Coffee at “The Restoration”

It’s Monday, February 3, 2520. The Storyteller has invited me to grab coffee with Himself and one of my old enemies. It’s not the first time this has happened, so I know what to expect.

An angel serves us coffee and the Storyteller tells him, “Pull up a chair. This one involves you.”

“As you know, Brad, I have invited an old enemy of yours. He should be here shortly. In the meantime, how about that view!”

It’s the view I used to describe to my son: “When you grow up, and make your first million, buy me a house in the hills. It should have a covered porch, and it should overlook a valley with tall mountains across the way.” Clearly, this location was hand-picked. Someone remembered!

About then, my former enemy shows up, guided by another angel. He looks around and flashes a sheepish grin. Apparently, this is not his first story.

After dismissing the guide angel, the Storyteller says, “Have a seat, John. You remember Brad?”

An angel from the kitchen brings out another pot of coffee and an additional cup and leaves them on our table. The Storyteller pours a cup for John, and then begins….

“Brothers,” he says to me and John; “And you as well,” He smiles at the angel. “It was 500 years ago. Brad here was praying, in that distracted way that always made me chuckle. He got to the part of his list that he titled ‘Difficult.’ I agreed with his title. Praying for his enemies was difficult for him. Hearing him pray was difficult for me! In addition to his distraction, there was always his struggle with bitterness. But he tried, and that pleased me.”

“John, Brad prayed for you. He asked the Father to grant you success in your ministry, physical, mental, and emotional health, and continued spiritual growth. Brad didn’t have a lot of imagination, so his prayers for you were usually along those lines. Now let me tell you how we answered his prayers….

The Storyteller goes on for several hours, with a tale totally out of proportion to the minutes I once spent in prayer for John. He includes the angel, pointing out how he was employed in answering my prayers.

A few cups of coffee later, He concludes, “So, that’s how Brad’s prayer moved Heaven and Earth in your behalf.”

Then He turns to me.

“Brad, come back tomorrow. I have also invited a fellow you probably don’t remember. But he remembered you, right at the top of his ‘difficult’ list. Boy, do I have a story to tell him!”

— Brad Hepp, 2/3/2020

MOTIVATED? See my Resources Page for recommendations on a little app that may help you pray more regularly: https://www.bhepp.us/resources/#prayer

A Veneer of Knowledge

One of the few card games I recall playing in my youth was Authors. If I remember correctly, the object of the game was to trade cards until you had a full set of cards representing an author’s major works.

As a result of playing that game, I was a young nerd who could reel off the most famous writings of Louisa May Alcott or James Fenimore Cooper WITHOUT HAVING READ A WORD OF THEIR WRITING.

I also had collections of cards for identifying mammals, and a nifty rock identification guide. I tried to imitate my mother’s impressive knowledge of flowers and birds. I still am trying.

That was Phase One of an education, and it has lasted almost six decades. As Phase One draws to a close (I hope!), I find myself possessing a veneer of knowledge. It isn’t all bad. Knowing just a little about this and that opens the door for many useful and fascinating conversations. But sometimes I look back on a conversation and am embarrassed that I confused my Authors cards. To my creative writers group: “I referred to Nathaniel Hawthorne, when I meant James Fenimor Cooper!” Last night, I came home after a conversation and realized I had spoken of the Fifth Amendment, when I should have referred to Article Five. Scratches in my thin veneer of knowledge reveal the particle board below. I want more. I want better.

Phase Two of my education is going to take infinitely longer. I’m not a fast reader. And some things just take time to learn. For instance, it takes walking around a lake many times, over many months, over many years to know more than rudimentary facts about the plants and animals I observe there. I can’t help but think of the latter chapters in Job. There, God poses questions for Know-it-Alls regarding basic facts that weren’t listed on their mammal identification cards.

This is why I love eternity, and the infinitely creative God who enables Phase Two of my education. Piece by piece, over time without end, the particle board and its thin veneer will be replaced. I’ll come to really know.

The Day Trees Became Weeds

It was a morning in the Fall of 1979. Sunlight, pouring in from my left, kissed the bark of giant pine trees standing by the path. They were silent that morning, as I walked from the cafeteria to my dormitory.

I had been up late the night before, working on a project for Cultural Anthropology 101: “Compare Groups of Students to Herds of Animals.” The comparison was unsettling.

“What if,” I had begun to ask, “there’s really nothing special about human beings? What if they don’t reflect a creative, purposeful God?” This walking from the cafeteria…. Was I a mere beast returning to my den after feeding?

The concrete path between the cafeteria and my dormitory was not straight. After all, the trees were here first. You don’t cut down magnificent pine trees just to make a path straight. “We were planted here by the Gardener. Respect Him!” That’s what the trees had always told me, as I walked the curving path.

But this morning, the trees were quiet, their low voices silenced by the unmoving wind. Instead, I heard unpleasant hissing. “Weeds. That’s all they are. Very tall weeds.” I did not like this voice. I did not like what it was urging. “Stop thinking of a garden. There is no Gardener. Weeds, only weeds.” I kept walking. The hissing went away, but for a terrible few minutes, I was lost on the path.

Forty years later, I occasionally hear the hissing. But usually, I hear the trees. They are not mere weeds. There is a Gardener. I walk through His garden. There, I encounter not mere animals, but would-be gardeners.

Cultural Anthropology 101 be damned.*

Commentary

I discussed this little vignette with my creative writers group, and they helped me tidy up the story. At least they tried. John Barbre suggested that I make a people/animals and trees/weeds parallel stronger by using the word “herds.” Since much of this vignette was crafted, and not something that literally happened, I felt free to use his excellent suggestion.

