“I do not like viewing animals like that,” he said. “They’re not just machines that exist to produce my food.”
I imagined chickens enclosed in cages too tight to move, and although I’m no animal rights activist, I believe he’s right. He mentioned how Lewis wrote in the space trilogy of animals serving humans as humans serve God; we may have the power to do what we want to them, but it is not kind to view them as simple instruments.
This makes me think: God does not view us exclusively as instruments.
Today, I didn’t have the strength to do what I needed to do. Class was starting soon, but I skipped. And I went to bed. The doctor had told me about this—that my veins are tired.
If I were only an instrument, I’d be a terrible one. If I were a hammer, I’d be broken. If I were one of those pitiful caged birds I’d be the one with feathers shedding in clumps on the ground.
Matthew Henry wrote that men are “but instruments in the hand of Providence,” and he was correct in a sense. We were created for God, and He may do with us what He wants. But we are not merely means by which He accomplishes great things. We are also the great things He accomplishes. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10) Here is the mystery: We are created as instruments, but amazingly, we are part of the end goal.
Created souls in relationship with God are not the neatly diagrammed subjects the psychiatrists would like us to be. We can be understood in terms of charts and data, as animals may be known as poultry or pork, but we cannot be truly known as we are.
I cannot accomplish much today in terms of God’s calling on my life: But in me, Christ may yet accomplish something, as He brings me to know Him as I am fully known.
I’ve never looked at Facebook before and felt small. Bored, annoyed, intrigued—yes. Never small. But as a couple hundred diverse lives updated their statuses on my feed, I suddenly felt, working from my couch, that my life was very unimportant.
Businessmen in Korea are signing deals in right now. Children in Saudi Arabia are scurrying to school, as some hikers are probably lost in the woods somewhere in Wyoming, and some boat is probably taking on too much water while tuna-fishing in the Bering Sea.
The world is like one gigantic beehive, with all our lives crammed together, humming away. I sit here, simply breathing, as lights flicker on And I am very, very small.
It’s not so bad. I don’t mind being small. The whole spinning universe looks all the more magnificent when you know you’re an unnecessary part.
But there’s the catch. Knowing we’re unnecessary doesn’t exactly give the warm fuzzies.
I was told the other day that the reason the Harry Potter books were such bestsellers was because every highschool and middle school kid could identify with Harry’s struggles. He was a perfectly ordinary, bullied little boy. He was also secretly, in his own way, magnificent.
In the pit of our stomachs, we know we’re perfectly ordinary; but we live with the hope that, like Harry, we’ll be proven wrong.
This started me wondering how many things we do to prove our own magnificence. Every contest-driven reality TV show (Cupcake Wars or Elite Models) is fueled by this urge to stand out. The winner is eventually the one who does. But maybe the whole racket is designed so the viewer at home can critique the winner the entire time, bolstering their own sense of superiority, and knowing that if that person on the screen is magnificent, they are even better.
Jane Austen asked, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” and Shakespeare said through Hamlet that even kings are never really more than the dust that will one day get caught on a traveler’s shoe. This could lead to nihilism; reaching out, Gatsby-like, for a still unattainable significance.
This recognition of smallness is like finding childhood again. Stars are more dazzling this way, sleep feels more peaceful, and the breezes are sweeter. I am small; yes, small enough to see that my continued humming along in this vast expanse is a miracle.
I am not needed, but I am loved.
While the world tilts and wobbles on its axis, and there are explosions and hurricanes and snowstorms, I am still here and He knows my name.
I so love this poem by Robert Frost:
I left you in the morning,
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not
Or dumb because you know?
All for me, and not a question
For the faded flowers gay
That could take me from beside you
For the ages of a day?
They are yours, and be the measure
Of their worth for you to treasure,
Their measure of the little while
That I’ve been long away.
We think that mercy is a sweeter and easier thing than justice, but it is not so; for justice takes us as we are, but mercy assaults us and batters at the gates of our heart, demanding that we be made new…Sometimes sorrow is easier than joy, and despair more comforting that hope.~ Dr. Anthony Esolen
An interesting poem by Chesterton. Uncertain about what he meant in the fourth-to-last line—but it seems to fit with what was written in that chapter in Orthodoxy, “Ethics of Elfland.”
