If you were going on a trip to the ocean, would you take along “BRAD’S SALTWATER KIT: PERFECTLY MIMICS THE SEA”? I don’t think so. Recently, I composed two poems, inspired by John 11, but have held off on writing them up and posting on my blog. Both poems may seem to advertise a conceit that I have something worthwhile to add to the sea of God’s glory.
Far from adding to God’s glory, I find myself continually mulling over what I’m missing. Thinking about a story like the raising of Lazarus, I ask if I’m seeing what Jesus wanted the witnesses there — and us! — to see regarding the Father’s glory, his own glory, and how they’re related.
This place of uncertainty and insufficiency, where asking questions is the best I can do… it isn’t all bad.
Over the years, when I and my climbing friends reached high camp, there was a decision each of us had to make: “I’ve come this far; should I summit?” We respected each other’s decisions. There was no shame in saying, “No, I’m not physically or mentally up to it today. I’ll hang around camp while y’all summit.” Even when my answer was “Yes,” I envied those who answered “No.“ They were uncertain, or insufficient that morning, but they were in for a different kind of beauty. While we trudged up the mountain in pre-dawn darkness, the guy who said “No” would warm by the campfire, watching a curtain of light descend on the peaks, as the sun rose from across the valley. Later, he’d poke around camp. Deer and birds would visit him, creatures more comfortable with one silent man than with a group of noisy men. Unhurried, the one left behind would see many things the rest of us had missed.
How long am I willing to linger here, to hang around camp in this section of God’s word? The more I see, the longer I stay. I’m in for a different kind of beauty.
Before I say anything else, I need to say this…. When I was reading John 6 this morning, and saw this exchange between Jesus and the crowds, and realized what was happening, I laughed. But the more I think about it, the less amused I am. Jesus was intimately involved with man from the very beginning. He was there when fellowship was broken in the Garden. Unless I’m mistaken, he was on scene when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden. He witnessed the first murder. He knew about every sin, and about every plan that God had for restoring man. Here in John, we see him carrying out the plans, knowing the tremendous gift he was bringing, but seeing how thankless and short-sighted man can be. It’s actually very sad.
AS THEN, SO NOW Jesus fed the five thousand and then slipped away when he saw that they were fixated on politics and food.
The crowd persisted, and sought him. They found him on the other side. Little did they understand how he was looking out for them.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
One of the things I love about walking is that it wakes up, or animates, my imagination. It does so especially when my walks are away from the humdrum, clattersplat of city life. That’s one reason I value the nearby White Rock Lake park. I was walking there the other day, and here’s how my mind took in some of what I saw….
I call the above image “Serving Shade.” Generally, a tree that grows so crooked will get cut down. But I posted on Facebook, “DON’T REBUKE THIS TREE! What do you do with a tree that sees its purpose as providing shade for walkers? Make sure it’s watered!”
I call this image “Miscreant Path.” Here’s how I described it on social media….
There was a time when I resisted taking shortcuts in my walks around White Rock Lake. But the park service has replaced all the charming, narrow little paved paths with concrete paths so wide a car could drive on them. The best way now to feel like I’m in nature is to cut across country, taking the route that coyotes, opossums, and other fellow miscreants take.
Walking, Well Worth the Effort I keep running into stories of philosophers, theologians, poets, and other writers who testify to the high value of taking walks. Here’s an account that I recently read:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
― Søren Kierkegaard, from a letter to his favourite niece, Henriette Lund, in 1847
When I moved to the States from Mexico, my second language was a novelty. At a certain point, fellow fifth graders pressed me so much for samples of Spanish that it got annoying.
To slow down the requests, I stated my terms: “A penny per word.” That worked.
One of my friends, Glen, offered his own phrase in lieu of pennies: “Cole day ron.” Unfortunately, that didn’t mean anything to me. “No deal.” But the phrase lodged in my memory.
One day, two or three years later, I was mowing the lawn at Kaleo Lodge. Mowing has always been a promised land of creative thinking. It’s where I dream of better things.
As I rounded a curve in the island of grass, it came to me:
“Sana, sana, colita de rana.”*
“Oh!!! THAT’S what Glen was trying to say: ‘colita de rana’.”
It was too late for Glen’s exchange; the novelty of Spanish had worn off by then.
*A literal translation of this saying would be “Heal, heal, little frog’s tail.” I could be wrong, but I think it’s what parents might say about their children’s boo-boos, kind of like “Let’s kiss it and make it better.”
Two weeks had passed and I still hadn’t figured out how to feed my horny toad. It was time to let him go. What an expensive mistake!
