To Imitate the Strains I Love


THE REDBREAST AND THE SPARROW

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As a Redbreast was singing on a tree by the side of a rural cottage, a Sparrow, perched upon the thatch, took occasion thus to reprimand him: “And dost thou,” said he, “with thy dull autumnal note, presume to emulate the birds of spring? Can thy weak warblings pretend to vie with the sprightly accent of the thrush and the blackbird, with the various melody of the lark or nightingale, whom other birds, far thy superiors, have been long content to admire in silence.” “Judge with candor, at least,” replied the Robin, “nor impute those efforts to ambition solely which may sometimes flow from love of the art. I reverence, indeed, but by no means envy the birds whose fame has stood the test of ages. Their songs have charmed both hill and dale, but their season is past and their throats are silent. I feel not, however, the ambition to surpass or equal them; my efforts are of a much humbler nature; and I may surely hope for pardon, while I endeavor to cheer those forsaken valleys by an attempt to imitate the strains I love.”

Long before I had the desire to write well I had the desire to sing well. I wanted desperately to sing with an enchanting, ethereal, soprano voice that soothed, uplifted, and inspired all who heard. No other activity made my heart swell like singing.

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I received many compliments on my voice as a child. Certain it was a gift, I sang confidently and with gusto whenever asked. But when I grew a little older I came into contact with girls who sang better than me. Girls in my church’s children’s choir. Women on the radio. As I began to understand music theory and vocal control my own inadequacies were revealed to me as I’d never seen them before. Suddenly my “gift” seemed a lot less extraordinary.

I looked around me at all the world’s talent and a tightness crept into my throat. I became cripplingly self-conscious about my voice. I demurred when someone asked me to sing and squeaked an off-key tune if I gave in. Compliments unnerved me because I felt them to be either ignorant of the true talent there is in the world or else to be insincere, the kind of compliments people feel obliged to give when someone has presented some trinket they’ve made. I cycled through emotions of jealousy, discontent, shame, and a “why-bother?” attitude. I had swallowed without knowing, the lie that the gift that is not great is no gift at all.

The reproofs of the Sparrow are not unknown to us. We are spurred on by ourselves and our self-centered culture to gain a step ahead of the rest whenever we can. We are bombarded by comparisons on social media–an unspoken, sometimes even spoken, contest for who is the prettiest, the hottest, the sexiest, the smartest, the wittiest, the most pious, the coolest, the nerdiest, the craziest, the most sold-out for God. And it’s a contest, no matter how hard we try, that we are always losing. It doesn’t matter how much you are these things, there’s always somebody out there who possesses them more.

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Reading “The Hidden Art of Homemaking” by Edith Schaeffer helped open my eyes to the beauty hidden in small gifts, expressed in unassuming ways.

“…be satisfied” she writes, “with the fact that although your art or talent may never be accepted by the world as anything ‘great’, and may never be your career, it can be used to enrich your day by day life: enrich it for you, and for the people with whom you live.” (pg. 48)

“Even as the edelweiss which grows unseen by human eyes beside some distant mountain rock, or the violet under a fern at the edge of the wood, is unappreciated by any human being because it remains unseen, yet still has purpose because the living God sees and appreciates each blade of grass and each flower as well as every sparrow; so the lovingly prepared meal which may not seem to find any response or appreciation from any human being is being shared by Him in a very real way.” (pg. 127)

“…one does not need a degree, nor even a tremendous talent, to enjoy and bring enjoyment to others through gardening.” (pg. 85)

“If you feel you have an unrecognized talent for writing, or if you simply love to write and want to do it, my advice is write. But write without ambitious pride, which makes you feel it is a ‘waste’ to write what will never be published.” (pg. 136)

Pursue excellence, be the very best you can be, but remember our standard is not notoriety, power, or wealth. Our standard is not entrance into the Guinness Book of World Records. We can and should admire those of spectacular gifting but not to covet them. Let efforts of excellence be not for “ambition solely” but “flow from love of the art.”

My daddy didn’t have to be born with the eloquence of Apollos to become a Pastor. He doesn’t have to be the next Martin Luther or Charles Spurgeon to craft sermons every week to feed the sheep entrusted to his care, sermons rooted deep in the springs of the Word, enriched by his study in the stream of historical orthodoxy and by his love and understanding of metaphor and story, weaving a message I am on the edge of my seat every week to hear and drink from that fountain of grace.

My mama didn’t have to have to be uniquely innovative or revolutionary in her methods of education to homeschool me and my five siblings. She didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be the next Charlotte Mason or Susan Wise Bauer to give me and my siblings a rich childhood full of memories of cardboard igloos and log cabins in the dining room, hotel-room forts where we did our school in between a move, spontaneous raccoon dissections, endless read-alouds and field trips, a love of stories, a love of discussion, a love of learning, a love of God.

