All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect.
—Richard Rohr, Healing our Violence Through the Journey of Centering Prayer
I have a noteworthy Northern Mockingbird in my yard this year. He has staked out his claim in the pine tree on the western side of the house and is singing fiercely even as I type these words. These delicate, noisy omnivores have a remarkable ability to mimic other birds or animal sounds. Day and night, this bird in my yard knows more songs that any other mockingbird I can remember. He pretends to be a cardinal, a wren, a chickadee, a robin, and a Northern Flicker woodpecker, and he occasionally mimics the sound our Toyota makes when you close the doors by remote.
I heard him this morning convincingly making the sound of a blue jay through the open back door. I couldn’t see the bird and wondered for a moment while I made my toast if it might actually be a blue jay, but there was a slight variation of tone, and it sounded a little less robust than a jay. I couldn’t be sure at first. But after a minute, he skipped on to the next song, showing himself to be the chameleon orator that he is. It made me think that this uniquely human habit we have called “naming” is a tricky thing. There are seasons when I have tried on various identities, labels, and associations. I have watched close friends and my children do the same dance as that mockingbird.
Within society, labels can help us wrap our minds around the identity of the six billion of us who share this one planet. Sometimes the categories and boxes that we drop ourselves into help us manage difficulties and discomfort. “Oh, you have ADD?” Or “She wouldn’t want to go caving with us since she’s claustrophobic.” And other times the categories squeeze us into particular social groups. “Oh, you went to Cambridge?” Or “Oh, I didn’t realize she worked for the Bush campaign.” Or “Oh, he goes to Cornerstone church.” But does the sum of our associations equal who we are? I hope not. I often live like I want to hide behind the labels that have been placed on me. I often let assumptions speak up for me when I walk into a room, but in truth, I am still figuring it all out. I am constantly coming into new information about the differences between blue jays and mockingbirds, and about myself.
The art of naming goes back a long way. In the garden, God presents the animals, and Adam speaks a name over each of them. What a sacred day that must have been in the garden with the Spirit of God. Becoming. And many moons later, St. Paul wrote in a letter to the Galatians that in Jesus, there is a new name and revolutionary equality in the family where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but in Jesus we are all held together — this one in whom we live and move and have our being.
I am drawn to the wide space between the margins of our many societal names. In my church, for example, we often have liberals and conservatives in the same pew. Charismatics and Catholics. Rich and poor. Bohemians, the working class, and executives. Single, married, and divorced. All ages. While I celebrate the necessity of guardrails for orthodoxy in the prayers we pray together each week, there is a prevailing mystery that we live in a time and space where many of our questions are not answered. The questions presuppose our finiteness and God’s greatness. The questions frame our limitations and His abundance. In this wide space between, we can trade our hubris for humility.
Yesterday was my 37th birthday and I am still discovering my identity and finding that there are no tidy solutions to the broken pieces. Bob Dylan had it right in saying, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I am not just any one of the things I do or know or love. And on a Sunday morning, when we “single file” ourselves up to the kneeling bench for Communion, it is a transformative reminder that none of us are going to have ourselves or each other all figured out. As Richard Rohr would say, whatever the conflict within us or between us, the solution is usually “both-and.”
A couple of weekends ago I went up to Canada for a retreat with my friend Bob Goff and his family. While traveling, I woke up in a hotel room in Vancouver on the first morning of four days offline and out of cell range. Before I opened my eyes, my thoughts scrolled through the usual everyday responsibilities and roles. Where are the kids? Do they need me to start cooking the oatmeal? I wonder if anybody texted me overnight? Should I check in with so-and-so to see if she’s feeling better? Did I take back those library books? Does the dog need to go outside?
And then, for the first (of many) profoundly healing moments of the weekend, I realized that I was temporarily untethered. But not untethered in the Sandra-Bullock-out-in-space sort of way. Instead of feeling distress or loneliness, I felt an unfamiliar sensation that it was just me here. I remembered that I exist. Not only that, but I felt relieved and surrounded by the acceptance of God. Nobody calling. Nobody for me to check on or take care of. No Twitter feed. No e-mails waiting with exclamation points.
That moment was a gift, and it changed me to experience that beneath all the other obligations and responsibilities and associations that I busy myself with, I am okay just being. Several days later, I was overjoyed to throw my arms around my kids when I got home after the weekend away. But in that homecoming, I was able to love them more generously knowing that I am not here because I am useful to them or to other people or to God. The understanding of self-significance is the beginning of real love.
Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” commands sacrifice and other-centeredness, but it more subtly affirms the importance of self-care, that out of our own identity we give ourselves up for the other. You cannot give what you do not already know.
Like the mockingbird still scrolling through his favorite songs in the yard, I realize that I have been singing a lot of other people’s songs. They are nice songs. Familiar. Categorizable. But we are offered the possibility of “being.” And just being is enough. More than enough, actually. I found that in being untethered I do indeed have my own song. From life’s first breath to its last, this is the invitation to all of us — to figure out how to sing the song we were uniquely made to sing. I am singing a new song: the abundance of God and the contentment of being.
Sandra McCracken is a singer, songwriter, and producer from Nashville, TN. Over the course of eight critically acclaimed studio albums, Sandra has developed a body of work that encompasses hook-driven melodic pop, No Depression-style Americana, contemporary recastings of classic hymns, and even children's music as part of the Nashville alt-folk super-group Rain For Roots. Her music has been featured on ABC's Grey's Anatomy; her 2013 solo record, Desire Like Dynamite, charted as one of Billboard's Top 50 Heatseekers; and she is currently at work on a new album for 2014.