The day had already been satisfying and successful. I had led a men’s retreat on a beautiful piece of property about an hour and a half south of Atlanta, Georgia. The crisp November air had nourished a new sparkle in the oak and poplar leaves. Some of us went fishing; some of us shot guns. The trailing wind and rainy remnants of a distant hurricane had came through and opened up the night sky, revealing a thick and lush panoply of stars.
Out in the open country, the retreat itself was also thick and delightful. I remembered how Herodotus described the war discussions of the ancient Persians. Apparently, when deliberating about whether to go to war, they made such decisions twice. First, in the steady light of reason and tempered discourse, they reached one rational decision. Then, apparently, they would engage the same question while they were drunk. If they came to the same decision in both situations, they would act on it.
So it went on our men’s retreat. After Thursday night, on Friday, we discussed manhood and spirituality. What are the masculine features of a healthy spirituality? What does it mean to be a liberated man in our current economic situations? What is the love of the father, and why are there masculine images for God? We considered the four archetypal “soul types” that Richard Rohr presents in his book, “From Wild Man to Wise Man.” (those types are king, warrior, magician, and lover; more about those soul types on another day.)
On the way back to Atlanta, I drove through the county where I had grown up. I was actually trying to get to the county airport, where my son was preparing for a two hundred and fifty mile cross-country airplane trip. He has been obtaining the necessary licenses to be a commercial airplane pilot. But I just missed him. By 2:00 pm, he had already left with his instructor, flying southward. I texted him with our familiar family lines: “Have fun and be careful.” Those lines have informed our family blessings for almost thirty years.
Back home in Atlanta, I sat outside to catch up on mail and necessities. Given the late hour of my previous evening, I thought perhaps I should take a nap. But then, I heard the sounds.
I heard the familiar, wonderful, and guttural sounds. They sound like gurgles first, so clear and so loud – especially so on a crisp fall afternoon in Georgia. But they cannot be true gurgles, for they come from above, from the air. I have heard them almost every year of my fifty-three years. They are as dependable as these flaming November leaves on maple trees before me.
They were sandhill cranes. I counted at least eighty of them, not far above me this year, undulating in the breeze, substituting the lead, flanking out asymmetrically and raggedly. They were beautiful. This year, with the crisp afternoon sun on them, I could observe astounding detail in their necks and heads.
They were flying right over the developed city of Atlanta, which is nevertheless still blessed with trees and some open land. No matter how congested the Atlanta traffic becomes, and no matter how frantic our daily human lives are at this time of year, the sandhill cranes are an annual prayer flag for me. God sends them fluttering southward in the wind. They are being led and piloted by a power that has existed long before I was born.
Inevitably, I always hear the birds before I see them. So it is, Jesus said, with those born from above, those born of the wind of the Holy Spirit. “You hear the sound of the wind, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.” The Holy Spirit pilots those birds up and down the continent every year.
This year, I am waiting for that telephone call or text message or email from another pilot, my son. No matter how different he is from me, and no matter how much he faithfully differentiates himself from me, still, a piece of me is with him all the time. A piece of me is up there with him in the Cessna airplane right now, flying freely to the south.
This year, my spirit has leaped up to join the sandhill cranes. Maybe I can fly with them. I’ll try to catch up to that airplane that took off a few hours ago. It has landed now, and the cranes will catch up to him. I hope he remembers to look up, even after he has landed. Even after he has succeeded in the day’s challenge, I hope he remembers to pause and to look up.
I think he’ll see those same sandhill cranes flopping and flapping overhead. They are always there this time of year, but most humanity in this generation has never seen them.
The Holy Spirit, too, is flying over us – and maybe through us and among us; but we will not glimpse that power until we pause and look around. Maybe we will look up, on a retreat; maybe we will have to look down, toward our own children. Maybe we will hear the Holy Spirit before we see anything, and maybe the sound will seem like guttural foreign tongues. The Spirit speaks like that sometimes. But she always soars, and she always waves for us to follow.
(This piece was also published at www.episcopalcafe.com. Check it out!)