Only the Strength We Have

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

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 Hirshfield “The Weighing” from The Beauty

So many right now feel they have no more left to give;
so much has been asked, so much sacrificed,
the scale feels broken, forever out of balance.

Yet more strength is needed, more requested,
and somehow in some way,
the scale steadies, rebalances
because of that extra effort.

We can’t give up now.
We need each other to give a little more
try a little harder
go a little farther
smile behind the mask
while showing our smile above the mask.

It only takes a little love
to balance out all the rest.

from “Feats of Strength” by Tom Otterness at Western Washington University

Stalking the Gaps Together

nch20141

The gaps are the thing.
The gaps are the spirit’s one home,
the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean
that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound.
The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower

to see the back parts of God;
they are fissures between mountains

and cells the wind lances through,
the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.


Go up into the gaps.
If you can find them;
they shift and vanish too.
Stalk the gaps.
Squeak into a gap in the soil,
turn, and unlock
—more than a maple—
a universe.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

nch2014

I think there is a yawning gaping separation threatening us right now.

I feel a fissuring gap in my life. People who have eaten at our table, shared our home, who we have worshiped alongside – are now estranged, no longer trusting. This separation is buoyed by the chill wind of politics blowing bitterly where once there was warmth and nurture and caring.

We disagree.

We no longer understand one another. We no longer listen to one another.
The argument has become more important than the connection.

How can we even allow these gaps between us to develop?
How do we fill these fissures with enough of ourselves
so something new and vital can grow?
How can we stalk the gaps together, knowing how we are all exposed?

Not one of us has the corner on the Truth; if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we cower together for safety in the cracks of this world, watching helplessly as the backside of God passes by too holy for us to gaze upon. He places us there together for our own good. I see you there alongside me.

We are weak together. We are dependent together. We need each other.

Only His Word – nothing else –
can fill the open gaping hollow between us.
His Grace is great enough
to fill every hole
bridge every gap
bring hope to the hopeless
plant seeds for the future
and restore us wholly to each other.

Let it be so. Oh please let it be.

sunset722142

Acres of Opinions

Now we are here at home, in the little nation
of our marriage, swearing allegiance to the table
we set for lunch or the windchime on the porch,

its easy dissonance. Even in our shared country,
the afternoon allots its golden lines
so that we’re seated, both in shadow, on opposite

ends of a couch and two gray dogs between us.
There are acres of opinions in this house.
I make two cups of tea, two bowls of soup,

divide an apple equally. If I were a patriot,
I would call the blanket we spread across our bed
the only fla
g—some nights we’ve burned it

with our anger at each other.
Some nights
we’ve welcomed the weight, a woolen scratch
on both our skins. My love, I am pledging

to this republic, for however long we stand,
I’ll watch with you the rain’s arrival in our yard.
We’ll lift our faces, together, toward the glistening.
~Jehanne Dubrow from “Pledge”

photo by Bette Vander Haak

Whether it is a beloved country, or a devoted marriage, there is need for loyalty to last through the difficult times and the imperfections.

We pledge allegiance to the republic of one another among acres of opinions: our differences in how we see the world contrast with our shared goals and dreams. Our stubborn persistence to stay intact is threatened by our fragile weaknesses that can easily break us asunder.

So we stand united, no matter the dissonance and the disagreements, drenched with the responsibility and accountability to make this union work, no matter what, for as long as we shall live, and much much beyond.

May we glisten with the pledge of allegiance:
we can only accomplish this together.

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.

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
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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: Look By Your Side For Who Needs Your Help

There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, and when they hear of the poverty of Christ, they are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem. They denounce their blindness and ingratitude, and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more kindly service and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably.

But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow humans need their help, and which they ignore in their misery. Where is there upon earth that has no poor, miserable, sick, erring ones around him? Why does he not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him?

~Martin Luther from Watch for the Light

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems need.

~J.I. Packer from Knowing God

No one wants to admit being in need of help so the helpless tend to remain invisible. We are called to seek out the hungry, the thirsty, the ill, and the homeless as they tend to stay well-hidden unless we look specifically for them.

When fed, hydrated, healthy, clothed and safe in our homes, we cannot be considered “poor” in the conventional sense. Yet if we don’t reach out to those more desperate around us, we are ultimately bereft and spiritually impoverished.

God arrived on earth in poverty, homeless, and certainly under threat of murder by simply being born. If He arrived in such circumstances today, who among us would reach out to Him and His parents out of respect for their humanity, not just for His divinity?

God wants us to notice the desperation around us. God wants us to give ourselves away. God wants us to give up our impoverished spirit to open the way to His everlasting abundance.

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.

A Feeble Reed

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.
~Blaise Pascal

I’m not sure which is getting flabbier faster–my biceps or my brain. As I advance in age I tend to just get by with only occasional heavy lifting: a hay bale here, a challenging abstract philosophical commentary there. Hard work, whether physical or mental, is getting harder. As a naturally lazy person, I have to be forced into manual and central nervous system labor out of necessity. Necessity happens less and less often unless I go looking for it.

Given the choice between a physical task and a thinking task, I’ll opt for thinking over lifting any day. Even so, I find my mental strengths are ebbing. My brain is less flexible, I can tend to be stiff headed when trying something new and it starts to feel strained if I push it too fast. There are times when it feels like it just goes into spasm and I need to sit down and rub it for awhile. Feeble suddenly doesn’t sound like it just belongs to the aged and infirm.

The only remedy is to use it or lose it, whether muscles or gray matter. So I dig a little deeper each day, even when it hurts to do so. I purposely stretch beyond the point of comfort, just so I know it can still be done. I lift a little higher, heft a little heavier, push a little harder. Being the most feeble thing in nature may mean being easily broken by the smallest effort, but at least I’ll have thought through my reedy limitations thoroughly, chewed on it until there was nothing left and digested what I could.

Eventually I’ll come to accept that my greatest strength is to know what I don’t know.