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I don’t have to be the next Norman Rockwell to illustrate fun taxonomy flash cards to help my siblings and I learn about the marvelous creatures God has made.

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I don’t have to be the next Rachel Ray to give my mom a break from cooking now and then or labor alongside her to prepare a meal that is both flavorful and nutritious, a facilitator of memories and meaningful conversation.

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I don’t have to be the next Carol Klein to cultivate a small butterfly garden to delight my younger siblings and my family’s guests.

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I don’t have to be the next Martha Stewart to upcycle glass bottles and jars into works of art to make a sick friend smile.

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I don’t have to be the next Shakespeare or Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald to write reviews and stoems that are beautiful and useful to my friends and family.

I don’t have to be the next Robin Williams to kindle a love for stories in my younger siblings by reading aloud to them with the couple of voices and accents I have taught myself over the years.

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I don’t have to be the next Shin’ichi Suzuki to teach children the basics of piano and instill in them a love for music.

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I don’t have to be the next Steve McCurry to capture through film the little joys that make up my family’s memories and the life of our church–moments, that if I waited for greater talent to come along wouldn’t be captured at all.

I don’t have to be the next Alison Krauss to sing a lullaby to sooth a crying infant or help teach my younger siblings to sing praises to their Creator or join my voice in harmony with my church congregation.

I don’t have to be the best the world has known and neither do you. We just have to find a way to use the measure of gifting God has given each of us. Stop trying to determine how great your gift is and instead, use it greatly. Even a small gift is still a gift, a gift to give as well as receive. Will you join me in saying with the Robin of Aesop’s Fable, “I feel not…the ambition to surpass or equal [the great singers]; my efforts are of a much humbler nature…I endeavor to cheer…forsaken valleys by an attempt to imitate the strains I love.”

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Miss the previous posts? Catch up here:

An Introduction to Aesop’s Fables

The Man and the Lion – Revisionism and Reductionism

The Snail and the Statue – The Injudicious Eye

Wisdom, Virtue, and Reputation – The Guardians of Reputation

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14 thoughts on “To Imitate the Strains I Love

  1. This is beautiful, timely and on-point. So much timely stuff at this point in my life. More grace. I’m glad I learned the lesson of writing “without ambitious pride” even though I was regularly bombarded with words telling me otherwise. More grace.

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  2. Love this! A beautiful, humbling, encouraging and convicting reminder of where our gifts come from and to Whom they should be directed. It is all too easy to get caught up in the comparisons of this world. This is a reminder I need to hear on a frequent basis. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Your talents are numerous darling granddaughter. You have a big loving heart and brilliant mind with a great love for God. A winning combination. Love you !!😘

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  4. This post caught me by surprise. A lovely surprise!

    Thank you for this. Even though I’m not a total perfectionist, I think I’ve crippled myself with this idea of “wanting to be the best.” I bought the lie without knowing it.

    This particular post of yours meant a lot to me today. Thank you for helping me see my blind spot!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another heart and motive checking blog post, putting pride- or unthankfulness- to rest. I could see women feeling the most pressured by this dogma of (especially) society’s ever rising expectancy. But as a guy myself, in our day and age masculinity is becoming increasingly standardized and stereotyped, as well. Whoever is(n’t) the strongest, fastest, biggest/”buffest”, funniest, most “manly”, “swaggiest”, gentlemanliest, (and the list goes on) is what it’s all about to the general public. Unless you’re straight out of a Calvin Klein catalogue and have the charm of a Disney Prince, it seems as if you’ll never be “man enough” for society’s standards. Nevertheless, this post reminds me that we’re all human, with our own unique strengths, weaknesses, and gifts- and that God is using us each individually for His perfect purpose. A much needed reminder, thank you Emily. 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for reading Nathan! I appreciate hearing a man’s perspective on this. I don’t that I could make a quantitative assessment about who receives more pressure: men or women, I’ve definately witnessed both. Too many people (Christians even!) have responded to our culture’s effeminizing of men by imposing an opposite but equally unbiblical portrait of manhood that requires brute shows of strength, an aggressive personality, and a lack of compassion which they view as a weakness. But the catch is, society’s standard for manhood (and womanhood) is always changing. God’s standard doesn’t. Hallelujah.

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  6. Pingback: An Introduction to Aesop’s Fables | Living In Heaven's Shadow

  7. Pingback: Revisionism and Reductionism | Living In Heaven's Shadow

  8. Pingback: The Guardians of Reputation | Living In Heaven's Shadow

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