Late summer was when the older boys started hanging around the athletic field next door. After several weeks of tossing hay bales, they were ready to prove how tough they were tossing a football. I was too young for that. Besides, we had just moved here from the mission field, and I didn’t know the first thing about football. Everything in a little East Texas town was new to this little boy from a big city in Mexico.
Including the horny toads. I had spotted more than one of them at the edge of the football field. They were exotic, and I just had to have one. But horny toads are scary, what with the spikes all over their sturdy little bodies, and the blood…. I was told that they’ll squirt you with blood from behind their eyes if they see that you’ve got them cornered.
Let’s call the older boy Biff. He saw the commotion of me chasing one of the little monsters and came over to investigate. “Ain’t you gonna catch him?” asked Biff.
“I’m scared,” I admitted. “Can you catch it for me?”
“You sissy!” Biff was partly right. I’ve exercised plenty of courage in my day, but reptiles and their sort still make me squeamish.
“I’ll pay you,” I offered.
“How much you got?”
“Three dollars.” I had left Mexico with eight dollars in my little toy safe, and three of them were now in my pocket.
“Three dollars!” hooted Biff. “I’m a wheeler and a dealer!” That’s exactly what he said; I remember like it was yesterday. “A wheeler and a dealer!”
Biff caught the horny toad, and took it next door to my house for me. There, for some reason, I already had a five gallon fish tank.
The horny toad sat on some rocks I had placed in the tank for him, along with a saucer of water. I watched him through the glass, and he watched me. He must have been wondering what I’d bring him for dinner. He watched… and waited. Nothing. Two weeks is a long time to wait.
[NOTE: Luke 8:4-18 has far more to it than I deal with in the following commentary. Also, one of my Facebook friends mentioned that she had dealt with the same passage, and largely come to the same conclusion as I did. You should read Laurie Mather’s well-written blog post.]
I didn’t always pay close attention in Sunday school. But if memory serves right, the “light under a bushel” motif was always taught either as a prod to keep witnessing, or as an encouragement to recognize and use our gifts and talents. It was all about what we can and should do with the good things we possess. They taught us a catchy little tune that probably did more damage than good.
Despite our Sunday school teachers’ excellent intentions, I currently doubt that they got Jesus’ meaning right, or that they understood how Luke uses the motif. Here’s what changed my thinking….
Recently, as I struggled through the Greek1 in Luke 8, a word kept popping up: ακούω. Hear! Listen! Luke points out that while telling the parable of the soils (that immediately precedes the “light under a bushel” illustration), Jesus interjected a word of urgency:
“As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
Luke 8:8 ESV
Notice that “he called out.” That must have caught his listeners’ attention. It should catch ours as well. Let us hear.
Listening And Receptivity In Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the soils, some form of “listen” or “hear” is recurring. The characters in the parable hear the word with varying levels of receptivity.2 We’ve already seen that Jesus emphasized the need for his listeners to hear what he was saying.
After telling about the parable of the soils (Luke 8:4-15), Luke relates something Jesus said about lights, containers, beds, and lampstands (Luke 8:16-17). Given the way I had typically understood this “light under a bushel” motif, its use in these two verses struck me as a non-sequitur. That’s always a good sign that I’m missing the point. So I kept reading….
The form of the following verse suggests that the soils parable and the light under a bushel illustration were not disparate thoughts, but were supposed to be one cohesive section. Luke brings us to a logical conclusion of the section with verse 18 (notice my bolding):
“Take care thenhow you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
Luke 8:18 ESV
In the concluding verse, we’re back to the matter of hearing, and a stern warning to those who aren’t listening well.
In “light” of this, how does the “light under a bushel” motif fit in Jesus’ flow of thought? Is he suddenly, inexplicably talking about witnessing or using our hidden talents?
My tentative conclusion is that Jesus has not interrupted himself. When he talks about lights and how they are either minimized or maximized, he’s still talking about receptivity. Our hearts, like various soils, can receive or reject God’s life-changing word. We need to LISTEN well. Similarly, when the light of God’s word is illuminating our hearts, we need to LOOK well. We need to receive—respond to—what we’re being shown.
Am I ready for God to shed light on my heart? Am I receptive to his correction? Am I prepared to remove the rocks and weeds that he reveals so that better things can grow?
Maybe that’s the flow of thought in Luke 8. I could be wrong. I’ll keep the light on.
ABOUT THE POEM The Luke 8 account has two settings: outside and inside. Outside, there’s the soils by the path; inside, there’s the room that’s being illumined. That’s one of two reasons why I used “without, within” in my poem. It’s also the case that some of our sin is externally obvious (rocks, weeds), and some is less obvious (like shallow soil).
