Two Sparrows

Over the past month, I watched as two sparrows crafted a nest atop our porch pillar, and then mama bird sat patiently on a couple of eggs. Another sparrow would swoop in from time to time to try to take over, and papa bird would fight him off and then chirp noisily for awhile. It was like an episode of Wild Kingdom.

I knew it was getting close to hatching time, so I’d been watching anxiously for tiny beaks to pop up over the nest edge. Yesterday, we returned from church to find a tiny baby bird lying on the porch. He’d either fallen or been tossed out of the nest. Upon inspection, we found he was still alive, wriggling on his back. We sprang into action, grabbing gloves and a step ladder to put him back in the nest. Then crossed our fingers that mama and papa bird would return and tend to him.

The parents did return and inspected their youngster with surprise, then mama snuggled up next to baby. Later in the evening, I was pleased to see mama bird feeding not just the little guy we rescued, but a sibling who had also hatched. I went to bed with hope restored for our resident bird family.

So, it was heartbreaking this morning to peek out the window and find the nest missing from the pillar ledge. Both it and its sweet, downy occupants were lying on porch. This time, the babies were still and lifeless. I put on some gloves and carefully picked up their bodies, cooing softly to them as if they could hear me and trying not to cry as I loaded them into a bag along with the discarded nest.

In that moment, they ceased to be simply two tiny sparrows that had fallen on hard luck. They became an illustration of the uncertainty of life and the cruelty of death, evidence of The Fall, and proof that things are not as they should be.

One might accuse me of being overly sentimental or over-spiritualizing. “Seriously? They were just a couple of common birds.” But they were two of God’s creatures, two new lives in the world, created for a purpose, even if only to add their songs to the sounds of our neighborhood and eat some bugs. Matthew 10:29-31 (New Living Translation) says, “What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” They may be common, but they are not unimportant to God.

This evening I find I’m still sad about the baby birds. Maybe I just have a really soft spot for nature. Maybe it’s because we’re dealing with our own boys “flying the nest” in various ways. We moved our older son this weekend into his very own apartment for the summer, and our younger son is about to graduate and head to college. I think, in part, it’s because for several weeks, I watched with anticipation, and what I had waited for ended in an entirely different—and undesirable—way.

And the circle of life had skipped several steps for those little birds. In this season of my own life, as I deal with illness, that concept feels a bit unsettling. Still, I know God’s with me in this season, and I, too, matter to him. The second part of the Matthew passage goes on to say: “The very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” As much as God cares for the sparrows, he cares even more deeply for me.

God Speaks in the Distractions, Too

I was sitting on the deck yesterday, enjoying beautiful weather and blue sky, having quiet time with God. I was trying the practice of just sitting, being still, and simply paying attention to God’s presence and what He might have to say to me. No prayer list or agenda. Just still and attentive.

Before long, I was annoyed by a military tanker plane that flew overhead. The Pittsburgh airport also houses the 171st Air Refueling Wing, so it’s not unusual to see and hear giant planes flying by several times as the pilots practice. Typically, I’m fascinated by those planes. But that afternoon, I was seeking quiet, stillness. It was bad enough I heard chainsaws, road traffic, people talking as they walked up the sidewalk. That plane was loud and seriously disruptive.

On its second or third pass, I looked up to the sky in irritation and stared at the plane until it was out of view. The tanker plane is massive. Giant engines propel it through the air. The power it must take to get that plane and its fuel cargo into the air and keep it there… The power… Power… Power…

As I sat with that word bouncing around in my head, I felt God whisper to me, “You’ve been trying to do so much by your own power. Why not call on mine?”

I looked again at the sky and the nature on display in my yard and the neighbors’. The bright sun warming the earth. The wind blowing clouds across the heavens. Buds giving way to leaves. Birds flitting from tree to tree. Lush new grass covering the ground. A bee buzzing past my view. All of these were created by the Lord. In His power, He cares for them all.

God created me, too. And He cares for me dearly. He knows my struggles. In His power, he will carry me through them (if I let Him).

Turns out my “quiet time” with God wasn’t so quiet. But because I was open and attentive, He met me there anyway. And He spoke to my heart—even through what I initially thought was a distraction.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
– Isaiah 40:28-31

Thoughts on Transformation

As a Christian, the idea of transformation is a big thing. I’m involved in lots of conversations and studies about the concept. I hear sermons with this theme at their core many times a year. And I sing songs with lyrics describing the transforming process in many a worship gathering.

