An eagle’s egg once rolled out of its nest, and came to rest among the eggs of a chicken. The mother hen didn’t realize she had an extra egg among her own and sat on top of them until they hatched. If she thought there was something strange about a black bird in the middle of her golden chicks, she didn’t let it bother her; she raised the little eagle like one of her own.
The baby eagle grew up with the chickens, realizing that there was something very different about how he was in comparison with his brothers and sisters, and it wasn’t just the color of his feathers. But, raised among chickens and treated like a chicken, he believed he was a chicken and acted like a chicken, pecking in the dirt looking for food as the others did.
Once in a way he would spot a black, majestic bird flying high up in the sky and his heart would fill with a deep longing to soar, but then he would push the thought away and return to pecking in the dirt. Why dream the impossible? He was, after all, a chicken.
One day, a very powerful gust of wind swept across the barnyard taking all the birds up in the air. Unable to fly for more than a few seconds, the little chickens dropped to the ground one by one, but the little eagle realized that if he flapped his wings, he remained afloat. If he flapped them harder he rose higher. And if he rode a current of wind, he could soar higher still. In a few moments he was flying high up in the sky.
From there, he looked down upon the barnyard where he had lived, and at his brothers and sisters who were back in their coops pecking in the dirt as usual, and he said to himself: I’m not a chicken; I’m an eagle.
And he raised his head and flew higher.
Now what has this story got to do with us? A lot, because Christians are like that baby eagle. Born in the world, we often live as the world does. Like chickens in a coop, we are unable to see beyond the tip of our noses, pecking in the dirt searching for food, with the more ambitious among us trying to be king of the roost.
But we are not meant to be earthbound. We are born to soar. And soar we will if we only understand that we are like eagles, who are fascinating creatures. You have surely seen pictures or videos of them. There is something awesomely majestic about an eagle, don’t you think? And if you are wondering if there is any Scriptural basis for making comparisons to the eagle, there is!
An eagle is a symbolic representation of the divine Word. Scripture speaks about this several times and it would make interesting reading to look at a few of these things.
One can be found in the Book of Ezekiel. The prophet was in captivity, and as he sat by the river Chebar, he saw a vision of heaven opening and revealing four creatures, each one with a different face. One had the face of a man, another the face of a lion, the third the face of an ox, and the fourth had the face of an eagle.
Many years later, when John was exiled to the island of Patmos, he too had a similar vision of a door in heaven opening and around the throne were four creatures, each with different faces. Their faces matched those seen by Ezekiel (see Revelation 4).
The early church Fathers have been pretty unanimous in identifying each of these creatures as one of the gospel writers. The association of the four living creatures with the four evangelists originated with Irenaeus in the 2nd century. Although the interpretation of each creature has varied through church history, the most common interpretation, first laid out by Victorinus and adopted by Jerome, St Gregory, and the Book of Kells is that the man is Matthew, the lion Mark, the ox Luke, and the eagle John. The creatures of the tetramorph (from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, shape), just like the four gospels of the Evangelists, represent four facets of Christ.
Matthew is the man because he begins with a genealogy; Mark is the lion, roaring in the desert with prophetic power; Luke is the ox, because he begins with temple sacrifice; and John is the eagle, flying heavenwards like the divine Word.
An eagle has a few characteristics that we would do well to note, because if these begin to describe us, then we will be flying heavenwards too, as we should.
The Overview Effect
The eye of the eagle is among the strongest in the animal kingdom, with an eyesight estimated at 4 to 8 times stronger than that of the average human. An eagle is said to be able to spot a rabbit 3.2 km away. Chickens, on the other hand, can’t see too far beyond the tips of their noses. This is not an exaggeration. Shockingly, chickens can’t recognize flock members until they are about 24 inches away. And when it is dark, chickens are totally blind.
An eagle can also reach altitudes of up to 10,000 feet. Chickens can manage to fly just ten! From that distance, the eagle can see the big picture. Seeing the big picture puts things into better perspective. When astronauts see the earth from outer space, they unanimously describe a cognitive shift in awareness. This awareness, known as the overview effect is the experience of seeing the reality of the Earth in space firsthand—a tiny, fragile ball of life. You don’t see geographic boundaries or the conflicts that divide people; you just see one small little planet. It makes you look at things very differently.
When Christians take the long-view, they also experience the overview effect seeing the reality of the church: one single unfragmented body united in Christ. As Paul says, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:14,27).
However, the body appears severely fragmented. Leave aside the divisions between Christians, there are divisions within individual denominations. When we start to take the long-view, this changes. Our language also starts to change. No longer will we talk about belonging to a particular group (as in “I belong to XYZ prayer group” or “I belong to ABC community”); but say that we belong to Christ. And that will put things into perspective. I don’t know of any prayer group or community or organization that died for me! Christ did! Neither will we claim to follow a particular leader.
