Somehow over the long winter a year ago, my favorite tree died. I loved this tree in particular because of the way one of its branches spread in a curving arc outward, reaching toward me from above like a benediction. I loved the sound of its whispering leaves and the songs of the birds it sheltered. But I guess I’d begun to take its blessing for granted, because I didn’t realize its life had gone until late that summer when every other tree had finally filled out with their lush green leaves and this beautiful tree remained barren. It stands there now with only a few thoroughly dried brown leaves still clinging to its desiccated limbs, a skeleton left unburied.
One day in another winter’s storm it may fall, eventually to be overgrown by vines and shrubs like a greening shroud, but for now it stands stark and naked against the life around it. I still feel a pang of grief when I look at it. I miss the gentle sense of blessing it gave me.
This may be how some things end in our lives: unnoticed at first, then startling, then sad, with a feeling of loss that lingers in memory.
I thought I’d share from time to time some of the provocative words of wisdom that I’ve run across. Like this ancient Chinese proverb:
“If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”
Where is it, exactly, that we are headed unthinkingly in our
life through our choices and decisions?
Is it a place we really want to get to, or are we wandering aimlessly on
a path that will lead us somewhere we’d rather not be?
I’ve been living a switchback life. You know, the kind of life that seems to meander like a road or trail that swings now this way, then that way, moving back and forth, usually on a steep path. Skiers ski downhill that way because the path is steep and they need to manage their speed. Roads and railroads follow a similar style going uphill when the climb is steep and hard to navigate. My life runs that way not because a straight path is dangerous or difficult, and not because I get tired of being here or there, but because I embrace too many projects. I’m interested in and try to work on them all, moving from one to another serially, back and forth, hoping to make some progress on each one. But honestly, it often feels like I’m getting nowhere.
Here and there, this then that, is something a lot of us do,
I suspect, switching from one task to another and back again. People often call
it multi-tasking. But I’m not so much a multi-tasker as I am a “dedicated
dabbler.” A dabbler because I want to do so many different things; dedicated
because each one is more a serious desire than a whim. I’ve felt vaguely guilty
about this lifestyle.
There was a time when my tendency to dabble was suppressed, when I was laser-focused on one thing: my spiritual life and ministry. There were other things I longed to do but they all fell to the side as I was consumed by the singular overwhelming desire that drove me then: to deepen my communion with God and help others do the same. Now, in retirement, without a church congregation to lead or a clear sense of being called to a ministry, I’ve been freely wandering through this new chapter of my life, switching back and forth from one project to another. It has felt like a liberation. But I’m not free of the desire to actually accomplish something. I count 7 or 8 major projects I’m pursuing now and I don’t really want to let any of them go. Each one gives me life. (If anything, I’d like to add a few in the area of play rather than work: learn to ride horseback, swim regularly, go dancing.)
Sometimes in the past I’ve envied
Billy Graham for his life-long, single-minded focus on his ministry for Christ.
At other times (most of the time) I envy people like Leonardo Da Vinci or
Thomas Edison, who could do so many things and excel at them all. (Secretly I wish
I could be a Renaissance woman after the model of Da Vinci for his wide-ranging
exploration of science, art, and humanity, but I don’t have the skills, or even
the physical stamina.)
So I live a switchback life because I can’t seem to narrow my focus anymore. I guess I need to make peace with that. For now.
There is a widespread feeling that as a nation, as a people,
we need to make some profound changes, but we don’t know how to escape the box
that we live in. Some people have put
forth ideas that at first feel radical and later come to feel necessary, but don’t
really know how to get there, while others feel stifled and stuck but also threatened
by all the changes being proposed. Lately
we’ve had a leader who has taken a sledge hammer to our way of life and our
cherished values, but that has only destroyed what was good without bringing
anything good to take its place. I think that secretly we want to expand our
boundaries and explore new possibilities, but without “leaving home.”
So if we are living in a box (even a box with smashed walls)
how do we get beyond it? How do we jump (to use a different metaphor) out of
the frying pan without landing in the fire? How do we effect change in a way
that will be life-giving?
Today I’m offering some thoughts I’ve long held and once preached about that I think might be helpful. If you like you can hear it here, in an audio of that sermon:
Why do we find it so hard to respect the freedom of others to be different: to hold different values, want different things, live different lives?
