A bruised reed

Reed had it all together. At least, he tried to. And boy, did he try.

Reed had a 4.0 in school and felt all kinds of pressure to keep it perfect. And it was killing him. Unspoken though it was, his parents maintained that pressure through subtle comments and attitudes that they were blind to themselves.

And Reed extended this standard of perfection from his studies to the rest of his life. To sports. To personal grooming. To friendships, requiring his friends to be perfect, too.

Perfection is a brutal standard. Who can sustain it?

Reed knew that he didn’t measure up. Every day was a reminder. Small failings here and there, scattered throughout each day, mocked him and his leonine efforts.

I remember him crying when I told him he didn’t need to be perfect. He wasn’t sure if it was good news or not. There was freedom offered to him in not needing to be perfect, but there was also a redefinition of himself that he wasn’t sure he wanted to make. He liked being perfect. Or, at least, he liked the idea that others saw him as perfect, even though he knew otherwise.

Whenever I think of Reed and that conversation, I also think of the Servant figure in Isaiah:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. [Isaiah 42:1-3]

This Servant prefigures Jesus in the second part of Isaiah. We’re more familiar with Isaiah 53 and the suffering of the Servant. But here we see the Servant bringing justice to the nations, but doing it gently. He wants to make the world right, but he does so kindly. He doesn’t yell or scream. And he has a light hand with those who have suffered.

“A bruised reed he will not break” will always be paired in my mind with Reed, bruised by his attempted perfections. This tall, strong lad who always came in first was really a damaged swamp reed, almost ready to snap, wary of any too-strong breeze.

On the lake near our conversation, along a swampy shoreline, grew some lovely cattails. As a kid, I thought these hotdog-on-a-stick plants were the coolest thing ever. So, I’d take a canoe over to where they grew clustered together and I’d snap off one, playing with it till it broke.

The Servant and I couldn’t be further from one another. Where I was incautious in my self-centered play, the Servant pays attention to conditions, to strengths and weaknesses, to those of us who are smoldering wicks hardly able to sustain a flame.

Our God is not like us. His kingdom doesn’t plow the weak under and consider them expendable casualties. His methods don’t favor the strong over the weak. He isn’t brash or cocky. He watches his footstep, not crushing the bent or snuffing the smoldering. He knows our limits.

And the truth of the matter is that I am much like Reed. I like to look put together and wise and unbeatable and accomplished. I like to look like I know what’s going on.

I swim after the shiny lure of perfection and swallow it whole, only to be hooked and landed by it.

I am bruised. I am smoldering. And I need the kindness of the Servant to keep me from breaking, from being snuffed out. Thanks be to God that this is exactly the kind of Servant he is to us.