09 February 2017

Unaware of the Wellsprings of Life

I am currently reading an anthology of George MacDonald entitled Discovering the Character of God. For those who are unfamiliar with MacDonald, CS Lewis counted him among his greatest influences. I read this page this morning, a passage from his fictional The Curate's Awakening, and I was deeply struck.

The morning which had given birth to the stormy afternoon had been a fine one, and the curate had gone out for a long walk. Not that he was a great walker, his strolls were leisurely and comprised of many stops. He was not in bad health and was not lazy. Yet he had little impulse for much activity of any sort. The springs in his well of life did not seem to flow quite fast enough.

He sauntered through Osterfield Park and down the descent to the river. There he seated himself upon a large stone on the bank. He knew that he was there and that he answered to "Thomas Wingfold;" but why he was there, and why he was not called to something else, he did not know. On each side of the stream rose a steeply sloping bank. on which grew many fern brushes, now half-withered. The sunlight upon them this November morning seemed as cold as the wind that blew about their golden and green fronds. 

Thomas felt rather cold, but the cold was the sort that comes from the look rather than the feel of things. With his stick he kept knocking pebbles into the water and listlessly watching them splash. The wind blew, the sun shone, the water ran, the ferns waved, the clouds went drifting over his head--but he never looked up or took any notice of the doings of Mother Nature busy with her housework. 

His life had not been particularly interesting. He had known from the first that he was intended for the church, and had not objected but accepted it as his destiny. Yet he had taken no great interest in the matter. 

The church was to him an ancient institution of approved respectability. He had entered her service, and in return for the narrow shelter, humble fare, and not quite shabby garments she allotted him, he would perform her observances. 

Thomas did not philosophize much about life, nor his position in it. Instead, he took everything with an unemotional kind of acceptance and laid no claim to courage or devotion. He had a certain dull prejudice in favor of not telling a lie, and yet was completely uninstructed in the things that constitute practical honesty. He liked reading the prayers in church, for he had a somewhat musical voice. He visited the sick--with some repugnance, it is true, but without delay--and spoke to them such religious commonplaces as occurred to him.

He did not read much, browsing over his newspaper at breakfast with polite curiosity sufficient to season the loneliness of his slice of fried bacon, taking more interest in some of the naval intelligence than in anything else. Indeed, it would have been difficult to say in what he did take much interest. 

Could he in all honesty have said he believed there was a God? Or was this not all he really knew--that there was a Church of England which paid him for reading public prayers to a God in whom the congregation was assumed to believe? 

It was not a question Wingfold had yet considered. 


02 February 2017

Night Reflection

There are places where
           stars still frolic
     and the Cheshire moon
          wryly smiles.
The wind plays
     amongst the trees
          howling softly. 

26 January 2017

If...

This is a poem from Rudyard Kipling, entitled "If..."

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

24 January 2017

Longing for the pony express

Certain days find me longing for the return of the pony express. As a man in mid-forties, I of course cannot remember the pony express which ran for just 19 months during the 1860s. But I do remember a time when correspondence was slower. Letters were delivered by postal carriers across the country and around the world. I've always lived with telephones, but they didn't always fit in my pocket and were typically attached to the wall.

The rapid acceleration of information technology has also hurried our communications. What once took days or weeks to convey can now be done instantaneously. I can receive a year's worth of correspondence in a day on a computer little bigger than a deck of playing cards.

To be sure, there are clear advantages to faster communication. I can carry on a conversation throughout the day with my wife who is currently 50 miles from me if and when I need to. Not only can I can send words, but also pictures and videos if I wish. I can sign legal documents and fax them directly from my phone to an office on the other side of the country. I can hear someone's bad news in a moment, and send my condolences and prayers straightaway.

Yet, like all things, the rapidity of communication has problems as well. Who of us has not regrettably sent a text or email that has not been carefully pondered? Who of us wishes that we weren't omniaccessible?

With social media and rapid communication, on a relational level, we end up trading depth for quantity. I have 686 "friends" on Facebook, some of whom I have never met personally and many fewer to whom I would send an actual Christmas card. The type of Trinitarian relating that Jesus prayed about in John 17 is essentially lost in cyberspace.

