As a birder, I keep “a life list,” a chronological listing of all the species I’ve seen and identified since I first began birding with intentionality. Since starting the list in 2004, I have seen 457 different species of North American birds.
The first 100 birds I added to the list came pretty quickly. In just over a week, I had seen a hundred different species, including the most common birds around me at the time I began.
The second hundred took a longer time to achieve. Since all the easy birds were seen in the first one hundred, it took months to reach 200. With each new bird I see, the list narrows to the more rare difficult birds to find. Nowadays in a good year of birding, I may add only fifteen new birds, and these are likely to be found far from where I live.
The goal of seeing all of the nearly 900 species of North American birds is elusive and extreme. The very best birders who have given many years to the task may have a life list of 700 birds. Achieving that number requires traveling to remote mountaintops, to blistering deserts, and to the farthest reaches of the Arctic.
I also enjoy photographing birds. At first, I took pictures of birds so I could more ably identify them later. With a photo, I can compare the picture to the guidebook. A good photo captures the key distinguishing field marks of a species. (If you want to check out my bird photos, you can click on www.pbase.com/mobish. Enjoy!)
Recently I had the unusual experience of adding a new bird to my life list that I had actually seen more than four years before. Someone visiting my photo website pointed out to me that I had mis-identified one of the birds in the photos. I had mislabeled a Clay-Colored Sparrow as a Song Sparrow. For four years, my photo had remained on the site with the wrong name. I thought I had never seen a Clay-Colored Sparrow. It was a new bird for me. Now, I could add it to my life list! After all, I had photographic evidence that I had truly seen it. Cool!
I had actually seen a bird I was seeking, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.
Similarly, as I look back on my life, I am now able to identify many things that I could not recognize at the time. I didn’t know at the time that the personal conversations, encouraging words, shared experiences, and supportive prayers offered me by pastors, youth directors, and lay members in my hometown church were expressions of God’s grace. I was immersed in God’s grace, but I didn’t know its name.
And during seasons of fear, confusion, and uncertainty, I had no idea that the encouragement, friendship, and community that helped me inch forward were actually God’s providential care. Looking back, I now perceive an inevitability to all the paths I have taken. Every decision and choice I have made has proven essential for arriving to where I am and who I am now. The same is true for all of us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but even the difficult paths took me to where I needed to go in order to bring me to where I needed to arrive. That’s God’s providence. A certain peace comes in accepting the past as a gift from God.
As I’ve grown older and matured in ministry, there are countless things I now recognize more clearly that I missed at the time. I started seminary when I was 21 years old and learned Wesley’s precepts on grace—prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, inner holiness, outer expression, perfecting love—well enough to score fine on tests and to survive Board of Ordained Ministry interviews. But it has taken years to tie those theological abstractions to the events of living, and to see the spirit moving in ways I can identify. Still today, I frequently can’t identify them until I look back with the perspective of time. I suspect this is an unfolding story. There are things about my life now that I cannot presently recognize but which I may perceive more clearly twenty years from now.
The apostle Paul, in his treatise on the enduring quality of faith, hope and love in I Corinthians 13 writes, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face….” The sustaining presence of God and the eternal qualities of the spiritual life may often seem elusive and unseen in this moment. With reflection upon our past, grace emerges to conscious awareness, and gives us reason to trust God into the future. God has been with us all along, God is with us now, and God walks ahead of us.
It was right in front of me, but I didn’t recognize it at the time. For how many profound turning points on the Christian journey is this true for you?
Yours in Christ,