The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Psalm 23 is so short and sweet and familiar that for many of us the words tumble off our lips without a thought. But it’s no wonder that so many have clung to it over the ages, repeated its promises in the darkest hours and been comforted by its imagery in the depths of despair. Its simplicity and eloquence are timeless and poignant.
And yet, there’s more to it than comfort and consolation. There are practical assurances that we will walk through dark valleys in this life despite our faith, that we will encounter enemies, and that these hardships are not mutually exclusive from goodness and mercy.
These past few weeks I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the busy-ness of my life: childcare and feedings crammed between preparing for classes, editing my dissertation, and applying to jobs. And since I’m so averse to busy-ness, somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that framing that stress and pressure not as busy-ness but as fullness allow me to better see and experience the wash of blessings, difficulties included, in my life.
There is so much comfort for me in sleepless nights and rushed days to trust and believe that this season is not simply busy, but wonderously full. Full of hard work and deep joy, full of hard decisions and deep love, and full of uncertainty, but filled with grace. I take heart and solace in the fullness of life and the promise that goodness and mercy are not fleeting, but that I shall forever dwell in the house of the Lord.
The other day I was sitting with a new colleague talking about the competitiveness and anxiety that fills the air this time of the year, especially for those of us who are “on the job market” in academia. I found myself urging him to adopt a mentality of abundance, rather than one of scarcity, and he was pleasantly shocked by the advice.
I’ve heard others talk about attitudes of abundance before, but I never knew quite what they meant by them and wondered if such mentalities weren’t just convenient excuses to escape from reality. But as this colleague and I talked more and more and I reflected on my experience these last seven years (!) pursuing a Ph.D., it occurred to me that the generous and treasured relationship I have with my own cohort of budding anthropologists is one of abundance.
Since early on we have endeavored to build one another up when other cohorts around us succumb to insidious competitiveness and one-up-man-ship. We have believed that we’re not really competing for the same jobs, because it’s all about fit–what would work for me necessarily wouldn’t work for many in my cohort and in vice versa. On the flip side, many academics ascribe to an economy of scarcity in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around and one must fight tooth and nail, whatever the cost, to wrest them from the hands of others, even if they’re valued friends and colleagues.
“But isn’t that reality?” my new friend asked me. “At some point don’t you have to admit that there actually are less jobs out there than there are people and accept that reality?”
But is that reality? Might the reality be that there if there are but a small number of “good” tenure-track jobs, those jobs probably aren’t a great fit for most people, because there are also a lot of wonderful babies to be had, which require time off, there’s wonderful family to enjoy in life and they’re not always next to the “good” jobs, there’s wonderful students in many, many, places, there’s other great career tracks that lead outside of academia, and suddenly there aren’t so many people clamoring for the same jobs and they don’t look so “good” anymore?
This type of abundance isn’t illogical or idealistic but very practical. When we sacrifice what we truly want or need to what the world tells us, we end up with scarcity, but when we pursue our career with a passion for serving others, the opportunities abound. What’s more, it is actually possible to rejoice when others succeed, rather than just in one’s own successes. It not only makes us better people to be able to enjoy the success of others, but it makes for a better world! Finally, I think that’s what’s often getting edited out of these grand discussions on academic job markets–that teaching is a service vocation, that when it comes down to it, it’s not even about us and what job we want, but what job we can use to reach the students who make our jobs necessary and possible.
My new friend stared blankly at me and commented that it was refreshing to find someone with this kind of attitude, but talking about this kind of abundance with him was also rejuvenating for me. It reminded me why I do what I do, that numbers and markets are not so straight forward and they don’t have to rule my life, and that everyday is a choice. Everyday we choose whether to live in a world of abundance or one of scarcity.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I remember the first time I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Puerto Rico, and as the dense, humid air filled my lungs I began to panic that I couldn’t breathe.
That’s kind of how I felt the other day when other graduate students and faculty started to infiltrate the premises of my previously quiet and calm office space and chatter away about how crazy things were about to get with the students arriving in the next few weeks. The other night after I put my baby to bed I found that despite my body’s exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing. When I find my stomach in knots, I wonder if the stress will every dissipate, whether I’ll ever be able to take joy in my work without a pang of guilt, or whether concentration will ever return.
