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

22 July 2016

Guests and Fish and California

Guests and fish and California. They all begin to stink after three days. Three days in Santa Monica was exactly right. My hotel, the Shangri La, was right next to the ocean. Three nights here was more than my house payment, but at least my room was small and uncomfortable. When I wasn’t at the conference, I was typically walking the promenade along 3rd street.

Four times in three days I ate at Stefano’s Pizza at the corner of Arizona and 3rd. I always ate the same thing—stuffed lasagna. It wasn’t really lasagna, it was pizza, thick pizza with meatballs and ricotta and mozzarella and parmesan. Oh, and lest I forget it came with a small plastic cup of tomato sauce with basil, fresh and distinct. The pizza was good; the sauce was sublime.

After I ordered my pizza, I sat facing the promenade to people watch. California people come in all shapes and sizes. To my left, there was a large silver man standing still. He wasn’t actually silver, he was black, but painted silver to look like a statue. Everyone noticed. Some even pointed. Few gave him any money.

Across the way, the Hare Krishna’s were recruiting. They were performing a dance number in unison to music I had never heard. I didn’t know that Hare Krishna’s danced. I guess I don’t know much about them.

On opposing sides of the promenade stood two men, each accosting passersby. They were drumming up support for a charity, something about children. I silently wondered if their idea of what is charitable to children and my ideas were similar. Either way, I made a mental note to avoid them when I left. Avert the eyes. Walk fast. Don’t acknowledge.

The more I sat there, I realized that one could sit and watch and never see the same thing. Human uniqueness abounds. But I was also reminded that what I longed for was the familiarity of home. 

21 July 2016

A Few Moments in the Library

Grace and are taking a writing class this summer, Writing from Your Roots, taught by Chris Yokel. As appropriate, I will probably also share some of what I am writing here.  Below are my observations from spending some time sitting in my library.

Perhaps 6 months ago, Grace and I consolidated our family's books into one room, now appropriately called "the library." At present, we have about 4500 volumes in that room. But I rarely just sit down there. Today, I headed to the library and sat for a while to observe.

When I first sat down, I found myself writing about the physical space. I was struck by the comfort of the chair, remembering the shape of my body. The air was a cool tranquility. We need better lighting. The overhead lights are underpowered, almost useless. Other varied lamps surround the room, but they cast uneven shadows and harsh bright spots. The books do not come to the edge of the shelves; some of them cower closer to the back, making them harder to see. Calvin's commentaries almost appear a wave upon the top shelf. How did they end up like that? The predominant sound was that of the dehumidifier, a noisy necessary evil. The shelves offer up a rare creak but are mostly silent. The only other appreciable noise comes from my son moving around upstairs. On the whole, the library is a quiet space in a house that is otherwise a cacophony.

The longer I sat, the more I began to think about the residents of the library, the books occupying the shelves. They express a unity in diversity. Fiction and nonfiction, old and new, hardcover and paperback, poetry, music, and cookbooks. Despite the varied topics, they all have a place. My poetry section is too small. I'm glad for Auden, Frost, Dickinson, and Oliver, but who's missing? Many, no doubt. Many of my books remain unread. Some of them I will likely never read. So why have a library? Why do I keep purchasing books? Is it a sickness? I do not know. What I do know is that this place brings me comfort.

20 July 2016

Crabb Conversations: Shattered Dreams

For the last few years, I have been blessed to be on the radio to talk about one of my favorite authors, Larry Crabb with a couple of guys I really love, Mark Halvorsen and Rob Gillette. This week, we finished up our discussion of Crabb's book Shattered Dreams. Going back, it took us a year.  Below, I have included links to all of the discussions. Please, whether you have listened to Shattered Dreams or not, give them a listen.

Chapter 1-August
Chapter 2-September
Chapters 3-4-October
Chapters 5-7-November
Chapters 8-9-December
Chapters 10-11-January
Chapters 12-13-February
Chapters 14-16-April
Chapter 17-May
Chapters 18-19-June
Chapters 20-21-July

17 July 2016

Light a Candle

It seems that everywhere we look, there is violence, hurt, and loss. It seems that every day, we hear stories that make us cry out, "what is going on?!" Suicide bombings. People shooting other people. People shooting cops. Cops shooting people. Human trafficking. Increasing porn consumption. Divorce. Abortion. Homelessness. Mass attacks.