Paul explains this very well. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:3-9).
Eagles are also pretty much fearless creatures. They are not afraid of anything, and will always put up a fight to win its prey or regain its territory. Chickens on the other hand will scurry away at the smallest sound.
Christians need to be fearless, because God is by their side. The famous psalm declares: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalms 23:4). The psalmist confidently declared this, even though at the time Jesus had not yet defeated the forces of darkness. He knew that the presence of God with him was enough to take him through anything and everything. Yet, although (Jesus) disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:15), many of us are still afraid. And the thought of death, especially, is terrifying to most.
The world has gone mad. There are rules and laws being enacted everywhere that go against the basic commandments of God, not to mention common sensibility. They are an affront to every believer. Yet, for the most part, we remain mute, afraid of the consequences should we dare to speak up.
A few years ago I preached a retreat to forty priests in England. At the time, most of the laws that are in place today were just being introduced into legislation. I asked the priests why none of them spoke up against what was happening and was told they’d be thrown into jail if they did. Since when were Christians afraid of jail time, I wondered. In the early days of the Church accepting Christ meant accepting death, because Christians were slaughtered, often in very cruel ways. Yet, people became Christians by the thousands, going to their deaths without fear. How were they able to do this? Because they knew that in Christ they were already dead. But they also knew that in Christ they were alive as well, and would never die again (see Romans 6:1-15). Physical death was nothing but a stepping stone to an eternal life where there would no longer be pain or tears (see Revelation 21:4). This took away fear. They were firm in their beliefs, and like eagles, were tenacious in holding on to them. An eagle will not let go of what it grasps in its claws.
From Chicken to Eagle
One of the reasons we prefer living like chickens is because it is safer in our own environment. We ensure our additional security by keeping outsiders out, because they are different from us, and might come with radical ideas. As everyone knows, this is a dangerous thing. Look at how dangerous Jesus was. It led one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, (to say) to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:49). Gangs in Harlem will kill you if you dare encroach on their turf.
We need to have the desire to live like eagles if we are to be like them. But this isn’t an easy transformation. It involves changing our mindset completely. In a similar context, Paul writes: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
But how? We can learn from Moses. In the wilderness for the longest time, he tried to encourage his people to live holy lives by singing a song about the patriarch Jacob. He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10). And then he continues, sketching one of the powerful images found in the Bible. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him (Deuteronomy 32:11-12).
There have been many pictures painted in the Bible, but this one is particularly poignant. I’d like to flesh in the details for you. Imagine an eagle’s nest which is a residence to a baby eagle. Safe and comfortable, it’s a haven for the little chick who was born there.
One day, after having been well fed, this chick goes to sleep. Instead of letting it enjoy its slumber as usual, however, the mother eagle does something very different. She stirs up its nest waking her chick up, and then hovers over its young one. Some Bibles use the word “brood” instead of “hover”. I prefer it because it conveys the image of the eagle gazing at its chick with intense thought, attention, and care, as the young one grumbles in annoyance at its sleep being disturbed.
Then the mother gently starts to edge the chick out of the nest!
You can imagine how the little bird starts to squawk in protest, and how alarmed it gets when it realizes it is about to be pushed out of the nest. It doesn’t know anything about what lies outside but knows that it will be unsafe—anything different always feels unsafe—and the only thing that stops it from total panic is the memory of the mother’s intense gaze a few moments earlier. But that gaze and everything else is forgotten a moment later when the little bird finds itself in free fall, dropping like a stone. It flaps its little wings, but they don’t seem to do anything useful; they only serve to increase the panic. Just when it seemed like it would crash to its death, a pair of majestic wings rise from below sweeping the bird up to the safety of its nest again.
And the process repeats until the little eagle learns to fly. Most succeed very soon.
Out of the Nest
Just like the baby eagle is comfortable in its nest, we too often become comfortable with our lives. When we have good jobs, can afford a luxurious lifestyle, and have enough money and property to fall back upon if necessary, we become complacent. People in ministry can become equally complacent when numbers of people attending services are increasing, finances are rising, and good things seem to be happening all over.
But all this can keep us in the nest. If we want to fly, then God has to take the necessary steps to make that happen. So he stirs the nest. Things cease being comfortable and everything gets disturbed. [God won’t cause “bad” things to happen—that’s simply not his way—but he might permit them to happen. There is a difference!].
Like the baby eagle, we squawk in protest, not liking the disturbance, but if we were to lock eyes with God at this point we would see him looking at us with the same intensity as the eagle looks upon its little one, telling us it is going to be ok. “I got you,” he says. “You can do this.” And then you’d be tossed out of the nest and be in free fall.
