By Erwin Buchholz
Battle Lake Community Baptist Church
It was in the dead of winter and the barn was beginning to smell—not the big barn, but the little shack I had built for a dozen laying hens. With hoar frost glistening and the mercury hovering around the minus twenties, the odor of excreta and ripening straw was not terribly offensive. But an Alberta chinook changed all that. When the mercury climbed to plus two at daybreak, a withering whiff of ripening mulch wafted past my face. The inside temperature told me that today was the day: “When the eggs are gathered, I shall muck out the barn.”
Armed with shovel and wheelbarrow, I ruminated about the best way to approach the task. It was easy back in the Fall: just open the trap door and chase the chickens into the run. Then muck out the barn without having them running about underfoot. But winter had come, and the icy blast of the north westerlies called for a hermetically sealed hen house. I had stuffed the opening with styrofoam and sealed it with scraps of siding on both sides. The barn was “dabbed with slime and pitch” as it were, and the hens were safely nested inside, like creatures in Noah’s ark. But the winds had died and it was plus two, and things were getting mellow. “Surely the chickens would appreciate a bit of fresh air and sunshine,” I mused. So I hatched a plan that would get the hens and cockerell into the run by an alternate route: through the front door and along a makeshift corral of pallets propped up in the snow that led to the wire meshed enclosure. “This should be easy,” I thought. The chickens were always anxious about scooting past my feet every morning to get at the snow, straw, bits of styrofoam or even stray feathers on the outside (as if there wasn’t enough straw and feathers on the inside). Pushing them back into the hutch with a deft turn of my boot became a daily ritual. So I set up the corral and opened the front door and the gate, fully expecting a cavalcade of chickens in orderly procession making their way into the chicken run. Only there was no cavalcade of chickens. Right then I learned that chickens will go precisely in the opposite direction than where you want them to go. The harder I tried, the more they resisted, flapping frantically in every direction. Amid the cacophony, it was “every bird for itself.”
The first round-up resulted in one bird in the run, three hiding among the straw bales in the anteroom and the rest in the hen house scurrying for cover. I thought to myself, Get the rooster and the rest will follow, but there would be no such luck. After a valiant struggle, the rooster’s agility was outdone by my determination, and two out of 12 chickens were in the run. But the rest of the hens, shell shocked, were cackling in bewilderment, and time was a-wasting so I went for plan B: let them have their own way and muck out the barn with the birds at my feet. “Stupid birds!” I muttered, and set to the task of shoveling.
Though the barn is small, a standard clean out is two loads. With the first load of matted straw and muck on board, I pushed the wheelbarrow the dozen or so paces to the compost bin and began to offload. Looking back, I spotted a mass of beaks and feathers huddled at the front door, pushing their way out of the hen house. One had ventured farther and was about to explore the yard behind the hen house. Did I mention that birds tend to go precisely in the opposite direction than where you want them to go? “Stupid Birds!” I hollered, shovel in hand, herding them back into the hutch. Had I left it any longer, I would have had a major problem. Only one hen needed extra persuasion to get back to where she belonged.
The rest of the job went relatively smoothly. The room was filled with the bouquet of sweet smelling straw which was scattered on the floor. No longer traumatized, the hens scratched and pecked, cooing contentedly (I never knew chickens cooed), leaving me wondering, Why all the fuss? All I wanted was to give them fresh air, clean straw and a happy hen house. Don’t they know this is all for their own good?
I got to thinking about the intractable chickens and wondered if Isaiah had it right when he said, “All we, like sheep.” Though I have never raised sheep, I still think he might have better said, “All we, like chickens.” Sheep bring a host of problems, so I am told, but at least you can herd them with the help of a well-trained dog. Chickens, on the other hand, are not readily herded. They go where they shouldn’t, and squawk in protest when they are pushed along in the right direction. They are happy to sit on their perches and scratch and peck in their filth, having no concept of cleanliness, order or sanitation. When you try to give them clean air, fresh straw and a happy home, they kick up a fuss and keep on messing up the barn.
I wonder if our Heavenly Father looks at his children through the lens of a hen house. Does he have plans to muck out our barn and give us a fresh start, and do we insist on staying put, scratching and pecking in our filth? Is he ever frustrated at our independent spirit and unwillingness to bend for our own good? Does it irritate him when we flap about and challenge him, or scurry for cover rather than go where we are told? Are there times when we act as “every bird for himself” and he would cheerfully like to punt us out of the hen house and into the chicken run where we belong? When, by his permissive will, he lets us go our own way, do we then venture into places that are off-limits while he is dealing with the mess we have made? And when the dust has settled and all is relatively at peace, do we coo contentedly in our clean surroundings as though we did it ourselves, oblivious to the goodness of God in all of that, only to begin messing up the barn all over again?
Yes, I think Isaiah might have been better to say, “All we like chickens have gone astray.” We persist in going precisely in the opposite direction than where our Heavenly Father wants us to go. And all he wants is to give us a fresh start, a clean heart and happy circumstances in our lives.
The Pipestone Flyer has invited pastors and reverends from local churches to write a regular column for the paper.