As I pushed the shopping cart through Super Wal-Mart, laboring down the endless cereal aisle, I heard a sound that one does not normally hear in such a place.
A chirping bird.
It wasn't just a little peep. It was a full-fledged birdie aria coming from up in the rafters somewhere. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I detected a note of distress in the warbling.
The bird was not immediately identifiable. If you have never noticed, the Super Wal-Mart ceiling is a maze of white pipes and bars and skylights that stretch all the way to inifinity. But then I saw him - a little brown sparrow perched up there, noisily calling out to his friend, another bird that was answering him from the accessories department.
I wondered how they got in. I wondered what Wal-Mart does in these situations. I wondered if things get "messy." And I wondered how they would get out.
Still thinking about the birds, I rounded the corner in search of sweet relish and saw my friend Leann pushing her cart in the opposite direction. We smiled and greeted each other, and then I said to her what was on my mind:
"I guess Wal-Mart has a bird problem, doesn't it?"
Instead of agreeing and moving on to more interesting subjects (in the way I was expecting the conversation to go), she said, "You know...isn't that just like us? Flying into a place that we think is appealing and fun...but then all of a sudden, it's not so fun anymore. And before we know it, we're trapped. Poor little birds."
A profound, unexpected response to my not-so-profound observation. I slowly nodded, quietly, which must have made her backtrack a little. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "That's just what I was thinking about before you walked up."
I quickly assured her that there was no need to apologize. In one sentence, she had covered the universal human struggle with that sin word - the word we are all well-acquainted with, but don't really like to talk about. Easy to fly into, not easy to fly out of. Stuck, trapped, imprisoned.
Fortunately, there is a way for those little birds to get out, according to the cashier who rang up my groceries. They have to find the Garden Center. In the birdie world, it's their gateway to freedom.
As my friend pointed out, we are not so different from birds trapped inside a big box store. We need a gateway, too. And it's Christ.
"I am the gate," says Jesus in John 10:9-10. "Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
Christ, who frees us from the prison of what we once were.
I imagine what it will be like for those little birds when they finally do find freedom. Out of the crowded, noisy world of strange smells, grim faces, unpleasant vibes, and ear-splitting intercom announcements...and into the crisp, blue sky.
Where they were meant to be.