• Erica Rosi Tham

Bird Room Meditations: Creation and its Meaning

This is Part 2 in the Bird Room mediations on Christianity. Start with Part 1 here. This part goes into details on the creation story and its significance to the Judeo-Christian world. All of the essays in this series are inspired by my bird room, a place where several species of finch and a few canaries offer daily insight on the nature of perception. There are 4 short essays.

How the World Began -- discusses how it is important to understand that creation was not a random event and that we are made in the image of God.

Reconciling with the Fallen World -- addresses the criticism that Christians are negative in their outlook due to this belief, and how the opposite is true. In fact, we are realists with a great deal of hope.

Sin in our Daily Lives -- this describes what sin is and how recognizing our flaws help us to become better people.

Knowledge of Good and Evil -- discusses what it means to know the difference between good and evil and how this knowledge requires us to take personal responsibility for our choices. It's also on how the acceptance of evil encourages us to choose the opposite.

How the World Began

I do not speak any of the languages of chirps or trills, but if I did, I might tell my birds how the bird room was created. Earlier, I shared some of the reasons I developed the bird room, but there is an original story I have not shared yet. It goes like this.

In the beginning, there was a ten-year-old girl who lived in a small town in southeastern Virginia, and she loved animals. One Christmas, she persuaded her mother to buy her two parakeets from the local pet store, and she named them Margeet and Paco. They also bought a large metal cage, and the birds lived in this cage in the little girl’s bedroom. Margeet was an unusually intelligent parakeet, and she learned how to raise the cage door with her beak, hold it open with the claws of one foot and swing herself out. She would explore the room and enjoy herself for an hour or two before going back to the cage and returning through the door to eat, drink and rest. Paco did not learn how to open the door, but he did learn to follow Margeet in and out, out and in. The girl saw that her parakeets preferred to share the entire room with her, and she began adapting her space for her free-flying birds.

That is a true story.

If I could communicate in zebra finch, society finch or canary, I might tell my birds this story. Perhaps it would be inspiring to them to learn that there was a bird, long ago, who learned how to open a cage door … except, now we have to step back and recognize how much my birds would understand through their lens of perception.

First, they would have no concept of how differently I would appear and behave as a ten-year-old girl. They have no concept of geographical locations or even the fact that they are inside a house which is different from other houses. Even the ones that came from pet stores have never lived in a cage made of wire. And none have ever been in contact with a parakeet.

Why is this important?

When we read the creation story in the bible, in Genesis, we understand it from our human perception which means we understand it only dimly.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 1

What if our human concept of these terms is somehow flawed: earth, form, void, darkness, the Spirit of God, water? We have our understanding of these terms based on how they relate to us; that does not mean we have a fundamental understanding of what these are.

For this reason, there is a profound naivete at work when people directly compare the creation story to archeological and other scientific evidence regarding the history of our planet. As Christians we believe that the bible is the Word of God and that automatically means that we read it with an understanding of our limited perception. Notice that when we approach the creation story in this way, we are not rejecting science or the scientific method in the least. We are simply starting from the presupposition that there is a veil between us and ultimate truth; that veil is our human perception.

Though we will struggle, intellectually and spiritually, with some details of the creation story, there are two fundamental concepts that bring us great hope.

1. The creation of the world was not a random event.

2. We were made in the image of God.

As a young person who been emotionally wounded by her brother during childhood, I struggled with the concept of the first woman, Eve, having been created from a rib of Adam. Now, however, I would argue that I allowed one concept, which I did not understand well, to distract me from the two fundamental and life-affirming truths listed above. It’s similar to telling yourself that you cannot do algebra because you have tried to do one type of problem, which you found difficult, before securing your knowledge of the fundamental algebraic principles.

Creation Was Not a Random Event

What does it mean for us if creation was not a random event? Let’s return to the birds. There is a tremendous difference between the life of a bird inside a home and the life of a bird in a pet shop. In the pet shop, even the kindest caretakers, who can be rare in chain stores, are not overly attached to the birds. People come and stand beside the birds, smiling and talking, and then leave. All too often, a very traumatic event occurs: one or two birds are forcibly removed from the group. There is food, water, light, all the fundamental necessities, but there is no steadfast love.

