6

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. 

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

I once heard a story about a park ranger in Yellowstone National Forest who was walking the land after a wildfire had passed through. Walking through the charred landscape of burnt trees and black ground he came upon the petrified remains of a small bird, seemingly hiding at the base of a tree. Touched by the image and saddened by the loss, the park ranger went to knock the pile of ashes over, unfreezing the moment of death; however, as he did, three small baby birds crawled out from the ashes.

In the story, the mother bird gathered up her chicks and, covering over them, protected them from the fire. She sacrificed herself so that her chicks could survive.

When I read Psalm 91 I remember this story; especially verse 4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…” And so, naturally, as I started writing this devotional, I went to find the source of that story. Unfortunately, like so many others in this internet-meme age, this story is just that – a story. The popular version of the story comes out in 1989 saying there was a fire in Yellowstone and that the particulars of this story were first published in National Geographic.

So far, in evaluating the truth of the story, we have hit a couple necessary markers for discerning its veracity: there is a specific date given, and the testimony of an eyewitness – both of which are easily falsifiable and so have the impact of affirm authenticity; similarly, Yellowstone National Park does have regular wildfires – in fact, the year before this story is cited is the worst recorded wildfire season to pass through Yellowstone, known as the Yellowstone Fires of 1988; where more than 3200 square kms (more than 1/3rd of the parklands) was affected by the wildfires. Again, increasing the likelihood of a story such as the one told. Finally, increasingly the believability of the story is the idea that it was published in National Geographic – a reputable authority and nature magazine familiar to anybody who had to wait in a doctor's office in the 80’s and 90’s (usually on a messy rack next to old Macleans, Owl, and Chickadee magazines).

The problem is, National Geographic never published such a story. Further, an ornithologist from Yellowstone confirmed that this didn’t happen at their park; nor does it sound like the behaviour of birds anywhere.

In fact, once you stop projecting human motives and emotional experiences onto the animal kingdom, this doesn’t sound like any animal behavior. That’s not to say that certain animals don’t provide for their young – it is to say that altruism is a uniquely human attribute; further, I think the point is pertinent precisely because altruism is a supremely divine attribute, and humans are created in the image of God. But I’ll return to that in a moment.

First, I think the unlikeliness and incongruity is what makes the story compelling, but I think there is a similar incongruity in Psalm 91 that also makes it compelling.

The Psalmist begins, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Which is coupled with “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refugee and my fortress…” The image is deepened with references to shields and ramparts and arrows. All of this comes together to convey an image of God’s protection as in a fortress castle large enough to cast shadows, the walls of which will provide cover and protection for all who draw near.

At the same time, in the same sentence even, is the incongruous parallel to God’s protection being like a mother bird gathering her chicks under her feathers. On the one side you have the strong and impregnable, militaristic protection of God; on the other side – and yet at the same time – you have protection in the fragility and comfort of feathers and divine self-sacrifice. 

The Psalms and Prophets of the Old Testament hold up both of these images without explaining – or fully understanding – the incongruity. Powerfully, it is only as God takes on flesh in Jesus, and as Jesus – the God-Man – takes up the cross, that the two images become whole. On the cross we behold together the absolute, fortress-like, power of God in his righteous judgment over sin and the comfort of his tender embrace in the sacrificial love of Jesus for his children. 

The perfection of this incongruity is carried right through the New Testament to the book of Revelation, where John is taken up in the Spirit and he hears, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah… has triumphed.” John then looks at the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and what does he see? “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as it it had been slain…” (Rev. 5:5&6) The Lion and the Lamb; the fortress and the feather; in coming to Jesus we come to the one who will protect you like a lion and love you like a lamb.

Let’s now pick back up what we set aside: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Altruism, sacrificial love, is who God is and what he does for his people; and we, created in his image and recreated into the image of his son, live the same: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

In fact, as it turns out, that is precisely the point of the story about the burned and petrified bird in Yellowstone. Starting 1945, Mrs. Floyd McCague published a series of short stories that became known as “The McCague Lessons” and were published under the title Illustrated Gospel Stories. The first version of the bird story was called “The Little Red Hen;” wherein a mother hen protects her chicks during a barn fire. The inspiration for the story is Jesus’ own words in Matthew 23:37, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (also in Lk. 13:34) The goal in such a story was to provide an affective and compelling image of the gospel in order to share with others the love of Jesus and to call us to love the same way. 

May the image of the fortress and feather – the Lion and Lamb – do the same.

Lord Jesus, in the cross does perfect righteous power meet self-sacrificing love for the first time. Help my life to live out of the same. Grant me protection in times of attack, and comfort in times of despair; grant me help in times of trouble, and hope when all seems lost. Help me to see your love and to live your love to the world around me. In Jesus’ name, Amen!