Only To Do What He Could

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.
~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.

Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.

We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.

Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.

Life Steps Almost Straight

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question
the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan

on life’s roadside;
but that will be only an initial act.
One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed
so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed
as they make their journey through life.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar;
it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world,
can well lead the way in this revolution of values.
There is nothing, except a tragic death wish,
to prevent us from reordering our priorities…

~Martin Luther King, Jr. from a speech April 4, 1967

We live in a time where the groaning need
and dividedness of humankind
is especially to be felt and recognized.
Countless people are subjected to hatred,
violence and oppression which go unchecked.
The injustice and corruption which exist today
are causing many voices to be raised to protest
and cry out that something be done.
Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much
in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace.
There is a movement afoot in our time,
a movement which is growing, awakening.

We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame
for every social injustice, every oppression,
the downgrading of others
and the injury that man does to man,
whether personal or on a broader plane.…
God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth.
The present misery, need, and decay must pass away
and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn.
This is the advent of God’s coming.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

I weep to see such bitter divisions still exist in our country,
an echo of over fifty years ago
as we fail again and again to learn from past errors.

Here we are, groaning divided once more,
walking this Jericho Road together.
We cannot pass by our brother, our sister, our child~
anyone who lies dying in the ditch.
We must stop and help.

The world asks only for the strength we have
and so we give it,
but then we are asked to give more
and so we will.

We must illuminate the advance of darkness
even when, blinded as we are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there
and always will be
because of who we are and Who loves us.

It could be you or me bleeding, beaten, abandoned, dying
until Someone takes our place
so we can get up, free and forgiven,
and walk Home.

Maranatha.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Living is Not Delicate

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
everyplace,
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
delicate
to live.

~Kay Ryan “Spiderweb” (2010)

Despite His fragility as a newborn baby, we know the Son of God was equipped with the toughness needed for a life that started out homeless, then becoming a refugee with displaced parents seeking safety in a foreign land.

He grew up in a dusty little town, learning a trade with His hands. He knew what it took to make something strong enough to be worthy. He knew how much it would take to make us, His children, sturdy and worthy.

His Word tells us clearly there is nothing delicate about the life of Jesus; we know it took a strong mother to feed him and care for him, a loving and steadfast father to raise and teach him, and without both, he would not have survived. Once He began His preaching, He gathered about Him disciples who were hard-working people, toughened by the necessity of survival day-to-day. There was nothing delicate about living a homeless life on the road, sleeping on the ground, depending on the good will of others.

There was nothing delicate about becoming the foundational sacrifice for us, His suffering making possible our new Home.

Jesus asks us, His beautiful creation, to choose to cling to Him instead of earthly things. He does not sag or tear under pressure. He doesn’t leave us dangling. Life in Jesus is never delicate – it takes toughness, foresight, strength and the persistence to repair and restore when things are torn.

And this new Home is beautiful. There is nothing else more beautiful.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

But By His Grace: Paying Attention

For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. 
~Kathleen Norris from Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness. 
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,

so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12: 9-10

Inundated moment by moment
by overwhelmingly bad news of a pandemic world,
highlighted in rapidly changing headlines,
blasted from cable news 24/7,
tweeted real time from every nook and cranny,
I stumble in my frailty to find something, anything,
to hold me up.

I cling to the mystery of His magnetism for my weakness.

God now has my full attention:
He willingly pulls despair out of me onto Himself
and replaces it with strength I didn’t know
I would need nor would have ever wanted.

Two months ago,
not one of us knew we were to go where
we never expected to go:
by His grace, we have always had
God’s full attention.


This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

With great power there must also come great responsibility
~The “Peter Parker Principle” from Spiderman Comics (1962)

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:48
b

This line, the final conclusion to the parable of the wise and faithful servant has become a modern mantra – thanks to Spiderman, the Supreme Court, Winston Churchill, President Obama and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Yet no one actually quotes the entire New Testament parable itself that ends with this very concept.

The story Jesus tells in Luke 12: 42-48 makes us wince, just as it is meant to:

42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.4“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

The same story as told in the gospel of Matthew ends with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Somehow that part is left out of Spiderman’s story and is a bit too close to home for those in power and those with immense wealth — like Peter Parker, we know all too well the reality of just how fragile and weak we really are despite our perceived Spidey powers.

We don’t have a choice in the matter if we want to live in Him as Christians, identifying by name with the Son of God who gave up everything for us.

We owe much when to us much has been given. U.S. Presidents can learn from the wisdom of Spiderman, remembering Who actually spoke it first.