I know what this feels like because a couple of years ago I was literally in free fall. I had decided to go sky diving. I got into this plane with a few other people and when we reached 15,000 feet they opened the doors and told us to jump. I have never known fear as I knew it that day. I could taste it in my mouth and it was very, very bitter. I wished with all my heart I had never decided to do this, but now there was no turning back. I was the first in the line, with nine people behind me waiting to make the jump. To make matters worse, there was a videographer floating outside the plane shooting everything that was happening, and it would have looked terrible to chicken out now. It was the right thought: Are you a chicken or eagle?, I asked myself. And I jumped.
It wasn’t pleasant. For about six seconds it was terrifying, but then the parachute opened and the fear just disappeared, replaced by this tremendous sense of exhilaration. I could see the world below me, people looking like ants, and for a moment I had a sense of the overview effect astronauts felt. It’s a tiny little world, and we live in it for such a short time: why can we not live in love, peace and harmony with each other? And then, several minutes later, I landed. If I could have, I’d have gone up again eager to repeat the tremendous experience of freedom you get when you are soaring in the sky.
God would have given us wings if he wanted us to fly like the eagle. But he does want us to soar like the eagle, and he has given us his Spirit to help us do that. Unlike the chicken, eagles don’t flap their wings to fly. They ride currents of wind. The Spirit is like the wind, and led and guided by him, we can soar towards our true nature. We are not an ordinary people, and one of the greatest tragedies of the human race is that we think less of ourselves than God thinks of us. When we look at ourselves in the mirror the next time let us see the magnificent person God has created us to be, in his own image and likeness.
But it isn’t enough to know that; we need to live in the knowledge of the fact. However, we cannot do anything, unless we allow him to teach us how to be the people he created us to be, and his way is the way of the mother eagle. There is first the disturbance, then the push, then the falling, then the rescue, until finally we discover our true nature.
If we understand that God has allowed us to be disturbed, and that he is with us in our disturbance, it will become a lot easier for us. A broken relationship; a sudden calamity; a sickness; a loss of a job. Let us look at these situations positively. After all, if Scripture declares that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28), it has to be true. So how do we reason this? Well, we are now awake.
We turn to God, because as we all know, the times we really look towards God is when we are in trouble. He stares at us unblinking. Then comes the push. And if you thought, things were bad, now they really get terrible. And it is frightening, but through our fear we must remember what the psalmist declared in a psalm beloved of many: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone (Psalm 91:11-12).
We hold tight to that promise because on the way down, we might hit a storm. Storms tend to happen at the most inopportune moments. Yet again, we can take a lesson from the eagle. When storms hit, chickens run for cover, clucking in dismay. But an eagle flies into the storm, and eventually, over it. It might take us some time to get there, up over the clouds, but we won’t get anywhere unless we are prepared to leave the safety of the barnyard.
Peter, the Eagle
Peter is an ideal example of how everything I spoke about works. In a boat with the other apostles in the middle of a storm, he saw Jesus walking towards them in the early hours of the morning—on the water! Already afraid because of the rough waves that were bouncing them around the sea, they were now terrified at what they imagined to be a ghost approaching them. Then the “ghost” spoke. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. But that probably frightened them even more. What was Jesus doing walking on water?
Despite his fear, however, Peter was suddenly consumed by the desire to do something totally crazy. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” he said. Sticking to our analogy, this was Peter essentially saying he was done being a chicken in a coop; he wanted to be like an eagle and he wanted to fly.
I can picture Jesus staring deep into Peter’s eyes, as a mother eagle stares at her young chick, unblinking, trying to give him courage, before he said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
This was now Peter doing the equivalent of flying. Get into his head for a moment if you can and think of the exhilaration Peter would have felt. He was doing something nobody had ever done before (or since!).
But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
That was Peter suddenly losing his nerve and plummeting like a rock. And mama eagle coming to the rescue lifting him on her broad wings and taking him to safety. When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
There would be other occasions when Peter would practice flying, and then one day, at Pentecost he took wings and flew! Filled with the Holy Spirit, he went out and spoke to people he had been hiding from until that moment. By the time he had finished preaching his first sermon, he had brought 3,000 people to Jesus.
We have the same Spirit within us that Peter and the apostles had. Indeed, it is the same Spirit that was in Jesus when he walked upon this earth. Jesus said we would do what he did; indeed greater things than he did (see John 14:12). There are those who will tell us that it cannot be done; that power was for twelve people two thousand years ago. These people would have us remain chickens, cooped in our little cages, telling us we belong to them. God, however, wants us to soar, but ultimately it is a choice we have to exercise.
So, what do you want to be? A chicken or an eagle? Come, fly.