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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Does What I Do Matter?

I get up exhausted as is the general state of existence in the early years of motherhood. I make my way to the kitchen and in the clang and clatter and chaos of breakfast with three toddlers, it became clear that my middle child really should be seen by the doctor for her cough which has developed a definite “whooping” characteristic to it.  So, I make an appointment and start the process of picking up the pace to get everyone ready to head out the door.  Now we have a deadline.  So as I’m gathering clothing and topping off cereal bowls and barely managing to finish my coffee, these things happen:

  • Someone climbs on a table and starts digging in a potted plant spreading moss and soil all over everyone’s breakfast.

  • Someone throws a full cereal bowl trailing its soggy, milky contents, across the kitchen.

  • Two toddlers have found their way into the bathroom and one needs a rear wiped and the other is splashing in the toilet bowl with her bare hands.

But I still manage to get everyone dressed and shined and shoe-ed and ready to head out the door…only to find that my cell phone has gotten lost, carried off by a child and buried somewhere unknown in the house.  (Of course, THIS is the morning I actually need a phone with me because I have a call coming in to give me a half hour notice on a delivery one of us needs to be home to receive).  And the irritating pebble in my shoe as I search our entire home for my phone: I know that each second that passes, kiddos are busy undoing everything I’ve just done to get them ready.  Shoes and socks and jackets are getting peeled off and strewn about and additional messes are being made, building exponentially, one on the other.

But I finally do find my phone and get everyone semi-reassembled to make our way to the doctor, now running late.  And we step out of the door of our now completely trashed house into the driveway (mentally piling on items to a list of all the things I’ll need to put back into order once I arrive home), my 1 year old trips and lands on her face, smacking it soundly on the cement.  Split, swollen lip.  Blood and drool everywhere.  Dabbing and soothing as sobs choke her, I still am racing the clock, getting three kids buckled into their car seats.

Finally I sit in the front seat to buckle my own seatbelt, stereo-sound of screaming children the constant soundtrack of my day,  only to find that my car keys are lost…. Probably in one of three or four random bags I’ve grabbed on my way out to accommodate the diapering and snacking and entertainment needs of my children.  So I dig frantically to find them and my fingers grasp them just as a semi truck pulls up  in front of our house to make the big delivery (with no half hour notice call). But only “box 2 of 2” is present and it’s half opened with parts obviously missing but we’re too late for the doc already so I make some hasty notes on the packing slip and sign anyway, making yet another note on my internal to-do list.  (Call some huge, couldn’t-care-less-about-me box store to check up on all the random parts of our new and costly playground that have obviously fallen out, piece by piece, in their trek across the country.)

None of it is a big deal, but all of it needs to be taken care of.  By me.  Nobody else cares about it (probably not even you, dear reader) and the worst part is that I don’t even really care about it.  But it’s the stuff of which my life is made.  And even if no one cares, not even me, because every small thing on this litany of irritations  is certainly not a big deal(except for my children getting hurt, of course), this is the stuff of motherhood.  And that is what makes me very, very angry about my present state of existence.  Yep, that’s right.  I used the A word.  Deal with it.

You know the term Vampire Electronic? It’s what they call small appliances that are constantly plugged in, and slowly but steadily draining energy, but aren’t necessarily doing anything.  That’s what being a mom is all about.  Lots of times I don’t actually feel like I’m doing much of anything productive.  I’m just constantly on, plugged into all the small things of the day.  Perpetually vigilant.  Guarding my 1 year old from throwing herself down a stairway or climbing into the hot oven.  Guarding my 2 and 3 year old from bloodying each other as they quibble constantly.  Guarding my leather couch from frustratingly-lost-by-me-but-easily-found-by-kids Sharpies and tonight’s dinner from fingers fond of probing both nostril cavities and tuna casseroles.  I could try to do something other than guard duty for two minutes, but guaranteed: I’d pay for it with at least 20 minutes of clean-up and possibly a visit to the doctor’s office.  I could choose not to take care of all these little messes, but by the end of the day my kids and my home would be a complete disaster.  Like child endangerment levels of chaos.

ALL of my energy, ALL of my time, ALL of me get sucked into these absolutely insignificant messes. So, I am spent doing it. Doing nothing of any real significance, it seems.  And what follows is the definite underlying feeling that my life is not really very significant.  That I am not really very significant at all.  And I’m mad that all the talents and education and skills and experience I’ve racked up that nicely fill out a resume or could contribute something I have determined might be valuable to the world or  that might even gain me the approval of  stranger at a cocktail party, don’t amount to a hill of beans in my current existence.

And feeling that way and knowing that I can’t even really complain about it with any reasonable expectation of great pity makes me feel even worse about it.  Because it’s not genocide or war or poverty that I am enduring.  It’s just motherhood.  It’s just the slow pull into death of one marble in your pocket after another when you’re treading water.  (Or of one more bag piled on your shoulders as you and your toddlers run out the door towards the last minute doctor appointment.)  That’s when Philippians 2 starts to make sense.  More sense than ever.

“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”

The fact is that Jesus had eternally more to offer than I do.  And he put aside infinitely more talents leaving heaven as God to come to Earth as man than I did by leaving a career to  stay home with my kids full time.  To be human, Jesus had to diminish himself.  God of the universe chose to take on a limited role, one that didn’t measure up to the fullness of who he was and could be.  Certainly God’s time, God’s energy, God’s talent is not to be wasted.  Yet Jesus, equal with God, concerned himself with, what to Him, definitely must be the small things .  The little details of people’s lives. Things and people that even other human beings didn’t want to concern themselves with.  Messy things.  Annoying things.  Mundane things. And it was important enough to him to spend years of his time and precious blood, sweat and tears on.  Ultimately, it was worth dying a humiliating, humbling, shameful death for.

So what this tells me is that what I think is significant, what the world tells me is worth spending my time, talent and energy on, is probably not what ultimately is the most significant.  If Jesus himself did not grasp at more, trusting God to use his significantly diminished life here on earth for an eternal purpose, then I should also trust him with this; my own sometimes painful, self-diminishing, daily dying-to-self life of motherhood.

*Now for anyone thinking my title reflects my actual position on the value motherhood, read on in this blog.  I know as well as anyone that moms are significant.  But it’s a significance that is sensed more clearly as we stand back to admire the whole civilized city of it than as we stand in the mud lifting heavy brick-upon-brick to build it.  And it is a significance that is understood more profoundly in its absence than its presence.

Is significance found in diminishing yourself or in being exalted or put in a place of honor? Does it feel that way when it’s happening?