Breath by breath, bird by bird

“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.

PR
Arecibo, Puerto RIco. My photo.

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.”

Amen.

Fall is coming to Princeton.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fall is coming to Princeton. Photo by Evan Schneider.

 

What God does

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.

Scenes from the neighborhood.  A field of wildflowers.  My photo.
Scenes from the neighborhood. A woodsy meadow and a field of wildflowers. 

20140810_184402

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.

Amen.

Signs of a life well-lived

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?

**I liked my friend Erin Lane‘s post on a related topic, and this Washington Post article by a man who admits blaming his wife for a messy house and being in the wrong.

 

Dreaming boldly

Still can't believe I've been here.  Twice.  Halong Bay, Vietnam.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Still can’t believe I’ve been here. Twice. Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Perhaps all of my original thoughts are being zapped up by my dissertation writing at the moment.  Or maybe there are just some really inspiring things on the internet as of late.

Whatever the case, this Huffington Post meditation from Sir Francis Drake really struck a chord with its admonishment not to limit God by dreaming too little.  Such a reminder has been instructive for me in the past when it comes to praying audaciously for China, or in recognizing how God desires to dream with me.  And in the age of helicopter parenting and facebook bragging, it’s so poignant to realize that dreaming boldly for my daughter is always a good thing.

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.

 

With open eyes

 

The President's garden in bloom.  Princeton University.  My photo.
The President’s garden in bloom. Princeton University. My photo.

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.

by Wendell Berry

 

The kingdom of love

Kunming, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

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.

Somewhere, someone shares with another in need.

Somewhere, someone is patient- and waits in love.

Somewhere, someone returns good for evil,

Somewhere, someone serves another, in love.

Somewhere, someone is calm in a storm.

Finding rest

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:

Finding Rest

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.

On learning

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.  

Over those next few weeks of teacher training, which I had dreaded for their presumed repetitiveness and monotony, instead, I discovered how much I was learning from my peers about both teaching writing and my own writing process.  Diving back into my dissertation project and having others read and respond to my work has positioned me not merely in the realm of expert but also budding novice.  Finally, in composing a sermon this past week, in which I imagined reading the story of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the wounded man rather than the thoughtful Samaritan, I was reminded that seeking to serve others often begins with listening, receiving, and learning.

The D&R canal in the summer.  My photo.
The D&R canal in the summer. My photo.

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 morning: my sacred space

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.

5:00/5:30

Rise and watch the sun rise with a tall glass of water, some music, and my latest devotional read, Ellen F. Davis’ Getting Involved with God.

6:00

Brew a mug of decaf espresso and begin writing my introduction to my dissertation (this is the project I’m currently putting off because it scares me, but in my ideal morning, I tackle it head on!).

7:30

Take a break to peruse websites, blog, or pray.  Make a nice plate of scrambled eggs and grab a second mug of coffee.

8:00

Wake up my daughter and feed her out on the porch in the open air!

9:00

Take a long walk with my little girl, in which we get to see turtles, lots of birds, deer, and a great blue heron on the D& R Canal (even in my dreams, I’m greedy about my nature!).

10:30

Visit with a friend on the porch while my daughter naps (it’s my lovely morning, so in it, the little girl naps!).

Are you a morning person? If not, when’s your sacred time and what would your lovely morning/afternoon/evening look like?

 

 

 

 

On true love and throwing progress to the wind

I’m slowly realizing that one of the most challenging parts of parenting is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict or gauge progress.

The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring.  My photo.
The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring. My photo.

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.

D&R Canal.  My photo.
D&R Canal. My photo.

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.

20140501_103525

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.