“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 ever 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 when 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.
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.
I admit that I sometimes go back and read my blog posts.
I don’t think it’s because I’m a narcissist(?), but more because I’m woefully forgetful!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I often have to revisit the same lessons many times to make sense of who God is and where God is calling me, and thank God, God stays faithfully the same. So with November waning, December looming, and 2014 on the horizon, I wanted to take a moment to revisit some of those lessons.
Perhaps you’re like me, and it takes a few times for something to stick. Perhaps you’re like me, and reminders of God’s grace and provision, can never be too frequent or too poignant. So I invite you to revisit some of these posts from 2013, and share your lessons in the comments. What have you learned? Where are you growing? And where are you headed?
I’m reminded that it is in God that the multifaceted call I’ve received finds its unity. This gives me confidence and reassurance when others question, or I begin to question the integration or the practicalness of my own call. It is we who often put limits on God, not the other way around!
I’m reminded that there are really only two ways to live in this world–the one in which we try to prevent others from seeing our imperfections, and the other in which we lay them bare and resolve to love others and ourselves just as God made us. How liberating it is to live into the second truth and to let God shine through the cracks.
I think this may have been one of the greatest revelations of my year, and I’m so glad it came relatively early! I find myself repeating these words to others and myself when I am tempted to let the competitive, swimming upstream tendencies in my career or my life to get the best of me. And I find deep wisdom and comfort in never being too busy to listen to those in front of me.
Thanks to yet another excellent sermon at my church, I began to reflect on what it means to be Easter people, to undergo profound internal change, and yet to still experience great brokenness, pain, and death in this world. For me, holy everything amounts to witnessing and testifying to the holiness of the cross, and the holiness in you and me, in the triumphant and the everyday.
I wrote: “Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making. Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do. And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth. It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.”
I reflected on how deeply our new church community had ministered to me despite the lines I’d been trying to draw between experiences of God in China and back in the United States during our transition.
I wrote: “What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless? And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need? What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope? What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?”
I realized that I often give up on those closest to me, friends and family who have been burned by the church and believe that God is not for them. If I believe that God truly is the God of all of us and doesn’t give up on any of us, how do I reflect that with my life?
I reflected on what it truly means to be content in all circumstances, to find a deep acceptance of what God has given and an even deeper praise for all that God has gone, no matter the ups, downs, or delays in life.
Along those lines of learning contentment, I thought about how empowering, meaningful, and important it is to redefine success in a world in which its often bound up with pride, trampling others, and being number one. I believe that even in academia, it’s possible to live with the sense that being a child of God and doing one’s best constitute the ultimate contentment and satisfaction.
I was thinking last night about how earnestly hard we work to prevent the cracks from showing when really, cracks are all there is.
The Bible is full of cracked people, of course. And somehow we read it and we think we will be different–we think that with all our hindsight and modern wisdom in hand, maybe our cracks just won’t show.
The other afternoon I heard a minister of a growing, vibrant, multicultural church describe his job as a series of humiliations. A couple weeks ago a person I had judged as highly successful and privileged told me the secrets to her success included some epic fails along the way. And finally today I told some friends about how I used to be so chicken to try new skills in gymnastics but my twin sister was a dare devil. She fell more, but she also flew higher.
It’s telling that these people who share their failures don’t come off as flimsy, irresponsible, or incapable to me. In fact, I tend to respect them even more. I find their humility a breath of fresh air in a world where perfection is worshipped and as a result, insecurity, fear, and disbelief are often held far too dear.
It may sound cheesy, but I think another thing I relish about seeing my own cracks and those of others for what they are is that a little bit of God tends to peek through them. It shouldn’t be so surprising that God makes us both cracked and beautiful, and that God doesn’t abandon us in failure (and neither do those who truly love us), but it is.
That’s how grace always feels: brand new and fresh, even though it’s always been there. And suddenly the cracks look pretty beautiful…if you’re asking me.
It’s been another full week: the United States celebrated the second term of its forty-forth president as Princeton Seminary ushered in its seventh president. In both personal and public places, and in the first month of a new year, we’re in the business of reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
This weekend, I was challenged by the words of Dr. King, as he embraced the present moment despite its imperfections, as his moment, to which he was called. On Tuesday, as I heard the new president preach at the seminary, I was moved by his charge to allow God’s dreams to interrupt our small goals and to use our limits as a way back to God. As he mentioned his thirty-one years in ministry, and as I looked around the congregation filled with pastors and hopefuls, I felt that call, as I’ve felt it many times over the year, to serve, to lead, and to minister.
