In the early mornings, I walk. My path is from my home, through the neighborhood, across a field and a busy road, to the quiet space of a bird sanctuary filled with birds alive while much of the world is still rising. Once there, I stop on a wooden bridge for a moment of stillness and silence. The other day, I looked up at one of the many electrical wires overhead and noticed about 100 swallows sitting on it. Now, maybe this has always been, and I was noticing for the first time, but every single one of those birds was facing in the same direction. All 100 or so. Sitting on the wire and facing east. There is no way this could have been random and by chance. There must have been some sort of unspoken plan.
As I marveled at this, a new bird flew up and sat on the wire – only this one was facing the opposite direction. “That’s me”, I thought – the one who is always turned around, never quite facing the right way. But, in less than a second, that bird hopped up, turned around, and landed on the wire facing the same direction as the rest of the birds. Soon, another bird arrived, and then another, and the same thing happened each time: the bird landed facing the wrong direction, hopped up, and turned around.
I don’t know what made all of the birds face the same direction. It may have been the direction of the wind, or instinct, but I’d like to think that when a bird landed in the wrong direction, the bird next to him leaned over and quietly whispered, “Wrong way, friend. Turn around.”
Community. It is there to socialize with, it is there to fill our lives with friendship, but it is also there to help us turn around, and when we are unable to do it quickly, it is there to hold the space for us until we can.
There have been times when someone has said to me, “I cannot pray.” and I say, “I will pray on your behalf until you are able to pray yourself.” There have been people in my life who have not believed in God, and I have believed for them. One reason we say the version of the creed that begins with “WE believe” (instead of the one that starts “I believe”) is because when one of us cannot in that moment believe in a God that is all-loving, all-present, and all-powerful, the rest of us can believe for them.
The trick is to not be on that wire alone. If we were, how would we know which way to face? Who would lean over and whisper to us, “wrong way, friend.”? Who would hold the space for us until we were strong enough to hold it on our own? Just one other bird is all that is needed, someone who can help turn us around, who can pray when we can’t, who can believe until we are able. And someone we can do the same for as well.
In a world coming out of forced isolation, the option to watch church through a computer screen is left in the wake of this disease. For the homebound and vulnerable, the window into sanctuaries is life-giving. Through the screen, people can hear the Word, join in singing, be fed in ways not possible before. But for those who have the choice to return to community, the place where birds on the wire conspire with us to do better, to be better, perhaps that is the only option. There are simply too many forces pulling us apart to not lean into the places binding us together. There are simply too many times of loneliness to choose aloneness. So, if you can, return to the sanctuary. And when you do, may your wire be crowded. And when you find yourself facing the wrong direction, as we all find ourselves sometimes, may you hear the gentle words, “Wrong way, friend. Turn around.”
The Rev. Lori Walton is a parish priest living and serving in her place of birth, the San Francisco Bay Area. She finds joy in solitary walks, large and boisterous family gatherings, and welcoming all and any sort of folks into the Household of God.