I am captivated by many things. We live in a beautiful world, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Even as I type this I am slightly distracted by how the blue of the sky and the white of some lovely puffy clouds are draped behind a tree with gorgeous green leaves just starting to give way to autumnal orange hues and one lingering magnolia bloom. It’s one sweet flowering reminder of summer as it recedes. Truly, it’s a sight fit for Cezanne or Monet, just innocently poised outside the window of this coffee shop.
The beauty of nature catches me off guard on occasion. Sometimes I marvel at the luxurious world in which we live. In these moments it’s almost as if God Himself is tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me how loved we are. And of all the physical, tangible reminders of God’s love and provision throughout creation, few capture my heart quite so well as birds.
I cannot really remember when my affinity for birds began—early, I think. My family always fed birds. My grandfather could identify all kinds of bird species and would put out hundreds of pounds of seed every year. My mom had a blue bird guide when I was little (let’s be honest, she still has it) that I loved to flip through and admire its colorful inhabitants. I remember around the age of seven a pair of gold finches (Washington’s state bird) came to nest in our yard. I would sit in the window and watch for them every day after school. When I was eleven my class took a field trip to the coast and we witnessed the moment of peak sand piper migration at Bowerman Basin. Thousand of birds in a chaotic, gorgeous dance. I was awestruck.
When I was a college student I always loved seeing birds on campus. Amongst the bustling collegiate types concerned with getting to class, meeting up with friends, and checking off their to-do lists, were the carefree birds frolicking around in puddles or scurrying under bushes. The birds always seemed so joyful to me. I cannot say if it was my love of birds that made me first notice the scripture in my new Bible, or if stumbling on the scripture changed my appreciation for birds, but these words sang when I first read them:
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:26-27 (NIV)
This verse from the book of Matthew meant a lot to me as a new Christian and it continues to be one that I need to hold close to my heart. I felt God whisper in my ear one day walking across the WWU campus that the birds should remind me not to worry and so I’ve tried ever since to allow them to do so, because in addition to coming from a family of bird-lovers, I also come by anxious tendencies rather naturally.
I remember staying awake long into the night as a child, worried about every sort of danger that might befall me or agonizing over aspects of my day that could have been different. As I got older my anxieties didn’t abate, they just changed. I was not as worried about spiders in my bed or the mean dog next door, but I added a host of relational dramas to my set of anxieties. Did my friends really like me? Would I ever have a boyfriend? Would I get a good role in the new ballet our company was preparing to perform? Would my grades be good enough? I tried to avoid the anxiety of my fears and expectations by being as perfect as possible.
When I met Jesus in college I began to understand the depth of love that God has for me and started a process of healing and growth that would allow me to like myself a lot more than I did (let’s be honest again, that’s a whole other blog post). But loving Jesus didn’t exactly free me from anxiety. I still find plenty to worry about.
In my current season, much of my anxiety swirls around being a wife and mother. I constantly worry that I’m not doing a good enough job. Do they know that I love them? Do they wish that I was different? Better? If my husband of thirteen years leaves his wedding ring on the counter of the bathroom and goes to work, a small terrible voice in my head suggests that he’s done so on purpose so he can flirt with ladies he encounters during his day. This is ridiculous, but I still worry about it.
I am generally fairly certain that I am damaging my children beyond repair. When I was a stay-at-home mom I worried that I wasn’t showing them that I could use my intellect and training to contribute to our family or the world. Now that I am working full-time again I fear that they are missing key elements of childhood by having me absent from the house during the day. Will they know I love them if there aren’t edible treats after school? Am I using the right parenting techniques? Should we limit their screen time more (probably, yes)? Do I give enough time to my friends. Will there be some horrible accident that changes our lives forever? Does my husband secretly wish I would lose 10 pounds? Will I ever actually lose that ten pounds? Worry. Stress. Anxious thoughts. They swirl in my head, the background music to many scenes in my life.
The thing about anxiety that is so, so pernicious is that most of it makes us so afraid that we are stuck—stuck in our own fear, in our own anxiety—that we miss opportunities. My anxiety about a past that was not good enough or a future that is far too scary and uncertain steals my present. Sometimes I allow fear to keep me from doing, trying, growing, learning, and experiencing what God has for me. Sometimes I let the chorus of worried voices sing so loudly in my own head that I cannot hear God whisper in my ear that He loves me, that He has good plans for me, that I am enough just as I am.
Recently aspects of my daughter’s nature have become readily apparent—she is an anxious perfectionist. She is also extremely tenacious, which is a positive way to say that she is stubborn. She’s seven now, but truly, a lot of her anxiety has been there all along. When she is uncertain of herself, of her ability to perform, of how a new situation will unfold, she just refuses to engage. Because she is very worried about her clothing not matching, most mornings she insists that I pick her outfit, but then she is independent and stubborn enough to refuse the clothing that I suggest. Because she is worried about not being as good a reader as her brother (who is two years older, and admittedly, a bit of a reading savant), she often refuses to read to us at all. Her teacher recently shared that she cried at school and refused to complete a self-portrait during art when her work did not come out as she had wanted. Because it couldn’t be perfect, she didn’t even want to try. I worry about how anxious she is. Did you catch that? I worry about my daughter’s worry. I am anxious about her anxiety.
Because I know that I am a worrier and because God whispered to me that birds should remind me not to worry, and because I like birds, I have them all over my house and office.
Recently we had a very challenging evening when my daughter cried for about an hour over our request that she read to us (because it’s her homework). Afterwards we had dinner, then after dinner she cried and screamed and raged at us (mostly me) again. During the first hour I tried to reason with her (which is a ridiculous strategy, I know) and at one point I just walked away. But during the second hour, when she really escalated and starting blaming me for all the woes in her second grade life, something amazing happened. I’m not kidding. I caught sight of one of the ceramic birds in my kitchen and God whispered, this isn’t disobedience from your daughter that you need to quell, this is her anxiety. She didn’t need words. She didn’t need me to tell her what to think or feel. She just needed me.
And I so sat with her. I held her for a while. I joined her on the carpet while she cried and told me I was terrible. And eventually she told me, “I feel stuck. I am stuck here and I feel like I cannot move.” And I said, “I know.” And then she said, “when you ask me to read it’s too much pressure. I’m afraid that if I read and I make mistakes that you’ll be mad at me.” And I said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I would never be mad at you. I would help you.” She looked at me for the first time in at least a half an hour and said, “Even if I need help with every word?” I replied, “yes, even if you need help with every word.” Later she chose to bring a book to me and she read the entire thing beautifully. It was a funny book, so we giggled as we snuggled on my bed and read.
Later I was reminded of another gem from scripture—another verse that I need to keep close to my heart.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6
I know that this is true. Even if He has to help me with every word. I know that this is true and He reminds me often by showing me joyful birds and his beautiful, captivating creation.