So how much WAS real? I have a photo below that shows an artist’s rendering of the SFASU campus about the time I was a student there. It looks like my memory of the “curving” path may have been made up (or the artist just liked straight lines!). Here are the elements that were factual:

  • It was about 1979
  • I was taking a cultural anthropology course that I took very seriously
  • I had begun wondering if Christianity was just a delusion
  • I did actually experience the disturbing perception that trees were mere weeds

I’m coming to realize that I do indeed perceive the world around me as bearing a Creator’s fingerprints. It almost sounds silly to admit that, especially as I continue to be fascinated by cultural anthropology, sociology, and their evolutionary explanations of man and his behavior. I know that my perception of the world would be explained by many as an activated “God gene” working overtime.

But consider this: if we really are designed by God (my operating belief), would it not stand to reason that He would have made us with the ability to perceive Him? Next time you are awed by beauty, ask yourself, “Could it be that I am responding to this with appreciation because I sense that there is design and meaning behind it? Is there something telling me that there really is a Creator? Do I dare listen to that voice? Or is there some hissing voice that insists I am not free to consider such fantasies?” Are you free?

*I don’t actually have a problem with cultural anthropology per se. Rather, it is the reductionism that it fires up in me, the tendency to think of a partial explanation of human behavior (esp. apart from man’s response to God) as the entire explanation.

Artist’s rendering of Stephen F. Austin ca 1976 (my path is highlighted):

CTRL-D, CTRL-D!

The art director looking over my shoulder was beside himself.

“Use CTRL-D!”

Minutes before, he had yelled “Stop the presses!” when he discovered an error on his print job. Now he wanted me to fix his error as fast as possible. Why was I not using every keyboard shortcut known to man?

My mind went back twenty years…. There I was, sitting in my carrel by a second-floor window of the college library. While writing a paper, I looked out the window and watched the ultimate frisbee match they were playing on the lawn below. Three minutes passed, and then I rebuked myself: “Why were you staring out the window, when you were supposed to be writing?!”

Another internal lawyer jumped to my defense, “Actually, you were thinking about this paper the entire time you were looking out the window. You didn’t waste a second. Back off, slave driver!”

The art director snapped me back to the present. “CTRL-D! CTRL-D! I don’t have all day!”

Art directors are paid to criticize, and this one was getting paid overtime.

“Listen here, punk” I thought, practically out loud. “You want me to hurry up because you made a mistake. Around here, they pay me to NOT make mistakes.”

Instead of pressing CTRL-D, I copied and then pasted: two steps to his one step. In the extra milliseconds, I was thinking about what I was doing, checking that the action was correct, looking carefully at the results.

“There, sir. It’s fixed. We’ll make new plates now. You should be back on press in half an hour.”

The Wholesome Response

Late last summer, I was on one of my strolls around White Rock Lake. I stopped to collect seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace by the path. After filling a small plastic bag, I continued my walk. A few minutes later, I felt in the pocket for my car key. “Oh no!” It wasn’t there. When I reached into my pocket to pull out the bag, I must have pulled out the car key as well, and dropped it in the weeds.

Returning to the area where the key had dropped, I made a careful search. No luck!

The next day, I returned with a leaf rake, and tried pulling it through the weeds to turn up the key. Still no luck!

Worse yet, while I was raking, who should appear on the running path but Phillip Paris!

“Hi Phillip!”
“Hi Brad.”

It was a training run. Naturally, Phillip just kept running. When he had gone another 20 yards, I couldn’t stand the humiliation.

“Hey, Phillip!”
He stopped.
“I know this must look crazy. I lost my key, and I was using this rake to help me find it.”

“Oh,” said Phillip with a smile. “I know how much you like the running path here, so I figured you were just helping with maintenance.”

“No, I’m just crazy when I lose something!”

That evening, I told Joshua my embarrassing story, and Phillip’s kind answer.

“What a wholesome response!” said Joshua.

“Yes,” I thought. “What a wholesome response. And how proud I am of a son who calls it for what it is!”

Surprised By Pizza

Being stupid and forgetful has its charms. For instance, there was that Saturday afternoon many years ago….

I was working in my home office when the doorbell rang. I opened the front door, and there was the Domino’s guy, already removing a large pizza from his insulated delivery bag.

“Brad Hepp?”
“That’s me.”
“Here’s your pizza.”
“I didn’t order pizza.”
“Well, somebody ordered it for Brad Hepp and they already paid.”
“Okay. Thanks!”

I set the pizza on the kitchen counter, wondering how this could have happened. Did I dare take a bite? What if someone was trying to poison me?

That’s when I remembered a phone call I’d had just 30 minutes before with my buddy Marco, who lives up in Maryland. Like me, he is a webmaster. He was calling to share the great news that he had just sold a domain name for $10,000.

“Wow!” I told Marco. “Congratulations!” Then I mindlessly added, “Pizza for everyone!”

Oh yeah! Duh.

Sometimes you get what you ask for.

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

STILL THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD
I really don’t understand why the Butter Bell isn’t in every home! You fill the top part with softened butter, then turn that upside down into the bottom part with its naturally cooling water. Left out on the kitchen counter, the Butter Bell keeps butter creamy for days, ready to slather on bread. Middle-aged men are thus enabled to maintain an attractive and protective layer of belly fat without fighting refrigerated butter. Get yours (dish, not man) at https://www.butterbell.com

How’s Your Beauty Meter?

Somebody you encounter today will be surrounded by ugliness. In a world still full of God’s glory, they’ll see only Satan’s graffiti. Even if God’s new creation has begun to spring in their own hearts, His creative power to quiver in their fingertips, they’ll be thinking only of winter and death.

Can you see past the ugliness? Ignore the delible marrings? Notice the buds of new life? See the melting of winter’s cruel embrace?

