17 September 2016

Monochrome

Feeling gray in a sea of colors
your sadness monochrome;
shiny, happy, joyful others,
yet you feel so alone.

How can they grin and laugh
while you are sad and low?
You hate their smiling masks,
they see you, don't they know?

You force a smile and put on cheer
'tis better to pretend,
if they can't join your misery,
you'll act like one of them.

A world full of actors,
portraying joy unshaken,
meanwhile 10,000 hurting people
feel utterly forsaken.

06 September 2016

what is the counsel of the ungodly?

Reflecting upon Psalm 1, John Ortberg said,

"Now, what is the counsel of the ungodly? I grew up in a Baptist church, so I would think the counsel of the ungodly is someone encouraging me to go smoke a cigarette or have sex or be an atheist or something like that. Dallas [Willard] says that the counsel of the ungodly is just the way most people talk. It is the counsel to live as though it were not true that you are unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's glorious universe. The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if it matters what people think of you.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if the outcomes of your life are on your shoulders and you control them.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if aging is something to worry about.' The counsel of the ungodly is 'Live as if satisfying your desires and appetites is central to your well-being and a wise strategy for living.' That's the counsel of the ungodly. It goes on all the time, and we rarely even see it."

--Living in Christ's Presence, page 46

01 September 2016

should I wonder any less?

Eight legs upon the web
weaving in unison
I watch in awe that God would allow such precision
Then I button my shirt
fingers dancing together upon the fabric
          should I wonder any less?

Storms rage
Winds blow
The power of God in whirlwind
Then I sneeze
such force from within
          should I wonder any less?

Squirrel dancing upon the wire
twitching tail for balance
God's meticulousness in this frolic
Then I walk
Feet and eyes and ears and neurons cooperating
          should I wonder any less?

Sunflowers looking to the heavens in praise
Sunset genuflect
The created worshiping Creator
Then I write
   and speak
      and sing
         and dance
            and breathe
all things in worship of my King.

should I wonder any less? 

31 August 2016

Sin affects your ability to think clearly

I have been involved in a few conversations recently that reminded me of the noetic effects of sin. The word noetic relates to thinking or intellect, so the "noetic effects of sin" implies that thinking is affected by sin.  Sin affects our ability to think clearly. In a talk at Desiring God 2010, Albert Mohler gave an excellent talk entitled "The Way the World Thinks: Meeting the Natural Mind in the Mirror and in the Marketplace." I would commend the whole thing to you. One of his take home messages, however, is the many ways in which sin affects our cognitive abilities. 
Albert Mohler:
There are many facets of the daily intellectual life of human beings that are directly linked to the fall. While the noetic effects of the fall are inexhaustible, it is helpful to sketch out some of the ways in which they are noticeable.
1) Ignorance: had there been no fall, there would have been no ignorance. The things of God, even his invisible attributes, are clearly seen in creation, but the fall has clouded our ability to see these things. Ignorance would have been impossible until the fall, whereas it is now axiomatic.
2) Distractedness: every single human being has theological “attention deficit disorder.” We are easily distracted.
3) Forgetfulness: everyone has committed to memory things that he has now forgotten. Forgetfulness would be impossible had we not sinned.
4) Prejudice: intellectual prejudice is one of our besetting problems. The problem is that we do not know ourselves well enough to know our intellectual prejudices, because we are prejudiced even in our thinking about our prejudices. One of the great achievements of the postmodern mind-set has been the forcing of an honest discussion of intellectual prejudices.
5) Faulty perspective: because of our finitude, we all have a finite perspective on reality. Had we not sinned, we would all share a right and accurate perspective. As it is, we are shaped by cultural, linguistic, tribal, ethnic, historical, individual, familial, and other blinders. We do not see things as others see them, but we assume that others who are right-minded must see things as we see them. The famous “parable of the fish,” often attributed to Aristotle, asks the question, “Does a fish know that it is wet?” The idea conveyed in the parable is that if you want to know what being wet is like, then do not ask a fish, for he does not know he is wet.
6) Intellectual fatigue: with the fast pace of modern life and the multitude of matters pressing for our attention, we can begin to feel depleted in our intellectual capacities and mental reserves.
7) Inconsistencies: it would be bad enough if we were merely plagued with inconsistencies. The bigger problem, however, is that we do not even see them in ourselves — though they are more readily detected by others.
8) Failure to draw the right conclusion: this is a besetting intellectual sin. Most people do not even recognize that they are drawing the wrong conclusions. There is the willful denial of and blindness toward data.
9) Intellectual apathy: if we did not bear the noetic effects of the fall, we would be infinitely passionate about the things that should be of our infinite concern. Our intellectual apathy, which works its way out in every dimension of our lives, is one of the most devastating effects of the fall.
10) Dogmatism and closed-mindedness: we hold to things with tenacity that we should not hold onto at all, because the intellect seizes upon certain ideas and thoughts like comfort food. They are only taken away from us with great force, even if reason and data directly contradict them.
11) Intellectual pride: the Scripture states that “‘knowledge’ puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). One danger of higher education is the besetting sin of human pride that comes alongside human achievement, for intellectual achievements are some of the most highly prized trophies.
12) Vain imagination: Romans 1 indicts vain imagination, exposing the fact that we make images of God out of created things — even “birds and animals and creeping things” (verse 23). As the psalmist writes, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1).
13) Miscommunication: translation is difficult, and miscommunication is one of the great limitations upon intellectual advance. We live on the other side of both Genesis 3 (the fall) and Genesis 11 (confusion of language at Babel). From the story of the Tower of Babel, we understand that this issue of miscommunication is not an accident. Some of these noetic effects are because God has limited our knowledge.
14) Partial knowledge: we know only in part, and sometimes we do not even know how partial our knowledge is.

