The wildly unearthly words that roar out of 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 are these — first from Jesus, then from Paul:
[Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
A few weeks ago, Jason Meyer, Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, preached from this text a message titled, “When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong.” That Sunday morning I was in my usual spot with my wife listening.
“Why should I admit my moral malignancy and helplessness and hopelessness? Because Christ will not paint on a proud canvas.”
That sentence sowed the seed. I prayed, O Lord, don’t let me lose this. Don’t let me feel this only for a moment. Don’t let this seed be snatched away, or burned, or choked.
The answer to that prayer came for me in the form of what I call “poetic effort” — the effort to say this truth another way — forcing the river of emotion to flow between the narrow vertical cliffs of rhyme and meter, making the river run deep between the walls of form — “Christ will not paint on a proud canvas.” Whatever others may feel, the poem is for me — to help me feel and live this holy, hard, and happy truth: “Christ will not paint on a proud canvas.” I hope it can be useful to awaken in others what Jason so earnestly and effectively preached — to me.
The hinges on the cellar door
Creaked, like a cello being tuned,
Perhaps to play a score
For me where I lie here marooned,
A melancholy song
To mark the years in darkness, dank,
Mildewed, useless, and long
Forgotten where I lay and stank
Already years ago
Beneath a pile of rags. A ray
Of light — I only know
It from the memory — now lay
Across the one frayed edge
Of my dark life exposed to hope.
“Mock you my filth? Or pledge
To me a future? Is there soap
And water in your hand?
Kerosene? Something to preserve
The rotten fibers, and
Beyond what I deserve,
Remove the grease and mold
And stench, and make a dream come true?
Perhaps, though I am old,
To be restitched into
A sack for beans, or rice,
Or, if too stained, perhaps for coal?”
My friends, the cozy mice,
Evade the light, and find their hole,
As cellar steps groan like
An old man getting out of bed,
Or gears about to strike
The hour for rising from the dead.
You come. And each footfall
Feels like a tremor just before
The dawn. You finger all
The rags, like clothing in a store,
Or pages in a book,
And then you pull me gently from
The filthy pile, and look
At me. You open me, struck dumb
By touch as tender as
A falling tear. You spread me on
The bench and gaze. O, has
A castoff ever undergone
Such gentle scrutiny?
No spot, no snag, no rot or stain
Is overlooked in me.
I venture, knowing it is vain:
“Sir, do you think I might
Be useful for a sack of coal?”
But as I spoke, despite
His tenderness, my whole rag-soul
Was overwhelmed with shame.
His finger found the place most frail,
As if to chide, or claim.
To me it was a nail,
And I for torture doomed.
But then he said, “No, not a sack
For coal as you presumed.
I am no collier, nor pack
With rice or beans. I am
An artist. You, the canvas that
I seek, but not to damn,
Or mock, or make a craven mat.
I plan a masterpiece.”
I feared to speak, for further shame,
But heard my silence cease:
“Sir, I am but a rag, much less
A canvas for a work
Of art.” “A masterpiece,” he said,
“A masterpiece. I shirk
No skill, attend to every thread,
And finish why I start.
And you, of all that I may find,
I choose. This is my art
My way. I only use this kind.”