If the needle of your beauty meter moves today, then speak it. Write it. Draw it. Hug it. Dance it. Whisper it in the ear of one whose beauty meter is broken for now.

The Christmas Parrots

A friend was telling Susan and me how they had bought their daughter a parrot for Christmas. The daughter lives alone and could sometimes use the company. “Oh, that’s nice,” said Susan. “Oh yes!” said the friend. “She’s been all smiles ever since we gave it to her.” I could imagine the daughter smiling. I could imagine how she’ll teach the parrot to greet her when she comes into the empty apartment. Maybe she’ll even teach the parrot to scare off intruders! But parrots can be a little messy….

“She was so happy that we went right out and bought a second one for her! She just can’t get the smile off her face!”

Two parrots! Just then, my concern overcame my manners: “That’s a lifetime commitment.” “What do you mean?” asked the friend. “Parrots live a long time.” She looked at me with pity. “FERRETS, Brad, not parrots! Ferrets only live eight years.”

LOVE IS A WEIRDO

At a reception in our church, I was talking with a friend whose family had recently experienced deep trauma, and was still reeling. A fellow who doesn’t attend our church joined our conversation. He was tall and powerfully-built, a tough guy. He greeted my friend and said, “I have been praying for your family A LOT.”

Since you weren’t there, and didn’t see his face or hear his voice, let me translate “A LOT.” Here’s what the tough guy was saying: “I think of you and your family so much, and pray for you so often, that I sometimes wonder if I have gone off the deep end. If you knew how often I pray for you, you’d be tempted to get a restraining order.”

“A LOT.” Do I love anyone that much? Am I such a weirdo?

An Outlier in Grace (why I’m taking part in this* fundraiser)

I had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and was eager to discuss the book with my climbing buddies on our trip to Colorado. Gladwell explores the question of what makes some people outliers wildly successful in their particular quests. Jon Klaus had also read the book.

“Being an outlier isn’t always good,” he said.

Jon’s quick response was surprising. I assumed he was speaking from experience. Jon is a successful serial entrepreneur. However, over the course of our trip, it became clear that Jon’s concern was not for himself but for his son.

Joshua Klaus was with us on this mountain-climbing trip. In the seven years since he last went climbing with his dad and the rest of us, he had turned from a fun-loving boy to a brilliant, thought-loving man… a serious “outlier.”

Me and Joshua Klaus on an earlier trip: Rito Alto, 2010

In the thin air of mountain campsites, we always have interesting conversations. But nothing had prepared us for the conversations that Joshua would engage us in. Because he is brilliant, and intellectually honest, Joshua had followed certain true ideas to what he thought were their logical conclusions. Neither his dad nor the rest of us were comfortable with those conclusions. We perceived them as dangerous.

I’m not going to tell you the ideas, because I cannot do justice to Joshua’s reasoning. In any case, as you’ll see below, it was not the ideas themselves that were at issue.

Among the veteran mountain climbers on that trip, two of us are seminary graduates, one is a corporate lawyer, and perhaps the smartest guy is an electrical engineer who devises spy gear for the military. Sitting around the campfire, we tried to punch holes in Joshua’s reasoning. Now, you or I might have been convinced by our arguments, but Joshua was not. This wasn’t his first intellectual rodeo.

We climbed the mountain and then headed back to Dallas. Something happened on the return trip. Here’s how Jon describes it:

Both Joshua and I look back to our 2017 climb with y’all as pivotal in numerous ways. We had cracks in our relationship, but there was healing because of your input on the drive back to DFW. That has continued, and both Josh and I are growing in grace.

Jon Klaus

I think I saw it happening.

On the drive back, all of us had made what I considered thoughtful, wise comments to Joshua. But then, I listened and watched as one of us made comments that were almost otherworldly in their kindness, love, and wisdom. These comments were an outlier among all the words we’d spoken, and this outlier was very good indeed! The words were full of grace. Like the words of everyone else on that trip, they were gracious. But they were more than that…. God’s grace is His kind provision of what one needs to respond well to Him. Such were the words in this comment. The speaker seemed to be empowered by God’s Spirit and Joshua seemed suddenly better able to hear and respond well. God’s grace was on display. In that moment Joshua teared up and bowed his head.

Our conversation ended, and another, silent one began. I like to think that God was speaking to Joshua’s heart.

The poem below was not written with this incident in mind, but it might as well have been. The background photo is from the mountain-climbing trip where I saw God’s grace on display. Joshua and Jon are the two standing to the right of the campfire.

*It’s two years later. You have read Jon’s description of how cracks in his relationship with Joshua began to heal as a result of the gracious input I described. This coming weekend, Jon and his family are doing a walkathon to help the mission organization that Joshua works with in France. I’ll be contributing a modest sum to that effort in recognition of how God allowed me to see His grace on display, and the encouraging reminder I was given two years later.

If you’d like to join me in recognizing God’s grace, go to the fundraiser page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-walk-for-ywam

Or, click the image below for a PDF of the fundraiser flyer:

Saint Francis of White Rock

He walked along the shore pouring out a large bag of feed (50lb?) for the hundreds of ducks at Pelican Bay and then sat to feed whole grain bread to the geese. He told me he’s been doing this every day for years. Next time, I’ll get his full name, which probably includes “Saint” and “Francis.”

Below is a video I took of those hundreds of ducks on another day. Now I know part of the reason that they all congregate here. “Saint Francis of White Rock” tells me that he used to feed them over at the Bath House. When he began feeding them at Pelican Bay instead, the ducks somehow spread the news of where to find him.

Photographer’s Admission

This poem is about photography AND learning from older people. See the commentary below.

