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.
The other day I read a post from one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, entitled, “Creating a Lovely Morning.” In it, Leo Babauta talks about how he combines just a few tasks, something to look forward to, and mindfulness to create a lovely morning.
If you read my blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I’m a self-proclaimed morning person, like Babauta, and that I get such an inordinate pleasure out of greeting the day that I relish knowing I have the whole morning in front of me at five or five thirty am. Mornings have all the joy of possibility, confirmed by the beauty of morning light, the emptiness of the world, and the solace of the silence when the world has yet to wake.
Simply put, mornings are my sacred space.
Coming off of a relaxing vacation, however, I’ve been sort of lacking the energy to jump into action in the am. So, following Babauta’s lead, I’ve put some thought into what my lovely morning might entail in an effort to to reframe those early hours.
I’m slowly realizing that one of the most challenging parts of parenting is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict or gauge progress.
I’m so eager to know what I’m doing, the energy that I’m putting into my daughter, is being directed toward a purpose. Perhaps this comes from years of being a student, where hours of reading and writing usually directly translate into better grades, admittance into higher education programs, or awards and grants. I am addicted to progress, but I’m realizing that it’s a worldly ideal that can often be crippling in its hegemonic and normalizing ways.
That led me to thinking the other night, what if we threw progress and developmental markers and perfect sleep to the wind as parents and focused on loving the children in front of us? I remember when I was awaiting this baby my spiritual director told me that children first and foremost need love, and I remember feeling empowered, thinking, now that I can do.
But love isn’t always easy.
There are a million human ways we complicate and condition and crowd out love. Suddenly love begins to look and feel more like precision, weight, or caution, because we’ve replaced it with our own ideals, our desires, or our own assuming needs.
But true love is life altering in that it demands a total shift in the way we view and live life. We must change if we are to love graciously and selflessly rather than greedily and humanly.
This is why, I think, with parenting the “progress” is always paradoxically barely perceptible and earth-shattering. We find that simultaneously across the long nights and endless crying, both nothing and everything has shifted. We realize that despite our being wedded to a hegemonic view of progress, change and growth took their meandering course.
Not surprisingly, no amount of sheer human will and determination moves our children to progress, but rather the painstaking effort of love nurtures their being. Our children rely so perfectly on us, but we come only by struggle to rely on God. And yet the release of our lives to God is simply the greatest source of change imaginable.
No longer searching or bound by our desire for progress, we are released into grace and love. We are able to love because God first loved us. And when we live with the knowledge of that fact, we find joy and contentment in the children that we have, not merely the people that they are becoming.
It’s been nearly two years since my husband and I moved back from living in South China (how time flies!), but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about the people, the place, or our life there. Moving to a foreign country as a young couple had its growing pains, but ultimately it brought us closer together and is an experience that we treasure and hope to repeat someday with our children.
I have some friends and acquaintances who are getting ready to make the move across the ocean or halfway around the world and it got me thinking about what lessons I can draw from our own experience. So, here are a few suggestions for how to make the most of that international living experience, which is definitely more of an art than a science.
Find Some Structure
It’s essential when you arrive to start building a community, through which you can learn about the culture, and among which you can begin to build relationships and feel at home. When I was doing my fieldwork in China, my network of informants was free-floating and dispersed, so it really helped that my husband was affiliated with a local university for his work, through which we met a mix of Chinese professors, students, and even expats. Finding a community–a housing complex, a company, a school, or a place of worship–that has some structure and rituals to it helps a lot when you’re struggling to learn the ins and outs of daily life in a brand new place and ensures that you won’t feel isolated despite the isolating experiences you’re often up against. Even setting up a weekly meeting with a language partner or a friend to explore the city can give you the motivation to get out there and get to know your new surroundings and help you feel more at home.
Speaking of isolation, a great piece of advice I received from a couple before moving abroad and back was to be mindful that despite your commonalities you won’t be experiencing a new culture in exactly the same way. It’s imperative that instead of assuming cross-cultural experiences resonate or rub against us in exactly the same way as family or friends that we allow for multiple feelings and interpretations of the same events and experiences. When I was living in China, I often assumed my husband to be my cultural confidant who shared my frustrations, joys, and complaints, but that wasn’t always the case. It really helped to talk through those disconnects and resist making assumptions so that we could be sources of support to one another in a challenging experience.
Become an Anthropologist
Now I’m completely biased, but I think it’s also important to suspend judgment and try to look past first impressions when you’re getting to know your new country and culture. Spend your time observing people, listening, and participating in life the way they live it. If you consider yourself a student of culture, it’s also a lot easier to tolerate and maybe even embrace differences that might be initially repulsive or confusing. As a student, you’re only responsible for asking good questions, applying yourself and learning to the best of your ability, and respecting your teachers, which is a wonderfully fresh and un-stressful way to relate to your new, and sometimes jarring, world!
There will be times where you need a psychological or even a physical break from the fatigue of speaking another language, being a foreigner in a strange land, or adhering to customs and pleasantries that aren’t your own. It’s important to take these much needed breaks so that when you are with your new neighbors in your new country you can be the best version of yourself. For my husband and I that meant brief sojourns to Hong Kong every once in awhile, evenings every few weeks with expats, or simply alone time on our balcony where we allowed one another the freedom to speak candidly about some of our frustrations and fears.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to explore your new country and culture while you have it. My fondest memories of China are the weekends and weeks where I made spontaneous research trips to the countryside with new friends, and the trips to Southeast Asia with friends and to the wildest parts of Guangxi with family. And I regret never making it to all the other places on our list–Harbin, Sanya, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar just to name a few! Exploring the country with new friends deepens your understanding of the idiosyncrasies of what it really means to live in that place, because there’s nothing like long hours spent on buses and trains to bring people together. After all, the art of living abroad is about taking care of yourself but also taking chances!