Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: What Chippy Can Teach Us

A number of years ago I was sitting in the office of my friend, the late Rev. Dr. Rodney Wilmoth, then pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I noticed a unique line drawing of a bedraggled little bird on his office wall. I asked about it. Dr. Wilmoth proceeded to tell me the story of ‘Chippy'. I thought you might be interested in the story of what happened to Chippy.

The Galveston Press published this interesting story about a parakeet named Chippy. Chippy was sitting peacefully in his cage one day when his owner decided the best way to clean the bird cage was with a cannister vacuum cleaner. She took the attachment off the end of the hose and began to clean the bottom of the cage. Chippy was sitting nervously on his perch with growing concern about what was going on below him. Suddenly, the telephone rang and the owner turned to answer it. No sooner had she said ‘hello' than she heard Chippy screech and disappear from his perch. She dropped the phone, turned off the vacuum cleaner, and opened the cannister as quickly as possible. There was Chippy - alive - stunned, mind you, but alive. The bird was covered with dust and soot. She grabbed Chippy and dashed to the bathroom and ran hot and then cold water over him. She saw that Chippy was cold and shivering. The hair dryer was at hand, so she took Chippy by his feet, held him upside down and blow-dried him with hot air.

A few days later, the reporter who originally fielded the story called to ask how Chippy was doing. The owner said: "Well, Chippy looks okay, but he doesn't sing much anymore. He just sort of sits and stares".

The image of Chippy has crossed my mind frequently in the last eighteen months as the economic tsunami of 2008 continues to send shock waves into the fourth quarter of 2009. Billions of dollars in 401k retirement accounts have been lost. Double-digit unemployment has touched all of us. Our ‘credit-card culture' has been shattered. Where once every day's mail brought an offer of pre-approved credit cards, we are now getting notice of reduced lines of credit or cancellation of credit cards we have had for years. Until recently we had to spell the word ‘billion' to make sure people did not think we were speaking of ‘millions'. Now we are spelling the word ‘trillion' to make sure it is not misunderstood for ‘billion'. "Hello, Chippy! Make room for us on your perch".

As if this were not enough, there are the personal storms in life which other people do not see, but they are there. The storms in the external world are usually more manageable than those personal storms which knock us off our perch far more often than anything that happens outside ourselves. When something happens to someone we love which is beyond our power to fix, it hurts much more than losing twenty-five per cent of our 401k. When past failures rise up to haunt us, and self-inflicted wounds cast a shadow over our future and non-specific anxieties prowl the cellars of our souls like restless ghosts, like Chippy, we don't sing much anymore and we develop that 1000 yard stare.

There is very little we can do about the storms of life. They come to us all. We get sucked into the vortex of all sorts of storms. Shock and silence is a normal initial response to being hit by the unexpected. But, what we do next is a measure of our strength of character and faith. We can best prepare for these experiences by building a reserve of faith and a constellation of relationships that will sustain us and help us snap out of the shock. Then we can begin to remember the tune to our song. And we can at least begin to hum our song. Humming is a prelude to singing.

There are times in which we would like to have someone tell us what to think, say and do when we are caught up in some ‘feather-ruffling' storm. That would be nice, but life does not work like that. Friends help, but sooner or later, we have to take charge of our own life situation. Friends can teach us to sing the song that we lost in the storm, but no one can sing it for us.

Seldom, if ever, does anyone go through life without sitting on the perch with Chippy at least once, with unfocused vision and too stunned to sing. Get ready. But when it happens, if you can't sing, then hum. If you are unfocused, then blink. Just keep moving. Don't stop.

There is a ‘Winston Churchill' quote magnetically attached to a filing cabinet near my desk. I have read and reflected on it with great benefit many times. It reads: IF YOU ARE GOING THROUGH HELL, KEEP GOING.

Remember that when you find yourself on the perch with Chippy, with the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner getting closer and closer.

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