• Kevin Burrell

Pigeon: Knowing the Way Home


There was a cage next to the casket.


As a pastor, I’ve officiated a fair number of funerals and graveside services, but this odd item was a first for me. When I asked the funeral home director, he confided that this was a special service provided for families upon request; he spoke these words with a funeral-whisper somberness that nonetheless failed to disguise his excitement.


The cage was wire, the dimensions of a largeish mailbox, and covered with a cloth. Within, it was clear that something was moving. My imagination didn’t have a category for this. Did someone bring this poor woman’s cat to the funeral?


After my short readings, pronouncements, and prayer, the director escorted the mourners from the funeral tent into the open and began a carefully-memorized script delivered in a genteel Southern-accent. As a symbol of “our dearly departed arriving safely into the arms of Heaven, having slipped the surly bonds of Earth,” three white doves would be released as a representation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, followed by a fourth dove rising to meet them, a picture of our dearly departed “newly freed from the bondage of this world, and now seeking her way to eternal glory.” The script continued: “And behold, ye family and friends, as this Trinitarian flock meets the freed soul in the air to guide our loved one to her heavenly home.”


Photo by MiriamW77 on flickr

As a birder, you might think I was excited by this symbolic ceremony. Instead, if I’m honest, my inner theologian probably gave an eye roll. Aside from the Trinitarian misrepresentations (only the Holy Spirit gets dove-status, right?) and the Plato-inspired body-as-the-prison-house-of-the-soul motif, the whole moment just felt heavy on the cheese factor. But I stood respectfully. At least it’s not a cat.


An attendant hit play on an audio track, and classical music swelled. The three faux-Trinity doves launched high in unison and took up a wide circling formation, maybe a hundred feet above us. Then, after another scripted sentence naming the deceased, the director released the fourth bird. It rose in a purposeful flutter of white feathers and joined the orbit, quickly closing the distance with the others. The four birds merged into one flight path, circling once more as the music swelled on queue. And then they were gone, turning due south and disappearing over the tree tops.


I found myself genuinely clapping along with the crowd, even brushing back a tear. It was moving, cheese notwithstanding. And after the ceremony, I peppered the director with a host of questions. How do you train three birds to circle a cemetery? How do they know to wait for the fourth bird? How many bird-quartets have you released into the wild to fend for themselves? Has a stray hawk ever literally “stolen the show”?


I was thankful to learn that these doves were actually homing pigeons, not abandoned to the woods but rather homeward bound, flying back to their roost about thirty miles south. When released, they naturally circle the area in order to get their bearings, engaging their inner GPS. After a couple of laps, their brain locks in their destination with absolute precision; they’re home in time for dinner, and ready for the next ceremony.


The Pigeon’s Fall from Grace


This was my first encounter with the phenomenon of a homing pigeon. But mankind has been harnessing the power of the pigeon for at least 5000 years. “Wherever civilization has flourished, there the pigeon has thrived, and the higher the civilization, usually the higher the regard for the pigeon.” If you think that quote must have been written by someone with an over-inflated view of pigeons, you’re probably right; Wendell Mitchell Levi was the first lieutenant in charge of the pigeon brigade for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War I. Yes, our Armed Forces had a pigeon brigade. In fact, so did the Germans. And not to be outdone, the British had both a pigeon unit and an anti-pigeon unit—Peregrine Falcons that were trained to intercept German birds. Pigeons in both world wars were given medals for key missions, and some of them figured prominently into the outcome of battles, like the famous bird Cher Ami, who saved 194 soldiers—the Lost Battalion—in the Argonne in 1918 by successfully delivering this message to high command: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!” Cher Ami took a German bullet and lost a leg, but received the Croix de Guerre medal for his mission, and gained such fame that today his stuffed one-legged body sits atop a perch in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.


We’ve known for some time, apparently, that pigeons get the job done. In the 5th Century B.C., a communication line of pigeon couriers connected the cities of Persia and Syria. In Ancient Rome, results of the Olympics were publicized by pigeon. And names familiar to us today for keeping the world quickly informed—Reuters for breaking news and Rothchild’s for financial updates—owe their start-up strategy to the pigeon.


But it’s safe to say that, in most circles, this noble resumé has been forgotten. Many birders might not even think to count Columba livia as a real bird on their life lists. Perhaps it’s because they’re so common—over 400 million worldwide, and growing with increased urbanization. Perhaps it’s because they’re so adapted to city-dwelling that they seem more like part of the architectural world than the natural one. Perhaps it’s the billions of dollars a year that we spend cleaning up their poop (and restoring the damage caused by it). Yes, the noble pigeon’s reputation has been tarnished. We like doves but disdain pigeons; we don’t name milk chocolate or white bar soap after a pigeon, nor do we refer to the baptism of Jesus as “the Spirit coming down from heaven as a pigeon.” We’ve even formally severed the family relationship; in 2003 the American Ornithologists Union officially changed Columba livia’s common name from Rock Dove to Rock Pigeon. When your family votes to change your last name, they might be trying to tell you something.


Of all the glorious birds on our planet, honestly I can’t believe I’m writing about this one right now. But I’m realizing that the pigeon deserves some respect. In fact, the next time you hear that telltale coo in your local park, consider for a moment that human history has relied significantly on the little brain under that vacant stare. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve put a lot of eggs in that basket. That odd gray-and-iridescent creature mooching your breadcrumbs may have a more accurate sense of direction than your smart phone; it knows exactly where it is and exactly where it’s going. It embodies an uncanny capacity for place, a grounded sense of home.


