I recently asked some young people, “How are we going to make 2021 better than 2020?” At first they didn’t understand me. After all, what can we do that makes a difference? But I pointed out that the worst of times externally can be the best of times internally. In the midst of chaos and conflict, we can be growing more like Jesus.
How do we do that?
How do we grow more like Jesus? God gives us the Holy Spirit, who causes growth. But it isn’t completely passive on our part. We put ourselves in a place where the Holy Spirit is unhindered in His transforming work. That involves engaging in spiritual disciplines that are as old as the Bible, disciplines that Jesus Himself engaged in. A key phrase in this regard is in 1 Timothy 4:7
Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness
New American Standard Bible
Or here is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of 1 Timothy 4:7b-8:
Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a discplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.
As we get started in the year 2021, I want to encourage all of us to grow in spiritual disciplines. To that end, I invite you to fill in the form below, so I can know how to regularly pray for you during the months of January and February.
My friend Marco Ciavolino wrote, “Keep composing before you decompose. This is a hidden talent. I love your short song!”
I told him, “Thanks. It’s VERY hidden indeed. Long ago, five-year-old Bradley walked around the house constantly singing made-up arias in made-up Italian. They flowed effortlessly. And then the stream went underground. Seriously… I’m so glad we have Eternity!”
Susan asked me recently if I am more concerned for the Church or for America in this year’s presidential election. I said “the Church.” Because of polarization, echo chambers, social media algorithms, and a cozy relationship between Evangelicals and President Trump, I believe there are many in the Church (especially my fellow Evangelicals) who are adopting attitudes that are out of step with Jesus Christ. They are increasingly inured to the sins characteristic of the political right.
Sins on Both Sides I also see evidence that some non-Evangelicals in the Church align themselves more with their political preference (more often closer to the left end of the political spectrum) than with Jesus Christ. However, I am not in as good a position to discern the motivation of these Christians as I am the motivation of my fellows on the right.
I recently participated in a project for Kelly Stern’s doctoral dissertation. She hopes to earn her doctorate in Educational Ministry from Dallas Seminary in May 2021.
This was my favorite part of the project, and is particularly meaningful to me today — the day before the presidential election in the United States. The words of this short tune are just going over and over in my head.
Production note: I discovered a piece of free software called “Musescore” that enabled me to put notation to the tune I had worked out on my accordion. I’m not proud of my voice, or really all that proud of this little tune, but I thought it an appropriate act of worship and encouragement for me to also make a video of this for my friends.
I just listened through Luke, considering GENEROSITY as a sub theme. It’s pretty moving to think that God wants us to reflect Him in our generosity! Once again, I thought as well of my Dad’s favorite poem. Browning nailed it so often!
By the way, I don’t know Browning well enough to be SURE what “tribes” he refers to in this stanza. Hopefully, he was using it to refer to the creatures which he contrasted with man in the preceding stanza:
Poor vaunt of life indeed, Were man but formed to feed On joy, to solely seek and find and feast: Such feasting ended, then As sure an end to men; Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
GENEROSITY: That’s what’s on my squirming Scottish mind. As I observe how Luke deals with wealth in his Gospel and the first few chapters of Acts, I want to say that generosity is one of the chief fruits by which we should be known. Love may be warm and fuzzy; in action it is often green, cold and hard (like cash).
(image built from two images on Pixabay, one by Bru-nO and the other by Gerd Altmann).
Does the bright light in the bottom right bother you? Me too.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.— Psalm 119:105
I hope it doesn’t ruin anything to say this…. What I wrote above was the most positive way I had of expressing a mounting disgust I have when Christians stab at each other with broken shards of Scripture, snippets that SEEM to make a case against the target without really doing so. It’s haughty, lazy, and vile. People who grieve their own brokenness are not obsessed with pointing out the brokenness of others (a sermon to myself, if there ever was one!).
Something is now coming into sharp focus for me: we believers are responsible to deal not only with our own sin, but — very carefully! — with the sin of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not enough to merely take notice and be disappointed or disgusted. We must at least pray for one another, and sometimes plead. I can’t help but think of righteous Daniel: “O Lord… WE have sinned.”
