April 4

Letting the bird out of the cage

When I was in the fourth grade my brother and I had a dog and parakeet. My brother, who is two years younger than me, took care of our dog and I took care of the parakeet. It was a beautiful bird with a bright, almost florescent green breast and sunny yellow head with splashes of baby blue around his eyes, beak and cheeks. As with most parakeets, his signature wing feathers were specked with black.

But, just like every other pet, he took some work to care for. Some of the responsibility didn’t bother me, but most of it was an enormous hassle. I hated cleaning out the cage every week. I would wake up Saturday morning and spend what seemed like all morning cleaning out that miserable cage. Bird poop was white, runny, smelly, sticky and it got all over the bottom of the cage. Of course, with newspaper lining the bottom of the cage the droppings were much easier to clean up, but there was still the trial of picking up the sticky, smelly paper. That wasn’t the worst part; the worst of it was the seeds. The bird wouldn’t just eat the seeds; he would shell them and spit the shells on to the newspaper building up several layers of wet, smelly mess at the bottom of the cage. Instead of looking forward to Saturdays, I felt like a slave to the “cleaning of the cage.”

So, why am I reliving the experience of taking care of that parakeet? I am reliving it now because I learned my first serious life lesson from taking care (or I should say not taking care) of that bird. What happened? What kind of life lessons can be learned by taking care of a parakeet? The obvious lessons parents want their children to learn from having pets are; 1) the responsibility of taking care of a pet every day; 2) taking care of a pet must be done whether the child feels like it or not, whether it is convenient or not; 3) children learn the importance of dependability because pets depend on their caregivers; 4) it is important for children to respect living creatures and having a pet;  5) it teaches them respect for living creatures; 6) an inevitable part of life is death and mourning and that inevitably comes with owning and caring for a pet.

And all that probably happened for me as well, but something more than that happened for me, because I was a very self-centered child who got tired of taking care of a pet every day. I was also an emotionally immature fourth grader being raised by very young, parents who had little time for my brother and me. We had lots of chores, including those of taking care of the pets.

So, one Saturday, after I finished cleaning out the cage, I made a cold blooded decision. I cleaned the cage near the open window in the living room. I had enough to do, I thought. I had my portion of the household chores to do, which never seemed to meet my mother’s high standards. I had the image of the perfect military daughter to uphold, which certainly never seemed to please my rarely-at-home-father and I had this bird to take care of, which was a never ending chore. I looked at the cage which was clean. Next week, it was going to be filthy and I was going to have to clean it all over again. I looked at the parakeet. He turned his head and looked back at me. I don’t know if he knew what was coming, but he turned his head to the side and looked at me from the other direction and said, “Pretty bird, pretty bird.” I didn’t say anything, I just opened the door to the cage and he flew out of the window into the open air. In less than five seconds I couldn’t see him and I knew I would never see him again. It was over, all my responsibilities were over. No more Saturday mornings cleaning bird cages. I was free.

But before the bird was out of my sight, I felt responsible for killing him. I began to cry. Huge, uncontrollable tears sprang from my eyes. I felt remorse so deep, so immense I never thought I’d feel alright about myself again. I ran to tell my mother about the empty cage. What I didn’t tell her was that I had let the bird out. I told her it was an accident. The remorse she saw on my face was so real it must have wiped away the issue of how the bird got out of the cage. I don’t remember what my mother said, but it was something about learning from my mistakes and being careful when doing a task.

And that was that. I never had to clean the bird cage ever again.

But, that wasn’t that. Even though I never had to clean the bird cage ever again, I grew up to be a very self-centered, emotionally immature woman. Add to that spiritually immature as well. Between fourth grade and growing up and I did at least a couple of really, really horrible things and each time I was hugely remorseful. I have never forgotten what letting that poor little helpless bird out of the cage taught me. I can do something really, really horrible and then feel immensely sorry for it, but that does not take away my responsibility for doing the really, really horrible thing. No matter how immeasurably sorry I am I can’t take it back; the bird is still gone. Being remorseful never kept me from doing bad things. I did bad things and I was ALWAYS very sorry about them. I always wished I hadn’t done them, but…and there was always a But…until I was 32 and met with FORGIVENESS in the flesh. I don’t know what that last statement means to you, but to me it means Jesus Christ. He is forgiveness in the flesh.

“In him we have redemption through his blood,
the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to
the riches of his grace,” Ephesians 1:7

The only thing that has ever solved the problem of remorse for doing something unpardonable is the forgiveness of sin. Jesus is my answer. Jesus forgave me for letting the bird out of the cage. Jesus forgives any one of us for any sin. All any one of us has to do is to bring our sin and repentance to Him and He will forgive.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

I have to say that before I met Jesus, I was filled with remorse for doing bad things. After filling my heart and my life with Jesus, I am filled with repentance when I do sinful things. There is a difference. Remorse means a feeling of deep regret (usually for some misdeed). Repentance means to feel sincerely sorry for your past sins or wrong doings and turn away from them or discontinue doing them.

There has been at least once in my life when I’ve seen the lesson of the bird flying out of the cage being painfully played out in someone else’s life. On October 25, 1994, the evening news covered a story about a woman in South Carolina reporting to police that she had been carjacked by an African-American man who drove away with her sons still in the car. She pleaded on television for the rescue and return of her children. My husband, daughter and I were watching that report and I said, “She did it. She killed those two little boys.” Somehow, I knew she had killed her two sons. Saying that was horrifying to my family. They thought I was horrible for even thinking it, much less saying it out loud. But, I told them that I was pretty certain. I don’t know what it was about that incident. Maybe I recognized something in her because I had stood where she was standing. I knew what it was like to do something truly horrible and be sorry. I saw her crying her eyes out. I knew she was truly sorry for what had happened. Sorry hurts. Sorry makes us miserable. Sorry makes us wish with all our hearts we hadn’t done what we did. But, sorry just doesn’t cut it. Sorry, doesn’t bring the bird back into the cage. That is why instead of hanging on to sorry; I reach up and grab hold of Jesus and the forgiveness that He so freely gives.

Dear Jesus, please forgive me when I am sorry and not repentant. Show me when I should be repentant, bring me into true repentance when I’ve done wrong. Amen.