Soaring Toward Life

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on July 6 with readings from Isaiah 40:27-31 and John 11:17-27.

What do Auburn University, Boston College, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and Keystone Oaks High School have in common?

Eagle FootballThey all share a mascot: the Eagles! The screaming eagles, the fighting eagles, the golden eagles… You name the town, there’s an Eagle of some sort close by. There are 74 four-year colleges and an astounding 1223 high schools that use this bird as their mascot, making it far and away the most popular mascot in the country.

And it’s a great mascot! It’s not sexist, it’s not racist…it’s really patriotic, and for a number of us, it conjures up biblical imagery as well, doesn’t it? Can you think of any verses, other than the passage from Isaiah, that talk about eagles?

on-eagles-wings-tara-ellisSure you can! Psalm 103:5 talks about God’s desire to satisfy his people with good so that their youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Exodus 19:4 promises that he will raise us up on eagle’s wings. And there are more.

The eagle is fierce, and proud, and strong, and, well, probably not the bird that is referred to in any of these passages. The Hebrew word that we have rendered as “eagle” in our English Bibles is nesher. I’m here to tell you that a better translation would be “vulture”.

Oh, come on, Dave, that’s disgusting. Nobody likes vultures. Why do we want to look at our faith that way? Why would you do that?

The Griffon Vulture, native to much of the Mediterranean region as well as southern Asia.

The Griffon Vulture, native to much of the Mediterranean region as well as southern Asia.

Well, in Micah 1, we learn that the nesher has no feathers on its head. Job 39 tells us that a nesher eats the bodies of those who are dead, and Exodus 19 talks about a nesher carrying its young as they learn to fly. The true eagles that are found in Palestine do none of these things…but all are characteristic of the Griffon Vulture that makes its home there.

But vultures? They are so…so…gross! What do you think of when you think of vultures? They are portrayed as greedy and predatory; if you call a lawyer or a banker a “vulture”, you’re not paying them a compliment, that’s for sure!

There are at least six comic book villains named “Vulture”. The birds themselves are often covered with their own excrement, and they eat the excrement of other creatures. When threatened, their best defense is to projectile vomit onto their attacker. Whereas eagles have strong talons suitable for gripping and tearing, vultures have weak feet best suited for, well, walking. Their beaks are similarly ineffective at ripping apart live flesh.

And smell? Oh, wow. Some years ago, my friend Darcy and I were biking along the Montour Trail and we got a whiff of something vile. We assumed that there was a dead skunk nearby. We rounded the corner and found a vulture sitting in the middle of the path, unconcerned about us – and trust me, we were in no hurry to remain. It was almost overwhelming. In fact, the town of Harrisonville, MO has recently had to take action to drive a flock of vultures away from its water tank because residents were sickened by the odor.

So given all this, what business does author Debbie Blue have suggesting that the Bible exalts the vulture and even invites us to consider it an example of faithful living or divine characteristic? I know – you want eagles. Next week.

A Turkey Vulture, native to North and South America

A Turkey Vulture, native to North and South America

I’d like to look at two aspects of this bird as instructive for our faith. First, consider the behavior of the vulture. Have you ever seen one flying? What do they do? They soar. Their wings are not particularly strong, and they do not have a great deal of stamina. In order to maintain their position in the skies, they rely on the energy that is provided from elsewhere: the sun heats air unevenly, and that allows great currents, or “thermals”, to rise. Vultures spread their enormous, if weak, wings and capture the energy from those thermals and use it to glide higher than any other creature. In fact, on November 29, 1973, a Griffon Vulture collided with a commercial airliner off the coast of Western Africa at an altitude of 37,000 feet.

You can tell a vulture when it flies because of the way that it wobbles in the air. Its weak wings are so sensitive to the breeze that the slightest shift appears to shake the entire bird.

Can you hear the Isaiah passage in a slightly different light now? “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, and they shall mount up on wings like vultures…” That is to say, they rest in the Lord, and trust in the Lord’s lifting – not their own. The vulture flies higher than the eagle can even dream about… because he’s not trying to do it all himself. He rises with the air that is given. Hmmm.

VulturesFeedingAnd what is the vulture doing on those great wings? Looking for food. But unlike the hawks or eagles or other raptors, the vulture won’t scream down in a power dive in order to snatch and kill an animal. Just as it depends on the environment to lift it, the vulture waits for food to appear. When the vulture spots something that could be dinner, it will go down to investigate. However, before heading for dinner, most species of vulture will signal to their kind that there is food to be had. The African White-backed Vulture wheels in the sky to alert the rest of the birds about the meal, while Turkey Vultures will circle above the feast until everyone sees it.