I’ve been lucky enough to evade this kind of stress for most of my life, and I think that’s why I’ve come to think of it as somewhat of a weakness. I’ve come to think that it’s my fault when I succumb to that stress, when I feel it, and when I panic. I think a lot of us find ourselves thinking that the presence of stress indicates God’s absence or God’s displeasure with our sinful lives.
But as I took some deep breaths the other evening and the air patiently filled my lungs, I discovered that God desires to sit right beside us in the stress. I remember this moment when I was a little kid and my grandma, who was a little gruff and aloof and kind of scared us as kids, plopped right down beside us and played with our fisher price little people in the living room.
And I think that we release ourselves from the fear, responsibility, and guilt that often comes along with stress, we find God sitting in it, right beside us. I think that ugly, insignificant, stress-filled lives are also beautiful and holy, because God is present even in the thick smog of stress enabling us to breathe.
Breath by breath, bird by bird, isn’t that how anything ever gets done anyway?
“Bird by bird, Erin,” God says. “I’m sitting beside you. I’m already there. I’m present and I’m able. So are you.”
When there is violence and hunger and fear and suffering on the news and in our lives, it is easy and natural to question where God is and what God might be doing. Many things in this world keep us in suspense, and God’s wisdom and mercy are often counted among them. I continue to find my relationship with God challenging, stretching, and arduous.
But a few weeks ago as I sat in church and heard brothers and sisters lifting their voices around me in song and found it beautiful, moving, and humbling, it occurred to me that in our eagerness to fully understand, we often miss out on the everyday work that God does and is doing.
Those ordinary voices were broken and imperfect, but God made them melodious and harmonic. Similarly, the people in my life are scarred and wounded, but God uses them everyday to minister to me. Nothing about being a parent is easy, but God grants me grace for the journey.
In fact, every morning we wake up with breath in our lungs, beats in our hearts, and thoughts in our heads are gifts from God, but we don’t always attribute those everyday, powerful miracles to our God. I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me that God is already awaiting us to arrive at that future we’re so worried about. It reminded me that we serve and worship a God whose very being–past, present, and future–is far beyond the confines of our thoughts and prayers.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to calculate, plan, and understand. There’s certainly nothing wrong with mourning the problems in this world, and seeking to effect change. But I wonder if when we put our minds so feverishly to change what’s in front of us that we often falter because we fail to see what God is already doing and what God has already done. We forget that life itself, with God, is the point of living. We don’t get to embrace what God is already doing in our lives and learn from that wisdom, grace, and beauty.
So this morning if you can, alongside prayers for a fallen and broken world, give thanks for breath and for humanity, for beauty and for hands and feet, and for God’s presence in the everyday. May we all feel it a bit stronger these days.
I remember before Lucia was born pondering the items we put on our baby registry and strategizing with my husband about how we could keep the baby stuff to a minimum. We have a really small apartment and we didn’t want to buy all sorts of unnecessary items that would clutter our space and our lives.
Nearly six months after her birth, I would say we’ve stuck to that minimalist lifestyle rather faithfully–we have a few larger baby items, but most of those are borrowed or used, and we’ve been calculating regarding the toys and small items we’ve acquired over time.
However, keeping all of those items we use daily in their right and perfect place in another story and a losing battle. Inevitably pacifiers, books, toys, and burp cloths clutter the coffee table and couch, Lucia’s play gym remains on the guest bed in her bedroom, and the bathroom becomes overladen with washcloths in the sink and hanging to dry.
What’s funny is this very thing that we agonized about–having Lucia’s clutter take over our apartment and our lives–is something that now brings me great joy. Now that she’s here, I don’t mind living with her stuff, being reminded of who she is by the things that mark her very central place in our life. In fact, I’m very happy to let her things lay strewn about our apartment as a sign that we’re living life with her, not perfectly, but with deep commitment and love.