29 August 2016

Words

Words.
I love words.
Because God loves words.
When He created the universe, the Word Himself spoke it into existence with words.

"Light," He whispered and, at His word, light awoke for the first time. And God was delighted. He spoke again and again. "Heavens. Earth. Life." Each utterance shaping His creation just as He intended.

In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was [is] God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The eternal Word that used words to speak creation into being Himself entered His creation in the flesh. And He spoke words to His creation.

His words gave life to the universe.
His words gave life to the hurting.
They still do.

As those who were created in the image of the Word, our words can also give life to creation. Cherish them.

23 August 2016

Write into deeper reality

I came across a wonderful section in Eugene Peterson's book Under the Unpredictable Plant. (If you haven't read Eugene Peterson, he is the artist's theologian. He respects words. His eyes are trained for beauty better than most). 
Consider this: 
"My son, a writer, gave me a story that clarifies the distinction between culture-prayer and psalm-prayer. He was teaching a creative writing course at the University of Colorado. Students typically enroll in such courses because they want to be creative. As they hand in their early attempts at creative writing, the poems and stories reek of self-absorption. They are narcissists one and all and suppose that writing is a way of becoming better narcissists. Everything is reduced to and then recast in terms of their own experience. 
"Real writers know that this is not the way it works. While personal experience often provides the material and impetus--how can it be otherwise?--the act of writing is primarily an exploration of a larger world, entering into more reality, getting away from ourselves, moving beyond ourselves into other lives, other worlds. It is, precisely, creative: bringing into being something that was not there before. Meanwhile, my son, reading these stories and poems, was getting thoroughly bored. 
"In a moment of desperation, he took them out of the classroom one day and marched them across the street to a cemetery. They spent the hour walking over the graves, among the tombstones, reading the epigraphs and taking notes on what they observed and what they imagined. They were then instructed to write stories or poems out of the cemetery. It worked. There were glimmerings of genuine creativity. The writers were imaginatively entering into a world other than the self, an immensely larger world, even though it was only a cemetery. They wrote themselves into more reality." 
This. 

21 August 2016

Daily prayer for transformation

In Romans 12:2, Paul admonishes us to avoid being conformed to the world, but to instead be transformed by the renewing of our mind. The difficulty for all of us is that we have to live in the world and are thus pressured into the world's mold. Passivity will not work; transformation takes intentional practice. Bible reading, silence and solitude, worship, and prayer are but a few examples. One of the practices I've more recently developed is that each morning, I try to pray through a list of traits I want to see growing in my life. The list started with Paul's description of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, but I have expanded it from there. Here is what I try to daily. Some days I am too distracted. Some days I only get part way through the list. Some days I simply forget. But God is gracious and patient.

