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Ode to the vulture

Andrew Taylor-Troutman invites readers to transcend an ominous image.

Photo by Michael Baird on Unsplash

National Bird Day is January 5, yet I wish to sing the praises not of songbirds but vultures — that much-maligned bird, which Ross Gay made me consider in a new light when he memorably described one such bird as wearing “that good suit of feathers.”

Occasionally, a vulture or two will land on the roof of our sanctuary, and a parishioner might comment on their presence as an ominous sign. I am amused that a flock of vultures is actually known as a committee.

Vultures have a worse reputation in the Bible than even an insufferably long meeting. They eat carrion, which makes them unclean animals. Jesus, who did counsel his followers to consider the birds, later added, “Wherever there is a carcass, the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:28). In the context of this reading, vultures are a harbinger of doom, a sign of judgment. This wry rabbi well understood that we think in metaphors: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” That said, vultures are most like a helpful cleanup crew. Their feeding activity helps to prevent the spread of pathogens that might otherwise spread from dead animals.

Debbie Blue, in her delightful book about birds in the Bible, points out that vulture is from the Latin “to tear,” which is probably a reference to what you see them doing to the pancaked squirrel on the highway. But I discovered a lexical link between vulture and vulnerable. Thanks to Brené Brown, I think a lot about vulnerability in leadership as stepping out of our comfort zones and the willingness to trust forces at work beyond us, including the invisible Breath or Spirit of God.

In my neighborhood, I most often see black vultures, Coragyps atratus, which, unlike their cousins, the turkey vultures, appear to wear dark hooded sweatshirts around their faces. The other day, I slipped on my own hoodie against the cold and saw a vulture high in the gray sky. Vultures fly higher than any other bird, but not because of their powerful wings. Rather, they can ride the rising thermal currents from the ground thousands of feet below them. They seem vulnerable up there, wobbling in the sky. But when the sun breaks through the clouds, I see their wingtips become almost translucent, shining in the light. Dare I say, they look like angels?

Are vultures circling something dying, say, like a church? Or might we learn to become vulnerable, stretch out our faith, and actually soar higher than ever before?

But no question about it, we should rethink the wearisome committee meetings.

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