The biblical image of the kind of life Christians are called to live is, "The way of an eagle in the air." I have lots of experience with eagles. When I was ten years old, my parents bought a house on a country hilltop in Vermont near a valley called Eagle Hollow, which was known for the golden eagles that lived there. Usually eagles don't flock together, but they do in Eagle Hollow. As a child, I often climbed a narrow road with steep cliffs on both sides to sit on a rock and watch these fascinating birds.
For the last eight years, I have taught a Bible class on Mondays in Washington, D. C. I have breakfast in an airport restaurant called The Eagle Room. The decor is designed around a great bronze American eagle with outspread wings. On all the walls are pictures of the different types of eagles found in the United States, and beneath them are descriptions of their habits. In eight years I have read those descriptions over and over. I know a lot about eagles.
Based on my experience with eagles, I believe early Christians were on to something when they described the Christian life as the way of an eagle in the air, and I want to tell you why.
Eagles are born eagles.
First, if you're going to grow up to be an eagle, you've got to be born an eagle. Crows and canaries never become eagles. That statement is obvious when you're talking about eagles, but it may not be so obvious when you're talking about Christians. Even so, it's equally true. If you are going to be a Christian, you must be born one.
The New Testament says that flesh and blood can never inherit the kingdom of heaven. The life we inherit from our parents will expire, and we will all be placed in a grave. That's why the New Testament speaks about the necessity of new birth. Jesus said in John 3:56, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." Being born of the Spirit speaks of the work of God's Spirit in planting the life of God within us. John wrote in John 1:1113:
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of Godchildren born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.
How is a person born of God? By believing and receiving the Lord Jesus. John 3:16 claims, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Likewise, when the Philippian jailer asked Paul, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul replied, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:3031). Yet we cannot simply believe with our minds and be born of God. You could believe in Jesus as you believe in Napoleonthat there was once such a person; that will do nothing for you. You must believe and receive and appropriate. Salvation is a gift, to be sure. The Spirit plants it, but it grows by response.
Eagles train their young to soar.
The second thing to note has to do with the way eagles rear their young. An eagle builds its nest on a cliff, because trees are not high enough. Furthermore, they build their nests with consummate skill. They don't use little twigs; they use great branches and weave them together. The inside of the nest is lined with feathers and leaves, so it is very soft and comfortable. When the eggs hatch, the mother eagle cares for and feeds the little eaglets. She flies out to find food, brings it back, and systematically drops it into the gaping mouths of the little eagles.
Eventually, the mother approaches her little one, so secure and comfortable and warm. She moves her great head against the fledgling and pushes it gently toward the edge of the nest. "Mom what are you doing?" it says. "You wouldn't!" But she does. She pushes the little one out of the nest. The little bird flaps and flails down the face of the cliff, seemingly to its destruction. Its momin one mighty swoopgoes down and catches her chick on her wings and brings it home. Then she does it again. She pushes her children out of the nest over and over again. Why does she do it? She has to teach them that they were made to soar. They would never discover it as long as they stayed in the nest. So she pushes them out of the nest, but she never lets them fall all the way to the ground. They have to learn that they were made to fly.
Later, when she returns to the nest, she begins to pick the feathers and leaves from the lining and casts them over the edge. Then she takes the great sticks and snaps them in two with her strong beak. As she disassembles the nest, the branches go plummeting down the face of the cliff. The mother eagle understands something her chicks don't: they weren't made to grovel in the dust. They were made to soar, and they will never soar as long as they are in the nest. She is prepared to destroy the nest if she must do so to help them discover what they can do.
I want you to know something about our God and the way he trains us. God is out to mature us. Have you ever had things together only to be cast out of the nest? You may feel like God has abandoned you. In reality, God intends to mature you, and he just knows it won't happen as long as you stay comfortably in the nest. So he pushes you out once in a while. As you plummet toward the ground thinking, This is the end, God comes beneath you with his everlasting arms to bear you up.
