‘I’m looking for a still alpine lake
far off —
a lake still enough to sit and stare without fear
and deep enough to understand that
it’s all too much to ever understand’
These lines come from a poem called ‘Atlas’ written by my brother Greg over fifteen years ago now. For more than fifteen years this poem (among many others he wrote) has been soothing to me. When I read Greg’s poems I feel like he speaks to me.
The Bible speaks too. More powerfully than my brother’s poetry. Greg knew that. Above the title of ‘Atlas’ in Greg’s manuscript he placed the verse Matthew 11:28.
The Bible speaks not just of but to our greatest needs. In the pages of the living word we find the words of life. Words written not for the strong but for the weary, the heavy burdened. Those who need to lay down their baggage and their heads and rest.
Atlas is a poem about feeling lost (perhaps even about experiencing loss), about seeking refuge, about wanting to find somewhere like ‘a deep blue lake,’ to run to, ‘because it takes the aching beauty of a deep blue lake to say it all.’ For many years, I took the meaning of the poem rather too literally – searching on my travels with Dr M. for that very special body of still water (obviously the lake featured above is not alpine! I chose the image for it’s name), a place to stop and escape and take it all in. While I’ve found glimpses of such places, it’s become clear to me that outside of heaven no such physical place can contain in its entirety what Greg pointed to.
It is only recently I’ve started to read the poem’s central image powerfully as metaphor. The lake is, of course, Christ (the biblical reference above the poem points to this), the one who stood at a humble ancient well with a broken and sin-burdened Samaritan woman, and said with the utmost compassion that he could give her what she most needed: the water of life.
You can find the entire text of ‘Atlas’ below for those who want to follow it further, but I thought I’d just pick a few of my favourite lines to highlight here, and to write about how I see God’s living words speaking to the pain of the poem.
Several lines that have resonated with me over the years are found towards the middle of the poem:
‘I just don’t want the years to pass / my life a wrecked vessel adrift and afar / it’d just be nice to stand up straight’
I find it of great comfort that the Bible tells us that our creator knows our frames (see psalm 103). No amount of posturing or stoicism can mask our true condition from the Lord. Rather than requiring from us a chin-up mentality, our Father allows us to come to him with our head in our hands, our knees buckled under. Indeed, such a posture of humility is welcomed in his presence.
Further, the Bible tells us that God has a special love for the weak. Being itself the highest form of poetry, God’s word speaks with vivid imagery to our condition. It tells us of God’s particular nurture of the near-broken:
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a smouldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3a)
There have been many times I have imagined myself like that reed, as the wind pushes me sideways, and I lean, almost, not quite, snapping. Or that candle only ever-so-faintly burning, wondering if my flame can last until morning.
And I, it appears, am not alone. Even the great ‘heros’ of the Bible experienced weakness. The apostle Paul, the inspired author of so many of our beloved New Testament epistles, admits to trembling in public (I can relate to this, I can be on occasion a trembler), and to possessing what he terms a thorn in his flesh that he cannot get rid of.
We do not know exactly what his thorn was, but we do know that he prayed often for release from it, and that his prayers were not answered as he hoped.
What was the fruit of this particular weakness, this thorn? Humility, he tells us. So that everyone would know that any strength he had emanated not from him, but from God. Paul even goes as far as to rejoice in weakness. Because in it God is made manifest.
It may not be what Paul had in mind in Corinthians, but I too feel I have a thorn of sorts. It prickles. At times it seems to stab. It can make doing even ordinary things, like walking around in the world, very uncomfortable, on occasions, near – unbearable. It’s called anxiety. Not just plain old worrying, no, more than that.
When I was nineteen years old my brother Greg died suddenly in a car accident. After my brother’s death my whole world changed. Safe was no longer a solid option. Nothing on earth felt secure anymore. It was like my brain and body had been re-set, and all my inner radars were ringing with emergency bells even when there was none. I’m sure I’m not alone in such suffering.
I’ve prayed for release from my thorn, oh how I’ve prayed, and I’ve found great relief after ten years or so, largely through excellent counsel given to me by two individuals who I may refer to in later posts as the wise man and the wise woman. And of course through the support of family, dear Dr M, and my friends. Indeed God has brought me part healing, has taught me how to manage, has even given me moments and periods of sweet release. But I’ve had to accept that perhaps my thorn will never fully go, not while I live here.
But my thorn does more than just spike me. It opens me up to the hand of the Father.
‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12:10b)
Not when I am healed I am strong. No. In the eye of the storm, in the very midst of suffering. How does this work? Does this not seem like a contradiction in terms? Not in the hands of God. For, the absolute truth is that we can only ever be strong through his power, even when we think we are strong on our own. Any such thinking that we can do it alone is either naivety, or hubris.
Indeed God doesn’t give any other option for us but to take to our knees before him. As he tells us through Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9)
PERFECT in weakness. Hear that? Not just present in weakness. No. PERFECT. God’s power is at its most effective when we are at our most weak.
I have been thinking on this post for some time. And particularly on this last verse. As I shared in my first few posts, coming to college was a leap of faith for us. I was nervous. One of the things I was most nervous about was sharing a house with other families. I can tell you already without hesitation: these families are wonderful. Already we are sharing each others lives in a way that is wholeheartedly supportive, without being intrusive. A delicate but beautiful mix.
And these people are special too. One of my lovely new neighbour’s, B, has a tattooed inscription on her wrist. What does it say? I asked, on one of our first meetings, always curious about this sort of thing.
B gave me a closer look. And as I read I let my breath out. 2 Corninthians 12:9. The very verse I try to stand upon. I see B almost everyday. She carries this message of hope and comfort on her hand.
I write this on the eve of the 25th of February. For most, perhaps, just another day. For my family, a number and a date that seems to shriek at us from the very pages of the calendar. The day my brother passed from this life to another. I’ve no doubt many others out there have similar numbers that may seem random to the majority, but that are marked indelibly on their hearts.
May this 25th, and all those other blackspot days, be given over to him. The one who makes light from darkness, whose grace is made perfect in weakness. The one who carries our burdens and gives us rest.