Further, belonging to an instant-access global community retards our ability to engage in active problem solving for ourselves. One hundred years ago, when someone faced a problem, they did not have the option to text their six nearest friends to seek advice; they had to sit with their problem alone or actually seek out a neighbor or family member for assistance. I believe this is especially true in the world of soul care. The opportunity to sit over a cup of coffee with a real person whom you know and who knows you carries with it a palpability not available on the web. Presence matters.

Finally, our always connected world limits our opportunity to be alone with ourselves and with God. Shutting out electronic distractions is physically uncomfortable for many of us, so we live always in their presence. Whistles and bells and notifications constantly beckon us away from ourselves and from God.

In sum, I am increasingly aware of the potential harm of constant availability. I don't want you to be able to get ahold of me in a moment's notice (and expect my response) unless there is truly an emergency. Its not good for you and its not good for me. So when I don't immediately respond to your text, email, Facebook message, or voicemail, do not fret. Enjoy the time alone.

23 January 2017

Becoming Present

A week or so ago, I wrote this poem based upon Daniel Siegel's "Wheel of Awareness" exercise. In his work with Interpersonal Neurobiology, Dr Siegel encourages this daily practice which enhances awareness of self and relationship.  One starts with the basic senses, progresses to the body's interior, mental activities, and finishes with interconnectedness. As you walk through this poem, I hope you will be able to appreciate the movements taken from my observations on a mid-January's day.

First movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present
                       
Listen…
Muffled voices tumble
Through the ambient mask
Of white noise
Designed to deafen

Look…
Tan walls
Visual muzak
Overrun
            By muted watercolor
            And too many diplomas

Smell…
Inhale deeply
            And hold…
Hints of chili
            And coffee
            Beloved beans

Taste…
Tongue discovering
            Consulting the nose
Coffee
            Treasured companion
            Yet bitter when she leaves

Touch…
Fingers lightly
            On the keyboard
Body heavy
            Upon the chair

These five
Reveal the world
Creation’s prime explorers
Yet they’re not alone

Second Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Come inside
Hidden interior
Body’s magnificence
            Knit together
            Indwelt

Crooked teeth
            Barely touching
Once broad shoulders
            stooped
            Incurvatus en se
Vertebrae
            Some barely holding hands
            Others squeezing too tight
Arms and legs
            Like a Victorian parlor chair  
Overstuffed and underused
Internal organs
            Harmonizing ad infinitum  
            Until life’s end

The sixth sense
Reveals the world
Inside
Yet it is not alone

Third Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Blue hues of sadness
Splashes of yellow
Blooms of red
A canvas of swirling emotion

Thoughts dancing
            Never settling
            Upon one thing
Twirling around the mind’s dancefloor

Hopes and longings
            But for what?
            Peace on Earth?
            That’s quaint
How about peace in me?

Memories and dreams
Images and intentions
            All in the mind’s eye
            Effervescent mental activity
It’s time to mind your mind

The mind too
Reveals the world
Inside
Yet it is not alone

Fourth Movement

Breathe
Subtle breeze
Quiet sigh
                        Repeat
Awakening awareness
Becoming present

Turning outward again
Not to what
But to whom
            Interpersonal interconnection

People surround me
            Yet disconnected
            Living compartmentalized
I hear their voices
            Giving clues to location
            But not to their hearts

Four souls at home
            My bride
            And my littles
I imagine their lunch break
            Four sandwiches
            Four bananas
            Four screens
Same space, different worlds

One planet
Seven billion souls
            And counting
            Yet loneliness abounds
            On anti-social media

Our relationships
Reveal the world
between
that we are not alone
            …or at least should not be

Reprise

Becoming present
Awakening awareness
                        Repeat
Quiet sigh
Subtle breeze
            Breathe

20 January 2017

Book Review: Shalom in the Psalms

According to the front cover, Shalom in the Psalms (Baker, 2017) is described as "a devotional from the Jewish heart of the Christian faith." When quickly scanning the text, one quickly sees that the devotional first presents a psalm in its entirety in the Tree of Life Version, followed by a brief reflection or meditation by one or more of the three authors: Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur.

Reading through the book, I had a few observations. First, I was grateful that this book was approached communally by a D.Min., worship leader, and literary editor. Each presents a different perspective on the Psalms and their varying voices were welcome in the book. Although most of us who have come to love the Bible have benefited from our individual meditations, there is real strength in communal study. I particularly liked that some of the meditations were co-authored because one then hears different voices.

