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Pilgrims with Binoculars

Black-Throated Grey Warbler in Charlotte, ©2020 Rob Van Epps

On a perfect September Saturday last year, I drove down a local dirt road in the hopes of spotting an über-rare Black-Throated Gray Warbler—the first ever recorded in our county—that had been excitedly identified by another birder the day before. This was a familiar and favorite location for me—a quiet strip of bird-active country road—but I was unaccustomed to the long line of parked cars along the roadside. An avian flash mob walked past their cars and further on into a growing upward-looking crowd: individuals and families, young and old, pilgrims with binoculars. I was immediately reminded of the childhood thrill of my rural hometown's annual carnival, our family station-wagon left behind in the cornfield-turned-parking-lot as we walked toward the ticket booth. The air had that same expectant feel to it, except that the attraction today wasn’t the rides or games, but a single five-inch-long black-and-white bird with a yellow facial spot.

If you’re unfamiliar with the zealotry of birding (see my prior post), you might wonder how fifty-ish people managed to converge simultaneously on a single bird in an out-of-the-way tree. How does a bird “go viral” like that? I admit that until about ten years ago, I assumed birding was a solo hobby, dependent on a good guide and the gift of extraordinary providence. However, it turns out that birding, like a basketball hoop, can be enjoyed solo but is best as a team sport.

Today the modern birding community generously shares its findings with an array of apps, text alerts, online checklists, and crowdsourcing data. This morning, for instance, a text thread informs me that there’s a Ross’s Goose up the highway in Statesville. An e-mail daily summary says the American Bittern was spotted again yesterday at Chantilly. GPS coordinates are provided, and I’m told it’s favoring the shore today instead of the reeds. Those who discover a treasure leave clues for others to follow. Those clues can eventually gather a crowd.

The warbler was right where they said it would be, cooperative with the many cameras, perhaps a little self-conscious of all the attention. I talked to some of the gathered crowd, from all across the state, some having driven three or four hours that morning for a glimpse. We held our enthrallment in common. The word got out, and the faithful gathered.

That corporate wonder is a lesson and motivation regarding gathered worship, a lesson that’s crucial for us in our current historical context. After a year of pandemic adjustments, many Christians may have become accustomed to the phenomenon of online worship. Now a host of church leadership strategists are blogging and podcasting that online church must become our new reality, that the Church must adapt or perish. They suggest that we abandon the goals of regathered in-person worship.

I strongly believe this sabotages the true concept of community, confusing “temporary necessity” with “new strategy.” While there are a host of benefits to a church’s newfound online presence (and I’m grateful for the many stories of how the Lord has increased my own church’s reach this past year) the gathered community must continue to be our rubric.

Why? Consider the birder.

The common pursuit of the beautiful is an act that gathers. We all flock to the source of that beauty, to turn our binoculars upward together with hope and wonder. The object of our pursuit draws us into closer proximity with one another, and we find an immediate affinity in the knowledge that we’ve all come to see the same thing. My excitement for a small little gray bird might not be shared in most of my relational orbits, but in this gathered roadside moment there is a collective reverence.

C.S. Lewis says a friendship begins when two people discover a shared interest or viewpoint and say, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” What a gift it is to stand alongside others that see what you see, appreciate what you appreciate. Gathered worship does that. We congregate from various places and various backgrounds to behold the treasure together, held together by a common obsession, and we look with carnival-expectancy at the Beautiful One.

That mutual reverence works best when it inhabits the same space. How can it not? Presence is an invitation: “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3) The experience of online worship is a borrowed togetherness, no doubt still capable of deep individual reflection and spiritual growth, but lacking the tangible sense of shared presence. I don’t mean to say that it’s wrong to watch a sermon from your living room, if circumstances necessitate it. But I do mean to say that this experience can’t be the final word on your church practice. To grow we need both personal and collective disciplines.

As I write this, we’re still living in a COVID season, and so returning to Sunday in-person worship still presents legitimate challenges for many, no doubt about it. But I hope that as we look forward, we do so with the goal of regaining tangible bodily community. We don’t set a lower bar. In the past year we adapted and curtailed our vacations, our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, our family reunions, and many of our recreations. What a disappointment if we decided to call those losses our new realities. We wouldn’t dream of it. We know better. We know the difference between good and best.

To learn and grow as a birder I need to go out with other birders and observe what they observe. Watching webcams of bird nests eventually gets old. Instead, we’re invited to leave our desk chairs: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” (Psalm 122:1) May our common pursuit lead us closer to one another even as we draw closer to our Lord. Bring your binoculars. Let’s look to the sky together.


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