When we believe that the world’s creation was a random event, there is a part of us that feels something like a bird in a pet shop. We have a sense that we will survive for some time in the space where we are, and we have relationships with others that last for a while or for life, but beneath the surface, we will live with profound insecurity and nervousness or defend ourselves by compartmentalizing our emotions.

One might argue that we can choose a philosophical and detached stance on life but notice how necessary it is to be detached. When there is no love in our understanding of the source of life, this affects us to our core.

Consider how much more at ease an animal feels when it lives inside a home as a beloved part of the family. The creation story is about far more than how the world began. It is about how we understand life itself and our own place inside this ongoing and intricate tapestry of creation.

Created in the Image of God

When I was a young woman, this is the fundamental concept I missed. I read the bible, but I barely registered these words until later in life when several preachers drew my attention to it.

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them.” Genesis 1:26

Clearly, God emphasizes this point in the above words. The repetition shows that we are meant to take note at the profound implications of what this means. If you live in any part of the Western world in this century, you are benefiting from this idea whether you realize it or not.

Because Christians believe that we are made in God’s image, we believe that no person, regardless of race, economic or social status, is literally better than another person—as in a better human being. You might think well of course, but in fact you have this opinion due to being raised in a society which was built on Judeo-Christian values. In ancient civilizations and in some parts of the world today, people have believed in human value at face value, so to speak. The poor see others who are taller, healthier, more talented, smarter, and wealthier, and they believe that these people are fundamentally better, of more value. And those who are born well off have the same view of themselves and the lesser people they see. When you think about it, it is amazing that so many people today do not believe their own eyes, ears and senses, but rather the profound truth that we are all equal. Christians believe we are all equal under God.

Certainly, Christian societies have social hierarchies, but there is an important difference between functioning within a social hierarchy and believing that other people are, by nature, more or less of value in the world than you. If a poor Christian has a chance to meet one of the wealthiest people in the country, a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, that Christian may feel a little starstruck, but will not feel like a lesser person. In fact, if the Christian perceives that the wealthy person has no interest in God, the Christian will conclude that this person is pitiable.

This is not to say that there are no arrogant, elitist or even cruel people who call themselves Christians, but true Christians see such people as ignorant or intentionally deceitful. In all centuries there have been power seekers who called themselves Christians just to gain approval and high positions in Christian societies. And as Christians, we believe we all have flaws, and even the most genuine people can and do make mistakes in judgement.

Beyond how this has affected our societies, we can see here a call to treat ourselves with kindness, respect, and appreciation for the miracle that each of us embodies. As a person made in the image of God, how do you feel about yourself? It’s definitely wise to take care of your body and mind because you have been given a great gift.

And what about Eve being made from one of Adam’s ribs?

The rib which the Lord had taken from the man, he made into a woman, and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ … Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. Genesis 2: 22-24

Woman was not an afterthought. Rather, men and women were created to bond together so closely that each feels incomplete without the other.

Part 2: Reconciling with the Fallen World

People who criticize Christianity often cite the concepts of the fallen world and sin as their chief complaint. The idea goes like this: Christians do not believe that people are essentially good, but rather, that they are essentially bad by nature. How can a Christian look at a child and think, this is a sinful being? Therefore, Christianity is antithetical to positive thinking.

There is good reason to raise these questions. They are important!

Let’s go back to the bird room analogy.

Remember that in the beginning, I was a ten year old girl with two parakeets, Margeet and Paco, who learned to let themselves in and out of their cage. Why do people keep birds in cages in the first place? There were some practical reasons in my house in Yorktown, Virginia. We were animal people. Both of my parents loved animals, and there were always two dogs and multiple cats. Not only that, my mother loved raising baby animals, so we also had kittens and puppies. I was the youngest of four children; when I was ten, my two sisters were teenagers, and my brother was twenty. I think he had moved out, but he visited often, and all of us had friends coming over. In short, our house was not the safest of places for two parakeets, and I marvel now that both of them lived into old age.