Second, I have not been familiar with the Tree of Life Version of the Bible, a translation initially developed by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917. I always find it interesting to read translations with which I am unfamiliar. The TLV version is no different. One of the things most Christian readers will find with this version is that various Hebrew words are retained. This forces one to slow down and not simply gloss over the reading. Poets know that word choice can intentionally slow a person down and that is certainly true here. There were a few times when I found it distracting, however.

Finally, I appreciated the commentators' willingness to ask questions of the text. In his reflection on Psalm 51, one of my favorite Psalms, Paul Wilbur wrote, "I don't really understand verse 6, because the sin was not only against the Lord and His righteousness; David also sinned grievously against Uriah his friend and Bathsheba, Uriah's wife" (p. 124). Too often, when reading the Bible, we assert our understanding, rather than seeking to listen.  Wilbur reminds us that it is good to do that.

On the whole, I would recommend this book. I suspect it will be a resource for me as I continue to explore the Psalms.

I received a copy of this book for review from Baker Books. The views presented here are my own.

18 January 2017

T.H.A.G.S. and the Beauty of Sacred Clutter

"For as long as they could remember, Nia had taught the children what she called T.H.A.G.S.* Janner studied writing and poetry. Tink spent his time painting and drawing. Leeli learned to sing and to play the whistleharp. Tink had asked his mother once what was so traditional about learning the T.H.A.G.S. when not one other child in Glipwood was forced to spend hours upon hours drawing the same tree over and over from different angles. 

"'You're an Igiby,' she said as if that answered the question. 

No other boy in Glipwood had to read as many old books or write as many pages as Janner and no other girl in town knew how to play an instrument. All three of the children had some proficiency in each of the T.H.A.G.S. but spent the vast majority of their time perfecting only one. 

*Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song. Some silly people believe that there's a fourth Honored and Great Subject, but those mathematicians are woefully mistaken. 

-Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, page 78


If you've spent any time in our home, you might describe it as a beautiful mess, or just a mess. You might think we own too much stuff. Perhaps we do. The vertical spaces are covered with guitars and artwork and shelves and fingerprints. Books and animals and tablets and pencils occupy the horizontal. Sacred clutter.






As I look around our home, I am reminded that beauty matters here. Sometimes, there is an overgrowth of unwashed dishes, unfolded clothes, and unpaid bills, but almost always, creative blooms continue to break through.











I am thankful to Andrew Peterson who gave us the term T.H.A.G.S.--Three Honored and Great Subjects. Before I ever read the Wingfeather Saga or knew of the acronym, our home was a sanctuary where the T.H.A.G.S. were valued.


 If you ever stop by on one of our "family create nights," I'll show off my wife's paintings because she's too humble to show them herself. If you're lucky, Grace and Tessa will show you their artwork as well. Ian will gladly play you a song on his ukelele and sing just a bit off tune.

My writings are coming along nicely, though my paintings are further behind. But, with time, I'm learning the process matters more than the product.

Let me encourage you as well.
Get a little bit messy.
Make some mistakes.
Create your own sacred clutter.
Trust me, its beautiful.










15 January 2017

fifty books

On the way to church today, I was talking with my kids today about simplification. I made the whimsical claim that someday, I intended to live in a small cabin with no television, a stockpile of art supplies, and 50 books. My daughter Grace quickly replied, "you could never survive with only 50 books." Recognizing my folly, I said, "alright, 5000."

Upon sharing this story, my good friend Mark, a missionary who knows the realities of trimming the excess, challenged me to write a blog post sharing my list of 50 books. I thought it was a wonderful idea and I accepted his challenge. Before sharing my list, I want to share a few relevant details about my reading life as well as a few guiding principles that I used when constructing my list.

First, the relevant details. I am an avid reader. My current library has somewhere between 4000 and 5000 books and occupies one level of our home. I typically read 100 or more books each year. Last year was light at 93, whereas 2015 was more productive at 144. So even on the light end, with only 50 books, most would be read twice.

Second, to the guiding principles. As I was walking through my library, I tried to keep a few things in mind. I wanted books that had staying power, in other words, that I would want to read them repeatedly, year after year. The intention in coming up with only 50 is that these would be THE 50 and that I couldn't exchange them out. I would be stuck with them. Also, as long as they were available in a single volume, that would count for me as a book. Some of you may think that is cheating, but I don't care: my list, my rules. I also wanted sufficient variety to keep myself interested. If I chose 50 books that all dealt with systematic theology, I would probably get bored quickly. In other words, I wanted a 50 book library that contained a variety I would want to read again and again.

