• Courtney Ellis

A Specific Love

Older congregants occasionally email me stories of spotting elusive yellow-throated warblers or particular kinds of rare pelicans. I used to respond with a kind word that veiled my interior bewilderment.


Birds? Really?


Now, largely bound to my home by the plague year, I look out the window and see a mockingbird sitting atop the neighbor’s cactus; a fox sparrow pecking at the ground beneath our table; a bright-eyed phoebe perched on the string lights above and I marvel. The stilling of our travel and commutes has put me in touch with our backyard and its wonders for the first time. I have avian identification apps now. I’m asking for better binoculars for my birthday.


Birds are actually astonishing. This isn’t news to many of you, but it was to me. They have personalities, opinions on where they sit, and who may share their perch. Some mate for life, others mingle with more fickle affections. Even their names are a fascinating study—purple finches are actually just mottled brown. Mourning doves act more surly than sad.


So much life happens in our few square feet of dandelions and grass. I never noticed before. I wasn’t paying attention.

Love pays attention. God paints the sunset whether or not we pause at the sink and look up, leaving the dirty dishes a moment longer. Annie Dillard wrote, “Acts of beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try and be there.”


Love is specific. We can’t love in general any more than we can hope in general. It demands an object, a witness. It is not the devil who is in the details but the Lord.


It is not the devil who is in the details but the Lord.

In Charles Yu’s astonishing novel Interior Chinatown, the protagonist, Willis Wu, is also billed as Generic Asian Man, a trope of blended sameness custom made for background acting. At first, there are few moments when he is more than this flat conceit. But his distinctive self is visible to his love interest when she picks him out of the crowd because of his charm and generosity and kindness, distinct from the other background extras, despite their similar features.


I didn’t fall in love with my husband because of his love for good guacamole and well-polished shoes, his California confidence, or the tender way he held my face in his hands the first time he kissed me. But in another very real way, I did.


This is how we are loved, how all of God’s people have always been loved. Peter mouthing off, Mary clinging tearfully, James droning on and on about works—all loved by God in their specific personhood, dearly cherished as works in progress, beloved children.


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In seminary, my favorite professor used to ask his students why we’d chosen ministry. “I just really like people,” one replied.


“Really?” asked the prof. “Have you met people?” Loving the idea of people is not loving people. Individuals are difficult to love. Ask any child or spouse or parent. Ask any leader or pastor or teacher. Yet this is our call, our task, our privilege. Paul’s “greatest of these” is by far the most difficult, by far the most rewarding.


Early on as a pastor, I often felt paralyzed by the inadequacy of my love. I couldn’t help everyone, save anyone, make even my little corner of Wisconsin a better place in any significant and lasting way. Calling one shut-in wasn’t enough if I couldn’t call them all. Preaching a powerful sermon was an exercise in ephemera—by the benediction I was in a cold sweat wondering what I’d preach on the next Sunday. I worked to exhaustion while my tangible impact felt like so very, very little.


Unlimited options are not grace but burden.

Yet this is the grace of love. We cannot do it all, but we can do one tender thing, and that specific act of paying attention to another contains whole worlds. We can cook a meal when the new baby arrives. We can stand with a sister in her distress, witnessing and acknowledging her pain. We can extend dignity to a neighbor after the loss of his job. We can remember the anniversary of the day a friend became a widower. We can pick up the phone, send the email, offer the card. Sunday after Sunday my gift and goal is to stand before God’s people and witness to the truest thing I know—Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.


To love is to choose—this person, this life, this sacrificial early morning, this late-night listening ear, this pause at the mailbox to ask how the surgery went. Unlimited options are not grace but burden. We cannot save the world—or even ourselves—but we can do one tender thing. And then another.


Like birds alighting on the stone wall behind my house, each gracing us with only a moment or two, plucking a seed from the grass, pausing to sing, fluttering away.


A flash of transcendence.


A reminder that we are loved.



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