“When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing…
Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And I find that I am not dead.
A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.
Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky;
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.”
- G.K. Chesterton
~ Andrew Peterson, North! Or Be Eaten
He had been too busy to think much about the real Anniera. It hovered in the distance of his best dreams but remained a dream only. It was hard to believe it actually existed, that across these very waters a home awaited him…He knew enough to realize that the way before him would be hard.
Is it worth it? he asked himself. Was it worth losing his old life in order to learn the truth of who he was and who he was becoming? Yes.
As a kid, I dreamed that people could be divided into two teams: heroes and thieves; beggars and heirs. At night, beneath a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars, I fully expected to be a heroine. (Everyone intends to be superman—not the victim who needs saving.) Now I know better. “Not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world where everything fits,” I am what Annie Dillard called a “frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world.”
It sounds as if I have some dramatic story to tell. That’s not true—my life story is no more or less dramatic than your average person. Sin ravages us all, though in different ways. It took some years before I realized I am no heroine. I am unable to fix or save anyone. And yet I am called (as every believer is) to have a ministry of reconciliation to the world. Not washed and beautiful—but commissioned to represent Christ.
How does someone like me carry that out? How do I serve? More than in books or articles, composed of paper and ink, but in my mood-swinging, fallible existence how do I contribute to the Christian community? What ought to be the anthem of the heroes, who find themselves truly thieves?
Originally, I intended this article to be three tidy points, each reflective of my perfect, sanitary life. The original idea quickly found its home in the trash. All I have to share is the depths of God’s grace where I have come to wade, and how he can overcome any of our frailties to show his strength.
In his essay “Damage,” Wendell Berry wrote, “To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound. An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.” To ignore sin and frailty is to subject ourselves again to its power. To dress our lives like the airbrushed cover of a Christian fiction novel when we actually resemble the disjointed lines of an unfinished Picasso, is to be dishonest about our own strength.
But authenticity—or the term I prefer, “biblical realism”—is really tough to maintain. Heck, I’ve found it’s impossible to stay honest with myself about myself for too long. That’s why an out-of-the-way phrase in the book of James commands us to do the unthinkable: “Confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16)
I don’t know why public confession is so powerful. All I know is that speaking aloud makes our repentance solid. Humbling becomes real when we tell the embarrassing truth…
Some days feel like treadmills. You never see the muscles in your legs tighten while you’re running. You’re just drained and your lungs burn.
I usually don’t look back on those days with any fondness, or as remarkable landmarks of growth. They remain in my memory as vague blurs of “making it.”
I have other life landmarks: Moving to the farm. My brother’s accident. Losing friends. Gaining new ones.
But I wonder if that’s accurate. Those events were pivotal catalysts of growth, but the growth did not end with them. The treadmill days matter too, in all the beauty of their straining and all the glory of their endurance.
“He will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is Zion’s treasure.” (Isaiah 33:6)
Don’t let yourself forget.
Haven’t read this book yet, but I can identify completely with the quote.
“I have always, essentially, been waiting. Waiting to become something else, waiting to be that person I always thought I was on the verge of becoming, waiting for that life I thought I would have. In my head, I was always one step away. In high school, I was biding my time until I could become the college version of myself, the one my mind could see so clearly. In college, the post-college “adult” person was always looming in front of me, smarter, stronger, more organized. Then the married person, then the person I’d become when we have kids. For twenty years, literally, I have waited to become the thin version of myself, because that’s when life will really begin.
And through all that waiting, here I am. My life is passing, day by day, and I am waiting for it to start. I am waiting for that time, that person, that event when my life will finally begin.
I love movies about ‘The Big Moment’ – the game or the performance or the wedding day or the record deal, the stories that split time with that key event, and everything is reframed, before it and after it, because it has changed everything. I have always wanted this movie-worthy event, something that will change everything and grab me out of this waiting game into the whirlwind in front of me. I cry and cry at these movies, because I am still waiting for my own big moment. I had visions of life as an adventure, a thing to be celebrated and experienced, but all I was doing was going to work and coming home, and that wasn’t what it looked like in the movies.
