Why would a flock of birds garner the interest of physicists, psychologists, hedge-fund managers, nanobot developers, mathematicians, civil engineers, movie CGI teams, and even concert crowd-control planners? In recent years, it turns out, all these fields of study have been attempting to unlock one of nature’s great secrets; how do random individuals coordinate themselves into a united, tightly choreographed unit?
But this phenomenon of group cohesion is also a living metaphor of the unseen forces that hold God’s Church together. Two bird species come to mind for me—both frankly unflattering in isolation, but poetic in numbers.
The Chimney Swift isn’t much to look at—basically a cigar strapped to a boomerang. Its dull-brown body is vaguely tapered at both ends: a short stiff tail at one end and a short stiff beak at the other, so those arced boomerang wings are really the only thing telling you if it’s coming or going. Their stiff wingbeats and high-pitched twittering, along with the fact that they love to roost in chimneys, result in their often being mistaken for bats. If I was a bird, I think I would be offended by that.
They have offsetting assets; most notably, swifts were built to fly, and fly fast (after all, swift would be a terrible name for a slow bird). The Vaux's Swift in the Western U.S. can top out at around 200 miles per hour, almost (but not quite) keeping pace with a Peregrine Falcon. For all their speed, though, they lack much in the way of maneuverability; their very short wing bones lack the joint flexibility of most birds. This means they’re not great at take-offs and landings, and when you couple that with the fact that their feet aren’t equipped for perching, it’s no surprise that a swift spends about 10 months of the year airborne.
So behold: a drab-colored, blunt-bodied, stiff-winged, perch-impeded creature. I have not painted a complimentary picture. But in the presence of this bird on an October evening in 2016, for a moment I forgot to breathe.
Our local middle school had a large standalone chimney on the back of the property; I don’t know its original purpose, but this tall brick structure survived well beyond its usefulness (though sadly it was torn down three years ago, victim to another parking lot). And yet it still had a featured role to play one week of the year. That week had come, and my wife and I unloaded our three kids from the minivan to stand beneath it and witness the spectacle.
The five of us watched pre-dusk as thousands of Chimney Swifts flapped in a chaotic patternless cloud above us, their batlike twitter filling the air. And then, as dusk approached, the dark cloud began to slowly form into a clockwise arc; more and more birds began to join this invisible circular track. Within minutes, thousands of birds had created what my kids perfectly described as a “birdnado.” We stood in the eye of a revolving mass of birds, a thick funnel in tight formation pointing like a finger at the school chimney. I counted them as they dropped in groups into the chimney: 450… 500… 1000… 2000… still going, straining the chimney’s capacity like clowns packing into a circus car. Since swifts lack the typical bird’s wing-agility, entering the chimney means approaching it at full speed and then stalling out directly over it, falling in and presumably grabbing ahold of something on the way down. I counted conservatively as 2500 birds dropped into that single structure. Another birder had visited the spot three days prior and counted 8000.
By the time the last bird had flopped into the stack, the sky had gone dark and silent. My kids became avid Swift fans of the non-Taylor variety that night.
At least with Chimney Swifts there are explainable motivations for their gymnastics. Their chimney roost is a necessary rest-and-refuel stop on their way to their wintering grounds in South America, and so the evening spectacle culminates in some much-needed R&R, a shelter made safe and warm in numbers. But the purposes of a pulsing flock of European Starlings are much less obvious. If swift art could be considered utilitarian, then a starling murmuration is the extravagance of art for art’s sake.
Like the swift, the starling isn’t much to look at, although it’s a noticeable upgrade. Birders don’t tend to fawn over a starling, and likely consider them to be more of a nuisance (Farmers most definitely do; starlings in large numbers can quickly decimate a crop). At a glance, a starling is a short-tailed black bird with a seasonally-yellow beak, and not anything to turn your binoculars. My kids’ generation would dismiss them with the word “basic.” In the right light, however, there’s a surprising beauty, an iridescence that reflects deep purples and greens from their shaggy feathers.
You could easily miss that fleeting color. But starlings have a grander beauty that, when displayed, is impossible to miss. In large groups—generally from late Fall through the end of Winter, and usually near dusk—a flock becomes a phenomenon, a show so unique it deserves its own word: murmuration. The term is an attempt to capture the sound, the wingbeats of thousands of birds thrumming in unison. Perhaps a word can capture this stunning sound, but no word can capture the sight. It is a living curtain of feathers, a dark elegant wave, an aerial Rorschach ink blot. John Updike called it “a great scarf of birds,” and Richard Wilbur “a drunken fingerprint rolling across the sky.” A murmuration is the finest improv jazz. It is a dance.
A starling murmuration may include up to 5 million birds, and when it self-assembles it gives the appearance of a collective mind. The flock hovers over a field in tight formation with graceful, almost instantaneous changes of direction. Both the how and the why of a murmuration continue to baffle scientists, who have broken the flock down to the smallest units to better understand the rules under which each bird operates. Though it may appear that a collective consciousness is at work, our current best understanding is that these birds are simply following the cues of the six or seven immediate neighbors around, above, and below them. The rules are basic enough: stay together, match velocity, avoid collisions. But to play by these rules, starlings need to think fast; studies have clocked their reaction time at 15 milliseconds—ten times faster than that of a seasoned NASCAR driver.
