Walking past a sink full of dishes, a cluttered coffee table, and my writing desk with deadlines awaiting attention, I escape to the back porch, curl up on my damp couch in my pajamas, and savor each sip of steeping tea in my cupped hands. Listening to a cacophony of bird chatter with my eyes closed overrides all other senses. Slowly, I begin identifying each chirp, squawk, and haunting coo of the mourning dove among the chorus. A gentle breeze blows through towering pines like the shimmy of grass skirts swaying on an empty stretch of beach. And an imaginary blank canvas rolls out over my worries, pushing anxiety and doubt to the edges.
This day is a masterpiece awaiting inspiration, but stress threatens to block it out. In my second year practicing Sabbath with an online community of nearly 300, I’ve learned that peace and purpose are often found in the whitespace.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests we strive “to be the still axis within the revolving wheel of relationships, obligations and activities.” But lately, I’m less like an axis and more like the bent rim of a blown out tire driven on longer than would seem prudent. I’m overextended and depleted. But in stillness, I find restoration. Harnessing whitespace gives me stability and keeps the wheels of my life moving as they should.
As I tune my ear to hear the trills of a bird choir over the hum of a distant lawn mower and the thrum of vehicles racing past, my chest expands. A few breaths of quiet solitude carve new tread for what awaits.
* * *
Yesterday, I crouched on a small stool in the thick air of my garage surrounded by a hundred boxes pulled from the attic. The stool, painted with the words from a nursery rhyme, was pulled out of a dented cardboard box labeled Harrison’s Nursery in black marker. We’re moving to England in two months, sorting through a lifetime of memories. My son, now a teenager, is deciding which boxes stay in storage or ship on the crate. An international move forces the determination of value and the definition of priceless when convenience is no longer an option.
While I’m creating small stacks of preschool artwork as mementos from an era, my daughter’s graduation from high school is imminent. In twelve weeks, we move her into a dorm room one state away from our temporary house. Each item in her bedroom is a decision. What must be boxed and stored, taken with her to college, given away, or discarded? She didn’t plan to make so many decisions after she moved the tassel to the left. I didn't anticipate them either. The same way I didn’t plan on watching my husband leave for work in blue jeans with a stack of boxes and packing tape.
What do I do with the hundreds of books on the shelves in my office? He asks of me, a writer, this impossible question. His job and paycheck end in a few weeks. For someone who requires certainty, the unknowns of the future for me can be a test of inner peace. And a revelation about the foundation for which I’ve built my life. Thus, my quiet morning porch ritual.
I’ve learned that extended summertime seasons of the soul aren’t a true indicator of strength and endurance. When the branches of your life are full of low hanging fruit ripe for picking, anxiety seems distant and impersonal like watching someone else suffer with sickness. Choosing trust in uncertain circumstances creates soul resilience, an unshakeable peace during winter’s harshness, the season where empathy does good work.
Sabbath-keeping is a sturdy axis when the storms of life threaten spring’s hope. The choice of rest when responsibilities pile up seems counterintuitive, yet carving out routine time periods with the Creator provides a steady center while life continues spinning.
It is when we cannot control outcomes that the depth and breath of trust becomes revelation.
* * *
As we sort through musty books, gilded picture frames and old trunks, we aren’t victims of circumstance but co-conspirators in a faith journey. We’re making the choice to leave a beloved job and move to another country, walking through the pages of our story without knowing how the end will turn out. Relationships and open doors of opportunity are the scaffolding for our decision, using leadership experience and a track record of influence for broad reach and divine purpose. We’re waiting for the installation of walls and windows while we sort and pack. Making a life change before knowing specific outcomes seems foolish to outsiders and even to some who know us.
But even the resurrection of Jesus was received as an idle tale by those who knew him personally.
“Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Then they remembered Jesus’ words. They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up. But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that’s all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head. (Luke 24:8–12, MSG)
This is our ninth move in twenty-five years of marriage, each one divinely appointed. Many shook their heads in disbelief but hindsight makes them believers. Faith doesn’t require the assurance of numbers on a paycheck or amounts of square footage. And knowing that doesn’t mean I’m superhuman without emotion.
My need for certainty often silences faith. Instead of trusting in the process, I begin creating scenarios based on the limits of my experience. I visit What-if-ville often. Taking surveys, collecting opinions, making mental flow charts of potential outcomes and it all leads to the same place — acute vulnerability and fearfulness. My need for certainty sabotages the inner voice pulling me to slow down on the porch. I mistake who I am for what I do and suddenly, I am a punctured wheel of anxiety rotating on a bent rim of self-doubt.
I know my axis is wobbly when writing becomes about acquiring “likes” or followers on social media platforms instead of passion pouring out. Perspective tilts when parenting my children becomes about maintaining peace at all costs instead of investing in relationships. When gifts chosen for others are about convenience instead of well thought out. When moving slants toward possessions and money instead of influence for purpose and the fulfillment of calling. When I choose more on my plate instead of stillness and quiet with my Maker. That is why I’m here with the birds on my back porch.
* * *
Later that afternoon, on the way home from running errands, I stop and pick up senior class gifts for my daughter and four of her closest friends. As I stand at the counter next to my mother-in-law, waiting for curly ribbon to be tied around the handles on each of five gift bags, I am captivated by a piece of artwork propped up behind the cash register.
“I love that piece of art,” I casually comment, breaking into a random conversation between sales clerks.
A rectangular canvas of textures and muted colors — steely blues and neutrals — form an antique birdcage with silhouettes of birds perched inside and out.
Overhearing my random comment, the shop owner stops what she is doing and brings the rendering closer for inspection. She points out the letters and numbers stamped in the lower right corner — PS4610. I didn’t notice them at first glance. Turning the canvas around, she reveals the handwritten message and the signature of the artist on the back between naked pieces of wood framing.
Be still and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world.”
A masterpiece in a gift shop becomes the sacred echo to the message of morning whitespace. Sabbath is the string pulling the pages of life together into one big, beautiful story of adventure in the book of life. Creative wonder winks from the Artist who is our axis in times of uncertainty. Don’t miss the still small voice among the noise of busyness or the anxiety of uncertainty. It may sound a lot like bird chatter.
Shelly Miller rests on the beach in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, with her husband of 24 years, two teenagers, and a trusty camera. In conjunction with her blog, Redemptions Beauty, she started the Sabbath Society in January of 2013, because she wants to live into the restful perspective cultivated on vacation all 52 weeks of the year. When not resting, find her chatting on Facebook and Twitter.