Commentary

The thought in this poem crystalized as I was looking at a friend’s Instagram photos. The friend is not a photographer, just someone who understands and appreciates the great outdoors. I was looking at one of his early-morning mountain scenes. The sky was literally grey and the trees had no green in them. The photographer in me always aches to edit such photos so that they match my ideal of beauty, and I often excuse my own editing as an attempt to make sure the photo depicts the scene as our magnificent human eyes would have seen it. This all assumes or suggests the conceit that I am the expert, that my vision is the standard.

But my photography and poetry are expressions of something far more important: the desire to fully appreciate and reflect the beauty inherent in a world created by God. In this pursuit, I revel in the wisdom that is both longed for ⁠— loudly insisted on ⁠— by youth and quietly attained in old age.

Perhaps what I wrote on Facebook will clarify:

Here’s a book that needs to be written: “removing THE BARNICLES OF CHRONIA.” I say this partly in jest, partly “en serio.” As I age, and come to important new realizations about life, I think of my older friends. Many have been down this road already, but were not inclined to chronicle the journey. It seems that we could serve others by offering an honest, thankful, hopeful account. Thoughts?

[Edit, 11/8/2019: Last night, I discussed the project above with fellow creative writers. It’s still on my mind. The poem and photograph below ponders the subject by different means.]

By the way, I know the last stanza is difficult. I’m using “prove” in the sense of “testing so as to find what works.” I think that a full appreciation of beauty is attainable. I fancy that is one of the things that God is even now perfecting in His children. But we all have false or incomplete ideas about beauty in its various manifestations (visual, physical, emotional, intellectual, theological, etc.). For instance, I highly suspect that I still have a false idea about the relationship of beauty and suffering: “Suffering is bad, not suffering is good!” How can suffering have anything to do with beauty?

The answer to the question I just posed is one which I suspect people older than I — and some younger than I — understand far better than I currently understand it. The answer surely goes something like this: through suffering, we are prepared for the beauty that is coming. The answer is somewhere in Romans 8. Perhaps in this passage:

16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.

Romans 8:16-19 (ESV)

Using Big Words: A Nice Triptych If You Can Pull it Off

As I gave my guest a tour of our little house, we got to the dining room. There I showed off my print of Longs Peak in Colorado. A photograph of the snowy mountain, framed by evergreens and golden Aspen, is spread across three panels. It takes up the better part of the wall by our dining room table. My guest said, “That’s a nice triptych!”

“What?!”

“A nice triptych!”

“I know the word, but you’re the only person I’ve ever heard say it!”

I explained to my guest…. Long ago, a grader in seminary gave me a bad mark for using “triptych” in an exegetical paper. I chose the word because it illustrated the structure of a certain Bible passage. But the grader was having none of it. “No big words for you!” The word Nazi had a point. Long before, my father had taught me to never use big words when little words serve just as well. But dadgummit! Nothing served as well as “triptych” in this case.

I admitted to my guest, “As you can see, I’m not bitter about what the grader said to me twenty-five years ago!”

“Clearly!” he laughed.

My Response to Insistence on the “Old Ways” in Worship

I wrote this late one night after following a Facebook thread where two elderly people on Facebook seemed to think their conversation was private. One was denigrating worship in a particular church as vacuous. I begged to differ, and wanted badly to enter the conversation (which I later did, with extreme care). Instead, I prepared the post below. It was designed to offer a gentle refutation. Practically everything I say in the post is intended as subtle corrective.

Almost daily, I pick up an old accordion my Dad used on the mission field, and squeeze out a wide variety of tunes, from Pachelbel, Bach, and Dvorak to Martin Luther, Fanny Crosby, and Mungo Jerry. Although I can READ music, I am thoroughly enjoying learning to play without musical notation, to FEEL the music. Dad was a first-rate theologian and Bible teacher. More importantly, he was a humble follower of Jesus. He’d have been very happy to see me playing his accordion and soaking up the deep truth in one of the contemporary hymns we sing at Redeemer: “How Deep the Father’s Love.” Tonight, as I was meditating on Romans 8, I couldn’t get one phrase from that hymn out of my head: “Bring many sons to glory.” I love the influence in that direction (glory) that the sermons and music ministry at Redeemer are having on me. Thanks, Joel Hergert, Sten-Erik Armitage, and all you elders who aren’t satisfied with the status quo, but push us toward wholehearted devotion to God alone.

A Very Small Window, Open at Last

It was dark in the living room. My wife and boys had already gone to bed, and I was left alone in the papa chair. By faint light coming from the kitchen, I could see Princess on a blanket we had set for her on the floor. She sat there, as peaceful and dignified as ever, probably purring. Two days before, she had stopped eating altogether, even when Joshua stroked her bony back and tried feeding her from his hand. The tumor in her stomach had won, and now she could barely walk, let alone jump or climb onto the couch.

In the morning, Joshua and Susan would take her to the vet. They’d ask the vet for some locks of her beautiful hair to remember her by. It seemed more appropriate than ashes.

Sitting there in the dark, I thought of how Princess’ well-being had been my responsibility for most of her seventeen years. Under my protection, neither hawks in the trees above nor the bitter cold of winter nights had ever touched her beautiful form. But now…. Now, tears began to stream. “I’m sorry, Princess. There’s nothing I can do for you this time.”

Up to this point in my life, I had never really understood corporate guilt. “Yes,” I could admit — only because good theology demands it  — “I somehow share in the sin of Adam and Eve. But slavery and other atrocities? If neither I nor any of my relatives ever committed this or that sin, how can I — why should I — feel any guilt in the matter!”

That’s not what I was thinking about in the darkness of the night.