I have no idea why this little song came to mind. I was on vacation, looking around at the mountain flowers. Below the song as I formatted it then, I have posted something I’m playing with, the score and rendering by Musescore. The voicing is ridiculous, I know…. I’m just learning that program.
This is a video I recorded for the August 19, 2020 Midweek Devotional of Redeemer Bible Church. What I say reflects a fair amount of the progress I have made over the last few months. Some of it is a veiled protest to the power- and security-seeking motive that is wrecking the witness of Evangelicals in America. My pastor had to point out that “Pursuit of Suffering” is going too far, that the concept has been abused in Church history. He and I did agree that the proper response to suffering looks a whole lot more like “pursuit” than the terrified and often proud evasion that is rampant right now.
Production Note: I recorded this with my Pixel 3a, and only noticed later on that the white balance is constantly changing: white-yellow-white. The camera on that phone is terrific, but there doesn’t appear to be white balance lock!
I’m slowly writing a prose piece I call “Belonging and Belongings.” The poet in me would rather be done with it.
When I posted this on Facebook, an elderly friend commented with what he admitted was a “tirade” against the political left. Here was my response to him:
[Name], I’m aware that the left is full of godlessness and evil intent. I’m also painfully aware that Brad Hepp is a self-centered, and selfish sinner, saved ONLY by grace. I want to follow Jesus Christ on paths where neither the left nor the right can serve as guides. The day may come when I regain an interest in politics, but right now, I find that politics has commanded the heights of my heart far too often. I’m an exile, trying to reserve all my allegiance for another Kingdom.
THE SETTING: When I was attending seminary, I worked at a ministry, and one of the ladies there drove me crazy. She’d go around saying “Praise the Lord” whenever there was a problem. It got annoying, so one time, after she had repeated those words for the umpteenth time, I smarted off, “You first.” With a confused look, she asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “You just said ‘praise the Lord’ and I am encouraging you to do that.” She was still confused, so I explained, “Saying ‘praise the Lord’ has no CONTENT; I think you should specify HOW the Lord is praiseworthy.”
THE REBUKE: She looked at me and said, “I’ll tell you something my husband always says about you Dallas Seminary students…. Your theology is as straight as a double barrel shotgun, and just as deadly. “Well, uh, uh, uh…. She didn’t know me well enough to be saying that. OR DID SHE?
Surely I’m not alone in catching a whiff of arrogance in the way I sometimes think of those who went before. This came to mind just now as I read Hebrews. God is merciful, not least in revealing the many reasons our elder Brother had to suffer in our place.
When I read biographies or the writings of men and women who inspire us long after their own time, one thing I look for is how they fell deeply in love with their subject. Simply put, I want what they had.
For instance, in reading the poetry of George Herbert, I see that he liked to go through his day repeating simple truths, ruminating I suppose. In the poem quoted below, he refers to a simple phrase that he contemplated: “Less than the least of all thy mercies.”
George MacDonald wrote entire novels exploring one or another beautiful quality in the lives of his characters. That’s a long contemplation of one quality!
Beauty, that’s what’s on my mind. Arguments are being made left and right by people who want to put an end to ugliness. And I’m on board with that, especially as it relates to the ugliness in my own heart. I see deep-seated ugliness in myself many times throughout the day, as I make quick judgments about people, based merely on appearance or their confusion about reality.
That I should have a lower opinion of man than God does is probably the epitome of my poor judgment, the basement of my stupidity. But there it is: I think poorly of what God loves. This is ugliness in my heart, and I project it on the world around me.
This attracts me. I’m never repulsed by beauty, are you? Want to convince me of something? Show me not just the ugliness of what you would have me set aside, but the beauty of what you would have me reach for.
We are sometimes blinded to ugliness. We are also blinded to beauty. Arguments should open eyes to beauty, to what could be, and in the end will be: a world fully aware and appreciative of beauty, perfectly reflecting God.
I’m reminded of a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. I can’t say that I understand every line of this yet, but let me attempt a reading, nonetheless:
God’s Grandeur The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. — Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877
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!”
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.
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.*
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):
The art director looking over my shoulder was beside himself.
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.”
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!”
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!”
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
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.
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This poem is about photography AND learning from older people. See the commentary below.
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.
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!”
“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!”
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.
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:
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!'”
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?
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!