A Partridge in a Pear Tree

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)

Over the past several years it seems like our decorating style has gone to the birds. We got a new couch a year ago and picked out a fabric with giant birds all over it. I didn’t have to work hard at all to sell it to my wife. I think because it had a black background. Her favorite TV decorating show has a “everything is black” theme to it. We just re-wallpapered in the kitchen and breakfast area. A very busy and colorful bird pattern. Guaranteed to make you car-sick if you’re not careful.

Yes, a theme is definitely appearing in our house everywhere you look. All because something bigger has happened several years ago – we’re just documenting it in our living space.

About five years ago I was in the middle of a terrible dark time that I experienced almost every day. It felt as if I was on a runaway ride that I couldn’t control. Like shooting down the rapids in an inner tube. Other people were making decisions about me and my future. Things were not proceeding the way I had always thought they would or had planned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.

Sleepless nights, worrying and being angry were getting me nowhere just deeper into a hole. I knew I couldn’t control what other people were doing. While my life headed off in directions I had never anticipated I just stood there in disbelief. I was shell-shocked for several years. When would this end?

[Little did I know that cancer was right around the corner ready to strike us and wage a terrible war we still fight every day.]

Then I remembered – was prodded to remember – that Jesus told his followers to stop worrying about their lives. He directed their attention to the birds. God takes care of them, won’t he also take care of you – He loves you so much more!

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” – Matthew 6:25-27

Of course I had read this scripture many times before. But as is often the case, this time it became a handle to hang on to. Then a series of events – signs, if you will, started over approximately two years. These experiences served to encourage and communicate to me that God is present and very much interested in my survival and transformation.

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ― William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The tribulations only got worse! But I began to calm down. I was consistently reminded of the truth of God’s presence and care for me.

Well, what happened?

I began to see birds in all sorts of locations and (most importantly) at significant times. I didn’t look for them (as Jesus had instructed, they would just show up at just in time.)

  • Right in the middle of an important decision about two people – there are two birds on the window sill.
  • Rushing out of the house overflowing with anxiety – confronted by a mockingbird at the frontdoor who will not move out of the way.
  • There was a bird who would perch on the corner of my neighbors roof day after day and sing at me when I came and went. He wasn’t there at other times, no one else ever saw him. For about a week or so I felt like he was there to meet me (and remind me).
  • Then there’s the little brown bird who would spend the night in the wreath on the front door and sneak into the house when we came home – never happened before, never since – but he came into the house several times (spent the night once) and reminded us how near is God.

There were all sorts of small and subtle encounters that kept me aware that I was not going to go through this terrible time alone.

Maybe when I was too near stumbling and fumbling my faith, God drew near and reminded me of what was always true?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6

I teach a course that helps students to understand some of the reasons why people have these kinds of experiences. Often our thinking and perception of the world around us is distorted. We can sometimes experience:

  • Confirmation bias – a kind of selective thinking that happens when we only notice those things that tend to be consistent with our current beliefs – we also fail to notice things that contradict these same beliefs.
  • Pareidolia – seeing significance in random and meaningless phenomenon

Even knowing that these biases in thinking often occur, I am convinced that what has happened to me was not caused by my own crooked thinking. I think I needed some help and there it was.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger

God has promised to be present with us, especially during terrible times. This fact is not dependent upon how we feel or how firm we believe. He has promised it, this makes it true.

Sometimes, because of God’s grace and nothing else, he makes his presence known. He has certainly put reminders in our path every day Jesus said to look at the birds – a sight we all see and maybe never notice.

When you open your eyes of faith and practice looking for the truth, there’s no telling what you might see.

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” ― J.I. Packer

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The End of Another Semester

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

The older I get, I feel as if I’m getting dumber and dumber. I just assumed wisdom automatically came with age.

I attend college graduation ceremonies at the end of each semester. What a celebration they are, every single time. I often remark to friends, as often as I attend, I myself still never seem to graduate.

Each year, I get to see the anticipation and anxiety as students approach the end of another semester and many, their last semester. Graduation from college is a tremendous rite of passage in life. It’s an important doorway into adulthood and so many dreams about the future.

Think of all the other important life passages people pass through:

  • Getting your driver’s license
  • Your first paycheck
  • Graduating high school
  • The first date
  • Marriage
  • Children, one by one
  • The big promotion

The journey of living is one filled with doorways. We pass through them, sometimes prepared but so often uncertain about what lies ahead. I can’t even remember what was going on during my three different college level graduations. It’s almost certain that I’m now in decline – I can’t remember most of last week! I do know that I’m learning lessons again and again – until they become “automatic” and I no longer have to ponder too long at the same crossroads.

“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” ― Mark Twain

When it comes to teaching and mentoring young people who are deliberately marching every day into a bold and frightening future, there are two contradictory lessons to be wrestled with:

  1. We have to pass through one door to proceed to the next. Sometimes this is too difficult for us because a part of us remains in the past with some unfinished business. Sometimes we leave someone important behind, because we need to or because we have no choice. We get stuck and can’t move because a part of us is too wounded to travel any further. There’s just too much pain and change threatens another possibility of hurt.
  2. The only life we are assured of having is the one we hold in our hand today. While dreaming and building a ship to sail on the winds of tomorrow is an important part of who we are – it is still an intangible hope. The risk is losing today and all of its opportunities while we long for the future. We just can’t miss today and all that it holds while peering out the window watching for tomorrow.

Semester after semester, watching all those college graduates strut, stroll and march across the stage to accept their diploma and pose for pictures, I sometimes wonder about what awaits at the other end of the stage. Once the happy family and friends have all left, the next chapter awaits.

Like two sides of the same coin, it’s always a tremendous challenge to balance these two great lessons about living. My wife is now trying to find her post brain surgery balance as she practices walking straight lines. It’s probably a similar feat, keeping one eye on our dreams about tomorrow while still seeking all the blessings in today’s path.

“Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:41

 

Find Your Way Back

That’s the song from Starship I was hearing today on the drive home. Someone in the parking lot had called me “sir” and I was once again reminded that something had changed in my life.

  • Fewer and fewer people that I encounter know what I’m talking about when I make references to comedy routines from the television show Laugh-In (67-73).
  • More and more strangers that I casually encounter are calling me “sir.” Even the old men at church started calling me “sir” a few years ago!
  • I almost never look forward anymore. These days I am mostly looking backward.

I don’t usually sit for photographs, ask anyone in my family. But nowadays when I do see a photo with me in it, there’s this old guy looking out. Something has changed and I’d sure like to find my way back!

There’s not much I can do about fewer and fewer people in my world who are aware of 70’s pop culture. I just need to raise awareness, right? So if you see me approaching you with a funny TV clip of Joan Worley betting her bippy, bear with me. I’m trying to stay young.

Maybe if I stopped talking to myself so much people wouldn’t call me “sir” so often. They’re just trying to be helpful, right? I think norms that help us all to get along, like showing respect, are good for us as a society. I need to just accept my new status as a good thing and just get over the shock.

The most troubling aspect of all this is my new habit of spending too much time in the past and not enough in the future. Sure I’ve gotten wounded by some awful giants, but who hasn’t? That’s no reason to hide out, lick your wounds and fear the days ahead. Who am I, a caveman who’s retreated back to my stone age cave? No, I’m a man of the future and what I need is a constant reminder to tighten my grasp on hope. To never stop dreaming, even after the nightmares have come and gone.

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.
― Langston Hughes

The longer you look backward, the more stooped you become, and the faster your heart spoils. Maybe that’s why people are stopping me in the parking lot, calling me “sir” (and asking if I need any help)?

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

– Psalm 103: 1-5

 

cs lewis