Like Current Through a Wire

What courage we had,
our infantry stretched across the yard,
no shields, no swords,
no cavalry assembled behind us
calming their nervous mounts.
We had the strength of our arms,
the speed of our legs.
We had our friends and our convictions.
Opposite us, the undulating line
of children drew suddenly straight.
It was early on a summer day
but the larks fell silent.
A high voice
invoked the name Red Rover;
we could not say who said it first.
But righteousness passed through us
like current through a wire.
Or like an inaugural sip of wine
burning in our chests,
something father gave us
over our mother’s earnest
protestations.
~Connie Wanek, “Red Rover” from Rival Gardens

… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

I was a kid born without the necessary courage to enjoy playground games and sports – I was always chosen last as I didn’t have good coordination, I wasn’t fast or strong and I wasn’t physically aggressive. Games like dodge ball and Red Rover were too intimidating as I inevitably got battered and bruised by the other kids.

In Red Rover, that impenetrable line-up of kids found a weak link in me. I could feel the electricity like a current through the linked arms in the line, until it came to me. I became the off switch. Kids knew to choose my arm to break through because I tended to let go rather than have my arm bashed and bruised by some big kid running straight into it.

How have my years of work felt similar? Now well into my seventh decade, I can recall a few times when I’ve chosen to “let go” rather than get bruised. I’ve tried to be strong enough to stand up to the battering that comes with leadership positions and taking unpopular stands. It takes its toll and I regret I’m not strong enough at times. However, there is relief in no longer being connected to the electric current of these times.

What I always liked best about the playground was to simply run and jump and holler and hoot from the joy of being alive, or to just stand and watch what was going on around me without having to be in the center of things. Now decades later, I find myself again standing apart, just watching, grateful I’m no longer part of the line up about to get bashed.

We Are No Longer Alone: It Isn’t Ever Delicate to Live

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
everyplace,
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
delicate
to live.

~Kay Ryan “Spiderweb” (2010)

As fragile as a newborn baby is, we know the Son of God was equipped with the toughness he needed for a life that started out homeless, soon to become a refugee with his parents, seeking safety in a foreign land. He grew up in a dusty little town, learning a trade with his hands. He knew what it took to make something strong enough to be worthy. He knew what it would take to make us, his children, worthy.

There is nothing delicate about the life of Jesus; we know it took a strong mother to feed him and care for him, a loving father to raise and teach him, and without both, he would not have survived.

Jesus asks us, his beautiful creation, to choose him to cling to, so as not to sag or tear when under pressure. He asks us to not live delicate either.

Braiding of Moments

To notice the braiding of moments—

This is how the world is built
in the depths we cannot see,
but, stopping for a moment,
we can feel it,
in the solitude of any night.

In the absence of light,
on the precipice of dreams we
can hear a jot of humming,
as the unseen parts of the world spin
and gather themselves within us,
inside the air that eases down
the leaves and sustains, as it moves
toward us, the distant calling of an owl.
~Richard Maxson “Dreams and After”

Last night we were awakened by a summer windstorm – from a muggy stillness where no air moves to sudden breezes flowing roughshod over our bed. Our wind chimes outside clanged a cacophony rather than gentle harmonic tones. The window shades became percussion instruments. Anything not fastened down went airborne.

This fortuitous storm pulled me from a bad dream of a recent stress-filled work day I didn’t manage well. As I woke startled to bed sheets blowing, I gulped at the fresh air as it passed by, allowing my dream to exhale right through the window, never to return.

Life’s intertwined moments, good, bad and indifferent, remain carefully braided together, bound and strengthened so the weaker strands are held steadfast by the enveloping twists and turns of those sturdier ones.

What was, is and will be are held together unbroken, bolstered by tougher stuff than we may think possible.

And we, swinging in the breezes, simply must hang on for dear life, if only by a slender thread.

Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.

We Are No Longer Alone: The Breath that Lifts My Weary Wings

Oh, God, I am heavy
with glory. My head thunders
from singing in the hills.

This night will come once.
Enough bright lights.
Enough shouting
at the shepherds in the fields.


Let me slip into the stable
and crouch among
the rooting swine.
Let me close my eyes
and feel the child’s breath,
this wind that blows
through the mountains and stars,
lifting my weary wings.

~Tania Runyon , Angel at the Nativity”

What a night for an angel!

Even when you’ve been God’s messenger carrying news of this impending birth to earth, the reality of it astounds.

Then it’s’s all over but the shouting, and there was plenty of noise that night. The shouting continues to this day and is not always celebratory. The divisive voices of those who believe in our Savior’s birth have become angry and vindictive. It is enough to make an angel weep.

Let us not drag angels into the pigpen with us. Let them fly high, singing of peace and gladness and good will.

In the meantime, we are stuck in the mucky mire of disagreement. The breath of this dear Child will lift us up and renew us, strengthening us for what is to come.

He knows He would find us wallowing in the mud, so He came looking for us there first.

Once coaxed out of the mud, only then will He take us to the mountaintop.