One taught me to be the other.

by Helen Hollingsworth

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31). 

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, I’d walk down the aisle and it would hit me. Not like a ton of bricks. More like a bouquet of flowers. Being called was akin to being anointed and renewed weekly with a beautiful fragrance. Looking up at the cross, feeling my own hands form its shape was a bodily acknowledgment: God had called me to serve the church as a pastor. 

I had not intended to be even remotely connected with anything ecclesiastical. I had stopped going to church at age 14, believing that organized religion was superficial and ineffective. God, of course, was setting me up the whole time, using my love and affinity for creatures to prepare me to care for another kind of flock. 

As a young girl, I saw a movie called “The Yearling,” based on a novel. The boy in the story lives in a rural area, where he often runs through the woods, leaping as he goes. One day, he finds a baby deer. 

I lived adjacent to a small, wooded area. Just like the boy in the story, I ran and leapt too. It was exhilarating. I didn’t expect to find a baby deer. But one warm autumn day when I was about 6 or 7, I did find something, lying still and soundless. I could see its chest going up and down very slowly. Dried blood matted its feathers. It was a wonder I detected the tiny sparrow at all, as it was nestled in a bed of leaves nearly the same color as its plumage. Bending over, I spoke to it soothingly. Then I gently lifted the small bird and headed home. 

I took the bird straight to my father, who shared my love for animals. Because he fixed everything that creaked, squeaked or leaked around our home, I believed he could fix this tiny creature too. 

Taking the bird from my hands, he laid it on his worktable. I can’t remember all that he did for the bird that day, but after he finished, he got out an old birdcage and placed the sparrow inside. Every day I would feed the bird and watch for signs of improvement. 

When the bird began to fly a little bit around the cage, I was ecstatic. Then, weeks later, my father brought the birdcage outside. It was time, he said. I was to open the door and let the bird go. He explained that God had created this bird to fly free. Keeping the sparrow would be selfish, and a denial of God’s will. Such a bird would grow sorrowful in a cage and die. Wow. This was a lot to comprehend. But I knew a couple of things for sure: I could trust my father’s word, and I loved the sparrow. I wanted to do what was best for the bird. Gingerly, I unlatched the door. The bird flew away. I watched until it was out of sight. 

God calls some of us to lead as pastors of congregations. God might be calling you too. If you love people and feel led to assist in their nurturing, if you want to see folks reach their God-given potential and fly, if you know and trust God, who is a gracious healer, maybe you have the gifts to pastor. 

But the gifts spoken of in Ephesians 4:11-12 are not just given to an ordained pastors. The church needs others who will come alongside and help rescue those who are oppressed, perishing or hurting. In our congregations and communities, there are many wounded sparrows who need to know how much God honors and loves them. 

The Rev. Helen Hollingsworth is a retired ELCA pastor who teaches online and helps operate a community food bank.

This article is excerpted from the September/October 2022 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.