When they chose to leave their cage, they opened themselves up to attack from cats and dogs and also to the whims of a bunch of kids who were not always good at remembering to shut doors. One day I came home from school and found my favorite, big-bellied cat named Domino laying on the top of the bird cage, and it was just good fortune that both birds were inside of it. My mother still laughs at how I seized the cat and threw himself inside the bathroom as a punishment, though of course, nothing I could do would prevent him from being a cat and trying again.

In the creation story, we learn that something similar happened to Adam and Eve. They had everything, a beautiful world to live in, plenty to eat, no work, their love for each other, but what did they do? They listened to the advice of a snake through which Satan, the fallen angel and evil force of this world according to Christian belief, was speaking. They were convinced to eat from the tree of Good and Evil which means they chose to learn what good and evil are. After that, they could never be innocent again.

As you must know by now, I love birds, and I see them as highly intelligent and intriguing creatures, and yet even I must admit that people are lot more complex. When Margeet figured out how to open the door and Paco deduced that he could follow her, they opened themselves up to chaos just as Adam and Eve did. The difference is that Adam and Eve learned that the chaos is not only outside of ourselves, but inside as well, that human beings are capable of committing terrible acts.

This brings us back to the original question. Does a Christian look at her child and think, this is a sinful being? The answer is yes. Does this mean that Christians generally look at other people, even children, and think about how miserable and terrible they are? Absolutely not. To understand why, we have to look at the creation story in its entirety.

The story describes how God creates the world having only the best intentions for humankind, but people decide that they want more than what God originally intended to give. God becomes angry and expels them from paradise, but He does not give up on them after that. He stays with them and always keeps a door of hope open, though the early people soon show that they are all too willing to abandon themselves to the chaos within.

Christians believe that people are flawed, but we also believe that people can be redeemed. This means that the Christian parent who looks at her child sees a kid that could, frighteningly and literally, commit terrible acts in the world. However, she also believes that with lots of love and faith, she can teach this child to become a person who brings light into a world that truly needs it. In fact, I would argue that Christians are the ultimate positive thinkers because our hope is not rooted in the flimsy idea that people are basically fine as they are. No, we look around and see the world as a place where people do harm and betray each other, a place where wars are a regular occurrence, and yet, we strive to bring light and love to the people around us through the strength we have in our God.

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16

The first birds in my first bird room made a choice which brought me a great deal of joy as well as stress. They chose to be more than my pets, and when I saw this, I chose to let them. I did not have to do that. All I had to do was secure their cage door with a twist tie—problem solved! But when I saw how smart and capable they were, I had no desire to seal that cage door, even though I knew, having grown up with animals, that they would truly be in danger for the rest of their lives.

Some people read the creation story and think, if God is good, how could God let this happen? If He is all-powerful and all-knowing, why didn’t he just destroy the snake, the fallen angel? Or why didn’t he erase the memories of Adam and Eve like a computer program and put them back into paradise?

My answer to these questions may be simple, but I believe there is truth in it.

We are not God’s pets. We are so much more than that.

The hard part for those of us who are kind and who want the best for everyone, is that with choice comes danger. With freedom comes danger. True choice means that we can choose not to love others. We can choose to be unkind, resentful and selfish. We can choose to kill.

But then, with these other choices as real possibilities, how much more powerful and wonderful it is when we choose love!

Part 3: Sin in our Daily Lives

Maian is the name of my beautiful yellow canary. Maian means beyond understanding in Khasi, my husband’s language. When I first brought Maian home from the pet store, she was an indefatigable nester. Every morning, I threw twine, bits of cloth, and cotton on the floor near where I sit, and Maian excitedly came for the cotton, her favorite. She was a ray of sunshine, full of joy in everything she did.

Unfortunately, I soon began to notice that despite all of the cotton she was carrying off every day, her nest never overflowed.

While my canaries get specific names, currently Saga, Mr. Robin, Shuti and Maian, I do not always name my zebra and society finches. There are simply too many that look too much alike, but when I do, they have simpler names.

Among my society finches, I have a beautiful singer who is named Spotty Head because of a large white spot on his otherwise brown head. Because I love his song and believe he is more intelligent than some, I tend to notice what he’s doing. And then one day I saw it.