Jesus told his disciples, "And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.  Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it."-Matthew 5:14-16 (The Voice).

Christians, Jesus tells us to be lights in the world. By His Spirit, the only hope for a broken world lives within us--not public policy, not stricter laws, not even moral conformity. Jesus is the only hope. He tells us to go forth and let His light shine.  I am "lighting a candle" to remind me that we bear the light of the Son of man. 

'Cause we bear the light of the Son of man
So there's nothing left to fear
So I'll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
'Cause He promised not to leave us
And his promises are true.
-Andrew Peterson 

11 July 2016

We Need More Armchair Receivers

In the past week or two, we have witnessed needless violence throughout our nation. Alton Stirling was killed by two police officers in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Five police officers were targeted and killed, and others wounded, at a protest in Dallas. Though these events grabbed the national headlines, there were other protests, some resulting in injuries. There were other unrelated murders that did not grab the national spotlight. To assume this violence is something new is misguided; it is nearly as old as humankind. What is different is the availability of information and the efficiency impulsivity with which we are able to respond through social media. For example, the widespread dispersion of smart phone technology allows bystanders to visually document events, often in a particularly gruesome manner. When we see Alton Stirling dying on camera, it triggers something deep within us. When we see Dallas police officers squeezing their loved ones tightly, we react.

But the availability of these advanced technologies also not only allow, but encourage us to share our thoughts and feelings. Facebook asks, "What's on your mind?"; Twitter asks, "What's happening?". So we respond. Twenty-four hour news feeds and the instant availability of information promotes a society of false experts. In the sports world, there are armchair quarterbacks who offer their opinions about things they know little about. As Alexander Pope said, "a little learning is a dangerous thing." Thankfully, when it comes to sports, it is rarely harmful to be an armchair quarterback.

Unfortunately, armchair quarterbacking is not limited to things that don't matter. As a society, we are eager to assert our opinions and beliefs about things like violence and racism. We even go so far as to presume that what we are sharing is "fact," but what do we do when our "facts" disagree with each other? If you don't believe this happens, talk to informed conservatives and liberals about whether President Obama has been good for the economy. You will hear different sets of "facts" complete with "reliable" sources. Furthermore, when we blindly assert that our set of facts are the correct ones, we shut down further conversation because we are unwilling to listen.

We need fewer armchair quarterbacks and more armchair receivers. 

We need people who are willing to sit and listen--really listen--to another tell her story, not with ultimate intent of offering a rebuttal, but to know her. It is quite possible that the people who share with us are wrong about certain things. So are we. When we enter conversations with others, we must enter with a desire to love, which promotes harmony, rather than to seek to be right, which often promotes divisiveness.  For my Christian brothers and sisters, we often do a poor job of listening.

One of my spiritual heroes is Francis Schaeffer, who was undoubtedly one of the most informed, logical, and thoughtful Christians in recent times. His ministry, L'Abri, had a profound impact on many people. Yet, what draws me to Schaeffer is his deep respect for others.  Jerram Barrs, a student of Schaeffer, had this to say, "He always treated people with dignity as God's image-bearers, with compassion as those fallen from a glorious origin and deeply marred by sin and its consequences, and with love as those for whom Christ died. If I long to imitate anything about him, it is this deep respect, compassion, and grace which was so evident in the way he responded to the miserable, difficult, and even aggressive people who challenged him."

We would all do well to heed these words from Schaeffer, "If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth." Friends, we need fewer assertions of fault and more curiosity about people. We need fewer opinions about causes and more compassion toward the suffering. We need more listeners and fewer commentators.

Every person we meet bears the image of God.
Every person you meet matters to God.
Every person you meet is loved by God.
Every person you meet needs God.


05 July 2016

Book Review: The Blessings of Humility

I cannot imagine a more appropriate author to write a book on humility than Jerry Bridges. He has written some of the most influential and widely-received books in Christian publishing, each with a trademark Bridges style--a deeply practical style, saturated in the Gospel, and consistently humble. The Blessing of Humility (2016, Navpress) does not disappoint.

At a short 95 pages, The Blessing of Humility uses the beatitudes as a launch-pad for exploring humility. Quite honestly, I would never have made the connections between the beatitudes and humility that Bridges did, but I believe he is correct. He describes them as "humility in action."

There are several good books on humility (and, of course, CS Lewis' chapter in Mere Christianity) and this is a welcome addition. If you are interested, may I humbly recommend this excellent little book. 

