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Steeple Chase: Sparrow’s Lesson in Beating the Odds

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Early on a Sunday morning, while the sun was new in the sky and shadows were fast disappearing, I noticed a mysterious shape on the far side of the cross atop our church’s steeple.

As I exited my car and began walking across the parking lot, the dark mass took definition. Perched there, way up high, sat a huge turkey vulture watching the scarce traffic that on weekdays boasts more than 100,000 vehicles a day.

With my mind racing with what might be the symbolic significance of a vulture commanding this treasured symbol of our faith, I was startled by the excited squawks of a tiny sparrow buzzing over my head. In a flash, she had left the trees bordering the apartments next to our church and was heading straight toward the steeple.

I could tell it was a challenge, crying out this loud and persistent warning, all while simultaneously flapping furiously to gain enough speed and strength to scale the cross and the lightning rod that sits on top, marking at its apex the equal height of the great bird stoically settled on the crossbar.

But the little bird, which I now figured was a mother bird going against this imposing predator, appeared neither daunted nor intimidated by the task ahead. After several failed attempts limited to more aggressive chirping, our feathered heroine seemed at a loss and was searching for a new strategy as she flew ever harder and higher in order to draft back down toward the vulture with hope of intimidation. While this plan conserved some energy, it was to no avail. The threat remained.

After several minutes, I was impressed that even a bird brain, when necessary, can be powerfully creative. While still forming a shrill-infused dive bomb in long arches around her implacable target, a new trajectory looped in. It placed the tip of her descending bill squarely aimed at the tail section of her enemy. There was contact, but no movement.

One other attempt was not successful, but on the third, like an ogre falling off the high dive, the vulture allowed gravity to take him, and with lumbering, exaggerated motions began to fly away. But his was not a solo flight. Close on his heels (or I guess claws) was the dutiful escort of this improbable champion still chirping wildly away as they both exited the property and flew out of sight.

With a lump in my throat, I realized I had witnessed something grand and spectacular. Against great odds, a small miracle had taken place. Through persistence, courage and determination, a small mama bird had protected her young and even our church from a scavenger with no higher purpose but to use our rooftop as a latrine.

She reminded me of how, through the centuries, the Christian cross has been subjected to gross abuses and oppressive domination, only to be renewed by small acts of noble courage and potential sacrifice.

It wasn’t even 7:30 a.m., and the sermon for the day was already over.

Keep flapping.

Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.