I have a budgie (aka parakeet) named Joey. Got him as a baby and he’s now about 3 years old. He lives in a flight cage – a very large cage for a very small bird – and he’s in love with the bird in the little mirror that hangs near his perch, to whom he chatters and sings gaily every day. He also chatters and sings to me, flies around the cage, nibbles on his treats, stretches his wings in flight and echoes my favorite words to him: “Hello!” and “pretty bird,” “whoa!,” and something I swear sounds like a wolf whistle. He peeks around his mirrored bird-friend to watch me in the kitchen and we play peekaboo. He perches on my hand or my fingers, lets me rub his tummy and his back and lifts his wing for a scratch underneath. So I think all in all he’s a happy bird. But he won’t leave his cage.
I have tried to get him to come out, but he refuses, and when I begin to move my hand toward the cage door with him perched on it he flies off and retreats to the other end of the cage. I gather him in my hand to bring him out, which he resists, though when he’s tired he lets me. Then I hold him gently to my chest, talk to him, and try to get him to perch on my shoulder, but he flies right back into his cage the moment I loosen my hold. Sometimes he flies around the room, down the hall, and ends up landing on the carpet somewhere in my bedroom, but I can tell he isn’t happy and really just wants to get away from me so he can get back to his cage.
I just want him to fly because I feel that a bird needs to fly free. But he will have none of it; it doesn’t make him happy.
He’s had some hard landings, especially when he was young
before he figured out how to find the perches I’d put around the room for him. I imagine those hard landings made him want to
stay “at home” where he’s comfortable. But I want him to have the joy and the
exercise of flying free. So I keep trying to help him get comfortable outside
of the cage.
This little daily “dance” with Joey about being in or out of
the cage, flying from perch to perch vs. flying free, strikes me as akin to a
familiar human dilemma, one I’ve lived with in my own life. I wonder how much it might remind you of something
in your life. What seems like a cage to
me is safe space for him. I hate being caged and want him to be free, but it
isn’t what he’s ready for or wants.
Here’s the thing: he reminds me of me. My mother has told me innumerable times that every pet I’ve ever had has “taken after” me. (I actually can see that.) I’m a lifelong introvert, independent, and not that comfortable stretching my wings and flying out of my comfort zone. By nature I’m not a risk-taker, and I’m peaceful in my own space, in my own company. I was an anomaly in my family growing up. They didn’t understand my introversion, how socializing is exhausting to me, and how I need time alone, so I was always pressured to go places and do things I didn’t want to do. They thought I needed what they needed, that there was something wrong with the way I lived: too solitary. My sister especially used to do to me what I do to Joey now: try to get me out of my space and flying free. It was all well-intentioned, but stressful for me.
My relationship with my beautiful, perky little bird and my memories from childhood raise a consideration worth pondering. It’s important to learn to discern where the boundary lies between being caged and limited because we are afraid or unsure, and being free and glad to fly freely.
Equally important, from the other side: to understand where the boundary lies between pressing for what I want for someone else, and allowing them to define their life in their own way. I need to learn to let Joey live on his own terms, not to force him to fly beyond where he’s willing and ready to go. Encouragement can be good. Pressure and insistence isn’t.
This thought comes from the following passage written by an author I trust and admire, Anthony Bloom (1914 – 2003), a monk and the Metropolitan bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a bishop he became well known as a pastor, preacher, spiritual director and writer on prayer and the Christian life.
“In a world of competition, in a world of predatory animals, in a world of cruelty and heartlessness, the only hope one can have is an act of mercy, an act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships, which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent, heartless world in which we live.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray)
These words both trouble and comfort me. They trouble me because of the unvarnished, painful truth with which they speak of our “predatory” world. They comfort me because in the midst of all the undeniable pain and cruelty there are countless acts of mercy being proffered every day by unknown, unsung, humble heroes of kindness, an army of the divine if you will, instruments of a generous and merciful God. At least, that’s how I see it. I want to be one of that army, an instrument of hope in the world, if I can.
…for those who gave their lives, that the nation might live…
President Lincoln delivered the 272 word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offer his words today as a fitting tribute to all who have given their lives in service to our nation.
and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation,
conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created
equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or
any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a
great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that
field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that
nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot
hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have
consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will
little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what
they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the
unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It
is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before
us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under
God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by
the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”