Soaring

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

As spring comes to central North America and the migratory birds begin to return, some bright days are punctuated with loud cries in the heavens. If you look around for the source, it can be hard to pinpoint. Just keep looking up, then yet again, higher. Above where you’d expect it, you will likely see small specks in the sky, flying in formation. Sometimes groups join and begin to swirl together, before breaking off again and heading north, all along calling their plaintive cries. This is the migration of Sandhill Cranes.

They look small from a distance, but when on the ground, they stand as tall as 3 to 4 feet, with a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet. Sandhill Cranes are skilled soaring birds, their long sweeping wings ideal for catching rising air. Utilizing thermals to obtain lift, they can soar for hours with only occasional wing flapping. With their bulk, these large birds would not get far at all if everything depended on the flapping of their wings.

During their migrations, Sandhill Cranes often stop over in wetlands for the night. As the sun rises, they can be seen standing in the morning mists, awaiting the sun’s magic. As the sun rises and shines, the dark soil absorbs its energy and, in turn, warms the nearby air. As the air warms, it grows lighter and begins to rise into the colder, denser air above. The cranes sense the lift and with a few wing flaps rise high enough to catch the rising currents. They begin to circle upward by the hundreds, marking the normally invisible rising air columns with their noisy presence.

Many smaller birds fly primarily on on wing power. If you watch Swallows or Swifts flitting in and out of the shadows in search of mosquitoes, their agile movements are driven by quick movements of their wings and tails. Sparrows and Finches flap around among the shrubs and peck around on the ground for seeds. Hummingbirds demonstrate the ultimate in wing-powered flight, their wings moving so fast that the wings disappear from sight. But there is a downside for these smaller birds. Flight for them takes a great deal of energy. If a hummingbird fails to find nectar on a regular basis, it soon runs out of energy and starves to death.

But there are birds that mostly just ride the wind, catching the thermals that rise as the morning sun heats the air, or riding the currents that ride up cliffs from a warmer valley floor below. Among these are the large migratory birds like storks and cranes, who can often be seen standing in a misty wetland watching for the sun to arrive and stir up rising currents. Hawks and eagles often ride the currents along cliffs, hanging motionless in the air watching for small animals or birds below. As they hang motionless, a small twitch of wings and tail, and they drift away at astounding speeds. Sometimes they close their wings and thunder earthward like a bolt of lightning, then gently rise again with spread wings, clutching dinner in their claws.

The ultimate in soaring are probably the scavengers, like vultures, whose wings sweep backward and upward to take maximum advantage of the wind’s upward lift. Unlike other avian raptors, like hawks and eagles, that often dive to catch their food and have to use more flapping to power their agile movements, the vultures rise high to look around and when they find food, they slowly circle down to gather around and take their turn at a carcass. These are some of the ugliest birds on the planet—that is, until they catch a breeze and glide away with utter and astounding grace.

The prophet Isaiah had watched these soaring birds and used them to describe a person of faith:

“Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31, NLT)

The Hebrew term translated as “eagle” in this passage is thought by many scholars to more likely refer to the Griffon Vulture. The Griffon Vulture (also known as the Great Vulture) is a large scavenging bird, very common in Palestine and much of the Mediterranean world. Most translators shy away from rendering the term “vulture,” probably because it doesn’t create an inspiring picture to the mind’s eye. But the Griffon Vulture, like all vultures, is a wonderful and stately glider.

The strength Isaiah promised wasn’t mostly a strength to enable us to flap harder and longer. Lift comes to a soaring bird, not from wing strength but from wind strength.  They just need to know how to read the winds and how to utilize their wings, a gift they all have from God. The same is true of us. Strength comes to those who trust God for strength when all their own strength is gone. When we are weary of body and spirit, it is a matter of catching the divine and holy wind. There are often times when there is just no strength left in us to give. All we can do is raise our wings and hope.

The apostle Paul begged to be released from an unidentified weakness, but the response he heard from the Lord was this: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT) The same answer is there for us.

Wilderness Tip: Look up into the sky. No matter where you live, there are surprises lurking, along with reminders of truth. During seasons of migration, you may see cranes and geese flying in formation, knowing where they need to go to survive, cooperating with each other to make the journey as easy as possible. You may see flocks of small birds gathering to migrate together toward warmer air and live food sources. You may see a large, lonely soaring bird with swept-back wings, probably a turkey vulture or some other scavenger, riding the winds to unspeakable heights, searching for the next mess to clean up. Or perhaps you see the flapping outline of a Raven, looking for just about any source of food. Have you seen any of these things lately? They are there, even in urban areas, on a daily basis. Open your eyes; lift them to the heavens; smile at the wonders God has made.

And remember to study the ways of the holy wind of God’s Spirit; Scripture reveals a good deal about Him. Then learn to lift your spiritual wings so He can carry you to places you probably have not even imagined. He knows where He wants you to be. If you are willing to study the wind currents and take some practice flights, you will soon be riding the winds. You, too, will be soaring.

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