Christian transformation, as I understand it, is placing all aspects of your life before God—broken piece by broken piece—and fixing your attention on Him so that, through grace, He will bring out the best in you, revealing more and more of your true self, as God created you to be. (This is a very loose paraphrase of The Message translation of what Paul writes in Romans 12:1-2 mixed with what I’ve learned over the years.)

The concept of changing into a better, fuller, or more authentic version of who I am made to be should seem wonderful. If we believe God is good, He has created all human beings in His image, and we all have a divine purpose for being on this earth, who wouldn’t want to do whatever is necessary to bring about transformation so we can be more our true selves?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Think of butterflies, probably the most common metaphor for transformation. First you’re crawling through life, just hoping someone’s sneaker doesn’t come down you or a bird doesn’t carry you away. Then you go through an amazing transformation and you’re a beautiful, winged creature flitting through the air, alighting on flowers and drinking nectar. (Maybe you’ve seen Disney’s A Bug’s Life and Heimlich’s long-desired metamorphosis.) Shouldn’t we all want to become the butterfly?

But there are some realities of the human transformation process that I really struggle with. Our friendly caterpillar curls up in a chrysalis for its transformation. Life for the creature essentially stops while the changes occur—it doesn’t have to go about its usual activities at the same time. Its sole focus is transforming. And any pain experienced, any ugly stages that happen along the way are out of view of the world.

Unlike the caterpillar, our transformation has to occur in the context of our regular, everyday lives. At the very least, transformation can be awkward, as we adapt to new realizations about ourselves. At the worst, it can be incredibly painful and confusing, as parts of ourselves are stripped away like so many masks, revealing tender places and scars. During that process, we still have to go to the grocery store, get kids on a school bus, function in a job, and relate to family and friends.

It also isn’t a fast process. The average time for a butterfly’s metamorphosis from crawler to flyer is 7 to 14 days. Seems short to us, but some species live only 10 weeks, so that time of transformation is a significant chunk. Likewise, our transformation takes many, many years—in fact, the transformation process doesn’t ever really stop. If we allow it, God is constantly growing and changing us, revealing more of our real selves, revealing more of Himself in us.

Online recently, I stumbled upon a video of a conservator carefully cleaning and restoring a painting, which serves as another good metaphor for the transformation that God brings about. The conservator, with a little cotton swab, gently rubbed the painting, removing decades of dirt, to reveal bright paint colors. He performed this cleaning inch by inch. And once the painting was clean, he repaired tears and other flaws in the canvas and retouched the paint, so the masterpiece could be enjoyed for many more decades. It was a painstaking process, but the painting’s owner and the conservator thought it was worth the effort, no matter how long it took.

On the one hand, the concept of thorough, even continuous, transformation can bring joy and delight—ever growing, ever improving, ever becoming closer to our true self. On the other hand, given that transformation isn’t easy, the idea can also be paralyzing. I’m not sure I really want to start or allow that process.

I would much rather transformation be like the car wash. You pay the attendant, drive in, and emerge with an entire vehicle that’s shiny and clean on the outside. All the grime is washed away in a minute and a half while you sit safely and comfortably inside, watching the suds and brushes do their magic. But, alas, there is no substitute for time and surrender and hard spiritual, emotional, and even physical work.

I read this quote the other day: “For real change to occur, you will always need awareness, dedication, and perseverance. If you are really interested in these things, life will change in meaningful ways.” (Riso & Hudson, Understanding the Enneagram: The Practical Guide to Personality Types, p. 330). I guess that’s the question: Am I really interested in becoming aware of what needs to be transformed, being dedicated to the process of transformation, and persevering through any discomfort that comes with it?

I’m angry at God and I’m not gonna sugar coat it

For months, I’ve said I would love to go away by myself to have time to think and write and read and pray without anything distracting me. Some time for me, and time for God to wrestle with some “stuff” I don’t usually want to wrestle with. This weekend, due to a change in a friend’s travel plans, I got that time. Found myself with an Airbnb rental I couldn’t get a last-minute refund on and thought, why not use it for a personal get-away? So, here I’ve been the past two days in a cozy little rowhouse in a lively neighborhood of Pittsburgh, just a couple blocks from the Allegheny Cemetery.

Earlier this week, during a church gathering, I realized that I am struggling with doubt and questioning so much of what I believe about God. And in this season of living with cancer—and all that’s wrapped up in that reality—I am angry. Angry at God. REALLY angry.

I went for a long walk through the cemetery to enjoy this clear, breezy, spring day. I set out planning to chat with God as I walked. I tried to pray the “right” things. To invite God into my heart, to reveal thoughts and feelings that are destructive or counter to growth in this season of my life. To help me feel stronger in my faith. I even took out my earbuds so I could listen for God.

