Ministers Message – A Bird in an Open Cage…

Ministers Message – A Bird in an Open Cage…

Recently I was driving and thinking about what to write for the August MUC magazine.

Suddenly I had this vision. An image to be more precise. An image of a bird in an open cage. And there was another bird outside the cage with a key dangling from its beak.

I asked myself is this a fair representation of where Manningham Uniting Church is at.  Are we the bird in the cage or the bird outside the cage? Or both?

What do you think?

I have more questions as I continue to reflect on the image.

  • Why is the bird in the cage staying put?
  • What’s stopping it from flying out of the cage?
  • Has the bird forgotten that it was born to be free?
  • Does the bird now prefer security over uncertainty?
  • Has the bird in the cage forgotten its true nature?

I hope you will reflect on the questions above and maybe have a conversation with me or in the portfolios/committees or someone.

What might the caged bird be thinking?

CAGE BIRD: “I know I am caged up but there are advantages in remaining in the cage. First it means safety and security. I am certain that I will have food and water every day. It’s less dangerous in here than out there in the wild. I am content. It’s working for me. And you know I don’t want the boy who owns me to be upset. If I do that, he might not be nice to me or feed me anymore. Truth be told I don’t like change. I kind of like the status quo. I like predictability. Bottom line, why upset the applecart? Let it be. I know I am made to fly. What’s so great to be free and fly?”


Elephants in Chains

Another inspiring story…

As a man was passing the elephants, he suddenly stopped, confused by the fact that these huge creatures were being held by only a small rope tied to their front leg. No chains, no cages. It was obvious that the elephants could, at anytime, break away from their bonds but for some reason, they did not.

He saw a trainer nearby and asked why these animals just stood there and made no attempt to get away. “Well,” trainer said, “when they are very young and much smaller, we use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”

The man was amazed. These animals could at any time break free from their bonds but because they believed they couldn’t, they were stuck right where they were.

I wonder how frequently do we find ourselves in the same situation as the elephants in the story? How many times have we thought we were ‘trapped just where we were’? How frequently do we have mental shackles around our ankles that prevent us attempting something new? How many of us, like these elephants go through life clinging to our assumptions and not prepared to let our them be interrogated or changed?

How many of us are hesitant to try new things because of limiting beliefs? Worse, how many of us are not allowing others to try new things because we are limiting them by our beliefs/assumptions?

Once upon a time I used to have a ‘boss’ Dr. John Haggai who lived unflinchingly by his own motto: Attempt something so great for God, it’s doomed to failure unless God be in it.

Bird Outside the Cage

What about the bird outside the cage?

  • I wonder what message the bird outside the cage is sending to the bird inside the cage?
  • What does the key represent?

We all know that birds are not meant to be in the cage. God’s people are not caged people. We are the birds outside the cage. That’s our habitat (world) not the cage (building). Truth be told I dislike the phrase “I am going to church.” WE ARE CHURCH. Ultimately church is people and not bricks and mortars. We meant to be God’s people in the world[1] but of the world.

Think. Jesus didn’t say “Follow me” to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little chapel where they could gather once a week before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

This quote is attributed to William Temple, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Do we believe that?

It’s challenging to think about the church that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members rather than as a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends every week. There is no denying that we need to gather. And there’s also no denying that this is an important aspect of congregational life — Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community. It is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency and faith and it is this community that offers pastoral care and help during times of crisis. I don’t want us to forget that. We are not meant to be caged people but God’s people in the world.

If we think we are the bird in the cage, the bird outside the cage is asking us to leave and be who we are supposed to be in the world To some, the bird outside the cage might be God (or Holy Spirit) beckoning us (the bird) to leave our comfort zone, take risks, be willing to fail, and be not afraid for God is with us. And the key? Maybe it represents freedom.

Another Story: Chickens and Eagle

I love the story of an eagle living with chickens.

Once upon a time, at a large mountainside there was an eagle nest with four large eagle eggs inside.

One day, an earthquake rocked the mountain causing one of the eggs to roll down to a chicken farm, located in the valley below. The chickens knew that they must protect the eagle egg. Eventually, the eagle egg hatched, and a beautiful eagle was born.

Being chickens, the chickens raised the eagle to be a chicken. The eagle loved his home and family, but it seemed his spirit cried out for more.

One day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed a group of mighty eagles soaring. “Oh,” the eagle cried, “I wish I could soar like those birds.”

The chickens roared with laughter, “You cannot soar like those. You are a chicken and chickens do not soar.” The eagle continued staring at his real family up above, dreaming that he could be like them.

Each time the eagle talked about his dreams; he was told it couldn’t be done. That was what the eagle learned to believe. After time, the eagle stopped dreaming and continued to live his life as a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.

Wow! What a story to reflect on. How sad it is for an eagle to die thinking that it was a chicken? Are we eagles living like chickens?

Against the Data

Talking about eagles, it reminds me of a verse that I like in Isaiah 40.

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” – Isaiah 40:31

When Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity, the prophets and great religious thinkers asked themselves, “How could this happen? How can it be that the holiest city of the very people God has chosen to bring his message to the world has fallen? If this can happen, then how can we trust God?” This was the greatest challenge that Israel had ever faced.

However, Israel responded to this theological crisis with some of the most brilliant and beautiful literature that human beings have ever produced. The wisdom and depth of thought were amazing. Israel responded, in the words of Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann, “precisely against the data.”

It was out of this crisis, says Brueggemann, that Israel gave birth to the concept of hope. It was in these great reflections on the crisis of exile that the concept of hope was first introduced to the world. Hope was Israel’s gift to the world.

Hope is always ‘against the data’. It is not an analysis which says that things will get better. It is not the cheerful assertion that every cloud has a silver lining. It’s not thinking positively. It’s not looking our membership rolls or our budget. Hope says we trust in God, regardless of the data, regardless of the presence or absence of a silver lining. 

You and I are called to reaffirm our hope: our hope in the God who created us, formed us, redeemed us, and will renew us if we are prepared to wait.

This is the Lord, 
the One who created you, O Jacob, 
the One who formed you, O Israel: 
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; 
I have called you by name, 
and you are mine. 
Isaiah 43:1

We are in the process of reviewing ‘Our Journey Forward’ (OJF) document. Let’s review with hope. Let’s dare to review without fears and favours. Let’s be courageous enough to name the ‘shackles’ that might be holding us back. Let’s not be afraid to risk and soar. Let’s learn the wisdom of Sankofa – look back (not stay there), learn from the past (good and bad) and move forward. Let’s not be the bird in the open cage!

Let us use the resources that we have been gifted to us to continue to take risks and grow. Don’t let our buildings became cages that lock us in.  Let’s leave the cages and discover who we truly are in God (chicken or eagle?).  And put our faith and our hope in God and be lifted up on eagle’s wings. Amen. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. 

Swee Ann Koh

August 2022

[1] John 17:14-16:I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.