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. 

31 July 2016

A Wing and A Web

The lone wing flutters in the breeze, now detached from all but the steel-strong spider's web. Such a small intricate thing. Like all creations, it bears the signature of its Creator. The translucent wing, weightless, held in place by a semi-rigid framework. This visible skeleton appears frail, yet is strong enough to oscillate 180 times per second.

How did a single wing light upon this line of silk? Perhaps a common house fly died of old age--one month--and at death he gave up his wings, carried by a gust from a different place. Each wing a banner sent upon the wind to the four corners of the yard.

Maybe there was a struggle. An unsuspecting honeybee tending to the flowers, stopped to rest upon the glistening strand. When she went to leave, she was held fast. A struggle ensued as she fought for her life, eventually breaking free, minus a wing. Is there any hope for a honeybee amputee?  Probably she just prolonged the inevitable.

Conceivably, the spider prevailed. Her gossamer lines restraining her prey. She moved quickly, dispatching the fly with her venom, before wrapping it in a silken to-go bag, a welcome midnight snack.

A wing and a web. Each strong and robust, yet each fine and gentle. Beauty resides in gentle strength.

25 July 2016

Storm Watchers

I came in early this morning, after an even earlier breakfast with a friend. I pulled my truck into the parking lot a few moments after seven. I park at the south end now. Because the spaces are perpendicular to the rest of the lot, I have to plan an indirect approach. With an F-250, I can’t maneuver easily, so I have to swing wide, but I pull right in between the two yellow lines. Or nearly the middle. I am proud that I get to park in truck row. I’m even prouder that my truck stands taller than the rest. Vestigial masculinity I suppose. I feel big. I feel powerful.

With such an early arrival, I beat the heat. In the morning cool, I am greeted by a few rain drops, not even enough to be concerned that the book I carry under my arm will be damaged. I silently express my gratitude to God and Willis Carrier for air conditioning.

Today is supposed to be hot. Really hot. Dangerously hot. I saw a poster this morning telling me how to recognize the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I don’t see posters like that when it’s just hot. Even though I forgot to pack a lunch today, I decided that fasting was preferable to hyperthermia, so I planned to stay in all day. I would learn of the outside world from patients who braved the midday heat.  

Around three o’clock, I heard a rumble. Though I hadn’t eaten much, I knew that sound was thunder, not hunger. My office has a large window facing the west so I turned in my chair to discover a fast moving storm. One of my favorite things about storms is their texture. Clear blue skies are wonderful in their own way, but not like rain storms. I suppose it is like comparing Kansas wheat fields and the Colorado Rockies; each is beautiful in its own way but one has a greater sense of dimension.  At the far back of the sky stand white, billowy clouds, ringed with blue. How far they are, I cannot tell. I am a poor judge of meteorological distance. I am not such a poor judge, however, that I cannot tell that the gray clouds stood closer. Right along the tree line, a gray rat makes his way north. Did God intend to color rats gray so that when He made this very cloud I would see the similarity? The trees themselves lean back in unison to take notice of the rat.


Closer still, above me in fact, a giant black cloud is moving fast to the northeast. When I look straight up, it fills my view. On the leading edge, there is a small wisp of a cloud pacing the large one as if they are attached. I am reminded of the giant barges I used to see on Lake Michigan manhandled by small tugboats. That this coal black cloud can be moved into place by such a small vapor is astonishing.  

The bottom of my window is even with the ground outside. I look upon the grass, darkened by the barge above me. I notice a single blade tremble, with excitement or fear, I am unsure. Perhaps both. Something so enormous must evoke a fearful excitement in one so small. I understand.

The trees, the blade of grass, and I are storm watchers. We feel small. We feel vulnerable.

A Goat's Life

I heard a strangled bleat, a last cry for help, a final hope for life. I looked up and saw her body hanging limply.

My weekend was lived largely outside of my comfort zone. Thankful for YouTube videos and the encouragement of my father-in-law, I managed to disassemble a part of my truck’s dashboard to install a trailer brake controller. To be honest, a week ago, I didn’t even know what a brake controller was or that I needed it, but here I was putting one in.



I planned to hook up our horse trailer after church and get comfortable maneuvering it before introducing Valley and gettting her used to it as well. I found myself bouncing down a washboard dirt road, trailer in tow, thinking about this neuropsychologist came to be the kind of guy who was raising dust with a big truck and a blue trailer on a country road.

When I returned to the farm, Grace and Jeff were crouching in the garden pulling weeds. Heather was mucking out a stall. Tessa was assuredly somewhere, though I had no idea where that might be. Heather showed me two buckets filled with straw and manure and asked me to go dump them.

My path took me past the goat’s pen, though I was paying it no mind. However, hearing the strangled cry, I raised my eyes and my pulse quickened. That was the sound of something dying, a last prayer for salvation. I saw her there, all the weight of her brown body hanging by her neck, a self-induced lynching for crimes unknown. “Is she still alive?” I wondered. She must be, I had just heard her wail.

“Jeff, you’ve got a goat hung up!” I hurried to the pen, unsure of what to do. I am a brain doctor, not a farmer, rancher, or veterinarian. I grabbed her around the middle with my right arm and lifted her. I had to get the pressure off of her throat. She began a raspy gasping. But how was I going to free her head? Her 4 inch horns were like a barb on a fishing hook; going in was no problem but coming out nearly impossible. Jeff arrived a few moments later. I held her body, while Jeff worked to extract her head.

We got her out and I set her down. Her typical spunkiness was gone. She was exhausted and confused. She continued fighting for breath, doing an unintentional impression of Robert Loggia. She walked a few steps and laid down in the shade, her chest heaving.

“I’m not sure she’s going to make it”, Jeff said.  


Meanwhile, a smaller black goat began to harass her. He climbed on her back, butted her head, and tried to lay on her. Jeff thought that maybe she was in heat. She’d just survived a near death experience and all the boys can think about was sex. I rescued her again, this time not from an iron noose but from assault. I bent down and awkwardly scooped her up, thinking to myself, “how do I hold a goat?” However I was supporting her, though, she didn’t mind. I carried her to the pen my wife had just cleared out and set her down in the shade. Finally, she drank, grateful for the care of this novice farm hand. 

24 July 2016

Solvitur Ambulando

As a senior in high school, I spent a great deal of time with my two dearest friends, Brian and Faith. We lived life together, we dreamed together. Not surprisingly, I was also deeply taken with Faith (and even with her family, but that is a story for another time, perhaps), though it went nowhere.

Having set the context, what came to mind was a long walk I took connected with these two. We were spending some time at a cabin when Brian and Faith told me they were going to start dating. I was angry and I was confused. I asked no questions. I waited for no explanation. I simply walked. It was dark and the place unfamiliar. Yet I marched on, bitter tears flowing. How could I ever bear this betrayal? Some time later, I don't know how long, hours, I turned back.

When I arrived, I sat on the end of the pier looking out over Lake Michigan. I had no words. Brian came and sat next to me. I began to weep. He shared in my tears. He joined me in my emotion because he loved me.

The two have now been married for many years and have a satchel of beautiful children. And they were the best man and maid of honor when I married my dear wife. God does things mysteriously. Sometimes a walk helps to sort out the mystery and even when it doesn't, God goes with us. 

23 July 2016

Connected Glories

The sun rises
I watch for it, singularly focused
On it’s emerging glory.

Yet there is beauty
Not only in the sun
But in the creation that reflects it

As morning dawns
The connected glories of the light giver
And illumined creation
Shine ever brighter