After walking awhile among the tombstones and monuments, I passed a stone bench near a large tree, right in the middle of things. I felt a strong voice in my head say, “Stop,” but I didn’t want to stop walking. I turned the corner and kept going. “STOP!” Fine… I turned around and sat on the bench. I started to pray but all that filled my brain were angry words. Not fair! What kind of God…? Why not heal my cancer? Why not cure cancer for everyone? How is it OK that I might die young and leave my family? I want to believe, but none of this makes any sense. Prayer doesn’t seem to fix it. Do miracles even happen anymore? Where are they? Where’s mine?!? If you’re able to create whole planets and new animal species and calm storms, how hard can it be to just remove the cancer cells from my body? People say there’s a purpose in suffering—but why does that have to be part of the story????

In my mind’s eye, I shook my fists and kicked my feet at God. I wanted to literally scream at the top of my lungs in anger and frustration and sadness—but being in the middle of a public cemetery with others around, I thought that would be a bad idea—so I screamed in my mind while I imagined beating my fists at anything and everything nearby. As I did, I heard the words, “There it is.” And I envisioned a child thrashing about while her father held her close, taking the hits of her small fist on his chest. I’m not going to say there was comfort in that image. Truth, perhaps. But not comfort. I still feel very far away from God. Or maybe, more honestly, I still want to keep my distance from God—to keep him at arm’s length or on the other side of my emotional fence line.

And I realized on that walk that I’m tired. My heart is profoundly tired from carrying feelings of grief, uncertainty, fear, and more grief related to my disease. My spirit is tired from grappling with these doubts about God and anger at him—and the guilt that comes from the doubt and the anger. I don’t know quite what to do with those feelings or how to get past them or how long it might take if I do. Or if I even want to put in the work right now to do so. So what does that make me? Lazy in my faith? Weak? Willfully disobedient? More guilt….

This morning in the quiet of this little house, I looked back through my past blog posts. Most have ended with a promise remembered, hope restored, questions I’ve found some answers to, or thoughtful questions to ponder further that may lead to greater understanding and growth.

I wasn’t going to write this post. And if I write it, do I publish it????? (if you’re reading it, I guess I decided yes). Because I have no answers. I don’t even have what I think are the right questions. I’m still as angry as I was a couple hours ago. Nothing is resolved. There’s no neat, little bow on this package. And how do I post something like this and then go to church Sunday and sing about God’s grace and hear a sermon about praying God’s will be done when at this moment I don’t really like what that will appears to be for me?

One could say that I have greater awareness of my state of heart, that I’ve opened up and been honest about how I feel, and that’s a good start. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m not willing to say I don’t believe at all—the fact that I felt God speaking to me in my mental temper tantrum is evidence that some part of my heart is still connecting with my Creator. There’s just so much that doesn’t seem to make sense—or that doesn’t seem to align with who I thought God was… or, more accurately, who I want him to be… or what I thought my life was supposed to be in Him. (Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!)

Etched with Hope and Faith

Right after Thanksgiving, I did something I said I’d never do. I got a tattoo. It’s on the inside of my right wrist, where I can see it throughout the day, and others will easily see it, too.

Until recently, I thought tattoos were kind of gross. Why would you mark up your body with something that didn’t come off? What if you changed your mind? And why would you put yourself through pain unnecessarily?

But the thing is, I already have several indelible marks on my body—scars from surgery, a scar from a biopsy, and tiny positioning tattoos from radiation. Those marks signify negative stuff. And I didn’t choose them.

I had a growing desire to add some marks to my body that I did choose, marks that signify positive, meaningful things.

So, the tattoo—a simple red balloon and golden, fall leaf.

The balloon stands for hope. It’s taken from a figurine my dear hubby got me two decades ago when I was feeling really discouraged. The figurine is of Piglet (from Winnie the Pooh) grasping on to a large, red balloon with all his might. That figurine has long brought me hope and encouragement when I’ve needed it. And I love the words of Winnie the Pooh that are associated with it: “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.” True, indeed. As an added touch, the tattoo artist put a loop in the balloon string. It was a simple design flourish, but that detail reminds me of life’s twists and turns. You’re hit with something tough and thrown off course a bit—“thrown for a loop”—but you find your way back around and continue on with life.

The leaf reminds me of my faith. There have been several instances in which I’ve felt incredibly close to God. Most have happened in the fall. I blogged about one of those experiences in fall 2017. When I see the leaf, I remember that God is walking with me through this cancer journey, as He does through every aspect of life. The Lord is close at hand, and the leaf tattoo couldn’t get any closer to me—it’s etched on my skin! Just as the tattoo artist did with the balloon, she included some elements that have come to mean more than the simple design details she intended. The leaf has three veins—for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each vein has three little off-shoots. In the first set of three, I see my husband and two sons. The second set of three reminds me of my relationship with God, with others in my community, and with the world. And the third set of three I see as a reminder to reflect on the past and its lessons learned, to live fully in the present, look to the future and its promise.