John Lennon once said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ For me, life is what was happening while I was busy waiting for my big moment. I was ready for it and believed that the rest of my life would fade into the background, and that my big moment would carry me through life like a lifeboat.
The Big Moment, unfortunately, is an urban myth. Some people have them, in a sense, when they win the Heisman or become the next American Idol. But even that football player or that singer is living a life made up of more than that one moment. Life is a collection of a million, billion moments, tiny little moments and choices, like a handful of luminous, glowing pearl. It takes so much time, and so much work, and those beads and moments are so small, and so much less fabulous and dramatic than the movies.
But this is what I’m finding, in glimpses and flashes: this is it. This is it, in the best possible way. That thing I’m waiting for, that adventure, that movie-score-worthy experience unfolding gracefully. This is it. Normal, daily life ticking by on our streets and sidewalks, in our houses and apartments, in our beds and at our dinner tables, in our dreams and prayers and fights and secrets – this pedestrian life is the most precious thing any of us will ever experience.”
- Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines
I wrote a letter to a dear friend the other day, who had written to say that three acquaintances had died and she wondered “what God might be saying.” I replied. I pontificated. Then, quite suddenly, I began to think about death too—my own—and became (ungratefully and selfishly) depressed in the following days. I started thinking about what I wrote, and how little I actually live the message.
So. Considering I’m thinking about this so much, I thought I’d post a piece of it here:
In this life, our happiest moments are tinged by the possibility of loss. So laugh. Love life. But our perfect happiness will never be here.
You are blessed to know this because people in the world always seek for perfect happiness, and their discouragement only deepens over time. On the other hand, Christianity lets us take our days in both hands, look at them closely, and love them for what they are, because all the ways they fall short will one day be re-cooped to us. It’s like when you’re hungry, but it’s nearly dinnertime so you wait. Because dinner is promised, you can be content in your small snack of carrot sticks. Heaven is the feast. Earth is the snack. Enjoy the snack for what it is, because you don’t need to trust it to fill you completely.
I don’t think God is trying to say anything through their deaths to you (necessarily). It is the Earth which cries out, aching and bleeding. In Rwanda, you saw white toothy grins in a place the world associates with devastation. We are called to live that same life. We may not have concentration camps here—but death is as much a reality here as in North Korea. We live that life, that middle breath in between birth and death.
G.K. Chesterton said it’s easy to understand the world when you remember that fairytales are true. There is a dragon loose and destroying fairyland. Death and tragedy are parts of our scenery as long as the dragon is here sweeping his barbed tail. But like the fairytales say—death is just a long sleep. (Remember? Snow White never completely dies. When she is poisoned, her death is softened to a mere sleep—something from which it is possible to awaken. This is because love is a deeper magic than evil spells.)
See the truth here? We live in fairyland. Love ones go to sleep, and we cry. (Remember the tears of the seven dwarves? Their pain and mourning was real and appropriate in the moment. They ached for the sleeping girl as we now ache over death.) But all Christians ever do is go to sleep, because One Great Love has taken death and made it nothing. We have the hope of Happily Ever After, when we will at last be awakened by Love, forever free from dragons and spells.
What you are witnessing may not be God saying anything. What you’re seeing is fairyland; that is, reality. Earth groans. It has since ancient times. Your ears are just now catching the sound.
If you are to “hear” anything to learn from death, I think the lesson is to “live like you are dying”— but only in a specific sense. It’s not that you should go skydiving or blow your savings on a last holiday. Truly, to live like you are dying is to see how much you are a branch and Jesus is your vine. “When time and space are through,” know that you will be found in Him. To live like you are dying is to be relieved by the knowledge that He is the love of your heart. He is behind your every heartbeat—both in your birth/source and your goal/ever after.
When people “fall asleep,” let that be your chance to remember who He is in your life. For me, I want to live my life to make beauty, to write stories. One day, I really want to be able to teach little children and get married and help my husband (as much as it’s in my power) to fulfill his calling—because of that foundational love. Death pulls us back to our foundations, making us remember why our hearts beat, and what is our calling…
Spend your days as you would spend your life, because one day you’ll awaken and find they were one and the same thing.