I begin by spending a few moments trying to settle my mind. I am one of those people whose mind chases 10,000 thoughts and I have to purpose myself to be in the moment. It is so easy to find my mind wondering and wandering. Typically, I can calm my mind some before I begin this prayer, never perfectly, and sometimes not at all. On those days, quite frankly, I try to spend my time simply quieting my mind, which in and of itself is an important practice.

After I quiet my mind some, I begin to pray through a list of character qualities I want to develop in my life together with their opposites. As I am slowly inhaling, I will pray, for example, "make me more loving." As I exhale slowly, I will pray, "rid me of hate." I do that for each of the traits, or as many as the morning allows.

Here is my current master list.
  • Love--Hate
  • Joy--Pessimism 
  • Peace--Anxiety
  • Patience--Hurry
  • Kindness--Mean-spiritedness
  • Goodness--Evil
  • Faithfulness--Disloyalty
  • Gentleness--Harshness
  • Self-control--Impulsivity
  • Presence--Distraction
  • Truthfulness--Dishonesty
  • Humility--Pride
  • Other-Centeredness--Selfishness
  • Curiosity--Disinterest
  • Compassion--Cruelty
  • Wisdom--Foolishness
  • Justice--Unfairness
  • Passion--Indifference
  • Mercy--Callousness
  • Godliness--Ungodliness
  • Hope--Despair
  • Generosity--Selfishness
  • Beauty--Ugliness 
  • Thankfulness--Demandingness
  • Settledness--Frenzy
  • Perseverance--Apathy
This is a fairly long list and if you do not rush, it will take a while. In addition to taking a few moments to settle my mind, I have found a few other things helpful.
  1. Try to do this everyday, even if it is just a part of it. 
  2. Write down the list on a note card to reference as you are praying. The words will eventually begin to take root, but it takes some time and help. 
  3. Visualization can help. As I am praying each of the words, I will sometimes picture a color I would associate with each word. For example, peace may be white; cruelty, black. It can also be beneficial to picture plucking fruit from a tree associated with each word. 
  4. Listen.  If you are praying slowly enough, you can listen for and begin to hear the Holy Spirit. As you pray, what is He telling you? Sometimes, a certain word will trigger me and I will sit and ponder it for a bit--sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with confession. 
  5. Choose a word to bring with you for the day. If you are going to be interacting with difficult family, perhaps you meditate on patience. 
  6. As you conclude, thank God that He promises to sanctify you by His grace and ask Him to carry these characteristics forward into your day.
Finally, like all spiritual practices, you will not be perfect, but you will grow. Fruit does not appear on a tree fully grown. It takes time. Someone who is out of shape does not get up and immediately do an Ironman triathlon. He works up to it. We also train ourselves for spiritual growth. Dallas Willard introduced me to the concept of "training versus trying." Too many believers, myself included, try to do right and when we fail, we give up. Training expects failure as a part of growth. According to Proverbs 24:16, "the righteous falls seven times and rises again."

Train yourself for righteousness.
Train yourself to watch for the Spirit's movement.
And above all, thank God for His continual grace toward you.

If you want a Google Docs printout to put in your Bible, you can follow this link.

17 August 2016

Abandoned beauty


An image came to me this morning.
An ancient church
     standing alone
     the wilderness fast overtaking the church yard.

Once a place of sanctuary
     a place of worship.
Sans people, is it any less beautiful?
The majesty of man's design overtaken by God's?
     Human creation divinely recreated.

Is God any less in this place?
     Do the stones sing any less than we do?
     Do the trees fail to lift their arms in worship?
     Does the moss fail to appreciate the warmth of its Maker?

God brings beauty wherever He presents Himself.
     Give us eyes to see.

13 August 2016

the intermingling of tragedy and beauty



We moderns have been trained to decouple tragedy and beauty. We view suffering and worship as incompatible truths. Mourning and loss may come to us, but when we experience the discomfort of sorrow, we seek escape as quickly as possible. With comfort upon comfort available to us, in the United States anyway, we flee from hardship. We are unapologetic escapists consuming alcohol, pornography, food, or exercise to numb our pain. We use whatever means available to help us to “feel better”.

The Bible paints a different picture. Mourning is a given reality of life and when we read God’s Words, we see real people dealing with honest emotion. When writing lament, the psalmists leaned into their pain and brought it before the Restorer Himself. In the first chapter of Job after hearing of the loss of his children, servants, and livestock, Job shaved his head, tore his robes, fell to the ground, and worshipped. Too often, we escape. 

