I sat in our book-lined study with the computer on my lap, watching the cursor blink. My husband and children were gone for the day, and the house sat silent, creating perfect conditions for writing. A cool wind blew through the flue in the living room fireplace, and I sat trying to work. After one particularly long gust, the soft brush of wings against brick broke my concentration. I thought perhaps it was the breeze, but after a few moments, the brushing noise became a determined flapping. I got up to investigate the sound when it stopped abruptly. As I peered through the mesh fire grate, the flailing began again in earnest, scattering ash. A bird had followed the wind and now thrashed, trapped in the chimney.
Broom in hand, I tried for an hour to coax the frightened bird into an empty recycling bin. When that proved unsuccessful, I bundled up in my winter coat, opened every exterior door in the house, and timidly slid the fire screen aside.
The bird remained in the fireplace, unaware that I had set it free. Then, with a great deal of noise and thrashing, the soot-coated bird flew into the room. It soared high to the ceiling, testing its wingspan and the wall’s boundaries. I hunched down as the bird swooped low, searching for sunlight, fresh air, and blue skies.
It flew in a frenzy, and I imagine its heart beating faster than its wings with the fear that comes from being held captive then suddenly set free. Minutes passed while it careened around the room, and just as I began to worry it would die from the effort, the bird discovered the open glass door and flew toward the sun, unrestrained.
As I watched it fly away, I thought of how often I’ve longed for the kind of freedom that grows wings and surmounts fear and false boundaries. The kind of freedom Jesus offers us but few know how to embrace and live.
My family spent a brief but formative period of my childhood involved in a church that interpreted the Bible so literally and with such legalistic fervor that we abandoned medical care for faith healing. We gave up pierced ears for plainness and rejected Christmas trees for Jesus’ birthday cake. We saw everything in black and white. Questions or anything resembling an in-between gray was labeled sin. I learned to live in judgment rather than love.
I couldn’t offer myself forgiveness for mistakes I made along the way, and I also found it difficult to extend it to other Christians. I kept them trapped alongside me, bound by impossible standards.
My rules-based faith forced me down an open flue into a trap of brick and ash, and it’s taken me many years to realize that the snare was one of man’s making. In Christ, the door to freedom has always been open. But for far too long, I chose not to use it.
In my fear, I clung to legalism at the expense of the grace God extends to me when I fall short of Christlike living. I couldn’t offer myself forgiveness for mistakes I made along the way, and I also found it difficult to extend it to other Christians. I kept them trapped alongside me, bound by impossible standards. But as I’ve pushed back and moved past my own self-imposed boundaries, I have found grace waiting in the quiet places.
In graduate school, I worked with other writers and artists, most of whom were not believers. Through their creations, they exposed their failing marriages, mental illness, addictions, and confusion over their sexuality. As they unfurled their own fears, often expressing a sincere desire for faith, it cracked a hardness in me that I didn’t know existed. The child in me would have pointed out their failures, but the adult in me looked for points of light in their stories. I found myself thinking less about consequences and instead felt sympathy for their pain.
I recognize my tendency towards this double standard of expecting Christians to live in light of biblical truth, with little grace for their mistakes, while giving non-believers free rein. Freedom is found at a center point, at the crossroads where the truth of salvation meets God’s favor and grace.
I long for this place of balance, this point that draws me closer to the cross. This intersection is cruciform, the shape of Jesus with arms spread wide, calling me—calling each of us, believer and non-believer alike—to light and air and sky. Calling us to fly toward freedom.
Illustration by Sr. Garcia