The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.


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I walked down the dirt road on which my in-laws’ cabin sits and let the beauty of nature wash over my senses. The sun does not not neglect to generously warm each inch of my skin. The breeze offers a cooling balance and stirs the long grasses to release their sweet scent. The ferns on the forest floor stretch out their fronds in endless configurations of orderly beauty against the rakishly disorderly backdrop of the forest floor.

It is all there, whether I choose to enter into it or not. This feast for the senses, almost an embarrassment of riches in a place like the cabin–the sun, the breeze, the sweet grasses, the fern fronds, the birch forest- it all would have existed even were I not here to experience it. This uncultivated beauty is unlike the more civilized variety that we humans maintain or mold by our own efforts. Natural beauty simply IS. By no effort of mine it exists in glorious splendor, free for me and all the rest of humanity to enjoy.

I walked and I felt the tongue of my soul thirstily lapping up all that was around me, I started to wonder why I am made like this.  Why is natural beauty the food that feeds my particular soul?  In my life as a mother of three young children there are a long list of things I need to do in order to receive the benefits of healthy relationships, a passably hygienic home, meaningful work, even recreational pursuits require a lot of effort at this time of life. For every single arena of my life there is a litany of requirements for maintenance.

Yet the beauty of nature excites and soothes. It inspires and humbles.  It wraps around my senses in endless varieties and provides satiation.  But I do nothing to receive such a lavish feast as is provided by a place where natural beauty prevails.

I do not need to pay nature in order for it to administer these gifts to me. I do not need to feed it. I do not need to work for it. Entertain it. It seems as if it would balk like a strong but good-natured grandfather if I tried to coddle it.

Natural beauty requires nothing of me.  In fact is one of the few things, perhaps the only thing, that I feel no sense of guilt as I enjoy it. It is undoubtedly good, so I feel no shame as I bask in it and I do not accumulate debt as I accept its gifts. I can be free to receive what it gives me with no sense of needing to reciprocate. It takes nothing from me, not even requiring my appreciation of it as sometimes I feel about beauty that has been produced by human hands.

Natural beauty does not require me to maintain it in order for it to be.* It existed before I came along. It will exist after I am gone. It is remarkably persistent, tenacious even. Fire consumes acres and dainty, green tendrils begin to shoot through stricken soil soon after. Disasters occur to wipe out entire landscapes, but natural beauty reappears before humans can even begin to rebuild. Destruction may seem to have overcome, but glitter spills in night skies above and the sun will rise amidst a never-identical show of enigmatic shades of color the next day. Natural life will unfurl its tentacles wherever chaos strikes and slowly but surely begin to re-order itself.

And for a soul as hungry as mine, it is a blessing and a wonder that inherent in the character of natural beauty is that it is perpetually available. There is not a time of day in which it does not exist somewhere around you, most likely within immediate reach of at least one of your senses: loamy soil’s scent, a dancing tree’s shadow play, smooth stone rubbed between finger and thumb. It. Simply. Is. Moment upon eternal moment. Cycles of light and life never ending. The beauty of nature is there to take in.

As I round another curve on that dirt road only to arrive upon another landscape ripe with pleasure for the senses, I realize that I cannot think of any other thing besides natural beauty of which I can say this is true of its relationship to my soul: It requires nothing of me and yet my whole self- mind, body and soul- feel saturated with enjoyment of it. I receive so much without giving a single thing to it but my attention. And even if I do not give it my attention, it still exists within my reach for whenever I do tune myself to it again.

And as I turned back on the path towards the cabin again, the brilliance of the sun’s reflection on Lake Superior dazzled my eyes. In the same sort of flash I realized why this natural beauty is food for my soul. Because the beauty of nature is, to me, as clear a picture of God’s grace as I can seem to experience. And none of us can survive even a moment without grace. Grace is that which is present around me at every turn, whether I call it or not. Whether I recognize it or not. Whether I do anything to deserve it or not. It requires nothing of me and yet exists for me in the tick and tock, hum and drum, press and pull of every moment. This is what grace is: It is the thing which is there for us to receive freely and be filled. 

I may not always be tuned to appreciate it, but as sure as natural beauty IS whether I choose to tune my attention to it or not, so is Grace.

Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. Romans 1:20

What feeds your soul and why?

*Though, of course, if we are not stewards of it we do squander it. But sometimes I question if humans have the ability to completely destroy it. Though our efforts contribute, a hand greater than ours truly holds the power of life and death. And I think we see this common grace and the faithfulness of God in the persistence of natural life despite our best and sometimes worst efforts.

 

 


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Of Ants and Men: When One Gets Squished Does the Universe Care?