Since I always doubt myself…. Here’s a question for future consideration: is the soils parable really about sinful responses?
1 I rarely ever admit to having any facility with Greek. Two reasons: 1) despite having studied Greek three years in seminary, I don’t consider myself anything above a “beginner” and 2) even if I were fluent, I wouldn’t mention it because my real goal is to encourage others to study the Bible in whatever their mother tongue might be. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that Greek is necessary. Frankly, the only reason it helps me at this point is that it slows my brain down enough to notice things. I could probably turn the text upside down and read it in a mirror and get the same benefit!
2 The fact that “believe” and “be saved” are used in Jesus’ explanation of the soils parable may seem to limit its meaning or application to evangelism. I suspect that’s too narrow, that the parable applies at any point in the run up to producing good fruit. [This begs for exploration: the relationship of being fruitful and salvation, or of not being fruitful and needing salvation. Helpfully, the cursing of the fruitless fig tree may challenge, deepen, and expand our understanding]
In the years when I walked frequently around White Rock Lake, I increasingly recognized outcroppings of beauty as expressions of a wordless language. Its grammar was unrecognizable, but its vocabulary was everywhere — in flowers, sunsets, paintings, music, and human kindness.
For several years, I have been trying to grasp and define something that I sense, but cannot identify about BEAUTY. Beauty strikes me as a fundamentally important quality, something closer than almost anything else to the nature of God. I may ultimately find this to be above my mental pay grade. Two of my friends who have done PhD-level work on the subject of beauty have referred me to the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. This 20th-century Swiss theologian wrote a 15-volume trilogy focusing on beauty, goodness, and truth. Since I’m such a slow reader, I’ll probably resort to someone else’s introduction to Balthasar’s thinking.
Here’s what prompted me to revisit the photograph above, and reflect on its significance. I was going through my large collection of Instagram posts, and got to a section from about three years ago where almost every image was of something that struck me as beautiful. If you click the image below, and then scroll down through the results, I think you’ll see what I’m talking about (it’s especially easy if you have an Instagram account):
“Meaningful! Meaningful! Everything is meaningful.” That’s what was running through my head early yesterday morning. I couldn’t go back to sleep. As I lay in bed, I planned a web page exploring BEAUTY: WHAT IT IS, AND WHAT IT POINTS TO. I listened to an interview of Sara Groves. Her song “Why it Matters” also explores this subject. I noticed that as she spoke to the interviewer, much of her thought was carried in metaphors. Since I keep trying to improve as a poet, I pay attention to metaphor—how to use it, and how to recognize it being used. And so, I went through the day thinking about how so many things point to something else, and ultimately to qualities of the Creator. “This flower is meaningful. That kindness is meaningful.”
Then, I went for a walk. The Bible listening plan I do on walks had me go through Ecclesiastes this time. In Ecclesiastes, the preacher exclaims “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” This was the opposite of what I had been thinking all day!
How could I resolve the contradiction?
The preacher in Ecclesiastes seems to be talking mainly about the meaninglessness of a life lived AS THOUGH there is no eternity. Two or three places in his sermon, he touches briefly on the judgment. Most prominently, he does so in the conclusion:
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 NIV
The judgment implies an afterlife. Otherwise, judgment itself would be meaningless.
So live meaningfully—with Eternity in your heart. Otherwise—as the preacher took pains to demonstrate—it will all have been meaningless.
ME: (referring to the photograph above) No matter how many times I walk under these bois d’arc trees on my shortcut to the lake, it feels like I’m entering a special place, or embarking on an adventure. What are the magical places and moments in your life?
JOSH VAJDA: When I was a teen, we had 10 acres of forest and brush behind the house, with paths winding through. My favorite part of the walk was in the back corner on just the right winter’s day. After a hairpin turn in the brush, you walked along the side of a patch of older trees, which soon sharply turned right, inviting you inside, and winding so you could not see too far ahead. With a fresh blanket of heavy, wet snow, it was truly magical. The frosted pine and birch towered above, while the brush heavy laden hugged the path. The sun lit the chamber like a cathedral, and the snow smothered every sound except the crunch beneath your boots and the swish of your winter coat. Sometimes I would just stand in the center and soak it in as long as I could.
ME: Josh, you have written elsewhere about the importance of imagination. In the space set apart, the cathedral, we begin to imagine how everything could be different. As you describe that magical place from your youth, I want to map it out in my head. If I were sitting with you, I’d ask you to sketch the scene. I want to locate that cathedral and enter it myself. Those of us who have read Lewis think immediately of a wardrobe in an old professor’s house. But we should probably find our own wardrobes. Then, what is it we encounter in the set-apart space? To define it seems only to diminish it.