This tattoo will almost surely be my only. As my mother-in-law said about very painful things, “It hurt like a boo-boo.” But it was worth it. Each time I look at it, I think of what the images stand for, and it brings me joy and encouragement. Several people have also noticed the tattoo and asked about the meaning behind the images. Such encounters give me an opportunity to tell my story, acknowledge my faith, and remember the best and most important things in my life.

Peace through tears

Last week, I took a friend for chemo treatment. I felt some apprehension leading up to it. Caregiving is not one of my top gifts, and I expected to feel some sadness in witnessing my friend’s suffering at the effects of the drugs and in remembering when I took my late mother-in-law for her treatment.

So I asked some others to pray for me, and I too asked God to give me peace in this small act of service. As I picked up my friend, I really did feel at peace, and that sense of calm remained through her appointment and the return drive home.

tears10

The moment I walked off her porch, however, tears welled in my eyes. I fought them as I made my way to the car and shut the door. My inclination was to wipe the tears away (along with the feelings behind them), drive home, and go on with my day. But they were pretty insistent, so I gave in to the waterworks and had a good cry for a few minutes.

When I stopped, I chided myself for the lapse in my calm demeanor. My tears, runny nose, and red face served as accusers—God had answered our prayers and had given me peace, but had I allowed it to slip away. Once again, I thought, I’d taken my eyes off God and focused on the bad and the sad. Shame on me.

As I’ve thought more about my reaction that day, though, I’ve wondered more broadly about my understanding of what it means to be “at peace.” Is it really just feeling calm in a storm? Contentment in the midst of sad things? Feeling A-OK when something is most definitely not OK? Saying “it’s all good” when facing tough situations? I think that’s how I’ve always viewed peace: as an absence of—or perhaps, on some level, an ability to deny—any emotion that’s not a warm, fuzzy feeling.

But God gave us the full spectrum of emotions, so it seems strange that in granting us a “peace that surpasses all understanding,” God would disconnect us from some of those emotions as though they were invalid or unnatural. Perhaps, instead, his peace comes amid those feelings—not replacing or cancelling them out. And perhaps I’m focusing on the wrong word all together. Maybe instead of asking God for peace in a stressful circumstance, I should ask God to help me be aware of his presence in it, to help me authentically feel all the resulting emotions, and yet be assured that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

A burden I need not carry

We’ve just celebrated Easter… but I’m left thinking about Maundy Thursday and the word God spoke to me during our church’s service that evening.

I really didn’t want to go to the service, with its focus on Christ’s final days, his death, and burial. Anything related to death makes me uneasy lately, and I often land in a place of sad contemplation about my own mortality, which I’d prefer to avoid, thank you.

I was ready to skip the service, but thanks to a rain-out of my son’s sporting event, I had no excuse. Out of duty I went, fully expecting to become emotional at some point and leave feeling burdened and depressed. When I arrived to find the only light was from candles that we’d extinguish one by one throughout a tenebrae service, my sense of dread intensified.

Instead, what I experienced was a release. During a time of reflection, I felt God illuminating within me an understanding that I’ve been focused for too long on death—my own, that is—and it was time to lay that down. I felt suddenly quite at peace, and somehow lighter.

backpack

When I got the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I mentally and emotionally packed up what I thought I knew of my eventual demise into a tidy pack, and I’ve carried it along with me every day since, sometimes adding to its contents along the way. Some days that pack has been just a subtle weight pressing on my mind and emotions, some days it has been heavier than I can bear, and some days I’ve almost forgotten it was there. But it has been an ever-present accessory.

In our gathering, it was as though God was asking, “Will you let me carry that for you?” In that moment, I let him take it.

And by the end of the service, I was convicted that Jesus did not go to the cross and rise to new life so that I may waste time pondering my own end. He died and rose again and filled me with his spirit so that I may have abundant life—now and until the moment I draw my last earthly breath and even into eternity. And as for the last breath part, I don’t get to know when that will be or what it will look like, and any energy I spend contemplating that is energy I’m not spending living fully.

I’m sure I’ll wrestle the metaphorical pack away from God and insist on carrying it myself again. I’m stubborn that way. But maybe the realization of what I’m doing will come more swiftly each time I snatch it back and feel its weight. And maybe one day, through prayer and practice, I’ll fully surrender it.