Please don’t judge me too harshly, but there was a carpenter ant crawling across my bathroom floor today and I squished it with my sandal. And I felt a pang of sadness and still have a vague sensation of lingering guilt about it. But I felt no differently about that particular ant than I would about any of the other ants in the whole world that could have been wandering across those tiles at that particular moment.

Sometimes I wonder, am I like that ant? Just this one human being among billions of humans on the earth or maybe trillions if we look across the span of time. Am I anything more to Him than a  tiny creature whose existence is meaningful in relation perhaps to the others who share my space and time but not very significant in the grand scheme of things? Does it matter if it was me who was inhabiting this space and doing this work in this moment or could it have just as well been any other human being doing the same thing to basically the same end? Does my individual existence, my personal purpose or a relationship with me as a single entity matter to Him? Or He mostly just concerned with the larger picture, beautiful and awesome picture that it might be?

I had a professor who was an atheist until he attended a conference about the cosmos and he listened to scientists in a field not his own discuss the way the world was put together. And he wondered at the way it was all so purposeful. So not random. And he said it changed him. He knew there must be some sort of Greater Force out there, putting it all together. Holding it all together.

It has never been a challenge for me to experience God like that. I see God in the grand, sweeping scale of the universe and I can look across the span of history and see the ways He has brought beauty out of destruction or how compassion overcame brutality. I can see that His love for the human race has conquered death and disease and war and hatred. That His love for us has held off the tide of destruction that we have created in our own arrogant ignorance: the way we consume and destroy and pursue always more because it’s never enough at the cost of all things holy. Instead of letting us obliterate ourselves and the earth, He is faithful and gracious to us. He lifts the sun up from the darkness each day and He coaxes the tender buds of life from the death freeze each winter. For it all. For the Universe. For all of us. For humanity. But was it for me?

What I struggle with is seeing Him as personal. I can see where His beauty and His might are poured into the world in a grand scale: Mount Everest and The Grand Canyon and the Pacific Ocean and the Milky Way. I can see how His love for humanity is reflected in creation but it is hard for me to discern how this kind of love is personal. Is it for me? And in the same way, I can see how the love that He poured out on the cross is a lavish kind of love for humanity. A son slain for his enemies’ sakes. He who was perfectly good sacrificed for all that was wretchedly wrong. But I wonder sometimes, was that really a sign of love for me or was it a general display of love for all of humanity? To sacrifice One for the good of many, this may be considered general benevolence, but is it indicative of a personal love? Of care for each one? Would Jesus have died even it were just for me?

For me and for any others who feel like an anonymous ant crawling across the bathroom floor of the universe today,

God who presides over and witnesses the life of every single, messy, noisy, frail sparrow in a flock of many, let your eyes see me today and, perhaps more importantly, let me be know that they do.

God who clothes grass in the field, daily trodden upon and then finally fodder for the fire, with greater splendor and glory than even the most majestic of kings, please show me that you desire to make beauty with my life as well.

God who says that He would leave ninety-nine sheep in the field to go after just a single one, please find me where I’ve gotten lost in the wilderness. Come and scoop up this foolish sheep and rejoice over me with singing and quiet me with your love.

Let me know in my deepest heart of hearts that you formed me, fearfully and wonderfully, crafting every part of me from a single cell,

and that you have a plan for me and that not even one day of my life-even the day that turns to a week that turns to a year that feels wasted- is outside of that plan. That plan to use every single bit of pain, every ounce of talent, every hope and fear and foible and success for good.

Help me to truly believe that you are intimately acquainted with all my ways, that you even number the hairs on my head and know my words before one escapes from my tongue and that you care for me as if to capture every tear that falls from my eye.

Give me a sense of this truth: That your thoughts towards me, towards just this one single ant in a crowd of many, are too vast and numerous to be counted.

And help me to live in the reality of a love for me that is lavish. A love that rejoices each time I turn towards you. The “let’s throw a party in heaven” kind of love.


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When you wonder if you’ve buried the best of you…

It wasn’t that life had been idyllic before my mom left us, though I had been told that from the outside it appeared so.  There were certainly fault lines that our home had been built on. Generations of our family, in fact, had built along these fissures. So maybe that thing that shook us all to our core, leaving us each feeling permanently off kilter, was unavoidable. When you ignore the growing rifts, can you reasonably expect that there aren’t eventually going to be damages? Casualties even?

But here’s the thing: When the event comes along that shakes the very foundations of your life and leaves everything permanently changed you determine, though perhaps subconsciously, never to be caught unawares again.  You live the rest of your days shadowed by the grim reality that the Earth on which you stand might so very easily be broken to bits.  Knowing how you barely survived that first event, you brace yourself at the occurrence of even the most trivial vibration, an almost constant subtle tension defining your musculature.  In places where you feel exposed a bit you notice yourself  holding your breath, keen not to miss the most minute signals in your surroundings that could indicate the ground’s about to drop out from under you. Your hyperawareness feels like a matter of life and death.  You live with a low-grade sense of dread that, after so many years pass, you just assume is a part of living. Though you experience joy, you never trust it to stay.

When I talked last week about unpacking that pretty box that we buried when our family exploded, and worrying less about whatever gruesome things we might find and more about the beautiful things that we might have buried forever, this is what I meant:  Would I open that box we’d closed to find eyes, clear and hopeful, peering out at me.  Eyes that are better attuned to the beauty in the present than the danger in the future?  Would I find feet, bare and dainty, made for nimbly navigating instead of ones weighed heavily to the ground in cumbersome, steel-toed preparedness?  Would I find skin that freely takes pleasure in soaking up the comfort and warmth of another’s embrace instead of skin that pulls away in anticipation of the next loss.  Would I find a heart radiating with hope instead of one buckshot with disappointment so deeply and inextricably buried that it has shaped the very manner in which it beats?

Did what happened to me as a child permanently and irrevocably damage me?  Would my life have been better had those things never happened? More importantly, would I have been better if they had never happened?

Did my circumstances shape who I’ve become?  Without a doubt. My circumstances may have shaped me, but I also know that there is only One who defines me. Every single thing that touched my life first went through His perfectly loving, perfectly wise hands.  All of my days were written in His book before even one came to pass.  He has kept track of every tossing and turning night and every tear I have shed as if collecting them, that not even one might fall to the ground forgotten by Him.  And what will He do with them?  With every. single. one., He will work it for my good.  To think of that!  Nothing will be wasted by the Great Redeemer when it come to bringing about good, not even a single tear. He promises His people who mourn-

“to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

Isaiah 61:3-4

Sometimes it is hard for me to trust that God’s good is really and truly that good.  A lot of people and a lot of things promise good, but I’ve been disappointed so very many times. And the truth is that all this supposed “good” that God is doing has felt an awful lot like excruciating, searing pain.  It has felt like death. It has felt like He’s broken my bones in order to reset them, but to me my bones appeared perfectly fine in the first place. It felt like everything that I could possibly cling to, the very things that I could depend on to shelter me, were ripped from my grasp.

My familiar home, my community, my church family, my parents as I knew them…These are not unreasonable things for a 12 year-old to depend on.  But all of them seemed to be torn from my grip and remained out of my reach for years as I stumbled toward adulthood, ostensibly on my own.

To be honest, I don’t have a perfect understanding of why tragedy and suffering are allowed by God. And I’m still praying that God would reveal to me how He held me during those times when I felt so very alone. But I am slowly starting to understand parts of how God used those very painful years for good.

First, He used it to teach me the destructive power of sin and to determine to diligently pursue what He has said is best and trust His perfect wisdom above my own feelings and inclinations. (I’ll have to save this part of the discussion for another day, though.)

Second, He is showing me the superiority of placing my hope in Him above all else. Because when even the very earth crumbles around me, He does not.

Though people let me down, He never lets me go.

My own dreams and plans may fail, but His gifts and His call on my life are irrevocable.

What others intend for harm, He uses for good.

And even when I am not faithful to Him, He remains faithful to me.

So though I don’t fully understand why we are handed over to death and suffering to achieve life and wholeness, I will remember that what I cling to will largely determine how I weather the storm. If I wrap my arms too tightly** around temporal things, things that can crumble as easily as I can, when what I’m holding onto inevitably falls then so will I.  But if I choose to build my life on the Rock that cannot be moved and turn my focus to things that are imperishable (Him, His promises, His love, His plan for good) then I will not be destroyed.

I am changing my strategy now to this: When the storms of life have their way and a path of destruction seems to have carved deeply and painfully through things we tend to value in this world, I will still be found standing on solid ground with my gaze fixed on Him, my vision full of that which is of greatest beauty and worth.  Because everything that fell away was perishable anyway.  That which was present at the beginning and that which will be victorious in the end is eternal. And THAT is truly what I crave.  Eternity, after all, is what we were made for.  And though I don’t always feel this way, I am determining to trust that He will make all things beautiful in their time:  Whatever is dead in that box is not as good as what He is bringing to life.

Are there parts of yourself and your life that you thought were beautiful that you had to bury?  Why do you think that happened?  How do you find that balance in your own life; joyfully embracing the gifts but not grasping them as if they’re our life preservers?

**I do not mean we should not cherish and receive as gifts those things that we can enjoy here on Earth.  It’s just to say that we can’t hold too tightly to them.  If we lean the full weight of our hope on them, we will surely find ourselves toppling eventually.  And if another person is that upon which we are leaning we may crush them as well.