Interesting side note: a group of vultures while flying is called a “committee”, a “kettle”, or a “venue”. A group of vultures eating is called a “wake”. I’m not making this up.

When the vulture finally descends to feed, it has to eat as much as it can, because it doesn’t know where it’s next meal is coming from. And because the talons are so weak, a vulture can’t even grip the meat and carry it elsewhere to enjoy later.

So you see, in considering these birds, I am struck by similarities between their behavior and my own. I am not often one to fly boldly and confidently in my own strength; I am more likely to be wobbling around, hoping to be lifted by God’s power to a place where I can get a better perspective. When I am there, I do best when surrounded by others, and am able to eat “my daily bread” because it is given to me. Sometimes, I am able to see something helpful or useful in the world, and when I’m doing it right, I invite you to share it with me. More often, I am blessed because someone else has called my attention to the thing that can sustain me in my day.

As instructive as the behavior of these birds is for me, I am more fascinated by the role that they play in the world. In some cultures, vultures are called “death eaters”. Although the birds are carnivorous, they will rarely, if ever, kill their prey. They eat what others have already killed (just like you and me, to be honest).

And in this seeking out what has already died, vultures provide an incredible service to the world by cleansing the landscape of that which is toxic and lethal. The digestive juices in a vulture’s stomach are so powerful that they destroy cholera, anthrax, botulism, and just about any other virus or bacteria.

The vulture is created to seek out that which is rotting and decayed and thus threatens the living and the whole and neutralizes the dangers that are posed.

This poster warns about the dangers of vulture population decline in India.

This poster warns about the dangers of vulture population decline in India.

In the 1990s, a number of countries in southern Asia experienced a drastic decrease in the vulture population. It turned out that a drug that had been fed to cattle was fatal to the vultures that eventually fed on their carcasses, and so millions of the birds have died as a result. In the ensuing decade, the nation of India experienced a dramatic rise in the number of cases of anthrax and other diseases as well as a rabies epidemic brought on by the sharp surge in the number of feral dogs that fed on the carcasses after the vultures died. India and other countries have now outlawed that drug and the vulture population is rebounding – along with the health of the people and animals who live there.  In fact, some regions of India are so keen on helping the vulture that they have opened “Vulture Restaurants”, where healthy animals are killed and left to ensure the availability of safe and nutritious food for the recovering species.

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue puts it this way:

The turkey vulture is also known as the Cathartes aura, which is derived from the Greek katharsis, meaning “to purify”; and the Latin aureus, meaning “golden”: “the golden purifier”. Maybe God is something like that – not so much like an eagle – not a fierce warrior god swooping in for the rescue or the kill, but a God who can take everything in and make it clean – a God who can make even death nontoxic.[1]

MayanAs I mentioned earlier, the Mayans considered the vulture to be “death eaters”, and revered them because they, unlike so many of us, are not afraid of death. Rather, they embrace it, they take it in. Death enters them, but comes out harmless. In that way, the vulture can be a symbol of resurrection – of life coming from death.

NekhbetIn the same way, the ancient Egyptians worshiped the vulture. In the Book of the Dead, there is a description of Nekhbet, a soaring, protective, goddess with an enormous wingspan that blanketed the earth. She is the “Mother of Mothers who existed from the beginning and gave birth to all that is.” In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet contains a character in the image of a vulture that represents the sound heard in the words “mother” or “grandmother”. So when the Egyptians saw a vulture, they thought of their mothers – they gave thanks for life – life that overcomes death.

I know, this is the Fourth of July weekend, and if I was any kind of American I’d be taking this opportunity to talk about the eagle as our symbol. The good news is that next week the eagle is the bird that is up for consideration; the bad news is that I don’t think you’re going to like it much. But today, let’s consider the vulture.

Do you, like me, know something about feeling wobbly and weak on those days when it seems like everyone around you is soaring effortlessly? Do you know what it is to have to rely on that which has been provided to you out of God’s grace, rather than being the one to call all the shots and make all the rules?

Then maybe these scriptures do make sense after all:

For the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.  In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste.
 He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, 
like [a vulture] that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, 
that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deut. 32:9-11)

Praise the Lord, my soul;
 all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
 Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the [vulture’s]. (Psalm 103:1-5)

Beloved, your nature is to overcome death. Your call and your destiny is to walk through death and to bring life and health to those who are stricken by fright and wounded by the world. I do not see a future wherein the Keystone Oaks Golden Eagles will become the West End Vultures, or the Brookline Buzzards. That’s not important. What is important is that the world sees us as those who are not afraid of what is unclean because we have within us the source of all cleanliness; we are not afraid of death because we know the resurrection; we are able to withstand the evil because we have been shaped, called, and filled with the good. Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013, p. 78).