A Sermon, Hiking Pants and Burs


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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

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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


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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

The Shoe Shiner Taught Seminarians

Shining my black dress shoes just now (for a banquet this evening), I realized that as a child, I SHARED in my father’s ministry when he taught at the seminary in Mexico. I don’t know how often it really was, but it seems like it was almost weekly that he’d line up his dress shoes and have me polish them. It was a privilege, even if I didn’t understand that at the time! Unbeknownst to me, he was often up all night preparing to teach difficult subjects in Spanish, and didn’t really have time for shining shoes!

i thank You God for most this amazing day*

What a beautiful day for walking around White Rock Lake! The temperature was perfect, and all the wildflowers were coming off a couple of cool, moist days. They were ecstatic. With my smartphone, I listened to all of 1 Peter through Jude, backing up several times to listen more carefully to some intriguing passages.

By the end of the hike, I had in mind e.e. cummings’ poem:

*i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings
1894-1962

Silliness of Mythical Proportions

There’s something irresistible about being INSIDE a tree. I knew that early. Reading My Side of the Mountain, I met my kindred spirit, Sam Gribley. At age twelve, Sam ran away from home and survived winter in the Catskill Mountains by living inside a giant hollowed-out hemlock.

My early reading also included Greek myths featuring un-kindred spirits. For instance, there were the Dryads, a form of nymph who lived inside trees. Even Christianly literature, like The Chronicles of Narnia, would harken back to the animation of trees. Mr. Tumnus warns Lucy about the Dryads: “The woods are full of her spies, even some of the trees are on her side.” And then, you have to admit… trees are pretty special in the Bible, from beginning to end.

For those reasons — and because I’m part Scottish (my excuse for strange excess) — when I see a giant hollowed-out tree, it still tugs at the little boy brain in my old man body. That happened yesterday. The question was inevitable: “Can I get inside?” One disturbing picture — that I’ll spare you — says, “Yes, I can get inside.” After removing my daypack, I was swallowed whole by an ancient tree at White Rock Lake.

Reviewing tree-related mythology, I encountered a Slavic myth: Leshy.
Judge for yourself if Leshy is also a kindred spirit.

I am INFLUENCED. How about you?

I am just about finished reading an EXCELLENT book by Brian Loritts: Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All. I expect to write more about this book later, but here is a graphic that came to mind while reading this morning. In part, the graphic reflects my gratitude for Loritts’ skillful enlightenment, but it also reflects an insistence on probing deeper for the causes of what Loritts describes.

While Loritts hasn’t touched much on polarization yet in the book, I do think polarization is affecting how readily we embrace one sin or another: if “our side” is for it, then we aren’t going to bad-mouth it, are we? If “our side” is unsympathetic to the suffering of others, then maybe we’ll be just fine with an unloving attitude. If “our side” is for downplaying sexual immorality, then maybe we’ll make sure we aren’t the kind of prudes who are repulsed by sexual immorality.

Reflecting on Loritts’ book also prompted this comment to a friend (how the comment relates to the above is something I haven’t worked out yet, but AM working on!):

I’m trying hard to understand the intersection of Kingdom and culture. That is, which kinds of thinking are RIGHT (aligning with the Kingdom of God), which are WRONG (driven by Satan’s purposes), and which are merely DIFFERENT (benign cultural preferences). In this regard, [name] and I have both found Jonathan Haidt very helpful.

– email to a friend

I know this is undeveloped thinking, but I welcome interaction with friends (and not-yet friends) who would like to reflect on their own journey of self-inspection. How are YOU finding yourself influenced by good, evil, and the indifferent benign*?

*Different from Camus’ “benign indifference?” Let’s think about that…

Cat Proof Plant Propagation

Every year, I take my beautiful begonia next door for my neighbor to prune. Why? Glad you asked. Don Miller (my neighbor) is a nationally-known begonia expert. In fact, the begonia in question is one that a friend of Don’s hybridized and named in his honor. It’s called the “B. ‘Don Miller'” (or I believe some are now calling it the “Frosty” for its silver leaves). This year, he put the trimmed-off stems in a mason jar and assured me that I could easily propagate his plant. We’ll see about the “easily” part.

Here’s the challenge. The cats in my house go bonkers for begonia. If I leave my office door open, one will go over on my right side and distract me by juggling oranges or singing an aria from La Traviata (riveting!) while the other sneaks by me on the left and chows down on begonia leaves. They’ll take turns doing this (or something like it) until all the new leaves are gone. I say “gone.” Actually, the bulimic cat burglar runs out of my office and vomits on the rug as quickly as possible.

So, here’s the plan this year…. I made these three hanging shelves, suspended from the top of my glass office door using 1/8 inch all-thread. The shelves themselves are made from vinyl gutter downspout. At the ends, they are sealed off with 2″-thick styrofoam that I saved from an Ikea shipping box.

my plant propagation perch

The trimmed begonia branches were given a sprinkling of root starter (my idea, Don may laugh) and planted in little jiffy pots. Way up there, in their propagation perch, there is absolutely NO WAY the tender new plants will be discovered and destroyed by my wicked cats. Soon, the begonias will be ready for regular pots, and I’ll give them to regular families, preferably families who don’t have cats. That’s the plan.

Oh yeah, the part about Don Miller is true. Scroll down for a photo Don forwarded to me. But first, here’s a video I just found (sorry, it isn’t embedded; clicking will take you to YouTube):

Don Miller Video

B. ‘Don Miller’ growing at the Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama

Sparking Joy. In Whom?

This morning, while cooking breakfast, I noticed how beautiful the cooktop is. Last night, Susan must have carefully cleaned it, as she often does. A clean, uncluttered work area is delightful to her. In the words popularized by Marie Kondo, it sparks joy in her. As I look around the kitchen and living room, I see objects that were given to Susan by sisters-in-law and other girl friends. These ladies are world-class experts in sparking joy. They learn what Susan likes, what colors she uses in her decor. They pay attention to what is delightful to her. Over the course of the year, they purchase or make things that match what they know about Susan. Then, on her birthday and Christmas — sooner if they just can’t wait — they give her these joy-sparking gifts. She does the same for them.

Am I learning from my wife and her friends? Do I keep my eyes open for things that would spark joy in Susan? In my own friends? In my boys? In my Savior? By God’s grace, I do occasionally spark joy in others. But, looking around the kitchen this morning, I want to do better. After breakfast, I think I’ll clean off the cooktop. Again. Better than last time.