At sunset yesterday on the 80 Acre Flowage at the Navarino Wildlife Area a stream of starlings, chattering among themselves quietly, flew by me across the water toward the narrowing east end of the flowage, lavender with clouds. In the distance, against those clouds, they looked like a swarm of black bees. They gradually disappeared heading north over the trees.
Starlings do these kinds of things. I saw a flock of them once over the flat fields of Illinois. It was a far bigger flock than the one I saw last night, the biggest I ever remember seeing, thousands and thousands of birds, filling half the horizon ahead. At a distance they looked as if they were flying slowly, parts of the flock dipping or turning suddenly, the whole flock following in unison.
Remembering this, munching on my cheese and pickle sandwich, the stream of starlings raced by again. And disappeared at the end of the flowage again in the same way. After a while, there they were again. At first I thought, Whoa. That’s a lot of starlings. There must be a million of them that are coming up out of the woods behind me. But then I wondered, Maybe it’s the same flock. Maybe they’re circling the flowage.
So I stood and strained to see if I could see them circling around from the northeast end of the flowage and flying south to some point behind me. Couldn’t tell. I turned around to face the setting sun, and it wasn’t too long before I could see the starlings coming up out of the dark woods to the northwest, not a perfect stream of them. One part, I noticed, had already gathered at the enormous, bark-less tree in the Hansen Flowage. These may have been the fastest of the flock. When more birds came up over the trees to the northwest and overwhelmed the tree full of birds, they all took off and started toward me, directly toward me, as if I were their target, as if they were putting on a show for me.
Which, of course, they were not.
I wondered, though, what the point of this twilight ritual might be. Eventually I imagined that by circumnavigating the flowage several times, every starling in Navarino was being summoned to gather for warmth and safety in the fast falling night.
I dreamt last night that at a party in the living room of the parsonage of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in the UP, we were watching an educational video on best business practices (okay, it was a dream), and my mom mentioned she was disappointed that none of the metaphors in the video were drawn from nature and I asked if she thought metaphors from nature had a better chance of approximating the Truth.
And she said yes.
To me, then, the flock spoke eloquently of public ministry: circumnavigating our neighborhood so its inhabitants know that there’s a flock who welcomes them to gather for warmth and safety. We humans are, after all, one flock, even though some say some sheep among us are better than others. The starlings know better than that. Among the starlings, the speediest ones waited patiently in the trees for the whole group to come up behind them, so they could all start off together for another lap, letting the starling world know was time for the daily, safe, warm Sabbath rest.
I don’t usually think of starlings as particularly impressive birds. They have no flashy songs or markings. They’re all one color. If I have remembered them at all, it’s for their ability to flock, to gather, to fly together, to dip and swoop and swirl in the sky together in formations the purpose of which is maybe a mystery.
For us the nature and purpose of the flock is not a mystery. It is revealed instead by its shepherd. “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:15-16).
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, assumes that he “has” other sheep. Jesus has laid his life down for all people. If our voices echo his voice, so there will be one day one flock, one shepherd.
Not a metaphor, by the way, from nature.