Looking at Princess across the room, I was sad. That much was clear, especially in the darkness. But then a little window opened. Through my tears, new light came streaming. It was sorrow, an emotion I barely recognize. “Princess,” I wept, “Not only am I unable to help you now, but in a very real — painfully real — sense, I am responsible for all that brought us to this dark night. I am truly sorry!” In that moment, for the first time ever, I was Adam. Once upon a time, God set me over His creation as its protector and provider. But I failed. And now, my Princess, like everything else under my charge, was dying.

A small window opened for me that night. Wisdom whispers, “Don’t let it close!”


Perhaps, in the light of that account, this poem I wrote the following day will make sense:

Estranger Danger!

Until recently, I had to preface any verbal commands to my phone with “Okay, Google!” Now, all I have to do is give my phone a gentle squeeze and talk lovingly to it. Just now, I was in the kitchen preparing boiled eggs. Susan was in the living room wearing earbuds and carefully studying her laptop screen.

ME: “Set timer for 11 minutes”

SUSAN: “Were you talking to me?”

ME: “No. I was talking to my phone. When I wish to speak to you, I will preface with ‘Okay, Susan!'”

We both laughed. Good thing!

Get Off the Slippery Slope

Part of wholehearted devotion to the King is recognizing which pretenders we have come to honor in His place. For me, that currently includes pondering David Koyzis’ “Political Visions and Illusions.” So far, I haven’t made it out of the first chapter, where he describes a slope that virtually ALL Americans find ourselves on, whether we consider ourselves libertarians, conservatives, or (modern) liberals. He depicts the stages in that slope with the figure below. I THINK THE SLOPE COULD ALSO BE INVERTED: Given the inherent instability in an ideology (Liberalism) where the individual is autonomous and the state is based on a supposed social contract, the slope could be thought of as a SLIPPERY slope. Libertarians and conservatives keep trying to claw their way back up that slippery slope while they denounce their (fellow!) “liberals” who are further down, and seem to embrace the slide. What doesn’t occur to us (I include myself) self-righteous conservatives is that we should not merely claw our way to a “higher” point on the slippery slope, but seek to get off the slope altogether! What does that mean? I don’t know yet. I’m a slow thinker. Koyzis could rightly point out that I’m a slow reader! I understand that he proposes a solution by the end of the book. Will I agree with his solution?

The Not-So-Noble* Tree

I started with a relatively silly presentation: Fifty-three feet now I’ve grown, reaching straight across the lawn. A few more years, five feet or so, and then I’ll reach my goal: to poke the people passing by. Believe me, I can hardly wait! Haughty men will shriek, teenage punks will yell, and snotty brats will cry. Oh brothers, that will be so great!

Half-way through the same night, after reading a troublesome Facebook thread (rude remarks from John MacArthur and others, concerning Beth Moore), a more serious presentation:
*When I first noticed this giant, with its long-reaching branch, I thought, “What an admirable tree, in a row of admirable trees! Brothers, as it were.” But then, one stormy night, one of his brothers was felled by a mighty wind. What once stood proud, and seemingly sound, was broken off three feet above the ground. Walking there soon after, I stopped to puzzle how this had come to be. Standing next to the fallen giant, I looked down and saw the cause: a hollow core. Not mere rottenness, but a wholly missing heart, whose absence left a void far below the surface. What happened? The wind held court and a shattering hulk was the verdict. A sad, but thought-provoking end!

With Friends Like These…

As I refine my understanding of God’s goodness over my life (one of the main benefits of our church’s Community Foundation small groups), I MUST consider the powerful influence of godly friends. This last weekend, that was Tom Newcomer and Darol Klawetter. On our annual mountain climb, we failed to actually summit Mount Columbia (due in large part to my poor preparation), but we SUCCEEDED in inspiring one another to be more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. The potential of positive elder-like influence on the part of everyone in the church is a large part of the vision Sten-Erik Armitage left with us in Sunday’s sermon on Titus 1:5-9. (https://www.redeemerbiblechurch.org/sermons/life-goals/ WORTH LISTENING TO despite some minor audio problems).

The Wedge Dividing “Us” From “Them”

I have just about given up on reforming anyone but myself. Even that is ultimately hopeless. But I do hope to cooperate with the One who can and will reform me. In the meantime, here’s one way I represent the wedge of polarization. Absent humility, and given a desire for power that supercedes any desire for peace, there is a self-feeding wedge that divides “us” from “them.”

It’s probably obvious that I had our current President and his political opponents in mind. This was written a day or two after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. It is my opinion that political “leaders” heighten conflict by their careless and uncharitable words. When they resort to “all or nothing” tactics, it feeds anger and a sense of desperation in the general populace. One could easily conclude that Trump’s remarks foment racism (and ARE racist). But I’d argue that when every word coming out of his mouth is branded as racist, and it’s clear to an objective listener that some of the words are NOT (necessarily) racist, that in itself raises tensions. Civil discourse is incumbent on ALL parties in conflict.

I think the following interview between Ben Shapiro (libertarian) and Jonathan Haidt (left-leaning centrist) is instructive both in the insights of Haidt and the respectful responses of Shapiro:

Breakfast and the Broken Mirror

Listen:

The chaotic dance of ideas in my head is hard to sort out, especially since the mirror by which I reflect on it is shattered. “So, don’t reflect!” says the voice of distraction. “Brush aside that broken mirror. Simply act on what little you do understand! Follow the Master!”

The Master, you say? The Master, as best I recall, was Himself afflicted with the powerful weakness of a human mind. He was so weighed down by thoughts that He needed rest, and at least once fell to the ground along with his sweat like drops of blood. If I’m to follow the Master, should I not expect Him to lead me through similar anguish?

