Last February I was with a group of preachers, and one of them began talking about the word “precarious.” He suggested that the word has its roots in Greek, and in that sense, can be understood as meaning “before grace.” (pre-charis: the Greek word for grace, often translated as “gift”). The preacher went on to talk about how tenuous life can feel in those moments when one is waiting for something new to show up, and when one is hoping that new thing to show up will indeed be grace.
In the time since that conversation I have investigated the definition and derivation of the word and have not been able to substantiate the preacher’s claim. The references I find suggest the background of the word is obscure. It could be related to the Latin “prex,” from which comes our English word “pray.” Thus, when “precarious” comes into use in the 16th century, it means “to depend on the will or favor of another.” In the earliest appearances of the word, that “another“ seems to be God. Whatever it’s history, I still appreciate the imagery of the preacher’s “pre-grace” observation. It is not unusual for us preachers to stretch a bit when trying to illustrate a point, and I like what he did here.
In current usage, the adjective precarious indicates a dangerously unstable situation or position where the outcome is uncertain.
Certainly, we are in a precarious time, however one understands that word. It is a time of instability and uncertainty. It is a time when we are dependent on the will and favor of others. And it is also a time where we are looking for grace.
Here on the farm where I am spending my days in this precarious time, Lamb Watch has begun. This is the time when all my Facebook friends watch with me for the birth of spring lambs. I began this tradition about eight years ago and every year more and more folks have joined in for regular progress reports on lambing.
When I was in Great Britain almost a decade ago, an old Welsh shepherd told me that lambing time was his favorite season. “It’s all right there,” he said. “Risk and reward, energy and vulnerability, life and death.” Springtime, as it turns out, has always been a precarious time.
This spring, four ewes have been expecting lambs. One of them has given birth, and that one little lamb has brought great joy to the Lamb Watch community.
But we are still waiting on the others. We are still watching for lambs. When I wake in the night, my thoughts go to the ewes down in the barn, in their precarious, pregnant state. I roll out of bed, put a jacket over my blue flannel pajamas with images of sheep on them, pick up a flashlight, and head out to check on the actual sheep. I want to know that all is well, and that if the sheep need “the will or favor“ of the shepherd, I will be there to oblige.
This year‘s Lamb Watch has been unusual, in that the first lamb came 10 days ago, and we are still waiting for the others. It seems that this Watch, as if to match the world’s mood right now, requires extra patience. And yet the one newborn lamb has made her appearance to remind us that precarious as it is, spring is also inevitable. As if to carry hope for all of us, the lamb invites us to keep watching. We can see grace all around us, as spring buds explode in beauty, and new life emerges everywhere.
So let me return to my preacher friend’s observation, and why I was so taken by it in February, and even more just now. The word “precarious” does describe our current pandemic situation. This is a time of uncertainty and grief. We wake in the middle of the night and wonder what is next. Often we don’t even know where to look.
But may we understand this “precarious” time as one not only of instability but also of expectation. Such an understanding gives us a path forward. It means that we recognize that God is with us. It means that we that we wait with hope. It means that grace is inevitable. And that makes all the difference.