The Golden Thread
In these two examples, the flock makes the ordinary extraordinary. Swifts and starlings, run-of-the-mill creatures in isolation, find their beauty in an invisible connectedness. And so perhaps the swifts’ targeted funnel-cloud and the starlings’ pulsing sky-jazz are lessons in the nature of the Church. Let me explain.
Imagine your Sunday morning gathering for a moment. Perhaps you attend a glitzy church full of impressively glamourous people. Good for you (maybe). But it’s far more likely that the saints assembled in your church bear a swift-and-starling commonness: a congregated cross-section of Average Joe’s and Plain Jane’s, or what C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape referred to as “neighbours who sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes.” As you look around the room, you are beholding what theologians have historically called the visible church—the church as observed by the naked eye, a gathering of those who profess belief (along with their kids). Whether or not they possess what they profess, we can’t know yet; the visible church doesn’t accurately perceive the heart, and Jesus himself differentiated verbal profession from true faith (Matthew 7:22-23). We can’t perfectly discern who amongst us has truly surrendered to the grace of God.
But now imagine the same gathering, with the perception of heaven. Among true believers there is an invisible thread that permeates, connects, defines, and ultimately gathers. It is the thread of true faith, the realities of union with Christ that also enfold us in a union with one another. Imagine these invisible golden threads made suddenly visible, interlacing the room, the blessed tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
But don’t stop there. The threads continue out the door to knit with believers in your community. They span oceans and borders to cast a net over hope-filled believers everywhere. And as if that’s not beautiful enough, they also weave backwards in time, connecting the saints of today with those who have gone before us, and forwards as well, through new generations to the final destination when the whole netted gathering is fully assembled. Every believer in that web is (if I may now change the metaphor) circling the chimney of that great white throne, until the moment when our Savior beckons us into his rest.
Your Sunday morning gathering of everyday people may seem ordinary in isolation, but the invisible realities that hold it together are astounding. This is the invisible church. Listen carefully and you may hear the murmuring wingbeats of the saints.
The Flock of God
The Bible uses multiple metaphors to depict this invisible-church reality, and no one picture does justice to the relationship. We are the body of which Christ is the head. We are the bride of which Christ is our bridegroom. We are the branches of which Christ is the vine. But it occurs to me that there is another image used throughout Scripture that we often forget. We are the flock of God.
Yes, granted, the Bible is definitely referring to a flock of a sheep variety. But the description of the people of God as a group of animals, whether feathered or fuzzy, helps us understand what God is up to. Jesus describes his flock with tenderness (Luke 12:32) and purposefulness (John 10:16). And when Paul and Peter exhort church leaders in their role, they invoke the same flock language (Acts 20:28-29, 1 Peter 5:2).
Imagine the witness of the church to the world if we behaved by the starlings’ set of flocking rules: stay together, match velocity, avoid collisions. Can we embody the benefits of staying in tight formation, while doing everything we can not to knock each other down? The church has not always done this well. And in the past two years especially, the flock has witnessed plenty of collisions. It’s been suggested by some researchers that in a murmuration, we may be witnessing a group movement in which each individual bird is essentially casting a vote—an elegant wave of bird citizenry in the process of seeking a final consensus. Seeking consensus is rarely that beautiful. If the American church were a murmuration, that aerial inkblot might have fractured into several mini-flocks by now, with plenty of collateral damage strewn on the ground. This doesn’t change the reality that the invisible church is God’s flock. Joni Eareckson Tada writes, “Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it.” Sheep bite, birds collide, and yet the Good Shepherd remains faithful to the realities of the oneness of his flock, calling us to something better. I long to be a more cooperative wingmate.
The Flock Experienced
And so how do we “act like it?” I’ve tried this week to see my faith experiences with murmuration in mind—to be mindful of our oneness, to imagine the movements of God’s flock and hear the rhythm of the saints. The “curtain of feathers” manifested itself in two ways.
The first one came in the heartbreak of suffering. Paul writes about the body of Christ, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) As I write this, that golden thread connects me to Ukrainian believers singing hymns in darkened basements, claiming God’s promises even as they hear the rumble of war around them. It connects me to hundreds of Russian pastors risking everything to speak out against that same war. It connects me to refugee brothers and sisters in exile, strangers in the strange lands of neighboring countries, seeking the never-changing God in their changing circumstances. The body of Christ isn’t just a hypothetical common humanity; we are birds circling the same chimney, headed for the same home, a cloud of witnesses perhaps shaped like a funnel of feathers. When one part hurts, the others feel the wound. It sends us to our knees in prayer, and it burdens us to help where we can. That reality has been tangible in the pit of my stomach this week.
The other experience came this morning in Sunday worship. My church celebrated the Lord’s Supper today, to remind ourselves of Christ’s work on our behalf. As is customary with us, we took the bread individually to remember the personal work of Jesus to redeem our hearts, but we took the cup together to remember the communal work of Jesus in rescuing his church. In that brief moment I could feel the “communal” of communion, could hear the first-person plural in our closing song, could sense the golden thread, could rejoice not only that Jesus had died for me but that he had died for the people around me that I love deeply. I listened for the murmuring wingbeats of the saints, flying in formation. By his grace, our life together can be formed from chaos to dance in the sky like grace.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)