Strength, weakness, presence

Thank you for your beautiful comments. You talked about the components so well. Personality. Failure. Life stages. Good strength versus bad strength. God’s strength versus our own. Well said!

Gina also shared some excellent thoughts here.

What is the opposite of strength? You mentioned many words—weakness, brokenness, battle, fear, surrender, helplessness, high-maintenance, infirmity, vulnerability.

Vulnerability is my personal favorite—the one I run from two miles away.

*****

Once upon a time I waited in a bathroom stall [my usual place of retreat in times of mental storm] for the courage to face a difficult situation.

It was a particularly unnerving situation, open to endless variation. It could turn out one way and be super. It could turn out another way and be okay. It could turn out–oh my–nearly infinite ways that would be shameful and embarrassing. And it could turn out one way that would be the most devastating of all.

The whole thing pivoted on the choices of a person I had never seen before, and on my own performance under stress.

I waited and prayed. “Please Lord make me strong. Help me to come to peace. This knot in my stomach must certainly go away before I can do anything… and must be a sign that I am not trusting you. Please make me strong.”

I prayed.

And gradually, as the conflict did not go away, I came to realize that it was impossible for me as a woman to enter such a situation in perfect calm. I was conflicted, and understandably so: a turmoil of secret hopes and fears. And so I began to change my prayer, from “Please make me strong,” to “Please protect my heart. I am a mess. I hope and I fear; I am powerful and vulnerable. Please help me to bring all of me into this situation. Let me be There. I trust that your Spirit will accompany me and cover my nakedness of soul.”

He did.

And I was not strong, but I was there, and I was in Him. The situation was intense. It turned out the one way that was most devastating of all, and He did battle for me as I cried all the way home.

Jesus does not need me to be strong. What do I mean? Through my whole life, there have always been people for whom I had to be strong. A little sister–(I knew that if we both cried at the same time, the world would cave in). A struggling friend—(I promised never to betray her secret). A frightened child—(When she runs to me panicking, she needs a stable Mommy to anchor to). This is not all bad, being strong for other people. “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” But Jesus is the one person I never need to be strong for. Sometimes I think I do. When I have neglected Him in prayer I start coming to Him in the comforting and apologetic tone I would use with a family member I’ve temporarily forgotten. Sometimes I try to cover for Him and help solve His problems. That is all nonsense. He is the strong one, and I am a child.

But it begs the question—In how many situations would He carry me in my weakness, if I weren’t so busy Being Strong?

In Christ we have access to all kinds of power heretofore unknown. The power that raised Him from the dead dwells in us. His strength rests on us, empowers us. He carries our weakness in His body. As we go on together, we receive His strength into the very fiber of our beings, so that we are truly stronger than before and can do things we would once have run from. And yet He keeps us on the edge of ourselves. About the time we gain strength in [these] areas, He gently uncovers [several more] in which we are weak and must begin again. He seems to have a special grace for the weak, and each time I feel utterly worthless and undone (Oh Jesus, have I walked with you so long and yet still have so far to go?), He reaches with grace to tell me He sees me. He loves me. He has not given up on me.

You see I am not against being strong. I am against the need to be strong. I am against the careful avoidance of weakness.

Strength is a good word. And like other good words (love, grace, freedom), it’s open to infinite abuse, partly because we are human and like to twist things (undoubtedly by mistake) and partly because it is a word wrapped in paradox. (When I am weak, then am I strong.)

Sometimes when I’m focused on Being Strong—even when I am trying my best to stay “in His strength”—all I am really doing is putting on armor; turning off parts of my heart that do not measure up: my tears, my sensitivities, my desires, my fears.

All set. Chin up. I’m ready to face the situation.

I am starting to believe that true power is all about presence. We are shy of the “power” word, especially for women, but I mean it in a good way—as in “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Influence. Effectiveness.

When I go into a difficult situation determined to be strong, I often end very strong but not at all effective. I’m so busy holding it together that I can’t take hold of anything else–the hearts of the people around me, the lessons He wants me to learn, the gifts He’s offering. Alternately, if I go into a situation with my whole presence, with my fears and my desires and my potential for being hurt (which is all “vulnerable” means, really: I can be badly hurt because I don’t have my armor on)—there, ironically, is where my power as a woman lies.

