41. What Does it Mean?

Iím a birder, and during this time of the year I enjoy counting the hawks along the roadside as I drive from church to church and from speaking engagement to speaking engagement.  In some areas of Missouri, I can count hundreds of Red-Tailed Hawks in single dayís drive, perched upright on tall trees and telephone posts overlooking fields and culverts for voles and mice.  Occasionally I see Red-Shouldered Hawks a little lower in the trees and further back from the roadways, or Cooperís Hawks bulleting overhead.  Pretty cool.

While I was driving home from St. Louis in the cold gray rain yesterday, I noticed a bright patch of pure white in a tree where a Red-tailed Hawk ought to be perched.  It had the posture, shape, size, and behavior of a Red-Tailed Hawk, but this bird was completely white – not light, not Kriderís Hawk beige, but white.  I exited as soon as I could and returned back on the other side of the highway to get a closer look.  The bird was a rare albino hawk.

In our science-oriented society, the first questions that come to mind are, ìWhere did it come from? What causes the color variation?  How does it survive?î 

But in the moment of awesome splendor, I couldnít help thinking of the way generations of Native Americans would look at the bird.  The driving question would be, ìWhat does it mean?î  Often unusual sightings of birds or animals would portend something great or calamitous, and so the occasion would push a community into deep reflection, into the interior world of soul or the higher world of spirit and discernment.

Stay with me here.  This may seem a stretch, but this came to mind as I continued my drive home. It occurs to me that many of our most effective church leaders and most fruitful and healthy congregations, when they are faced with unexpected events, focus on the same question. They give priority to ìWhat does it mean?î over ìWhat caused it?î

I served a congregation that developed a long-term downtown plan for ministry expansion, facility improvement, and property acquisition.  The congregation committed themselves to the plan and pursued it with diligence and effectiveness over several years.  They created new ministries, gave generously, reached into the community, spent tons of money to fulfill the agreed-upon strategies.  Then one day they received the devastating news that one of the property acquisitions that was central to their plan would never happen.  Their long-term plan would never come to be.  It was over.

I suppose the church could have fallen into the trap of analyzing the questions to death, ìHow did this happen? What caused this?î  They could have blamed and scape-goated or ignored and denied the significance of this reversal.  They could still be arguing about it today, thirteen years later.

Instead, the church leaders gathered together a month after hearing the news, and one of the women on the committee courageously changed the focus.  She asked, ìWhat does this mean?î  What does this mean for how we fulfill our mission, for how we reach young families, for how we become the church in this community for generations to come? Her emphasis was not on, ìWhat caused this?î but îWhere does this lead us now?  What will we become because of this?  Where is God in this?î  The committeeís energy changed as the Holy Spirit moved through the room.  Before the meeting was over, there were tons of inspired ideas about our future, a future different than anyone had imagined.   Five months later, after much consultation, discussion, and church-wide communication, the church voted overwhelmingly on a new plan, a new location, a new future.

Sometimes unexpected things happen in a church – a tragic fire, an unexpectedly large gift, changes in the neighborhood, a new zoning ordinance, the death of a key leader, the arrival of some new families.  How a church responds while keeping a focus on its mission is critical.

When the unexpected, unusual, and unplanned happens we cannot just get stuck in the causes and reasons. There is the spiritual question also, ìWhat does it mean?  What does it mean for our community of faith and for the task God has called us to?î

OK.  It was just an albino hawk, andÖ.and an invitation to deeper reflection on the meaning of surprises in our lives.

Yours in Christ,