Just now, in a shard of mirrored glass, I saw that one dancer is not to be trusted. He gently offers his right hand, but in a left hand, hidden behind his back, he clenches a vial of poison. Am I really to ignore such glimpses of the dance, not ask the name and origin of the dancer? Should I not at least be wary?

Breakfast calls to me, along with a dozen duties: “Come to me, you who are wary. Brush aside that broken mirror, at least for now.” And I comply.

Postscript: At the beginning of this year, I wrote a three page paper, listing things I’m “churning” about, and shared it with two of my best friends. As I reflect on my current churnings, there may be more bubbles than butter, BUT, reading back over that document, I’m encouraged that there has been progress. If nothing else, I realize more fully now how utterly merciful and gracious God is, how utterly worthless are my efforts apart from Him. Is it useful to churn? The questions in this post are real. The objections are my own! Given my limited intellect, time, and resources, what use is it to reflect on the cacaphony of ideas that fill my head, the chaotic dance I described? Will it make any difference in the long run for one man to become more aware of how much he has absorbed the false, self-contradictory, and idolatrous ideas of his culture?

The Things I See and The People I Meet!

Sunday afternoon, I walked around White Rock Lake. The theme of my photography and encounters with people I met turned out to be something like “Coping With Extremes.” There were some beautiful scenes (like this and this), and I had an uplifting conversation with a young runner. That young man turned out to be one of those rare individuals who was as interested in learning about others as in talking about himself. He demonstrated humility despite the fact that he is an ultra-marathoner and independently wealthy due to successful investment(s) in crypto currency. I hope to run into Dillon again someday!

But First This…

Right at the beginning of my walk, I spied an old cyclist whom I had seen two or three times in the past couple of weeks. I had noticed that the panniers on his bicycle bear patches from all over the country. As I tell my sons, when someone puts stickers all over their stuff, it’s a safe bet that they welcome questions. So, I walked up to the guy and said, “Pardon me, I couldn’t help but notice that you have done some travelling. Do you mind telling me about your travels?” I barely had the question out of my mouth when he began a non-stop account of his great exploits. When he took a breath, I asked if I could take his picture, and record our conversation to post on my blog. He didn’t mind at all. So here it is:

LISTEN (this goes on for 11 minutes; you’ll get a good taste of it in the first minute):

A Sermon, Hiking Pants and Burs

LISTEN:

Yesterday morning, our youth minister, Brooks Nesse, preached a terrific sermon. Brooks made a compelling case for why and how older members of the congregation should be discipling younger members. As Brooks said in various ways, we should be reflecting Christ to younger believers, acknowledging Christ’s work in their lives, and challenging them to continue growing more like Christ. The sine qua non of all this is INTERACTION. You can’t disciple or mentor a person with whom you have no contact!

Then I Went for a Walk

It was an oppressively hot summer afternoon, but nothing else was pressing, so I did what I love dearly: I went for a walk around White Rock Lake looking for beautiful things to photograph. Only a few of the wildflowers I have been noticing lately were still blooming. So I decided to concentrate on what those flowers have been busy making all Spring—seeds. The brilliant colors are gone. The soft, delicate petals are few and far between. In their place are the tan and grey of seeds and the white of their wind-catching hair. Delicate has given way to hard, smooth to spiky. Youth has given way to old age.

Or Has It? A Little Wandering Afield

In college, one of my history professors assigned Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages. We were to write a paper using that book to support either of two claims: that the end of the Middle Ages was either their “flowering” or their “going to seed.” Being a contrarian, I opted for neither, and wrote a paper arguing that 1) it is a mistake to divide history into neat periods (not sure if young Brad would convince old Brad on this one!) and 2) demonstrating that Huizinga’s evidence was inconclusive at best on the question of “flowering” and “going to seed.” The senescence of one age is the youth of another. Doesn’t even nature teach this?

Just three weeks ago, the fields wore a blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace. Before that, in late spring, the light green nests of this plant opened up to reveal white petals on supple arms. Now those arms have folded back in to form a new kind of nest: cages that hold a covey of spiky seeds.

Looking at the those tight nests, I asked myself, “Is this the end, or the beginning?” Are seeds old men or children? It began to dawn on me that what passes for death in flowers is, in fact, the passing on of their life. Old age is giving way to youth.

I’ll Photograph a Sermon

Yesterday, as I set out on a long hot walk, I was thinking about Brooks’ sermon, about the need to disciple younger people. Passing by browning fields, I was also thinking that I’m past the season for capturing the beauty of flowers. But then it dawned on me: just as my eyes have been opened to the beauty of wildflowers that nobody ever notices, my eyes can also be opened to the beauty of how those same flowers transfer life to next year’s flowers. Discipling happens in the field as it ought to happen in our church. I’ll be thinking of Brooks’ sermon for months to come. Old flowers and young seeds will bring it to mind.

Then I Got Home

When I got home after that long hot walk, I thought I’d throw my sweaty hiking pants into the washer. But then I noticed: they were covered with the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace. Wandering afield to capture photographs, I had brushed up against the older nests of seed. I had interacted with them, come into close contact with them, the sine qua non of discipleship. It turns out Queen Anne’s Lace wants to grow in my own garden.

Good job, Brooks. It was a terrific sermon! It really sticks with me.

The Day J.S. Bach Became a Better Friend

LISTEN TO THE FULL STORY HERE:

J.S. Bach has been one of my friends almost as long as I remember. From the time I learned to whistle at age five, his tunes were on my lips. One of those tunes was Wachet auf. I couldn’t have named the tune at that age, nor said what its title stood for, but at least I knew how it went. Like everything else in my simple, orderly world, it began on a downbeat, the very first note in its first bar:

If you read music, you’ll have noticed that five-year-old Bradley had it wrong. Wachet auf doesn’t start on a downbeat, but on an upbeat. But five-year-old Bradley didn’t read music. He only whistled by ear.

