murmuration

Murmuration (noun) – a flock of starlings.


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Around dusk in late autumn and early winter, near roost sites, you may encounter a murmuration – a flock of hundreds or thousands of starlings moving in an aerial display. As part of the group forms up, flying in unison, smaller groups and individual starlings dart across the sky to join. One of the key reasons for such a large gathering, and swirling performance is safety – it is more difficult for predators to single out an individual bird.

A murumuration is more than just animal behavior though, it is also a sermon.

The grouped starlings move like a visible sound wave – a symphony to be seen rather than heard. And the individual birds that streak towards it to join seem like individual song notes, desperate not to miss their part in the larger chorus. This is a twilight symphony – a call for roosted rest – that displays itself only during the twilight season of the year.

This assemblage is also a brush stroke in perpetual motion that is painted across the sky by a Hand felt by the heart but invisible to the eye. The birds indeed seem drawn onto aerial parchment in a type of paint that while never still, communicates stillness just the same.

I’d like my internal life to flow this way – cognition in motion but embodying stillness. I want my thoughts to be painted across my internal sky in the smooth, symphonic brush strokes of the Creator’s hand.

But this is so rarely so.

Instead my thought starlings often fly in geometric cadence – a march in ceaseless, predictable repetition. Their flight is a reiteration of straight lines, and sharp turns, that is so automatic and unquestioned that it has lost all life. This manner of habitual thinking is complacency made internally manifest – a default route my mind’s motions fall into. This manner of habitual thinking is a spiral around a fixed point – cognition looping like a scratched record. It is a corroded comfort, a white noise that lulls instead of livens. This is no sort of flight that draws one to look up.

If not a stagnant droning, my thought birds often fly in a sporadic cacophony. In such cases, I seem to have wrenched the paintbrush away from the Master Artist to scratch my thoughts at a discordant pace of my own dreadful creation. I wound my internal parchment in the process, but then continue the next layer of scrawlings all the same. My thought starlings fly each at their own speed, turning each in their own timing, crashing into each other. Their aggregated wing flutterings speak nothing of stillness. Such starlings are anxiety made manifest, which shouts of my refusal to trust in the Creator’s vision. Their’s is a flight away from God’s designed rhythm for their life.

The answer seems simple – just give the paintbrush back. God knows I want to. But apparently I don’t want it enough. I still repeatedly hide the brush so as to slip into the lifelessness of the geometric cadence. I still continue or cling to the brush so as to let my thought starlings fly in their sporadic cacophony. Either way, I orchestrate my own internal struggles. Why do I choose this?

I don’t rightly know. But I do know this: seeing a murmuration in nature – the one in harmonious flight that is such a contrast to the disharmony of my own thoughts – is a prompt to consider the rhythm of my thoughts. And today, the murmuration struck me as an illustration of bits of Colossians 3, which read as follows:

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things …Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature … You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now … you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator … clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience … Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … And be thankful.

(portions of verses: 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 15)

The sight of a murmuration is a reminder of several of these scriptural truths.

First, ‘to set your mind on things above’. Whenever thought starlings flutter at a distracting rhythm, in a cadence so off from that which the Creator designed, redirect your attention elsewhere. It is not so simple as flipping a switch of course, but listening to music, going on a walk, or calling a friend can be a simple way to turn their dissonance down, if only for a little while.

Second, to recall that you can be a new and different creature at any time. As Colossians put it – ‘you used to walk in these ways, but now … you have taken off the old self and its practices’. I find it hard to remember that there is always, in every second, an opportunity – indeed an invitation – to change. That potential lives within us because we have been created and saved by the Creator. So seeing a murmuration reminds me to ‘fake it until you become it’ (so-to-speak), to try to shake awake my droning thoughts from their unquestioned repetition, to try to (even briefly) move my untrusting starlings to join in on a different sort of movement.

Finally, to ‘be thankful’. When I see a murumuration, this is now for me a prompt for praise. My mind is often the thing that most weighs down my life, but instead of being consumed by the noise of my starlings flying in numbing formations or distracting maneuvers, whenever I feel this guilt of my consistent inability to put them in the smooth motion of the Creator’s brushstroke, I want to stop and give thanks. I want to interrupt their cycle. And I am thankful that He is ever-waiting to take the paintbrush back, still offering to put my thought starlings into His designed rhythm of stillness. At any time. At all times.

This is what God speaks to me in a murmuration. May a sight of this aerial delight provide you an opportunity to pause and look up and give praise for this invitation to stillness.

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