Flying gliders was a hobby for the late Steve McQueen. He told a story once about flying in the Rockies. He hit a thermal and rode it up to 20,000 feet. That's extremely high for a glider. He said, "You will never believe what I saw up there. I looked out the window, and I saw eagles. It looked as though they were asleep." The eagles were riding the air currents. They didn't have to propel themselves along. They just rode the winds. An eagle has an inborn ability to discern the motion of air currents. The eagle will not take wing until the right breeze comes along. When it comes, all the eagle does is let go and ride the wind.
In ancient languages, the words "wind" and "spirit" are often translated from the same word. For example, the Hebrew word ruach, the Greek word pneuma, and the Latin word spiritus each mean both "wind" and "spirit." Just as eagles wait for the wind to bear them up, an eagle Christian is so sensitive to the movement of God's Spirit that he waits until he discerns the movement of the Spirit, and then gets with it. He's borne aloft. He rides wherever the Spirit takes him. It's not our hard work for God that's going to count; only that which the Spirit of God has accomplished through us will last. So many Christians are like so many birds: they're feverishly flapping their wings, doing good works for the Lord, propelling themselves along. They burn out before long; we just can't do God's work in our own strength. We have to let the Spirit carry us. When we minister in the power of his Spirit, we experience the words of Isaiah 40:31: "They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
Eagles know when it's time to die.
Finally, eagles have an intuition about when it is time for them to die. When an eagle is about to die, it leaves the nest and goes to a great rock or a ledge. It fastens its talons on the edge of the rock facing into the rising or the setting sun and then dies. It always faces the sun.
I saw an eagle die once: my father. I admired my father. He had great gifts. Things that I can't do, he could do with great ease. He had robust health his whole life until his final summer. His business involved a great deal of travel, and he traveled most of the week. We became aware that he wasn't feeling well when he asked me if I would drive for him for a few weeks. I was very happy to; I enjoyed driving, and I enjoyed being with my father. It was a very happy summer. We drove hundreds of miles, and we talked about all sorts of things. He shared things about his early life that I had never heard him say.
But on the second Sunday in September, we all came down ready for church and found my father sitting in the living room in a large chair. He said, "I don't really feel well enough to go to church today." I could not believe that. Both my mother and father always went to church. I never remember any time when my parents failed to go to church. We went to services that day without him, and when we returned home, he was sitting in the same chair. He said, "You know, I think I ought to go to the hospital. I'm really not feeling well." Within two weeks he was dead. After the first week, we were told he had a very advanced cancer of the bone.
I remember his last day. Father lapsed into a coma, and the whole family was there. At one point, everyone left the room but me. I just sat there by the bed. After a while my father opened his eyes, sat up, and started talking to me just as normal as could be. Quickly, I called the rest of the family in. My father turned to my mother and said, "Mary, we have had 32 wonderful years, haven't we?" It was a very tender moment. To his mother he said, "Mom, I know you had a difficult time after Dad died. But I want you to know how thankful I am for all the things you did for me." He turned to his brother and sister and had personal words for them. By that time, the whole room was awash with tears. He saw that and said, "I know exactly how you feel. But if you could hear what I can hear, if you could see what I can see, you would not want me to return." He seemed to muster all the strength he had left in his weakened body, and he said, "Rejoice with me. This is my coronation day!" He lay back on the pillows and died.
I have seen an eagle die, and there was not a trace of fear. I know heaven is a wonderful place, but it held no surprises for my father. He had known the Lord for years, and he just walked right into his presence. His feet were firmly planted on the rock Christ Jesus, and he was looking straight into the Son of Righteousness when he died.
If you're ever going to grow up to be a Christian, you have to be born one. And you'll need to understand something about the way God will rear you: he's out to mature you. You're made to soar, to live by the power of God's Holy Spirit. You are called to be so sensitive to the Spirit that you can sense his movements and can go with him. Then, when life is over, it is God's intention that we move directly into his presence with our feet on the rock and our eyes on the Son of Righteousness.
Terry Fullam was the rector of St. Paul's in Darien, Connecticut, the author of seven books, and an internationally-renowned speaker on church renewal who conducted missions in more than 25 countries. To find out more about his biblical teaching ministry and to access his sermons, please go to the "Life on Wings" home page.