Last fall I went on a hawk watch with one of my sons. We were treated to almost 100 migrating hawks of various species all heading to warmer climates, some of them traveling several thousand miles before reaching their destinations. One might wonder how hawks can have the energy to fly such huge distances when they also have to be chasing down and eating prey in order to maintain their strength. The answer, in a word, is “thermals.”
Thermals are columns of warm air rising from the earth’s crust, and hawks are searching for these invisible columns to fuel their migration. (The alternative, flapping hard all the way from Maine to Florida, is exhausting and sometimes fatal.) Once hawks find a thermal, they simply spread out their wings and allow the air to do the work. All the hawks have to do is stay in the thermal, and it will lift them higher and higher as they spiral upwards. Sometimes other hawks will join in and the result will be a “kettle” of hawks with hundreds or even thousands of birds all rising together. They can achieve tremendous heights without even a single flap of their wings. I remember seeing a kettle forming over our house when I was a teenager, and it was an amazing sight: a deep blue September sky, and hundreds of hawks all soaring together right over my head.
Eventually the thermal cools and the hawks, now thousands of feet higher, leave the thermal in a long, slow glide toward the south. They often peel off the top of the thermal and follow each other in a single-file formation. On this glide they are gradually losing altitude and may eventually be forced to resort to flapping. However, with luck, they will soon detect another thermal so they can rest from the flapping and allow themselves to be carried upward again. This process is repeated many times until the birds eventually reach their destination.
The Sabbath is God’s thermal
I’ve wondered sometimes if God was thinking of thermals when he promised that He would make us “ride upon the high places of the earth.” What I find more interesting are the connections between thermals and Sabbath keeping. Through the work week we are asked to accomplish many tasks, some of them taxing to our physical, emotional, and spiritual “altitude.” We see this pattern with Jesus who found power leaving him when a healing was performed. But we also see Jesus seeking out a fresh “thermal” when he would withdraw from the multitude at night and spend time in prayer.
Certainly, our daily spiritual disciplines are thermals, but I also like to think of the Sabbath as a 24-hour thermal to lift us up to His heart. God knows that the world is evil and exhausting, and that our “migration” to heaven is full of danger. So, in his love, He designed a way for us not only to survive but thrive, even in a hostile environment.
We have a choice
Of course, whenever we encounter God’s design He lets us freely choose to embrace His way, or try to find one of our own. The alternatives to “thermal riding” are not pretty. On our migration we can ignore the Sabbath, allowing despair and apathy to rule the day and ultimately giving up the journey. This would be the equivalent of a hawk deciding just to sit on a tree branch in Maine and slowly freeze to death with the onset of winter. Or we can forget the Sabbath and go to the other extreme, trying to power all the way through to Florida by flapping wildly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which usually results in a crash-landing somewhere in Virginia. Neither alternative is a good one, so why would we choose them?
Instead, God gently invites us out of both despair and frantic self-effort. He welcomes us into the Sabbath “thermal,” a place where we just simply spread out our wings and soar. What an amazing alternative to freezing or crashing! Without having to “do anything” we simply rest in the day that He has given us. And as we rest, we soar higher and higher with Him.
The world rushes on in the headlong pursuit of progress, fueled by selfish agendas and an idolatry of hard work. On their mad migration to nowhere, they don’t see the thermals, because they are invisible. But God has shown them to us. Like Elisha’s servant, our eyes have been opened to the spiritual world. Sometimes that means seeing horses and chariots of fire to fight our battles, and sometimes that means seeing an invisible column of air that promises rest and refreshment. As we stop to soar, the lost souls around us will take note. Just as one soaring hawk will attract other hawks to the thermal, so our Sabbath-keeping may rescue others, opening their eyes to the wonder of the Sabbath, and the One who designed it for us.
Ride the high places
So let’s enjoy the thermal of the Sabbath this week, and God’s personal invitation to “ride upon the high places of the earth” a promise which was made specifically to those who honor the Sabbath. Let’s also guard the day against the demands to work harder and produce more, thinking that our progress is all up to us. That’s like flying into a thermal, feeling a moment of updraft, and then powering out the other side because we are in such a hurry. In the short term, we might make more “progress” but in the long term our souls grow weaker and weaker. We have been shown the secrets of the “thermal.” Let’s soak up the goodness of every second of this Sabbath and soar with Him.