We have a visitor at our church. She stops by from time to time. But often she’s only around for a fleeting moment, just long enough to keep an eye on things. She perches atop our steeple, carefully balancing up on the cross, ever vigilant but always wary. She’s a red-tailed hawk, full of powerful grace and scary beauty. I had the arresting good fortune of seeing her on the ground by the parking lot one day this winter. She was perfectly content to pay me no mind, though I’m certain she was aware of my presence, as she poked about in the ivy for a rodent or some delectable portion.
It seems to me that our hawkish friend is something like a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our midst. She’s vigilant, she’s powerful, she’s keen, but she’s also flighty and cautious. She’s beautiful and graceful, but she’s also terrifyingly powerful and awesome. She comes when she wills and leaves when she wants and you can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do.
Of course, I’m not alone in associating the third person of the trinity with a bird. The gospel writers tell of Jesus’ baptism, where something dove-like descended upon Jesus. Surely they’re echoing Noah and his affinity for birds as harbingers of land and a journey’s end and a new world coming forth. Author and pastor, Debbie Blue in her wonderful book, Consider the Birds, is quick to point out that these biblical doves were not the fairy white, pristine creatures of Las Vegas magic shows, but more akin to our urban, rock pigeons of today. They were dirty birds, rats with wings, which inhabit the underbellies of respectable bird-dom. “They are often referred to as feral pigeons. How is that for a symbol of the Holy Spirit? I believe it’s a good one. I like it. It’s ubiquitous, on the streets.” (Debbie Blue, Consider the Birds, p. 10)
And it’s not merely the doves/pigeons that remind us of the avian nature of the Holy Spirit. You’ve probably heard of the Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit is the Wild Goose. That unpredictable, squawking, irascible goose that is wild and free and awkward and graceful all at the same time.
Great Spirit, Wild Goose of the Almighty
Be my eye in the dark places
Be my flight in the trapped places
Be my host in the wild places
Be my formation in the lost places
Be my brood in the barren places.
(Ray Simpson, A Holy Island Prayer Book: Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer )
Not surprisingly, many of us connected with CANA Initiative are likewise participants in the Wild Goose Festival each summer. I have been continually inspired by the brooding, creative work of the Spirit at Wild Goose and CANA, and the friendships I’ve made because of both. Which is why it seemed appropriate to host a regional gathering of Wild Goose/CANA-types at another bird-themed haunt, The Speckled Bird Café.
The Speckled Bird in Norwood, Ohio is an outgrowth of Vineyard Central, a proto-emergence church and intentional community. This “speckled bird” is a reference to KJV translation of Jeremiah 12:9 and the great Southern hymn, and notably Johnny Cash’s rendering of it, that is a meditation on the vulnerable, dire straits in which the church finds herself.
Singer-songwriter and pastor, Troy Bronsink and Brianna Kelly played selections of their original work to an engaged and intergenerational crowd. Then Anthony Smith, a fellow CANA initiator, spoke and brought the house down.
Anthony spoke on the eruptive nature of Jesus’ baptism. He noted how, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus saw the “heavens torn apart” and the spirit descend (there’s that bird again).
As Anthony says, “God kicks in the door of an old world. God is on the loose.” That the coming of the Spirit invites us into the New World that Jesus is heralding. These are the perineal tears in childbirth of a new way to be human. This new world that the Spirit is birthing by water and blood is the very thing for which we are yearning, looking, longing, and preparing in the season of Lent.
This eruptive nature of God into our world is proceeded by an expulsion out into the wild places, out into the liminal spaces of our lives. This is precisely what the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading (Matthew 4:1-11) was getting at when Matthew writes, “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Episcopal Bishop Tom Breidenthal, speaking to the House of Bishops last fall, points us to the same thing,
Baptism is expulsion — expulsion out of anything that shields us from our connection with God or our connection with the neighbor. There is a deep link between baptism as expulsion and how salvation works in the Bible. The children of Israel are expelled from slavery in Egypt into the wilderness, where they are forged into a people dedicated to God’s purposes. Viewed negatively, the wilderness is a place of danger and potential failure. Viewed positively, it is the place where a new way of relating to God and to the neighbor can be explored.
And so we find ourselves squarely in the season of Lent. We are looking for the New World of the kingdom of God to break into our midst. We are, as the Apostle Paul graphically reminds us in Romans 8, groaning as in the pains of childbirth for the redemption of ourselves and all of creation. We longing for our adoption into the family of God.
May the Spirit of God brood over us and the messiness and chaos of our lives. May the hawk, dove, pigeon, and goose of the Holy Spirit trouble the waters of our baptism and send us out into “the place where a new way of relating to God and to the neighbor can be explored.” And may the speckled bird of the church be the place where wounded healers mend one another’s hearts and practice the restoration of all things.
* this post originally appeared on Patheos.com