Finding Home


Imagine someone dropping you blindfolded in a cornfield somewhere in the middle of Nebraska and telling you to find your way back to your exact home address. No, you can’t use your iPhone. No, you can’t consult the road-signs on the interstate, or even one of those old AAA-TripTiks or truck-stop maps. Suddenly that pigeon doesn’t look so ditzy, does it? Its sense of home is so hard-wired that, wherever you drop it on the map, it just takes a couple of circles in the air to lock in the coordinates to its hometown.

Plenty of birds have this harnessed capacity of map and compass, allowing for the remarkable phenomenon of migration. Those Scarlet Tanagers that nested in your yard this summer are very likely the same ones who nested in your yard last summer, after spending the winter at their casita in central Peru. How birds do this is an ongoing mystery best left for another post, but their capacity defies easy answers. “I find it oddly thrilling that the mental maps of birds remain, well, unmapped,” says Jennifer Ackerman in The Genius of Birds. “There’s no clear evidence that any one sensory cue is the whole story.” All we’ve managed to determine is that it’s partially learned, partially innate, partially the earth’s magnetism, partially the spin of the stars, partially the angle of the sun, partially sight, possibly infrasound, and even possibly smell. Like an airplane’s dashboard, we know that some gauges are more useful for laying a flight path, and others kick in for navigating at lower altitudes or closer to the final destination. But all of those add together to provide both a fine-tuned compass and an astonishing spatial map. And like Disney’s Moana family, “When it's time to find home, we know the way.”


A Theology of Place


How ingrained is our sense of home? Perhaps the thought of having to find our way home is complicated by the fact that we don’t know that place very well to begin with. Our generation thinks globally but often fails to dwell locally. The internet only amplifies this; we can post a comment that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at all. We know our screens better than we know the weather on the other side of that window. Our broad undefined digital reach becomes the place we live, a sort of “reverse hypothermia” that diverts energy to the extremities while leaving the core cold. Maybe locality feels too limiting to us. To borrow from Zack Eswine, we “sometimes strive to be everywhere at once. But to be everywhere generally is to reside nowhere particularly. To strive for various things at once is to announce one’s secession from place.” Before we can consult our map, we need a sticker that says, “You are here.”


Yes, very few of us will ever know our locale with the reflective specificity of Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek or Jayber Crow in Port William. But while it would be great to know the names of the trees in your yard or the seasonal arrivals of monarchs or warblers, I intend something more than that. Your purpose includes your place. The spot where God has sovereignly set you on the map, in this place at this time, gives roots to your calling.


Consider this: Jesus had a hometown. He was known as Jesus of Nazareth, a savior defined geographically. His cosmic work was rooted in the dusty roads of his childhood home (and later Capernaum). He had family there and provided a local woodworking service to the community. He knew the folks four miles up the road in Cana well enough to drop in on a wedding (John 2:1-5). The Holy One from Heaven walked the paths of Nazareth, breathed its air, pulled water from the town well, knew the local fishing holes. In a town of fewer than 4000 residents, he greeted his neighbors by name, knew their stories. Andrew Peterson adds, “[Jesus] had time to spot the wildflowers, converse with his friends, and experience a culture built to human scale. He lived his life at three miles per hour.” The one through whom all things were made (Colossians 1:15) condescended to inhabit a locality, to call a remote First-Century village home. “Rabbi, where are you from?” “Well, the eternal throne room of God… and 123 Main Street, Nazareth.”


I remember many years ago as a youth pastor in Georgia, driving one afternoon to the local high school for my weekly visit. Shortcutting down a country road through cornfields, it hit me in a paradigm-grounding moment that a sovereign holy God had called me to actualize his global kingdom plan in this local rural county, population 24,000. This was my post. This was my precise place to witness the invisible kingdom visible. All my big-picture, seminary-equipped vision for transforming the whole world suddenly felt as wonderfully grounded as that cornfield. Far from confining, that moment gifted me with the freedom of roots.


Author's family feedin' the birds

God may change your Kingdom post, and in fact he often does; others have since taken up my old post in that wonderful Georgia county. In a line that has followed me securely through several moves and potential moves, Rich Mullins sang, “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am.” But what we do know is that today, You. Are. Here. Taking his sovereignty seriously means he has geography-specific intentions for you today, right where you are. Owning that, to quote Eswine, “may simply require you to stop trying to get somewhere other than where you already are.”


Maybe that means you can name the trees in your yard. But how much better if you can name the neighbors on your street? Jesus defined “love your neighbor” (Luke 10:29-37) well beyond the borders of a cul-de-sac, but shouldn’t it startthere? When we define neighbor as anyone, does the vagueness of that definition allow us to look right past the person next door? As Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis explain in their book The Neighboring Church, “We don’t just love the neighbors we choose but the ones God chooses for us.” To have a pigeon-lock on home, start by considering the five households closest to your doorstep. Do you know the names of the people that live there? How about their backstories? Recent defining moments? Heaviest concerns? Why not make a goal of filling in some of those blanks, even this week? A care for locality is a care for the people in that locality. It’s the second greatest commandment, and you have a home address from which to live it out.


A New Hometown


I will never have a pigeon’s acuity for home, to distinguish the beckoning magnetism and smell of a place from all other spots of the map. I can’t even remember where I parked my car at the mall. But I can be a student of the place God has sovereignly put me, to know both its beauty and brokenness, its niceties and needs, the stories it tells.


And I do so with the full recognition that I am hard-wired for another place as well, at the renewal of all things. These two destinations—being fully present here and fully ready for there—aren’t competing flight paths but a single trajectory that seeks the glory of God. C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”


One day our souls—by faith in the hometown Nazarene—will circle three laps of the cemetery and fix our wings on a course not yet traveled yet strangely familiar. They will await a bodily resurrection and a real sense of real ground under our real feet, in a new hometown. Until then, may the Lord find us faithful in the loves and labors of place.