The opposite of strong does not have to be “weak,” though that is a good word too and often used positively in Scripture (here), but “dependent” (not independent), “needy” (for Him and His people), “small” and “protected.”

While it is true that I grow in grace from strength to strength, it is also true that the more I access the strength of Jesus, the smaller and more dependent I become, a younger and younger child until the day I will be new born in Him, drawing sustenance from no other source. And this too is good.

Smoke, strength and separation

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla. “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully. “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them. That’s a very comforting thought.”

“Well, you’d better go and give that cake to the pigs,” said Marilla. “It isn’t fit for any human to eat.”

      –Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, chapter 21

*****

Confession: I was so proud of that fire. I carefully crumpled the papers in the grate, arranged the kindling my husband had split for me, stacked on a few big pieces. All was ready to go. Struck the spark and it worked like magic. The wood kindled, the satisfying hissing and popping started…

…and the room began to fill with smoke.

Wait a minute. What’s going on?

I blew on the fire. I opened a window. More smoke, a solid mass of it in the sunlight from the window. Soon the house was cloudy. Upstairs I could hardly breathe, and a smoke detector was going off. Not bad for a fireman’s wife.

I’ve heard the word “flue” all my life but I thought it was just a nursery rhyme figment. You know, the flea and the fly and the flue. Oh, I’m a smart one, I am. I know my Mother Goose inside and out.

And it would have to happen on the night, the one impossible night I was playing hostess alone. The evening before, we’d looked at each other, aghast. Are you kidding me? You just confirmed with a client to spend all-afternoon-into-the-night tomorrow doing a major renovation on his computer systems off of business hours? I just confirmed with four families to come for dinner. As in final confirmation. Your client is driving from four hours away and you just said “we’re on.” My ladies know exactly what food they’re bringing and I just said “we’re on.”

Well, boy, let’s do this thing. You go fix computers and burn the midnight oil. I’ll prep the house, the food, and the kids and do the hosting. They’re bringing most of the eatables anyway, and we’re roasting hotdogs. The weather’s too cold for an outdoor roast; I’ll use the fireplace. It will be easier for me anyway, without all the fetching and carrying.

But nobody warned me about the flue. Nothing in any of my training had prepared me for the flue.

Smoke and more smoke! I put out the fire in the fireplace, whacked the smoke detector, and opened the house up wide.

When the first male guest arrived–my senior pastor, incidentally–he took a look, and then he called me into the living room and graciously showed me a little lever… just a little lever that swings to the side and opens the flue…

By then I had cooked the hotdogs in a skillet on my stove. But he rebuilt the fire and we all sat around it and told stories and roasted marshmallows for s’mores and were happy.

One of the things I love best about being thirty-one years old is that I can make an idiot of myself and actually live through it. Do you know what I mean? I do way dumber stuff now than when I was eighteen (mostly because the stakes are higher; I’m in charge of several people’s life expectancies and permanent happiness), but I don’t remember the last time I felt the crushing shame I used to feel regularly on the volleyball court or at a game of Rook, where the stakes existed only in theory.

Well well. One more mistake checked off my life list.

Beautifully, gently, through a series of events that are crushing in their own way, Jesus is teaching me that He doesn’t need me to be strong.

*****

This is going to come up again soon, I can feel it… the (not) needing to be strong. If you have preliminary thoughts, I want to hear them. Are you a strong woman? Do you need to be?

And–There is never a good time to say this. But whenever I offer you anonymity on a touchy topic, I worry that you will stay anonymous. And this time it happened, a little. Please don’t be afraid. I will never ban anonymous comments (if that’s the way you find the courage to speak, please do so, with my gratitude and respect), but I–well, I have to remind you, if I may?–the more of yourself you bring to any situation, the more good power and influence you have. Be strong brave. It’s part of my job to make it safe for you to speak, if you wish to.

What is the opposite of strong? Are you a strong woman? Do you need to be?