Spotty Head swooped to Maian’s nest, grabbed some cotton, and flew away.

Now Spotty Head never came to get his own twine or cotton each morning, so this situation seemed unfair. Since I cannot be in the bird room for many hours of each day, I knew I could do nothing. But my estimation of Spotty Head had lessened, and during the next several days, I watched with annoyance as he stole from Maian while she blissfully and unsuspectingly left her nest in order to get more cotton from me. At last, I said aloud, you’re the thief, and as I said it, I reconciled with him in my heart. My logical mind thought, of course, there will be a thief in every room. He’s our resident thief. After accepting this, I appreciated his thievery as intelligence. These days he has become a grandfather among his clan, and I am sure to meet future Spotty Heads in the coming generations.

Do I consider Spotty Head’s behavior sinful? Of course not. However, my perception of the situation, my frustration and subsequent acceptance based on the idea that all rooms have thieves, show that I myself live in a fallen world, and I know this to be true.

For many years, I struggled with the concept of suffering until my husband joined a bible study and through him, I met a woman, Karen, who would often say, we live in a fallen world. At first, this phrase puzzled me—what to do with it? Analyze it? Yet as the words echoed in my mind, I began to find peace within them. We live in a fallen world is a useful phrase for learning to accept the world as it is.

It is actually better, more healthy, to accept the world than to spend one’s life trying to pretend it is a place where pain, disease, betrayal and conflict do not exist or believing that humankind can or will somehow solve all of its problems within anyone’s lifetime. History tells a different story—again and again.

What is sin, exactly?

I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate for I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. Paul, 1. Corinthians, Ch. 7

These words were spoken by one of the early leaders of the church who was, by that time, living an impeccable life of faith and service while suffering persecution. His words show, quite plainly, what sin is and what it feels like. It is the tendency to do things that are contrary to God and thereby contrary to peace, hope and love.

Whenever we want to heal, we have to begin by admitting that there is a problem. This is the basic prescription used to treat addiction, and most self-help books will encourage you to recognize the nature of your thoughts or actions as a first step toward changing them. The word “sin” has become equated with guilt and judgement by those who are judging Christianity, but the story of sin only begins in the Garden of Eden, according to the Christian faith. It is transformed into a story of profound forgiveness and sacrifice in the life of Christ, the son of God, who suffered and died to save the world from sin.

Sin is a recognition of the world and our flaws as they are. It is not only a good concept in that it helps us change; it is truly the foundation of self-awareness.

What happens if we accept the idea that sin does not exist? Human beings are fine as we are, made in God’s image. All we have to do is love each other.

That sounds pretty nice.

But it does not answer the question of why people suffer or why some people are unabashedly mean. It does not encourage introspection. When we feel frustrated with ourselves, knowing we have done things we did not want to do, even things we hated doing, such as yelling harshly at a loved one, we are left with no reason why.

Worst of all, if we learn only that we must love each other, minus the concept of sin, we are faced with a conundrum. Much of our understanding depends on comparison. Like the birds in the bird room, we each exist in a limited field of perception, and with our language skills, we assign values to things and actions by comparison. There is a dead stop, a slow walk, a fast walk, a run. There is a large feather and a small feather. There is hyperactivity, laziness and all the energy levels in between. As creatures of language, it is impossible for us to understand anything without comparing it to something else.

We are not sinful creatures. All we have to do is love each other. Well, what is love? If we are not sinful, what does love mean? It might be the opposite of hate which, since no one is sinful, we would never experience.

Ultimately, this well-intended philosophy provides exceedingly vague guidance and a cursory understanding of God. If you feel drawn toward Christianity, avoid such shallow waters. There is so much more to be learned and experienced.

Sin is a place to begin. We recognize that there is a part of us we do not like, and we work to correct it. We do this every single day, and some days are better than others.

Even without the creation story, Paul’s words would have resonated: I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. Thanks to God, we do not have to suffer such frustration without remedy. By accepting the presence of sin, we have the understanding and the will to recognize it and to become better people.

As it turned out, Maian had a peculiar flaw of her own.

She didn’t like to bathe.

