Operation Migration

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. (Ps. 25:4)

It is possible, I suppose, that on the ark with Noah there was a pair of whooping cranes that, with the receding of the flood waters, made their way to North America, where, for a while, they were fruitful and multiplied. But today the whooping crane is an endangered species, most of its habitat having been lost to the encroachment of human development. In 1941 there were only 21 whooping cranes known to be living in the wild; today their population numbers 265.

Whooping cranes are migratory birds. The magazine section of a major daily newspaper recently ran a story on the effort to increase the numbers of the birds living in the wild, which includes an elaborate sort of avian orienteering project known as “Operation Migration” to teach the bids their 1,285-mile-long migratory route from Wisconsin to Florida. In the words of one of the organizers, for the cranes, “the instinct to migrate is natural, but the route is learned.”

Operation Migration teaches the birds that route, but it tries hard not to let the birds become acclimated to human contact. So they put on crane costumes when they work with their charges, they don’t speak around the birds, and they lead the birds on their route south with ultralight airplanes playing an MP3 of a whooping crane call through a loudspeaker attached to the rear axle. All it takes is one trip and the birds have learned the route and will remember it the rest of their lives.

However, there are still a lot of obstacles in the way of establishing a healthy population of wild whooping cranes – several previous approaches have failed. The cranes’ difficulty in adapting to living so close to human civilization has led scientists to label them a “conservation reliant species,” which is to say that without human intervention – even dressed up in crane costumes – the cranes are not likely to make it in the long run. A 1946 article in the New York Times “blamed the crane’s ‘lack of cooperation’ for its looming extinction.”

Lent leaves me thinking about migration: about our regular return to a place we need to go. And this first Sunday in Lent, when the Choir and clergy walk around the church singing our litany in formation, leaves me feeling a bit like a participant in some project to teach cranes how to fly south for the winter. (This analogy puts you in the role of the crane, but fear not, we are all flying to the same place.)

If this is the beginning of a migration, it must be, in some sense, a migration back to the heart of God that we are on. And I wonder if what is true of those cranes may also be true for us: that the instinct to migrate is natural but the route is learned. If so, and if the church is to be trusted, then this route leads us through a season of penitence when we find the nerve to say to God and to one another that we have been selfish, inconsiderate, brutish fools at least some of the time (and some of us more than others).

This kind of thing does not come easily to us, which may be why at some point the church set the whole thing to music, to encourage us to sing it, and in the singing to be surprised by the poignant accuracy of the confession. (From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity, good Lord deliver us.)

The simple assumption of the church is that we humans are, in fact migratory creatures; that we have a need to set out (at least once a year) to find again the warmer regions of God’s love that we cling to in a deep memory of paradise, and from which we realize, from time to time, we have become estranged. How did we get so greedy, so self-centered, so adept at ruining things, so willing to despise others, so forgetful of God, so comfortable with killing each other? These questions prompt an old stirring in us to take wing and seek again the refuge of God’s love. But we find, so often, that having noticed the desire to know God better and to be more attuned to his loving kindness, we do not know how to find him, how to talk with him, how to listen to him, or how to serve him.

The migration back to God begins with the humble act of confessing our sins: of acknowledging that we have failed to use the gifts God’s given us and fallen short of being our best selves. I put this generally in this group discussion, but my migration gets off to a better start when I am much more specific with God in my prayers about the ways I have sinned; and your migration will benefit from specifics, too.

And God means for us to rest and stop along the way by coming to his altar to be spiritually fed by his Body and Blood in the mass, and to be nourished by the support and love of his community in the church. We are not expected to make this journey on our own, or in one fell swoop.

The flight back to God’s heart is aided by the reminder God gives us that we have someplace to go: a better, freer, happier life in this world when we escape the cold barrens of our sins. Perhaps that’s why we began our readings today with the story of the rainbow as the sign of God’s covenant of love: a regular reminder that God has someplace for us to go.

These simple tactics - being honest in our confession of sins, stopping to rest and be fed by Christ’s love, and remembering that God has someplace good to lead us to – provide a reasonable plan for a long migration back to God, for us, who have wandered.

If we are honest about it, it seems to me that we humans may actually be a “conservation reliant species.” Which is to say that without God’s intervention we are not likely to make it in the long run. Left to our own devices we tend toward the destructive, which is finally self-destructive. But God turns out to be even more committed to us – creatures of his own making – than those bird-lovers are to the whooping cranes they lead on their migration in ultralight airplanes.

And while the crane people have to put on crane “costumes” to fit in and teach the young cranes what to do, God had only to send us his Son: a human in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, who got his disciples started on their migration just by calling, “follow me!” And so Christ intervenes in our lives over and over again: calling us to follow him, teaching us to love one another as he loves us; showing us his mercy for those who are lost by their sins, feeding us with bread and fish and wine even when it appears there is not enough to go around.

A cynic might suggest as the Times did 50-odd years ago about the whooping cranes, that our own “lack of cooperation” is largely to blame for our own demise – if you see (as a cynic would) the human condition in a state of decline.

But I think if a whooping crane can be taught to follow an ultralight airplane along the route of its migration from Wisconsin to Florida, then there is an awful lot of hope for you and me, that we can be taught by Christ and his church the way to make the journey back to the heart of God’s love. (Although unlike the cranes, we seem to need to learn the route over and over again.)

And as we embark with a song of penitence whooping in our throats, we are reminded already that there are plenty of chances to stop and rest and be fed. And from time to time we may even look out from the flight pattern of our migration and see in the distance the rainbow sign of the covenant of God’s love – that never again will we be cut off from his love – which serves as a useful reminder that we have someplace to go: a warmer region of God’s love to which he calls us to return again and again and again, no matter how often we fly away.

Thanks be to God.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

1 March 2009

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 1, 2009 .