The Whisky jack

As a pastor in Calgary, our church would take our youth group out on a camping trip into the mountains in Kananaskis country. We took along our bikes and biked together up to Kananaskis Village. We ate together, worshipped together, sang together, and worked together. It was living with these twenty young people in the mountains that the story of the whisky jack emerged.
We had just finished cleaning up after breakfast at the campsite. I was idly finishing up a piece of bread when a little bird, a whisky jack (or so I was told) hopped nearby—just out of reach—and looked at me. I knelt down—maybe to make myself a little smaller—and held out a little bread in my hand. The whisky jack cocked her head to one side, but did not move. She knew how fragile life could be; how dangerous the world could be. I could almost hear her thinking, “Is it safe?” “What will happen to me?” “Can I trust you?” I gently, carefully tossed a little piece of bread near her. She cocked her head again, paused, then snapped up the food, but kept her distance. I gently, carefully tossed the bread a little closer to me, another cock of the head, a few hops, a pause, and another little taste of bread. Incredibly, before the dance of fear and trust was complete, the little bird hopped up on my hand to eat a little bread right out of the palm of my hand, still cocking its head from time to time—to keep on eye on me. Soon after, one of the young women in the group quietly came in beside me, and it wasn’t long before the little bird was eating from the palm of her hand as well. I don’t think either of us will soon forget the feeling of those little feet on the palms of our hands—fearing and trusting all at once.
What does the story of the whisky jack mean? For me the story touches on many things. In a broad way it touches on how precious life is, and how vulnerable and afraid all of us as human beings feel in a perilous world. It touches on our so human need to experience love and grace from one another.
In a more specific way the whisky jack story challenges me as a person of a faith community. We live in a world among many who have experienced a church that has spoken often severely of judgment and punishment. Quite understandably, when the church draws near, this world often cocks its head to one side and ‘keeps an eye on us.’ The church, it seems to me, is called to speak and act ever so gently; to offer its ‘bread’ and its love unconditionally; as we reach out to comfort and to feed a world whose brokenness and hunger, to be honest, we have known ourselves.
Finally, the whisky jack story sends roots deep into a precious sacred story:
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mk 4:30–32).

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