I don’t know what it is about eagles, but I am drawn to them. Whether soaring in the sky, perched in a nest, on the side of the road guarding a recent meal or standing on the ice in the middle of the channel going to Zorbaz, my eyes are just drawn to them.
When I point out an eagle to my kids they roll their eyes because eagles are an ordinary and common thing for them. But for me growing up in the '80s along the St. Croix River, eagle sightings were few and far between.
In first grade, my Ranger Rick magazine reported that the American Bald Eagle was on the endangered species list and near extinction. You may remember that from the 1940s to the '60s in an effort to combat the war on mosquitos, trucks would drive through towns spraying a chemical called DDT, a chemical that was used in an effort to get rid of malaria.
The chemical did its job, but a little too well. It affected the food that the eagles ate and caused them to get sick and die at an alarming rate. In the '80s the belief was that they were beyond saving and that they would be extinct - and certainly in my lifetime; but now 40 years later they have made a comeback.
It’s a revival that was made possible with much time, energy, commitment and devotion from all of us.
The Bible uses the illustration of an eagle 34 times. One of the most famous passages would be in Isaiah 40:31: “you will soar on eagles wings.” Or in Exodus 19:4: “I carried you on eagles wings.” Or the most famous passage (even though it doesn’t mention eagles) in Psalm 91:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day. ... For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all of your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:1-5,11-12 NRSV.
As you read this psalm, it’s likely that a hymn comes to mind - "On Eagles Wings." The composer quotes Psalm 91 and adds the refrain, “and he will raise you up on eagles wings.”
Father Joncas wrote this song after he and his friend, Doug Hall, returned from a meal and learned that Hall’s father had died of a heart attack. Father Joncas composed this as a way to console his friend.
Father Joncas told America in a skype interview that “I knew this was a hard, hard experience in anybody’s life, (and I) just wanted to create something that would be both prayerful and then comforting.” (America: the Jesuit review Jan. 8, 2018)
After the song was composed, Father Joncas never thought that it would be successful. He bundled it together with other songs, never thinking they would be published.
But as we all know, that is not the case, for so many have a personal connection to that hymn, whether it was part of a poignant worship service, was sung at a person’s funeral or even quoted - most recently spoken at the presidential inauguration.
Those words about God lifting us up on wings of an eagle mean something to us. This illustration of God as an eagle who is strong and graceful speaks to us. It reminds us that we have a God that watches over us, a God who is strong, but a God who also lifts us up when we are at our lowest and loves us for who we are.
These passages in the Bible and this hymn changed the way I look at an eagle. I no longer look at the eagle as only a bird but as a visible illustration of God.
Drew Bakken is pastor at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa.