The Weakest Reed

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


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How to Save the World In Fewer Than 10 Steps

1. Even if you have all the power, splendor and resources of God himself, come into the world unattractive, poor and in a social standing generally regarded as powerless. 

Isaiah 53:2-3

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

2. Spend decades of your life, perhaps even the most “productive” years, living off the radar in complete obscurity.  For example, leave no verifiable records of your actions or activities in your teens or your twenties.

3. Spend time with people who have no power to change things.  In fact, make them your partners.  And maybe throw in a few people that most of the world would scorn and might not even necessarily trust or believe.

1 Corinthians 1:26-28

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.

4.  Do extraordinarily kind and loving things. Things that could make you famous and bring widespread attention to your good work.  Then encourage people to tell no one about them.

Matthew 8:4, Jesus heals a leper and tells him to tell no one.

Mark 7:36, Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak and tells him to tell no one.

Matthew 9:30, Jesus heals blind people and tells them to tell no one.

5.  Even though you know you only have a couple of years to personally spread your message as far and wide as possible, spend time mostly with individuals or in small groups in quiet and intimate settings.  You may even consider generally avoiding situations where your message will be heard by great numbers of people, especially if those people will want you to take a widely recognized place of power within the culture at large.

John 6:14-15

 When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.

6.  Get to know people.  Really know them.  Intimately.  Their bodily functions. Their foot odor. Their addictions. Their shame.  Their jealousies. Their selfishness.  Their brokenness. Their weaknesses. Their most ugly habits. Their hatred of you and everything you stand for. And love them anyway.  Love them until it kills you.  In fact, love them until they kill you.

Romans 5:6-8

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

7. End your mission on earth when your life is still at its prime and just when it seems you might be gaining some momentum and perhaps even a small following.  Surrender your life into the hands of the people who hated you.  Even though a noble death might make you more likely to be favorably remembered, die a shameful, criminal’s death.   Do it for the sake of those who worked the hardest against your purposes, your mission and your message.  For your enemies.

Colossians 1:21-23

The Message (MSG)

You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message.

8. Do it to make a place for your enemies in your home. To share with them all your inheritance.  Offer them your friendship. Offer them a place in your family. And then let them take all that you’ve given them and reject it.  Over and over again.  And keep loving them anyway, rejoicing when they finally do turn towards you. 

Luke 15:20-24

 20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.[a]’ 

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

 

 

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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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My story of being a stony-hearted, brutish beast…

It was one of those days when I felt like a fraud standing in the church pew during worship.  Sunday mornings there’s a special kind of chaos that happens in our household and I frequently find myself arriving to church disheveled and loaded down with over-brimming diaper bags and teary children.  As I walk in, I am certain  that others are disdainfully appraising the bedlam that floats in around us like the perpetual cloud of dust on Charlie Brown’s friend, Pig-Pen.  More often than seems appropriate, we’ve had a fight in the car on the way over and as I sit in the sanctuary my heart slouches inside of me like a petulant teenager facing a parent who expects them to make a good showing at a family reunion.

When we started singing “All Creatures of Our God and King” I was barely tuned in. But despite my inability to focus on worship, the words started breaking through in bits and pieces, washing over me…

Burning sun…..

                        silver moon….

                                                                                            lights of evening…

                                           flowing river….

                                                                                                        flowers and fruits….

…every part of nature being exhorted to praise their Creator God.  Each line of the song like an arrow zinged to crumble the stony wall encapsulating my heart.

This verse came to mind from Luke 19:40: He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

When I’ve heard this passage before, I’ve felt a sense of shame that Jesus would have to make a fallback plan in case humans didn’t burst forth with cheers and praise and rejoicing at the presence of the Lord.  In previous readings, I’d interpreted this statement almost as the declaration of a frustrated king who, when finding his court is full of useless subjects, waves them out of his presence and announces that it doesn’t matter anyway because he can easily replace them, with stones no less.

But then out of nowhere (well, probably out of Somewhere), my understanding of these verses completely changed.  I realized that He who created each and every thing on this planet is fully capable of imbuing every single thing with life, humans and rocks alike!  It’s not a statement of our uselessness to Him, it’s merely of a statement of our need for Him and inextricable link between worship and life.

This brings me great hope because there have been many times in recent years when I have identified too closely with this image from Psalms 73 :

21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

Dulled by the drudgery of long days and deadened by the monotonous work of just plowing the rows and rows of flat field, I could not imagine how I could be used for anything beautiful anymore.  Feeling like a brute beast before the Lord, I had lost the sense to know even how to move forward.  But this Jesus that we follow guides, gently it seems even, a brute beast!  This Psalm goes on,

23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.

To think, He doesn’t just pull a brute beast towards more drudgery.  He guides that brute beast towards glory!  Of course, it’s not that he always change our geography or circumstances by taking us out of the dusty field in which we’re working.  But He often changes our experience of our fields by walking beside us, touching us with his presence and whispering guidance in our ear, even giving us glimpses of the glory that we are moving towards.

And this same Creator who guides this brute beast to glory will also inspire stones to cry out.  He can even animate a lifeless rock to use it to sing to Him!

I am sometimes that rock. Lower even than an animal, I am so dead in myself that I cannot conjure up one drop of life on my own. I need that Creator, Source of Life bigger and better and beyond me, to make me viable again.  To make me pliable and usable, something beautiful once more in His potter’s hands.

So as I stood in church that day, those arrows breaking up the stony walls around my heart, by time we got to the verse of the hymn where we sing, “Ye who long pain and sorrow bear, Praise God and on Him cast your care!” I find my whole self lifting upwards, remembering this Creator who is so wonderful that He would inspire even an inanimate object to worship Him!

In that moment and always, I find hope again as I worship Him, turning towards Him to be refreshed by His never-ending flow of  living water. But when I’m even worse off than that, when I’m stony-hearted and don’t even have enough life in me to turn like a senseless animal towards Him, He can still reach into me and revive my deadest places to make me sing again.

Am I the only stony-hearted, brutish beast among us?  If you’ve got a prayer request, message me at weakestreed@gmail.com or put it in the comments below and I’d be happy to pray for you as I pray for myself to be  softened for His use and guided to His glory.


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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.


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The View from the Pit

To their credit, his jealous brothers didn’t kill him outright.  To his horror, they did strip his clothes off of him and throw him down into that slimy, waterless pit, leaving him for dead. It’s a chilling scene.  A voice from the bottom of an empty well; screaming, crying, begging his brothers not to let him starve there. He’s cold and it’s growing dark. A sizable group of men, perhaps gathered around a warm fire with the smell of roasting game causing their stomachs to growl, closing their ears and hardening their hearts as the flesh-of-their-flesh  pleaded for his life, his voice echoing up to them. These young men he had grown up with, who he had slept next to and broken bread with and shared all the intimacies of a large family living in close quarters, callously ate their dinner above and not a single merciful and repentant heart among the ten of those jealous brothers took a stand and said, “Ok enough is enough, brothers!  The joke is over.  He’s learned his lesson.  Let’s bring him back up.”

Instead, one of them looks up to see a caravan of spice merchants coming their way and adds greed to the list of their sins.  “Well, it doesn’t profit us at all if he dies in that well.  Let’s sell him as a slave instead.”  But maybe it wasn’t really greed that made him do it because they degradingly sold him for a sum which was less than that for which a slave was usually sold. Motivations aside, I can’t help but think that Joseph reached an even deeper level of despair when he realized that all hope had been lost that his brothers or anyone else might rescue him.  Instead he found himself ripped up from the well, probably shackled or tied so he wouldn’t escape, walking mile after mile as that caravan took him further from home and deeper into slavery.

I can imagine too well the thoughts and feelings he had at the bottom of that well and then crossing that wilderness.  Betrayed, abandoned, rejected, forsaken, exposed, vulnerable, insignificant, impotent, helpless, hopeless.  How could my own brothers do this to me?  How could God let them?

I wrote yesterday’s post months ago, not knowing exactly what would come next when I wrote down the rest of my own story.  I left myself staring down into that abyss and feeling forced to jump into it with no protection or safety plan in place.  And then today in our Bible study we talked about Joseph.  And we were asked to imagine what he would have felt like at the bottom of that pit.  The list of emotions rattled off of my tongue almost too easily and with yesterday’s entry fresh in my mind, I knew why.  Joseph’s pit and my abyss.  Finding myself abandoned, betrayed and rejected by the ones I loved and trusted the most.  Powerless and with no escape from the deep and dark consequences of someone else’s decisions looming heavily over my own life, pressing me relentlessly towards that hole.  No one and nothing offering to rescue me.  All that I knew and all that I was behind me.  Stripped bare of the covering and cloak of my family, my previous identity.  Staring into an unknown future that seemed unlikely to bear any resemblance to the bright one that my young mind had conceived would be mine.

And yet as we contemplated this story this morning, I could not help but think of a verse in Psalms:

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.

Of course, if you know the story of Joseph you know this scene at the well is not the ending of his trials but it is also not the death of his triumphs.  After he endures many more difficulties he eventually and miraculously ascends from slave to become established as ruler.  He ends up being able to save his people from death by starvation and reconciles graciously with his family.  God literally lifted Joseph out of that pit and then steadied his footsteps as he walked out his very difficult circumstances.  God didn’t spare him from suffering in his life, but that doesn’t mean that God had abandoned him or forgotten him. We know that because God also did not spare his own son from suffering. Isaiah the prophet tells us this of Jesus:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Isaiah 53:10

And Joseph’s life in some ways is a foreshadow of Jesus’. Joseph was crushed and grieved beyond what seems bearable but God used his suffering to bring about redemption and a fruitful future for his people.  Every hardship was turned around for the good.

But it took a very, very long time.  For now, I am somewhere in the middle of that very, very long time.  And 20 years ago, after I walked into my mom’s living room and saw that baby on that couch I was just starting that very, very long time.

Have you ever found yourself in a pit?  Did someone rescue you? Did the place you found yourself “rescued” to look like a rescue at the time?