Most birds love to bathe. Every day I put four smallish bowls on my water table and three additional bowls underneath the table for those who prefer less company. Between the time when I place the cleaned bowls and bring in the water pitcher, there are usually two or three birds already perched on the bowls’ rims wondering where the water is. As soon as I pour it and return to the place where I sit, the entire flock arrives and four finches together will be in each bowl with others on the rim drenching and splashing each other while the canaries come one at a time and take an entire bowl to themselves.

Every day, as Maian came to me to get her cotton, which Spotty then stole, I observed that her feathers were becoming less lustrous. I wondered if she was over-exerting herself despite her energy and her joyfully domestic manner. Somehow, the idea that Maian was not bathing did not cross my mind, despite the fact that I was watching them bathe about every other day.

Then it just came to me. Could it be? Is she the first bird I have ever known who does not bathe? After a couple weeks of careful observation, my hypothesis proved correct. Well, Maian, I said to her, looks like you’re a dirty bird. But unlike thievery, I decided that this problem could be solved—with a spray bottle.

I rarely interfere in the lives within the room, but in this situation I knew it was best for her health. I guessed that though the bath water was lukewarm, she was feeling sensitive to it. She was certainly a princess.

I sprayed Maian lightly, avoiding a direct hit, and after doing this a few times a week for about two weeks, she was cured. These days, she dives in with the group, and her feathers are gorgeous.

Was my dirty canary a sinner? Of course not, but in my relationship to her, I have been reminded that all of us, humans and animals, are capable of odd, arbitrary choices that are not good for us, and we need some extra help to change our ways.

When we understand sin and we understand that we are living within the limited perception of our circumstances and our human minds, we can see the wisdom in asking God to come into our lives. There are certainly times when we get stuck in a habit of thought or action and we need some divine intervention to help us snap out of it. There is also the fundamental truth that there is a larger universe beyond the language and senses of a human being. We need the help of the being that sees the perception of all creatures—humans, lions, birds, whales—while having full knowledge of the nature of the earth, the elements, everything.

We accept sin to begin again every time we disappoint ourselves. We put our hands together to pray to take the next step and, with God’s help, begin to see our lives as so much more than what we can see on our own.

Part 4: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When people oppose Christian beliefs, they sometimes ridicule us for the concept of Satan, a.k.a. the Devil. We must be superstitious and silly if we believe in an evil red guy with hooved feet who tempts us to do terrible things, and what simpletons we are if, rather than seeing the complexity of life’s choices, we reduce this panorama of subtlety into right and wrong, good and bad.

I have a counter argument. In the world of personal choice, words like complexity and subtlety can lead us down a false road. Rather than accepting personal responsibility for our choices, we can decide that we are not the ones in charge of our choices; multitudinous factors can cause us to make any given choice, and these include our physical and emotional health, the recent behaviors of friends and relatives, our positions in the workplace or society as a whole, and the list goes on.

There are just two problems.

1. When we do not take personal responsibility for our choices, we open a back door to chaos. If we are not responsible, no one else is either; and then how do we feel about this world?

2. It is not true. We cannot control everything in our lives, but we can always make personal choices about what we ourselves choose to think, to say and to do.

How does this directly relate to the devil? Next time you’re having a bad day, listen to all the excuses you give yourself: the news is so depressing, these family problems are really getting to me, my problems with depression and anxiety are increasing, my new coworker is annoying me, the kids have been driving me crazy …

What if you could cut through those reasons with a simpler idea: I’m choosing to behave badly because I’m letting evil in; I’m listening to the tempter. I don’t have to be like this. I can take a sick day if I need a break. I can tell my wife that I really want to do something fun this weekend—that I need some laughs. I can choose to do that personal project I keep putting off and that I know would feel satisfying. If my depression persists, I can see a doctor or therapist to rule out a vitamin deficiency or hormonal disorder. If that doesn’t work, I can try a therapeutic method. If I have just lost my job or received a frightening diagnosis, I can choose to be compassionate to myself and to teach others self-compassion through my behavior. No matter what, I can choose who I will be. I can choose to be the person that my loving God created me to be.

