When I arrived at the cottage this summer, I pushed aside the board that was lodged against the screen door to keep marauding critters from having a hey-day on the porch all winter. What I failed to realize was that once the barrier was removed, all the local critters that had been kept out during the winter would immediately come to investigate. So within the first week of arriving, three chipmunks found their way inside the cottage. My cats were delighted with this new form of entertainment, because once inside, the game became trying to keep the chipmunk from escaping back under the door. The chipmunks were too fast and too adept at climbing to be caught outright, so I’m happy to report that all three made their way back to freedom. But only one escaped with his tail intact. I’ve spotted the other two (one with a 1 inch nub and the other sans tail completely) in the yard many times since. Their brief brush with captivity left them tail-less, but wiser.
My three cats, Henry, Hazel and Minnie, are inside kitties. Previously, my cats had always been indoor/outdoor; pretty much coming and going as they pleased (though I made them stay in at night). For these three however, the pet adoption agency made me sign a statement saying that I would keep them indoors. Furthermore, they threatened to take them from me if I didn’t honor the promise (though I can’t imagine they ever would). Their reasoning is that cats are safer inside: less susceptible to ticks, fleas, predators, cars, poison, etc. I agree, that is certainly true and the birds and creatures are also safer from the fierce little predators that our pets become once outside. It’s also been much easier for me — not having to worry about them or manage their indoor/outdoor activities. But I struggle with this issue: are they really free to be cats? Are they free to be who God made them to be, or have I imposed something on them that was never intended by their creator?
I used to really enjoy zoos. What kid doesn’t love the chance to see wild animals up close? And I still go to see baby animals from time to time, they’re hard to resist. But mostly, zoos leave me sad. There is something unbearable about the thought of magnificent wild animals…lions and tigers, giraffes and elephants…held as captives in cages and enclosures that at best, are only poor imitations of their national environments. Creatures God created to live on the plains of Africa, or the forests of America…are confined in prisons made of steel and concrete, far from their real homes. Zoos seem to me an almost unbearable metaphor for the state of God’s creation at the hands of the species called “homo sapien.” I understand and even embrace the idea of bringing animals to a place where we all have access to study them and learn about them, and even protect them…some of these species would be extinct, if it were not for the breeding practices in zoos. But there is something about captivity in general that doesn’t seem to sit right in the grand scheme of God’s intention for the creation. So I mostly avoid zoos now. But that doesn’t solve the problem of captivity, it mostly just spares me the burden of thinking about it.
Within a year or two of moving to Little Egg Harbor, I was home one Friday working on the sermon for Sunday. It was a beautiful spring day, so I had the sliding door to the deck open. My cats, Claudius and Cleo, came and went as they pleased – they loved this arrangement. The day passed peacefully. But when evening came, and it grew cooler, the cats came in, so I closed the door. It was then that I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye — a brief flutter atop a painting in the den. As I focused on it, I saw that it was a bird, a beautiful male redstart, which is a tiny little member of the warbler family. He had dramatic black and orange markings. Normally, I’d be delighted to see a redstart on the property, but this was the first time I had seen one in the house. I’m not sure if he flew in on his own, or if one of the cats invited him in, but whatever the circumstances, he was now captive. I sat down on the couch to think about our predicament, I looked at him, and he looked at me. The cats woke up from their naps and joined me on the couch. They looked at the bird, and the bird looked at them. And for a moment we all regarded each other…thoughtfully and quietly. Then the bird took off, and all hell broke loose. He fluttered to the ceiling fan. The cats leaped to attention and started pacing beneath…I ran to the garage to find a long-handled net. By the time I returned, the redstart was perched on the upstairs banister, the cats in hot pursuit. I dashed up the stairs, net in hand…the bird flew downstairs, to the mantel piece. The cats raced after him. And so the chase went…upstairs, downstairs…to curtain rods and picture frames, and back to the ceiling fan. Finally, the little bird was exhausted, and so was I. The cats were the only ones enjoying this “game.” They thought I was on their team. They were wrong. He finally let me capture him on a knick-knack shelf in the upstairs hall. I simply reached up and took him in my hand. He was glorious, in full breeding plumage….he weighed next to nothing…his little heart was racing. I went out to the deck and let him go and he flew off into the gathering darkness, freed from captivity.
I’ve had to face the fact that I live in captivity too. And while my captivity is not imposed by walls or bars, it’s just as real and just as much an impediment to the person God intends me to be. I am held captive by my house, though not in the obvious way, but by the desire for a spacious, warm, comfortable, and beautiful house. I’m captive to nice clothes and a little silver or gold for my fingers and wrists, my ears and my neck. Pride and insecurity both hold me captive in an endless round of pushing and pulling — through the unrelenting notion that I can and must do everything myself, while being simultaneously paralyzed with insecurities about inadequacies that keep me from trying. And for fourteen years I was captive to grief. Good Lord, how I wish I had those years back.
The redstart knew all too well of his confinement. He struggled and strove with all his strength to find a path to freedom. We’d be wise to take our lead from him and not the caged lion at the zoo who’s grown complacent in his captivity. Like everything that binds us to death instead of life, recognizing what holds us captive is 9/10ths of the remedy. But breaking free from that which holds us captive also takes practice, perseverance and resolve. Back-sliding and new forms of captivity sneak in to fill the vacuum left by undoing the old constraints.
The way that leads to freedom, requires struggle but also surrender ...submission to a power greater than ourselves. What holds you captive? I don’t mean that rhetorically...I’d really like to hear from you. To what are you captive and how does it keep you from being who God intends you to be? “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1