But then I realized: talking to a Chinese friend that morning, and forming words in another language that might provide some comfort, some empathy, some peace–I felt myself called to that. Discussing anthropology and faith earlier this week with my faculty mentor at the seminary, I felt myself called to that. And worshipping God on Tuesday in community and feeling free and full, I felt called to that.
And I wondered, perhaps we are the ones who put the limits on our lives, who cling to small calls when God has wider, fuller dreams? I feel gratefulness choking me up when I realize that a life where every moment is spent in service and praise of God makes ministers of us all–no more, no less.
My expectations brim with faith these days, faith that our definitions of call are too narrow for God’s infinite wisdom and abundant vision, faith that my limits speak of possibility when they draw me nearer to God, and faith that the kingdom of God isn’t fleeting or futuristic or finite–it’s here and it’s in you and me and all around us!
May you go this weekend in the knowledge that you are imperfectly, humbly, yet emphatically called to this life.
And the knowledge that God knew our path to China before we knew it (Psalm 139:3-4), that even as we settled at the farthest limits of the sea, God is there (9)–well, that knowledge truly is too wonderful for me, so high that I cannot attain it (16)!
To me the words of this psalm are overwhelmingly meaningful because this is not the first time God has gone with me, nor will it be the last. From the dusty border towns of Mexico, to the urban slums of Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, to the rolling countrysides of China and their meager way of life, or the bustling metropolises, God is there.
While perhaps I only momentarily pause to consider God’s words, the revelation that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (14), the fact that my mere life has ever been on the heart and the mind of that of God far before I came into being is truly beyond my comprehension (15-16).
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! (17)
God, may any anger in me be righteous, directed toward the roots of evil in this world, manmade systems of injustice, poverty, suffering, and inequality. May that angst lead me to be a servant of yours who humbly recognizes my own wickedness, my own limitations, and deficiencies (21-24).
The smells of roasting garlic, hot peppers, and soy sauce are beginning to waft over to my nose, evidence that day is breaking here in China. A friend who visited us recently asked me as we stood on this very balcony, do you not just pinch yourself sometimes, and say, I’m in China? How did all this happen?
And I do. Today I stand in awe of you, Lord, how perfect are your plans, how wise, how true.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)
I have had a rough couple of days, a roller coaster of ups and downs, but last Sunday evening I had a glimpse of inspiration and encouragement during my prayer time that has kept me going.
It was not easy, but definitely illuminating to stumble across the notion that the security that I have been craving is a luxury and even a bit of distraction when I consider that it is God, not things or circumstances, who is my security. In other words, I am the type who often worries over the destination, forgetting to enjoy the journey.
But if we believe God really gives us all the tools to meet all of life’s challenges, it is the journey, not the destination, which we are meant to enjoy.
On a particular day recently when I was struggling with being faithful and enjoying the journey, God brought another young Christian Anthropologist into my life who shared her own struggles with me, and I was able to put aside my worries, listening to her struggle, which was oddly cathartic. Ruminating on it, though, I don’t think it’s so odd, really, that God provides us with companions upon the journey, and when we receive their humanity, abiding with one another in this otherwise restless world, we feel the intimacy and the closeness of God’s peace in a tangible way.
That moment was a helpful reminder to me of the intimacy I desire which is paramount and perhaps countercultural, but only in the sense that the pace of the world often doesn’t halt for healing, wholeness, and human connection.
At the same time, what is good and true about culture, much as what is good and true about our God, is the richness of human relationships in all their beauty and brokenness. I guess what I’m getting at it is when I make God and intimacy with other human beings my destination, which is truly returning to my life purpose as a pastor and an anthropologist, I can only revel in what joy there is on the journey and chuckle at my own blindness and anxiety.
Those humbling moments bring tears to my eyes, deep breaths to my chest, and great awe at the goodness and carefulness of all God’s plans which I had doubted.
I pray that I might continue to grow into this type of security, this rootedness in God that brings peace and joy no matter how bumpy the road. Amen.