In the Christian creation story, a snake, the devil, persuades Eve to taste the forbidden fruit that comes from the tree that represents the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve then persuades Adam. Later, when God discovers what they have done, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. When we look closely, it is a story that tells us that we do know the difference between good and evil, that we have to beware of subtle thoughts that come into our mind which may lead us toward harm, and we have to beware of shifting blame to others when in fact we are stronger and better people when we take responsibility.

Do the actions of these first people really matter now? They would not if we could check in with ourselves and say honestly that we never let false thoughts or lies influence our behaviors, and that we never blame others for choices that we make ourselves. If, on the other hand, we cannot honestly say that, we must admit that we are related to Adam and Eve.

Birds choose personal responsibility. One of the most interesting facets of a bird’s life is the instinctual drive for a bird to declare itself, essentially who it is and where it is, intermittently all day long. Some birds live in crowds, but they never hide in them.

As the keeper of a bird room who has seen many babies from different species, I can tell you that I have never seen a baby bird that did not offer a loud cry of identity live for very long. The parents quickly give up on any quiet baby. For a species of animal that has many predators, there is an interesting balance between the advantages and disadvantages of these loud calls of identity. This balance is comparable to the pros and cons we face when we show up honestly, willing to admit our flaws, within our society.

One of my favorite moments in nature is the discovery of a wild sparrow sitting on a tree branch that straddles a river singing its lovely song. I have seen this multiple times, and I have noticed sparrows in other deftly chosen acoustically transcendent places. If you listen for one, you can follow the music until you find the singer. There he is, utterly unconcealed, and singing his declaratory trills, his willingness to be known and found by a female sparrow or his desire to add to the evening orchestra of sounds. And yet, in that place, there are larger birds of prey and other predators more than willing to eat a sparrow.

As a member of a flying species in which friends and relatives can inhabit vast spaces and reach each other relatively quickly when called, a bird has a social need to proclaim its identity to maintain its contact within its own group. Without its proclamations, it can lose track of others, become isolated, and then lose its vivacity. Birds need other birds, just as we need each other. And to maintain this contact, every bird has a kind of personal responsibility to itself, to its own life, to keep open these doors of communication, and while doing that, stay aware and look out for danger.

Taking personal responsibility affects people in a similar way. If we do not admit our flaws, we fall into the trap of narcissism, and narcissists have few real friends. We may also become bullies as a way to shield ourselves from our own fragility, and this too harms us socially. When we take personal responsibility for our actions, we open ourselves up to peaceful interactions within our social circles. The more adept we are at this skill, the more safe and content we feel inside society.

There is a downside, of course. When we take personal responsibility, we fear that others will choose to judge us or reject us. Let’s say a teenage girl steals from her friend’s mother when visiting her friend’s house. Because she has knowledge of good and evil, she recognizes that she will carry regret inside herself unless she admits her mistake. Even so, there is a voice in her mind that assures her that she will not be found out, and it is in her interest to keep what she stole and say nothing--if she’s asked about it, she can blame her little sister. However, she chooses the better way. She admits her mistake to her friend and her friend’s mother. In that moment, she is the sparrow on the branch bridging the river, utterly exposed. She is attempting to deeply connect by showing herself as a multi-dimensional person who makes mistakes, and as she does so, she runs the risk of being rejected by her friend, her friend’s mom or both.

This is the challenge of accepting personal responsibility. Usually, we are greatly rewarded when we do this; we develop richer and more satisfying relationships with those around us. People who choose personal responsibility respect and encourage this quality whenever they meet with it because they know it leads to more contentment within. And even when others do reject us, we have freed ourselves of the secret and are less likely to make the same mistake.

I would argue that the most important lesson of the creation story is not how the world began, but actually who people are. This is what all of us, during all eras, have really needed to know. Who are we? We are God’s children. What are we like? We know what good and evil is, and our first impulse is usually to blame others rather than to take personal responsibility. In fact, we live in a fallen world which means that we will frequently have desires for control and power, make choices based on selfishness, and in general, view the world through the distorted lens of human perception. However, we have the strength to choose the better way, to follow God. God wants what is best for us; that is why God created paradise in the beginning.

Erica Rosi Tham

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