So, without further ado, here are my 50.

04 January 2017

Christmas Eve Evanescence

I didn’t see you come in, but there you were all the same. Right side, fourth row, standing in front of me. Were you there as we sang, “God rest ye merry gentlemen?” If you were, I didn’t notice you. Forgive me. While singing “tidings of comfort and joy,” I failed to offer them to you.

When the band ceased, I stood to offer a Christmas welcome. I tried to look upon the gathered crowd, but the spotlights blinded me. I encouraged everyone to really listen to the lyrics of these familiar carols. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also breed forgetfulness.  These songs tell the most amazing story if only we would properly tune our attention. Were you able to hear?

I first noticed you when we stood to sing “Silent Night,” our candlelight anthem. Along the aisles, the ushers lit the candles. One by one, flames leapt to life. You were on the inside of your row, sitting alone, a chair between you and Izzy. Forgive me again; I initially thought you were a child. You were barely taller than Izzy and thin. You held your unlit candle, standing stone still, a charcoal shadow in a pool of lights. With whispered encouragement from her mother, Izzy brought her light to you. Trembling, trembling you tilted your wick to meet her flame. And we sang,

            Silent night, Holy night,
Son of God, Love's pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Did you sing? I couldn’t tell. You were a statue in front of me, the only movement the anxious flame in your folded hands. Perhaps you were heeding my request--listening, listening.

With candles extinguished, the music continued telling us that old gospel story: 
            “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”  

As I fumbled with the harmony, I continued to watch you. You drew your dark peacoat around your slumped shoulders and you gripped your purse tightly. Your private thoughts were nearly audible: “Am I safe to leave? If I go now, perhaps no one will notice me.” You nervously shifted from foot to foot. You briefly surveyed the congregation calculating your escape, questioning, questioning. With surprising swiftness, you disappeared.

I longed to stop you, to put a hand upon your shoulder and invite you to stay. Like normal, my logic prevailed. What woman, especially one so afraid, wants a strange man three times her size to bar her escape? Like the smoke from your candle, you were gone in an instant. Christmas Eve evanescence.

I returned my attention to pondering Immanuel, God with us.  Forgive me, forgive me, thrice forgive me. In pondering Immanuel, I forgot to show you Immanuel. I forgot that in His church, Jesus is more than lyric; He is life. 

02 January 2017

A plea for greater discernment

Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.
-Proverbs 2 (MSG)

Many Americans felt that 2016 was a particularly terrible year. A political changing of the guard, oft-publicized episodes of violence, and the loss of many familiar celebrities dominated our thinking and emotion.

In our social media world, one of the things that often seemed evident was our national lack of discernment. Too many of us have abandoned scalpel-sharp insight for bludgeoning hammers of information, even when that information may be false. We convince ourselves of the truthfulness of what we read when it conforms to our narrative without bothering to discern what is true. Whether on the political right or left, we allow truth to be determined by our preferred media outlets while at the same time castigating those who oppose us. And it is to our shame.

Unfortunately, for many of us this lack of discernment shows up in our every day lives as well. We have a narrative for life and we actively seek sources that support our narrative. Psychologists call this a confirmation bias. We favor information that bolsters our preconceptions while either ignoring or flat out denying incongruous information.

Sadly, this can have profound effects upon relationships as well. In some cases, people are more willing to abandon relationships, even long-standing ones, than to try to apply wisdom, insight, or discernment into determining what is true. Rather than seeking after wisdom and truth, they seek counsel from those who will parrot their preconceptions.

Considering this, here are a few things to think about:
1) Seek humility. We should develop the habit of asking the question, "is it possible that I'm wrong?"
2) Actively listen to those with whom you disagree. Even if you ultimately continue to disagree, a willingness to listen serves you well.
3) Pursue long-term relationships. Acquaintances often cannot provide informed counsel because they know neither you, nor the situations you are facing. If the people you are listening to never disagree with you or challenge you, they are not a friend, they are an echo chamber. Seek deep relationships with people who are willing to pursue both truth and love with you.