And Then He Saw an Ear Nose & Throat Doctor

Just kidding.

For nearly 25 years, I’d cheerfully whistle this tune… always wrong. I learned to read music, even to play piano, though largely by rote. And then one day, I sat down at a friend’s grand piano and my eyes fell on the score for Wachet auf. I tried to play it as I had always whistled it, but quickly realized, “HANG ON! That tune starts on an upbeat:”

Suddenly, I had a new appreciation for my old friend. He was trickier than I had thought! Ever since that day, I have listened more carefully for Bach’s inventive genius.

And So It Is With Other Friends

Here’s what I learned that day, and am still learning: Spend time with friends, getting to know them well enough to see past my assumptions and misconceptions. Go for long walks with them. Sit down together for coffee. Ask them probing questions. If I look at their score and try to play along, I might be in for a pleasant surprise.

From Sophomoric to Sublime:

Or this one!

Hummingbirds vs Cargo Planes

LISTEN:

Recently, I was talking with one of my sons about someone I admire. “But Dad,” he said “I’ve heard that this person has a really judgmental attitude about [fill in the blank].”

I couldn’t deny his criticism, although I’ve never personally seen the flaw in this hero. My initial response was that an otherwise admirable person might have come to hold a judgmental attitude with some justification. For example, he or she might be responding to what the Bible apparently teaches.

The following morning, I looked out my office window. Noticing the hummingbird feeder, I realized that my son deserves a better explanation.

Old People Are Like Cargo Vessels

Let’s say you’re piloting a C-5 Galaxy and suddenly realize that you forgot to pack your parachute. Obsessively, you initiate a 180-degree turn so you can go back and fetch it. In this huge bird, you’ll cover more than a mile before your broad turn has you heading back home.*

The same could be said for other large vessels, like ocean liners or freight trains. They don’t turn, stop, or —frankly—do anything quickly.

That’s how it is with us old people. We don’t turn on a dime. For better or worse, we’re loaded down with decades of cargo. For an older saint, much of that cargo is precious: God-pleasing habits of discipline and obedience, things that a charitable person might even admire. But some of the cargo isn’t very good. It’s garbage that anyone and everyone would bring on board back when we were young. Back then, nobody—not even virtuous young people—actually thought it was garbage!

Finding fault in an old person is unremarkable. What is remarkable is seeing an old person recognize that some of their cargo needs to be thrown out, and actually doing it. It’s not an overnight process. I have the privilege of observing people even older than myself making this slow but sure transformation. It’s beautiful.

Young People Are Like Hummingbirds

The young person, light as a hummingbird, has little trouble changing directions. He’s not encumbered by decades of wrong thinking. Abandon an idea that he adopted just yesterday? Not a problem. Turn away from an action that hasn’t had time to become habitual? Easy! Almost admirable!

But is this lack of settled vice the same as virtue? I don’t think so. While the young person may dislike what he sees in an older person, he is not really in a good position to be judging the old person. To the young person I say, “Just understand that there, but for the grace of God go you. Some day you, too, may be weighed down by decades of wrong thinking, maybe even judgmentalism. For now, it’s best to acknowledge the weight of goodness in the older person, and pray for their transformation if that’s also needed.”

Hummingbirds are beautiful. So are young people who recognize the weight of goodness in their elders.

*For the nerds, here is interesting data from my friend Bert Howard when I asked him for a realistic minimum and/or typical turn distance for a C5 Galaxy (and the part about going back for a parachute was just my lame humor):

It really does depend on type of aircraft and mission profile… the C5A is more commercial form than other aircraft so would require more distance… the standard rate of turn is 3 degrees per second or 1-minute to complete 180 degrees of turn… formula for radius in feet is velocity in knots squared then divided by 11.26 times the tangent of the angle of bank… I’d think the C5A would hold at about 200-240 knots and use 25-30 degree single of bank…
200×200/11.26x.466 would be about 7,600 feet or about 1.2 nautical miles (6000’ for NM, 5000’ for statute mile).

Bert Howard

Before I Rise From My Knees

Listen Here:

An Honest Conversation

I recently had a conversation of the sort best reserved for wise and intellectually honest friends. It went something like this:

Friend One: I have spent thousands of hours praying for things that God did not grant.
Friend Two: Prayer serves to conform us to the Son’s character.
Me: That’s a palliative. From what Jesus declared in the Gospels, we should expect the Father to grant our requests.
Friend Two: Don’t get me wrong. My requests are often granted before I rise from my knees.

Before I Could Forget His Words…

Susan and I are in a remarkably tight-knit and loving small group at church. This morning I was composing a group email to remind us all of the prayer requests we shared at last night’s meeting. My request had been that I need a little more work… Not a huge amount. Just a little.

As I wrote my email to the small group, other emails were coming in FROM CLIENTS. Those emails were requests for at least two day’s worth of website maintenance work. Good, pleasant work, for excellent clients.

So, this evening, I texted our group about how our prayers had been answered before we rose from our knees.

Additional Thoughts

Another of my very wise friends suggested one of her favorite quotes on prayer:

Sometimes when we say “God is silent,” what’s really going on is that he hasn’t told the story the way we wanted it told. He will be silent when we want him to fill in the blanks of the story we are creating. But with his own stories, the ones we live in, he is seldom silent.”

― Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World

Molly and Oreo

LISTEN:

As I walked along the shore of White Rock Lake, this runner and her dog kept pulling ahead of me, only to fall behind again whenever they got to a tree. Each time, the lady would stop running and stand there patiently while the little dog sniffed around and looked intently up in the branches.

