Over the last week, I had the chance, the good fortune really, to attend a Zoom call that is on my calendar every week but that I have rarely had the opportunity to join. It is a call filled with innovative and creative thinkers in the church that are wrestling with how to follow the Spirit in a moment in which almost nothing has remained stable. The group often considers the role of chaos and order and how those two things need to be present in appropriate quantities for innovation to happen within a system. If there is too much chaos, the system breaks down completely and nothing is achieved. If there is too much order, the system cannot adapt and change to the environment around it as it needs to do so. There is a need for both to be present in just the right amount for the system to become fluid, adaptable, malleable to the environment in which it exists.
During the call, one of the facilitators shared a video of starlings flying in a murmuration, which is the name for a flock of starlings. (Who knew?!) The video is an amazing view of a completely fluid system of birds dancing on the winds:
The beauty of the flight of these starlings is how quickly and frequently the path of the murmuration changes – without any indication that something is about to change. The starlings remain attentive to each other as they dance on the wind, and the entire flock creates this beautiful movement that we can easily imagine being put to a favored piece of classical music. They swirl and shift and dive and swoosh in harmony with each other creating movements that we cannot predict but are always beautiful.
The church is often thought of (and described) as an unchanging monolith. When we think about the things that we do in our liturgy and how our practices as Christians are practices that have been handed down through the generations, it is quite easy to understand the church as this monolithic institution that resists change at all costs. And of course, we have plenty of examples within The Episcopal Church of how things remain resolutely steadfast. And yet, we also know that the church shifts and changes over time.
Perhaps, the image of the starlings in flight is an image of the church that is combining these two realities into a single entity. The starlings have some kind of order that they are using to follow and to lead in their murmurations. The group, more or less, stays together in their flight, and they form these beautiful images of flight across the sky as they dance. The starlings have those things that bring a certain amount of order to what they are doing – just as the church has a certain amount of order in what it does. The practices that we have inherited down through the ages are those places of order within the church that help us to dance to the rhythms of the Spirit. They are the practices that remind us of who we are as a group, and they help us stay together in the dance that we are dancing with Father, Son, and Spirit.
At the same time, the shapes that the dance takes shifts over time. The ministries of a single parish or group of Christians morphs into different ebbs and flows as the parish or ministry group responds to the neighbors around them. Like the starlings, the parish is able to give attention first to those who are closest: the neighbors we find in our neighborhood and in our city. In the attentiveness that we give to that most local of contexts, the dance of the parish listens to the sighs of the Spirit, and we begin to move into a new direction. The form of ministry of the parish is different as it twists left and then up and then right. The fluid nature of the church takes form precisely because we have listened carefully to the murmuration of the Spirit here in this place and in this moment.