Hummingbird: Resisting a Rest
Hold still. This will only take a moment.
Twice in my life, I have carefully cupped my hands around the weightless nobility of a hummingbird. In both cases—a rufous in Mexico and a ruby-throated here in North Carolina—the bird had inadvertently flown inside a building and couldn’t discern an escape route. My baseball cap proved useful both times: cautiously scooping the bird from windowpane to hat, transferring to my cupped hands, and then releasing outside. But I’ll admit that both times I paused before the last step, taking in the surreal moment and pondering the rare miracle in my hands. Put three paper clips in your hand and you’ll understand what a tenth of an ounce feels like. But now imagine that insignificant weight warm in your hands, still and trembling with the potential energy of a hair-trigger, pulsing with the anxious anticipation of being set in motion again. As you open your hands, the bird bursts from your fingers like a Quidditch seeker and beelines out of sight in two or three impossible seconds, as you stand there, hands still open and heart newly full.
At least that’s what it felt like for me.
To reappropriate Shakespeare’s thoughts on greatness from Twelfth Night, “Some are born still, some achieve stillness, and others have stillness thrust upon them.” My two hummingbird friends were in this third category—a category that defies both their attitude and their physiology. Hummingbirds were made for motion—an understatement if there ever was one. In fact, scientists grouped them in a taxonomic order called Apodiformes, Latin for “no feet.” They do, in fact, have feet, but they’re weak, and not great for long perching or walking. Clearly these birds were not made to stand around.
A hummingbird can hover in place for over 90 minutes. It can shoot across my cul-de-sac at 30 miles an hour and brake to an instant stop on the tiny target of an azalea bloom. Eighty percent of the weight of a hummingbird is its flight muscles, which flap in an artistic figure-eight lift, at up to 100 times per second. Per second. (By comparison, a wood duck does just fine at about 7 beats per second).
Those amazing flight muscles are kept going by a pea-sized heart that is—relative to the bird’s size—the largest in the animal kingdom, and can beat up to 1200 times a minute. In fact, in their nightly torpor—a rest so deep the bird often appears dead—their heart still clips away at up to 200 beats per minute. It’s as if their heart refuses to admit it needs a nap.
And what good are superpowers if you don’t test their limits every now and then? In one of the most amazing migration stories imaginable, ruby-throated hummingbirds put on an extra paper-clip of weight in the Yúcatan Peninsula in February, and then launch the entirety of their 1200-beats-per-minute-100-flaps-per-second across the Gulf of Mexico in a 22-hour non-stop marathon. There’s really no margin for error. A storm system blowing them even slightly off-route could be fatal; they simply wouldn’t have the energy to cover the added miles.
I’m tired just writing these words. And I imagine that the resident hummingbirds who hover briefly at our window in the summer, peering in to observe my family, must find us humans extremely dull. Dull and reaaaalllly slow.
With all this in mind, maybe one of the most exquisitely rare moments of nature is the opportunity to observe a hummingbird at rest. This is why I love the artwork of David Arms, a Nashville artist whose works are rich with bird-inspired faith-symbolism. Amongst his unique portrayal of birds, eggs, nests, and floating perches, he makes frequent use of the image of a hummingbird at rest. Perched. Wings folded still. He could have chosen any backyard bird at rest (I have some very lazy towhees in my shrubs that would make good candidates) but he says that he chose the hummingbird because of the rare astonishment of it: “Hummingbirds are an image of perpetual motion. When you do see one still, it is a bit of a shock. Like us, being still can seem unnatural.”
We were made to move as well. This is actually a beautiful truth—something Pascal called the “dignity of causality”—to have a role to play in the outworkings of God’s kingdom purposes. God has individually scripted a joyous resume of pre-ordained works for us, as evidences of his workmanship in us (Ephesians 2:10). Work wasn’t the curse of the garden; thorny work was. Work was our noble task from the beginning, and shall be till the end, in an eternity of joyous work never at odds with joyous rest, work without thorns as an act of perfect worship.
Our wings and hearts should beat fast with holy purpose. Work matters.
But so does rest.
And many of us find rest too infrequent and unnatural, choosing instead a Gulf-of-Mexico marathon with no margin for error. It’s a fun thing to watch people pushed to the limits on reality TV, but it’s no fun when the reality is you, or someone you care about, stretched to the limit of hyperventilating burnout.
Some are born still, some achieve stillness, and others have stillness thrust upon them. In recent months a global pandemic thrust stillness upon us all. Shelter-in-place edicts removed so many of the diversions that kept our lives in warp drive. No weekend sports to play or to watch. No school plays, no birthday parties to go to, no graduation ceremonies to attend, no concert tickets, no trips to the mall or the movies, no dinner dates, no night on the town, no after-school practice. The problem wasn’t the events themselves, but the sheer volume of them. And suddenly all of it shifted into an uncomfortable torpor that we weren’t quite sure what to do with. Like the hummingbird, our lives were all heart and muscle and our feet weren’t made for standing around.
David Arms says, “It’s in that stillness that God grows our souls and quiets our hearts.” And so maybe a resting hummingbird is an aspirational symbol. It’s a call to “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) The psalmist writes those words in a turbulent time, where the earth is coming unglued with a heavy dose of roaring and foaming and quaking. And God’s call to be still is not so much the call to a rocking chair and a cup of coffee; rather, it’s the military language of a cease-and-desist. It’s the commanding authority of Jesus to the storm’s waves: “Hush!” It’s more than just “Find a quiet place.” It’s “Surrender. Stop your striving.”
And the call in that stillness to know God is not a propositional knowing but a relational knowing. The slowing is for seeking. We need to advance in the fine art of perching on the branch and replenishing our stores in the love of the Father. It’s the liberation of surrender (and if that rocking chair and coffee help you do it better, have at it). If you’re like me, your feet aren’t very good at perching. But wouldn’t it be incredible if years from now we could look back on this time of forced margin and say, “I came to my senses. I found time for Jesus; he graciously spoke ‘Hush!’ to the frantic, fast, FOMO-inspired aspects of my life, and I found a cadence built on healthier priorities. I learned a little better how to rest my wings in his.”
Hold still. This will only take a moment. But that moment will be worth it.