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: 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.

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.