This is one of the things that’s surprised me about life and parenthood–learning to love the mess of it all more than I imagined I could.
What wisdom of the messes in your own life have surprised you?
What I like most about these words from Drake is the refrain, “Disturb us, Lord,” because they remind me that it is God who places those wild dreams in our hearts and who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.
May you take heart in these words this morning and invite God to “push back the horizons of your hopes and your future.” Amen.
Disturb Us, Lord by Sir Francis Drake
Disturb us, Lord, when We are too pleased with ourselves, When our dreams have come true Because we dreamed too little, When we arrived safely Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when With the abundance of things we possess We have lost our thirst For the waters of life; Having fallen in love with life, We have ceased to dream of eternity And in our efforts to build a new earth, We have allowed our vision Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wilder seas Where storms will show Your mastery; Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back The horizons of our hopes; And to push back the future In strength, courage, hope, and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain, Who is Jesus Christ.
A friend of mine recently posted the Wendell Berry poem below to her blog and the imagery and the message were of great wisdom to me.
My mother has become an avid birder later in life, and we like to tease her about her enthusiasm for spotting a new species and for being so invested in something as seemingly trivial as watching birds.
But there is a blue heron that lives down by the canal behind our apartment, and I have often gasped as he takes flight with his massive wings and graceful body. Just the other day, my friend and I trolled the canal with our babies and laid eyes upon him. I fretted because my fussy daughter is not always a great birder as her cries tend to scare the fowl away. This time, though, as we drew closer and she cried, the heron took flight, and so we got to follow him down the course of the canal, witnessing his majestic flight not once, but many times over.
Birding is a habit of intention, and I believe it not only calls you to notice and alight upon things you wouldn’t have had you not been looking, but like any great practice, it also changes your perspective. As I read this poem, I began to give thanks for all the ways God transforms our limited perspective if we are simply willing to withdraw from “the despair of the world” and “come into the peace of wild things.” What grace there is in our everyday circumstances and in this world God has made, if we only look upon it with open eyes.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
A friend of mine compiled this prayer of approach from various sources for last Sunday’s service, and something about the compassionate being expected and the kingdom of love on its way touched me deeply.
May you experience the kingdom of love this week wherever you find yourself:
Come into this place, where the ordinary is sanctified,
The human is celebrated, the compassionate is expected.
Come into this place.
Together we make it a holy place, with our every act of worship.
God, help us to listen to our inner spirit;
To the inner yearning to belong to something greater than ourselves.
Help us to listen to our inner spirits
And find there the presence of your good encouraging spirit.
The kingdom of love is coming because:
Somewhere, someone is kind when others are unkind.
I read this the other day and found it to be incredibly insightful, complex theology with good news for the weary. Reprinting this with permission from Kayla McClurg at Inward/Outward Ministries and hoping you find rest in the Lord:
Reflections on the Lectionary, Kayla McClurg
For Sunday, July 6, 2014 – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
We are rarely satisfied. We tend to be continually busy yet jealously guard our down time. We are both generous and self-serving, overly confident and doubting. We are buried in things and see more that we want. We want to join the dance; we want to be a recluse. We judge ourselves and yet are slow to change. We want, we know not what. Anything other than the way it is.
We are a bit like those spoken of in the scriptures: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn. John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.'” We are rarely satisfied.
We even change our ideas about God to match our current moods. The God of our making rarely gets to be simply who God is, any more than we get to be who we are. Jesus knows us well. He knows what we want and what we need, and he knows what a heavy load we have made of our lives. So he says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary of carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
How will he do this? Oddly enough, by putting something more upon us-his yoke, which he says is easy, and his burden, which he says is light. Not weighted by a lack of satisfaction, a tendency to criticize and want always more, his burden is made light by being carried together. Yoked to him the weight is evenly dispersed; we walk in balance, steady, no longer swayed by mood. We begin to know what it is to be satisfied. We find rest for our souls.
A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception. As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.
But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.
I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity. Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused? What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God? Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing. I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.
But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling. When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student. And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.
I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student. God is always teaching, and we are always learning. It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.
May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us. May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning. Amen.