“What’s so important,” I asked myself, “that this lady is willing to break up her run?”

Finally, I drew even with them again and said, “Please forgive my curiosity. Why do you stop at every tree?”

She smiled and said, “Oreo is hunting squirrels. She also hunts for snakes, and sometimes she even finds them!”

Approvingly, I answered, “And you honor Oreo’s wishes! May I take your picture? People seem to like it when I share my delightful discoveries at the lake.”

“Sure,” she said. “I’m Molly.”

“God bless you, Molly. I’m Brad.”

A Retrospective on this Story

When I shared this on Facebook, I wrote

“Please forgive my curiosity…” That’s the opening of many a delightful discovery. READ or LISTEN to this story. You’ll see that I sometimes understand runners more than dogs, and achievement more than honor.

I’d love to get to the point where I can recognize and quickly acknowledge/articulate God’s image reflected in those I meet (and those I’ve known for a long time). When the event described above was happening, I sensed there was something special in the way Molly was treating her little dog. We talked a little more and I found out that Molly has not been a “dog person” most of her life. But recently she adopted this spunky little one-eyed dog who Molly says is “almost perfect, except that she sometimes nips me.” The word that immediately came to mind is “honor.” Taking time to let a little dog fulfill its purpose in life — to hunt! — seems like a good picture of what we’re called to do for people:

Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.

1 Peter 2:17

I Picked the Wrong Church

Listen to this story here:

A friend recently asked, “How can you tell if your congregation is growing in discipleship?” Being a contrarian, I immediately thought of one sign that a congregation is NOT growing in discipleship: NOT seeing love in action? It’s NOT growing.

My mind went back to a trip I took around Europe right after graduating from college. When I got to Vienna, Austria on a Saturday evening, I called a family who were missionaries with the same mission board as my folks, and got directions to their English-speaking church. I was secretly hoping they’d invite me to lunch, but that didn’t happen during the phone call.

The next morning, I left the youth hostel and made my way to their church. The service had already begun, so I slipped into the back row and set my backpack on the floor. Strange… everything was in German. I don’t speak German. An old lady on my pew could see I was confused, so she asked in broken English if she could help. I showed her my map, and the name of the church I had written down. She smiled and pointed on the map to where I should have gone. It was two blocks away. I had picked the wrong church.

“Oh well,” I thought. “It would be rude to leave now. I’ll just slip out as soon as this service is over. Maybe I can make it over to the English church before they let out.” The preacher ended his sermon and slipped out to where he could shake hands with the congregation and with visitors as they left his little chapel. So much for me escaping quickly. The preacher shook my hand and engaged me in a brief conversation. I don’t recall the content of that conversation; I do recall the warmth and evident love in his manner.

I shouldered my backpack and walked briskly over to the “right” church, the English-speaking church where the missionary family attended. Whew! They had not let out. I entered the lobby and set my backpack down beside me. It was a large pack, containing everything I needed for traveling around this strange land for two months. So there I stood, left hand steadying my pack, right hand ready to shake hands with my missionary contacts, or with anyone for that matter.

The service ended. People began filing out. They were speaking English! By this point in my travels, that was a welcome sound. I didn’t know what the missionaries looked like, and I was too shy at that point to ask the people who walked past me. They didn’t seem to notice me standing there, and I didn’t want to interrupt their conversations. Well, surely the missionaries would notice me! Given that I had talked to them on the phone the evening before, they’d surely be on the lookout for me…. The sanctuary emptied. Not a single person walking by me acknowledged my presence. The lobby was empty. I left. Empty, hungry. I had picked the wrong church!

Surely someday, the Lord will introduce me to the people in that little German-speaking Viennese church. Perhaps He’ll seat me with them at a banquet. The banner overhead will be “LOVE.”

We Learn Most by Obeying

THIS is one of the most influential truths I have experienced in my 58 years. (I have checked out MacDonald’s claim…. Look at where “doctrine” is mentioned in the New Testament. Almost always, you find descriptions of BEHAVIOR, not abstract head knowledge):

“I firmly believe people have hitherto been a great deal too much taken up about doctrine and far too little about practice. The word “doctrine,” as used in the Bible, means teaching of duty, not theory.

– George MacDonal

And it’s beautiful. The best head knowledge comes as a result of practice, not the other way around. Are you not very “smart”? DO what God requests and you’ll be far smarter—where it REALLY counts—than the most intelligent God-denying individual ever, anywhere.

Terra Dominus

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have recently begun thinking about GREED, and how it relates to other sins. While close friends know that I’m a hopeful “glass one-fifth full” sort of guy, I do also acknowledge the four-fifths empty. I am a sinner saved by grace, and am never surprised to discover how utterly sinful I am (and so I’m pleased at any progress!).

This pondering of greed began as a reaction. Some who believe differently than I do accuse “my side” of hypocrisy. “We” dwell on certain sins but completely ignore others. I considered using discussion of greed as a thought experiment, frankly a trap: what if I were to promote greed, insist on equal treatment of greedy people, call for greedy pride parades? You can guess where that was going (and now it will not serve as a trap). But by God’s grace, the thought experiment got out of control.

Greed

I have begun thinking about greed. It occurs to me that it is at the base of many other sins. Next step: catalogue and observe how it is mentioned in the Bible. My vague recollection is that it heads up several lists of vices, and is the subject of various stories and parables. It is one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Would it be greedy to ignore the thinking of Christians over the centuries and concentrate solely on what I personally can derive? Probably so. And stupid.

“When greed builds her dam,
The river becomes a cesspool.”

from The Politics of My Heart: A Book Not Yet Written by Brad Hepp