You might want to watch the video first to get a sense of today's blog. We took our two-week-old chicks outside on a beautiful early fall day, coaxed them to "fly the coop," and this is what we got: their first serious foray into the real world. It was inauspicious at best. They took to it, kinda. Plucking green grass proved a hit. However, though relatively "free," they clung closely to the coop's bars--and to each other. The occasional venture farther out didn't last--each chick shot back immediately upon realizing that they were all alone in the wide world for roughly ten seconds. Of course, my neighbor's decision to take his new chainsaw out for a spin didn't help matters. What can you do?
I relate to my chicks' struggle, some days more than I'd like to admit. But not today. Today I admit it. I'm retired, whatever that means. I have all my "biblical needs" met--clothing, food, water, shelter, community support, an always fledgling faith in God as my keeper. I'm not in prison, at the moment, and money is not an issue. We all have our stories, but my upbringing was a good one with no serious trauma or neglect. Pobody's Nerfect, right? And yet I still have my cage that I prefer over the the wide, wild world. My introverted personality seeks a wide berth of silence. I can hold my progressive views too seriously at times and turn an open hand into a fist. My egoic entanglements often lock me in and shut the larger world out. The invisible cage of my defensiveness, fear, and insecurity can be triggered at a moment's notice. At times like these, I tend to run back and cling to the bars; other times, perhaps healthier but maybe not, I cling to others like me. That "birds of a feather" thing. If I'm lucky, when this happens, I'm able to catch sight of the bars of my cage.
But there are bars and there are bars. Some of our limits are not real at all, but the projection of our fears. We've caged ourselves in, in hot pursuit of comfort, protection and security. Beyond such a "gated" life, we would rather not venture. But some of our limits are real, especially as we age, and need to be acknowledged. Never again will we be "faster than a speeding bullet" or able "to leap tall buildings at a single bound," at least, not on these knees! More so than we'd like to admit, we are called to face with grace our mounting losses and diminishing capacities; eyesight, hearing, memory--where does it go?
And still there are bars--not just the ones we are called to defy, nor the ones we so often deny. These are the bars of mortality, a wise confession of limits that can certainly be known to both
young and old, but seems to be more evident to those who have been around the block a time or two. These are the built-in limits of our humanity that press each of us to ask for that which only
God can provide. We hunger for more. We ask in our gut, "Is that all there is?" We yearn and long for an intimacy, a companionship that no money, cause or person can provide. This restlessness is
sacred. It is not a sin. In fact, I'd like to see such desire and disquietude baptized as a holy and vital part of what it means to be immersed in God. Some years ago, in the throes of mid-life
years, I came across this great song by Bruce Cockburn that continues to speak to me in what might be called my later-life years. Here I've attached the video and lyrics. (Trust me, it's worth
enduring the advertisement.) "Pacing the Cage" seems an apt metaphor for our holy hunger.
"Pacing the Cage" by Bruce Cockburn
Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it's pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage
I've proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip's worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
Hours chatter in high places
Stir up eddies in the dust of rage
Set me to pacing the cage
I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing
It's as if the thing were written
In the constitution of the age
Sooner or later you'll wind up
Pacing the cage
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can't see what's round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage
Pacing the cage
Back in the 80s, as a young man with serious ideals in my eyes and a full head of hair on my head, I first visited the National Zoo in DC. Even then, I was delighted by, yet felt deep sorrow for, the caged animals on display. But the ones that really saddened me were housed in exhibits labeled, "Extinct Outside Captivity." Of course, the zoo meant that these species were extinct in the wild, that you could only find them in zoos now, where they were safe refugees. Even then, I was struck by how many people I knew like this. They didn't get out much. Young and old, they were settled in their ideas and opinions. Their habits had become ruts. Jesus' words about "new wineskins" fell on deaf ears. Tom Petty's "You Don't Have to Live like a Refugee" had a good beat but the meaning was lost. Outside their cage, they did not exist, except in big Buicks, Winnebagos, or off playing Hacky Sack. But it would be years later before I discovered in a "lived life" way, by personal experience, the ironic gift of being held captive by God. How God wants to hold us in a manner that exceeds all our desperate measures to hold on. How God knows us better than we know ourselves, better than we'll ever know God. How being held captive in this way, captivated by God's very necessary "limits" of faith, hope and love, and living out these life-tethering gifts, is the very essence of freedom.
There are limits to admit, limits to defy, and limits, once seen within the embrace of God's great love, that open up a whole new world. Discern these carefully. Learn from the panther, both the one above and the one below in Rilke's poem. Don't let your will numb out. Don't cower within and die. Let the best part of your life fall into your heart and God's Great Heart and live. May the bars of your own fear, whether invisible or visible, never take precedence over the "fear of God," the reverence and awe and love that beckon to set us forth, free.
"The Panther" by Rainer Maria Rilke
In the Jarden des Plantes, Paris
His gaze has from the passing of the bars
become so tired that it holds nothing anymore.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a mighty will stands numbed.
Only at times the curtain of the pupils
soundlessly slides open--. Then an image enters,
glides through the limbs' taut stillness--
dives into the heart and dies.