Lessons from an Osprey

I have a friend who is kind enough to grant us access to some waterfront property, so with the church office closed, I spent Labor Day at the lake. It is a beautiful piece of land, just far enough removed from other homes that you have a strong sense of being “out there” in nature. At night there are no competing streetlamps or front porch lights, so the stars shine far more brilliantly than what I usually see at home. During the day the only traffic comes in the form of the occasional boater, so you are much more likely to see the local wildlife make an appearance.   

Usually, our visits to this little getaway involve the entire family, so my time is typically filled with family activities – driving the boat, setting up the camper, playing cornhole, grilling burgers, etc. Some of my most cherished memories come from the time we have spent there together.   

This past Monday, however, my family was out of town, so I didn’t have any of those responsibilities. Instead, I spent almost the entire day just sitting at the water’s edge, watching an osprey in search of any fish foolish enough to venture close to the surface.  The large bird would hover gracefully overhead in large swooping arcs until it spotted a potential prey, and then it would dive down with impressive force and crash into the water, its talons extended in hopes of catching its next meal.  After a few failed attempts it would retreat to a tree on the far side of the lake and wait until an opportune moment to try again. This cycle recurred numerous times throughout the day until late in the afternoon, when the osprey was finally successful in grabbing a small fish. As the bird lifted off, I didn’t know whether to cheer for it or mourn for the fish. I suppose that’s just the circle of life! 

I missed having my family with me, but the day was still refreshing to my soul. The opportunity to simply be out in the beauty of creation on a gorgeous summer day when you could already begin to see little hints of the fall that will soon come – it was enough to lift my spirit. Unlike most days, I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything, I didn’t have any goals to meet, and I had nowhere to be at a certain time. I could simply be present to the beauty of the moment. 

There is a lot of talk these days about mindfulness and meditation and their benefits to our physical and emotional health. I recently heard a speaker give a talk about the importance of building “white space” into our day, time left open between tasks that isn’t filled with demands. According to experts these unhurried moments help spark creativity and foster new insights. This is all well and good. I am all for things that can make us healthier and more balanced. But that isn’t why I enjoyed this past Monday. My time at the lake wasn’t useful because it helped me accomplish something or move through something or resolve some unanswered question in my mind. In fact, maybe the reason I enjoyed it so much is precisely because it was not “useful” at all – at least, not in the way we normally think of such things. It was a moment of joy that was given for its own sake, not for the sake of some larger goal it helped me meet. 

Since Monday I have been thinking about that experience in terms of my relationship with God. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus said the most important thing we will ever do is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. He quickly followed with the second most important thing, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. While these two things go together, I was reminded by another author earlier this summer that these are still two things. In other words, we are not given the second commandment as the means of fulfilling the first commandment, nor are we given the first commandment merely as motivation for fulfilling the second. The first commandment, this call to love God, stands on its own. We love God, not because doing so moves us to some higher purpose or fulfills some larger calling. There is no higher calling. We are called to love God, not because we might become better people or because God might reward us with something if we do, though both are possible.  We are called to love God because loving God is its own end and purpose. We are called to love God with a love that exists for its own sake. 

The Psalms are filled with expressions of exactly this kind of love. “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips,” says King David in Psalm 34:1. “The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength,” proclaims Psalm 93:1. “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation,” declares Psalm 95:1. To be sure, the psalmists were not afraid to ask God for things when they were in need. In fact, the boldness and emotional honesty of their prayers make our polite little invocations seem feckless and flaccid.  And yet, there is a clear sense in Scripture that God is worthy of love and praise not primarily because of what He can do for us, but simply because of who He is. Time with God is not a means to an end. It is the end. 

Fall is coming and life is getting busy, so I don’t know when I will have the chance again to sit on a river bank and watch an osprey dive for food, but I do know I have a deep need in my soul to feed my love for God. Jesus said this is the most important thing in all of life, and yet it is the easiest thing to neglect and ignore. May God give us the grace to create more useless time to spend with Him.  

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