03 July 2016

Book Review: A Different Kind of Happiness

I've read every book Larry Crabb has written, including the lesser known two volume Adventures of Captain Al Scabbard. Most of them I have read several times. When people ask me my favorite, I am never sure which to choose--I love most of them. His latest book, A Different Kind of Happiness (2016, Baker) is no different. Several months ago, I read an electronic copy of the book and offered my impressions. At the time, I wrote, "It is no exaggeration that Dr. Crabb has had a profound impact upon me, my family, and the community of believers to which I belong. Like his favorite prophet, Jeremiah, Dr. Crabb has a message that challenges the status quo: ultimately the Bible is about relationship. His latest book is a welcome yet challenging call to a lived relational theology. He reminds us that growing in sacrificial other-centeredness is not easy but it is the way of Christ, which is a critical message for the body of Christ." (from the back cover).

Last week, I received a package containing a physical copy of the book and I was just as excited about receiving the paper copy as I was to review the electronic one and I have already read it again. Like many of Larry's books, this one is my favorite. A Different Kind of Happiness demonstrates Crabb's continued maturing as an author and Christ follower. It is also the clearest explanation of what might be called a relational theology. He is a wise sage and to me a valued mentor.

One of the ideas that has formed Crabb's thinking is that the Trinitarian God exists in perfect relationship and therefore, as His image bearers, we also were created to relate. However, our ideas of what constitutes Christian love is often anemic and self-centered. In this book, he uses Scripture to show us how God calls us to a deeper, sacrificial love. Because relationships, like all of creation, have been affected by the fall, each of us have "the lingering corruption of self-centeredness" that can stain all of our relationships. "We all fall short of the glory of God, the relational glory of God."

All of us on some level recognize the importance of love. But perhaps we don't know what true love--sacrificial love--Christlike love--really is.  What if true happiness develops when our love is modeled after Christ's sacrificial love?  Christ loved those who didn't deserve it. He loved them when they rejected him. That includes you. That includes me.

In the second half, Dr. Crabb explores in some depth what he calls the 7 questions of spiritual theology:
  1. Who is God?
  2. What is God up to?
  3. Who are we?
  4. What's gone wrong?
  5. What has God done about our problem? 
  6. How is the Spirit working to implement the Divine solution to our human problem?
  7. How can we cooperate with the Spirit's work? 

These seven questions provide a useful framework for a lived relational theology and are worth pondering in some depth.

For all the positives of this book, and there are many, a caution is in order. This book will unsettle you. If you are willing to honestly consider what Dr Crabb has to say, you will feel uncomfortable. Reflecting upon God's word and Christ's life, Larry asks us to love deeply and sacrificially. He calls upon us to love those who don't deserve it because none of us do. He exhorts us to love even while people are sinning against us as he loved us when we were (are) sinning against him.

This book contains a prayer that I have written out and pray as often as I can:
"Whatever the cost, make me a little Christ. Father, may Your Spirit open the eyes of my heart to see your beauty so that I am left with no greater desire while I live in this world than to reveal Your Son's love to others by how I relate." 

I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for my review. The reviews presented within are my own. Although this book was provided free of charge, it is a testament of my enjoyment of the book that I have purchased 10 more to give away to others. 

02 July 2016

The beauty of lament and the folly of presumption

Hannah's story in 1 Samuel 1 demonstrates the beauty of lament and the folly of presumption. Hannah, barren wife of Elkanah, was sad. In the Voice Translation, verse 10 reads, "She was heartbroken, and she began to pray to the Eternal One, weeping uncontrollably as she did." Witnessing her, Eli, a priest, confronted her. He said, "How long are you going to continue drinking, making a spectacle of yourself? Stop drinking wine, and sober up!"

Hannah was a woman with chronic maternal longings and feelings of incompleteness. She prayed earnestly for God's work in her life and specifically for a child. In her, we see the beauty of lament. On the other hand, Eli the priest was presumptive. Rather than bringing comfort, rather than seeking clarity, he made assumptions about Hannah's state and confronted her. She could have retaliated. She could have left silently in shame. But by God's grace, Hannah chose to respond humbly to him.

How often do God's people make assumptions about those they encounter? How often do our presumptions give way to harsh words, words that distance people from Christ rather than draw him to the beauty of his mercy?

Christian, learn to listen before you speak. Learn to comfort before you challenge. Learn to slow down rather than rushing in.