Early in Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart, we see “the gift of a thistle.” We see beauty in tragedy. A young boy stands alone looking upon the rocky graves of his father and brother. Trying to be strong, his body shakes, almost imperceptibly, as shovels full of dirt fall upon the only family that he knows. 

 
A young Murron turns back and pulls away from her mother. She breaks the stalk of a single purple thistle, a perfect image of beauty intermingled with pain, and walks to William. Her innocence and beauty carrying light to a lost boy.

Their eyes meet as she hands him the flower. For a moment, he looks upon the flower and then back to her. Tears fill his eyes, but he holds her gaze, and her his. A simple gesture bringing beauty to sorrow, bringing connection to loneliness.

Not a word was exchanged in the scene, but James Horner’s music speaks clearer than any tongue. It is the music that makes this scene transcendent. It is the music that helps me to see the beauty of tragedy. Many of us are too far-sighted to see God’s beautiful work in the midst of sorrow. 

09 August 2016

Minderhaud

In the decade since I moved away for a second time, my hometown has changed. The sleepy community of mostly Dutch settlers two miles west of Lake Michigan has flourished in many ways. New businesses are expanding to the east and to the west; new homes in all directions. A few businesses are now open on Sundays, a fact that still surprisingly shocks me. Many are still bothered by seven day commerce, even when they find their way through the doors of Mentink’s Piggly Wiggly for a dozen eggs on a Sunday afternoon.  

But my interest today is in the farm. I lived in eight different houses before I turned 18, so my aunt and uncles farm provided my most consistent space. When I survey my childhood, this farm is always in the picture.

Leaving Oostburg, the land is flat enough that I could see the farm over the cornfields a half mile or so away, silos rising together. I turn north onto Minderhaud Road. The road itself holds memories. It is mostly straight apart from a few fades left and right and left again. And it is narrow; narrow enough that I am surprised teenagers ever thought it a good idea to race this road. Perhaps the danger was part of the appeal to only partially myelinated brains.

I turn left into the driveway and I’m home. I see my cousins standing under a tent in front of the “new” house, now 35 years old. My memories of the old house have faded considerably. I cannot even picture it now; though sometimes flashes of recollection emerge. The ground itself shows no trace of memory of the original foundation.

I hug Connie, Rachel, and Nikki, my sisters. We are not siblings by blood, but by love. Seeing them reminds me how much I miss them. I also embrace my dear aunt Sandy, with whom I share a love for writing, and beauty. When I write, I often write for her.

I step up into the house from the garage. New stainless steel appliances update the kitchen, but the bones are the same. There is still no dishwasher, I notice. I remember my grandma Laura standing at this sink, washing the dishes in too hot water and looking off to the south. What did she see? What does she see now?

The main level has two bathrooms. With mom, dad, and three girls, I imagine two bathrooms was a necessity when it was built. I look into the first bathroom, but I use the second. You can see through the first window from the deck, but not the second, I remember sheepishly.

Later on, I grab my camera and walk the hundred or so paces to the barn. It seems so much closer now that I am grown. I walk across a concrete slab, thinking of the buildings and the cows that stood here. The pavement is so white; a far cry from the manure that used to paint this place. I walk to the barn and look through a clouded window. Aluminum cans and building supplies line the milking parlor, but I can still see the cows and my uncle John working, working, working.

I stay out of the barn today; I don’t feel the need to go in. Thankfully, Grace ventured inside and even up a ladder into the hay mow, where she took some beautiful pictures at elevation. When I was reviewing her shots, a small part of me wondered why she would think it was a good idea to climb unsupervised, but a bigger part of me was thrilled that she grasped the opportunity right in front of her. That should happen here.  

How much did these barns shape who I am? How about these fields? More important than place, how did these four women guide who I am now? How did their love and their correction affect me? And what about the mischief? As I watched my son and Rachel’s daughter playing together, I could not help but think of Nikki and me. We played together and worked together and ate together and misbehaved together. I am certain I would be shocked if my children misbehaved in the ways that we did at the farm, but I don’t regret it. It helped make me who I am today.


And every time I return to this place and these women, I come back home.