There’s a place I pass on my morning bike ride where branches dip down to graze the clouds of white bloom that reach up toward them. It looks to me, feels to me, like a tiny taste of heaven, where my longing and reaching is met by stooping, enfolding welcome. Each time I pass that place, I want to stop my bike and wade into the beauty, abandoning myself to the welcome I feel there.
I look up the flower and find that in some places it’s graced with the name, “Queen Anne’s Lace.” In others, this same plant, Anthriscus sylvestris, goes by a more humble name: cow parsley, or wild chervil. In some places it’s cherished; in others, classed as an invasive weed.
As I bike, I pray for myself, and for those I love who are facing illness or other forms of weakness. Perhaps that’s how thoughts about weakness get tangled up with Queen Anne’s Lace; somehow I end up pondering Paul’s journey through weakness. At first, Paul begged to get rid of the invasive weed that was poking his flesh. Later, he accepted and even delighted in it, not for its own sake, but because of how it led him deeper into life in the love and power of God.
How often, I wonder, do we treat trouble or weakness as an invasive weed when, experienced from a different angle, it can become a place of tender intimacy?
I circle back to the welcome I feel as the branches reach down to caress the blossoms.
I sense this safety, this welcome, elsewhere too.
I feel it as I read Isaiah 41 and find God reaching to hold my hand.
I encounter it in a friend who comes for a socially-distanced, outdoor visit, even though I can’t tell her until that day whether, and when, I’ll have energy to chat.
I see it in my journals as I look back through long-past times and notice God finding ways to speak tenderly to me in times of fear.
* * *
Last week I read through my journal from April 2004. The first half of the month I was in Pakistan, the second, I was making my first foray into Afghanistan. It was my “look and see what I’m in for” trip. What was this place to which I’d been called? Who would I be working with? In what conditions would I be living?
I was curious. And I was terrified. It had been less than a year since I’d finished my specialty training, and I felt inexperienced and inadequate for my role as the only gynecologist in the region. What if I couldn’t insert the spinal anesthetic? What if I couldn’t stop the mid-surgery bleeding? There would be no anesthetist or blood bank or experienced surgeon to help me out.
But as I re-read my journal last week, I noticed, even more than my fear, God’s gentle reassurance. Page after page holds promises of God’s presence that appeared in my Scripture reading or a devotional book. I hadn’t been searching for them, using a concordance to look up relevant verses. They were just there, day after day, reminders that I wasn’t going alone. That I could trust the One who had called me and was going with me.
On the morning I began my trip into Afghanistan, one of the verses in my reading was Isaiah 49:26,
“I, the Lord, am your Saviour, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
I suppose there was reassurance for me in just about every word of the verse, comfort tucked into each name of God. But what stood out to me most strongly that day that I left to travel into the unknown, carrying all of my weakness with me, was this: Here, God doesn’t call himself the Mighty One of Israel, but the Mighty One of Jacob.
He doesn’t identify himself with the new name of the Patriarch that seems to declare both Jacob’s strength and his relationship to God: “Israel – he who wrestles with God.”
He identifies himself unashamedly with the name that had followed Jacob through the first part of his life, the name that characterized his greatest point of weakness: Jacob. Deceiver.
It’s I who too often want to run from my weakness, not God. He wants to meet me there with all of his grace and strength and love.
Here is good news: this God who chose to identify himself as “The Mighty One of Jacob” still brings all His power to bear at the point of his people’s greatest weakness and need.
* * *
Once again, Tish Harrison Warren’s words challenge me not to fear weakness but to expect to meet God in it:
“There’s the old saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But this rings hollow to me, and I suspect to most anyone who has suffered. . .
I face things every day, big and small, that are difficult but have not killed me. And I’m finding that what doesn’t kill me actually makes me weaker, and maybe that’s the point—that the way of glory is discovered through, and only through, the cross. In life’s school of love, suffering—what doesn’t kill us—makes us more alive to our need and helplessness and, therefore, more able to give and receive love” (Prayer in the Night, p. 136-7).
We are safe, friends. We don’t need to fear or hide or try to run from our weakness, because we have a God who delights to meet and tenderly care for us in our greatest need.
I’ve often observed that the people who stand out as most beautiful and grace-filled have always suffered deeply, There’s a reason for that:
“’The extreme greatness of Christianity,’ wrote Simone Weil, ‘lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.’ Christians have always looked to suffering not only as a place of pain, but as a place of meeting God. Suffering does not merely happen to us. It works in us. . . .
The people who I most respect are those who have suffered but did not numb their pain—who faced their darkness. In the process they have become beautifully weak, not tough as nails, nor bitter or rigid, but men and women who bear vulnerability with joy and trust. They are almost luminescent, like a paper lantern, weak enough that light shines through” (Warren, Prayer in the Night, p.126, 137).
Oh, Mighty God of Jacob, make us beautiful like this too! In the suffering that is part of life in this world, give us grace to live with our hearts wide open to you.
Soften us. Soothe us. Whisper comfort to us until we stop squirming, nestle in close to your heart, and rest in the security of your love.