Two years ago, the kids cleared the living room and, with the help of my sister-in-law, put on a short play based on Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Baby Wren and the Great Gift. In it, a newly hatched baby bird (ours had a paper beak tied around her head with string), observes the other animals in her canyon with awe. As each tumbles, swims, dives, or soars, she exclaims, “How wonderful!” Just as she wonders, “What can I do that’s wonderful?”, the sun sets (our 9-year old stagehand held up a red blanket behind the couch at this point). The wren bursts into song for all the beauty around her. Eagles, whose soaring she’d admired, turn to her and say, “You are little, but your song fills the whole canyon. How wonderful!”
The image of this baby bird singing catches my imagination. The whole story does, really. The way she is filled with wonder at the rest of creation. How her wonderful gift flows out of her in thanksgiving. The way the eagles speak to her so kindly of this gift. It’s different than other children’s stories for the small and insecure. There’s no proving or comparing and ending up better than. Instead, there’s freedom and joy, a spirit of generosity and unselfconsciousness in the way she joins the rest of creation, doing what she was made to do. She is the magnanimous man G.K. Chesterton writes about, who is great but knows he is small.
I first heard about Chesterton’s magnanimous man on a podcast episode with authors Jonathan Rogers and Kelly Kapic. Talking about Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of magnanimity (greatness of spirit) and pusillanimity (smallness of heart), Kapic says,
The reality is God has given gifts. And to actually always shy away and go, “I don’t have anything. I don’t bring anything”— that can be just as problematic as thinking you’re the answer to everything. It’s a problem to say, you’re not an answer to anything.
…We need to be willing to believe people when they point out gifts we have, cause gifts are more often— not always, they need work and cultivation— but they’re often more what you might call natural to us…Part of what Aquinas is saying is you have gifts, and when people are helping you see those gifts, recognize, believe that is from God, and now use it. You have a responsibility. Not in a bad way, but in a joyful way. Like, look what he’s giving you and use it. You’re good at the flute. Don’t be shy about it. Help us. We’re enriched when you play, and we’re impoverished when you don’t.
I love how communal this vision of gifts is, that it’s through the voice of others that we learn how we are uniquely designed to help others flourish. And that in this way, we worship God. I also love the sense of grace in all of it. “As each has received a gift,” writes Peter, “use it, to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). Gifts are truly gifts, freely distributed by God himself to be recognized, received with gratitude, and used for good. In another article, Kapic explains that magnanimity is not trying to be great apart from God, but employing “gifts as an expression of worship and as a way to help others.”
Here’s why this way of thinking about gifts is so helpful for me. Part of what sanctification has looked like in my life has been God reframing my thoughts of greatness, or more specifically, my own desires for greatness. Which is to say, he’s humbled me. Through the years, he’s increased my contentment and joy in the hidden things that are of great worth to him. He’s been discipling me in refusing to believe that what is impressive to the world, even the Christian world, is always impressive to God. To value the small and insignificant, because he does too. I am not there yet, but by his grace I have grown.
It’s been hard at times then, having been disciplined by God regarding these things, to know the difference between true humility and small-heartedness. Beset with self-doubts and fear of my own pride, and sometimes just in ignorance, I’m often slow to admit I have anything to offer. I want to grab a basket and put it over my lamp because it’s safer. This way I won’t make mistakes. Won’t sin. Won’t be tempted to boast. Won’t fail. But, here is God’s immense grace to me, it’s been the body of Christ who’ve come around me time and time again, patiently speaking courage into my heart. Recovering my hidden lamp from the corner, they’ve handed it back to me saying, “Here’s your gift. Use it.“
I signed a book contract earlier this month. It was an unremarkable process insofar as I did what I believe are the normal things. I wrote, I submitted to a publisher I truly appreciated, I waited, and I heard back. But the process was also an unveiling for me, God in kindness drawing out an admission from my heart that, and this feels strange even now to say, I do want to write a book.
The process thus far (still only just beginning!) has also been soaked with the grace of God’s people. Possibly my favorite part of receiving an offer was being able to tell those who’ve been praying and cheering me on, excited for the doors God might open for me. I forgot all about magnanimity vs. small-heartedness talking to friends this week about the book contract. It goes to show you…anyone can write a book!, I’d said. But they didn’t laugh or let what I said slide and, before we left, prayed for me and this good work God has assigned to me.
The publisher is taking a risk on me, I know, a relatively unknown writer with a very small platform. Yet I am encouraged that in extending an offer, they have also in effect said, “Hey, we think this is a need for God’s people, and we believe you are called to meet this need in some way.”
You are little, but we think your song will help others.
I remembered the story of the baby wren recently after listening to a song about how we’re made to join creation in praising God. I won’t stop singing, I won’t stop singing / These lungs were made to sing your praise, were the lyrics. I thought of the wren’s song. Like her, I am little. And like her, a song rises unbidden in my chest nonetheless, one I was made to sing.