Sunday, August 24, 2008

What But Thy Grace

“What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”
—“Abide with Me”

The words to this old hymn have been in my head a lot lately, in particular the words above. It seems to me there should be some kind of organized defense to “foil the tempter’s power.” We should have strategies and equipment to ward off attacks, including things like prayer, worship, and scriptural study. We do have these things, and they are very good. But somehow the phrase “what but thy grace” lands all of them flat and powerless. In the end it is not our programs, our spiritual disciplines, our plans or even our best intentions that foil the tempter’s power. When that “foiling” happens, it happens only by God’s grace.

I can’t get my head around that. I want to be able to do something. I want to be able to fight. And sometimes, in the seasons of endless battles, just sometimes, I want to win. But victory is seductive, leading me quickly to believe that it was my plan that brought us there, that each step of my strategy ought to be measured and repeated to achieve the same results again. Victory hides the true source of success. It was grace alone that foiled the tempter’s power. It was grace, and not the precision of my plans. Grace is generous but she is also shy, unwilling to be forced into the narrow confines of my expectation.

Where does this land me? Do I sit around all day doing nothing in the face of evil, waiting and hoping for grace to appear? No. But maybe also yes. I am called to participate, to act, to fight against injustice and all that mars God’s image in humankind. But on some deep level, it is not up to me. I am called to be an active agent of renewal, and I am also called to open my hands and wait for grace. It is a liminal place where my good actions disappear, where they are not a means to an end or a strategy to be measured by success or failure, but maybe, if I am lucky, they become an opening for God’s grace where a bit of foiling may at last occur.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Water in the Desert

When you have less of something, you value it more. In desert places, water is guarded and conserved carefully as a precious natural resource. And the animals and plants that live there have to adapt to life with less water in order to survive.

For faith-seeking artists, the world can be a vast and dreadful desert, which is why my week at the Glen Workshop was for me a week of great worth, like water in a desert. And it strikes me how essential water is to that full and abundant life promised by Christ. I can go for years and years without it; I can pray for it, reminisce about it, dream about it, but eventually I have to be able to stick my face down and drink in order to remember who I am, in order to become who Christ tells me I am.

But there is an element of surprise to all of this—to water in the desert, which is so rare it almost shouldn’t be there; and to the long, deep satisfaction of communion, which is what I wrote about to begin with before I ever left for the workshop. The surprise is that no matter how many miles apart we are, we are also so close together, closer than I would have ever thought. Which makes me believe that water can show up anywhere. Even in the desert. And where there is water, there just might be flowers.