JOSH VAJDA: As usual, you are correct. I couldn’t help feeling it had a certain Narnian magic to it.
ME: This one’s for Josh Vajda (an echo of your elevated prose):
[Note: Josh Vajda kindly gave me permission to include our Facebook exchange in this post. Josh is an excellent thinker and writer. Check out his blog. For instance, this study of “The Sin of Sodom.”]
One of the better things about Facebook is that it brings up posts from the past. Today, it brought up this post from September 14, 2020. I had posted the photo with the question “Today, will I see beauty, or will I be blinded by ugliness?” That prompted me to think about how I have been answering that question over the last two years. Here’s what I wrote today:
In the two years since I posted this question, I have have become far more aware of ugliness. In fact, I’d say that it has been necessary for me to remove blinders about the evil in my culture. Already in 2020, I was asking myself, “Why do I so readily identify sins on ‘their side’ and don’t recognize sins on ‘my side’?” Major events in the US took care of that naïveté, as did some of my reading. Pride, ambition, selfishness, arrogance, shortsightedness… these are equal opportunity sins and weaknesses that afflict both ends of the political spectrum, and everything between. I’m left with profound sadness about the prospects for my nation. On the other hand, I no longer despise people on “their side” as I once did. I’m able to pray prayers of blessing for people on “their side.” Sadness is better than hatred.
“The end of the Maker’s dream is not this” … or that, or that, or that.
There’s a print that hangs in my hallway, mostly never seen. It’s a photograph I took when I was young, hiking through the mountains. Just now, I went and grabbed the photograph, to reflect on how it pictures a man who, in one way, was very like me.
Taciturn, the prospector, his dog, two horses, and a mule passed by below, heedless of the trail. He halfway turned to acknowledge my presence in his domain. I lifted my camera and captured the moment for later consideration.
It’s later now. The man was looking for something… gold I assume. He was not one to announce his quest. Talk, and words were not his way. A boy with a camera didn’t need to hear his story.
Gold: that’s all the prospector sought.
I don’t have two horses, a mule, and a dog. I am not taciturn.
But the prospector and I are alike in one way. Gold is all I seek. That’s why I dig with words. It’s the reason for my poetry.
[I posted this on Facebook about a year ago, and someone I respect told me it was one of my better vignettes… so here you go]
45 YEARS AGO: The assistant band director had me over to his place, hoping to inspire me to be a better cornet player. He played a Maurice André record. It was so beautiful! “Is that a violin?” I asked. “No, that’s Maurice André on the trumpet.”
35 YEARS AGO: I got to hear Pete Fountain in person. My main memory: how he eliminated all the harsh tones of his jazz clarinet, partly by placing the microphone by the finger holes instead of at the bell. Say “Pete Fountain,” and that’s the image my brain pulls up, along with the sensation of velvet.
JUST NOW… listening to Jacques Loussier playing Bach on the piano, I thought, “That could be bells!”
SOMEDAY… I’ll see the author of beauty face to face. When He speaks, I’ll probably think He’s singing.
YEAH: Get used to beauty.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
I originally posted this vignette on Facebook back in 2015. Tesla’s life story remains a cautionary tale. A man can be brilliant in some ways, but stupid in others. Shift the fulcrum of pride, and brilliance and stupidity balance differently.
What I Wrote in 2015
In “Wizard: the Life and Times of Nikola Tesla,” Marc Seifer reveals how Tesla’s success was undermined by pride and naiveté. One interesting account is in Chapter 26, “Contact:”
On September 22, 1899, Nikola Tesla wrote his assistant, “Do not worry about me. I am about a century ahead of the other fellows.” Those “other fellows” were pioneers in wireless communications. Two months earlier, Tesla had detected a radio signal at his lab in Colorado Springs. Since Tesla was convinced that “the other fellows” were incapable of producing long-distance transmissions, he attributed the radio signal to INTELLIGENT LIFE ON MARS. He concluded, “I have been the FIRST to hear the greeting of one planet to another.” What a special man! As it turns out, the signal came from his archrival Guglielmo Marconi, who was conducting successful tests of ship-to-ship wireless communications in the English Channel, almost 5,000 miles away! Investors, who valued Marconi’s practical experiments, were merely entertained by Tesla’s brilliant, self-serving demonstrations.
Aside from the fact that I’m lazy, there is one main reason why I write short poems and vignettes.
I was studying out under a dogwood on my college campus. When I got up to go to lunch, I found that an ant had sunk in the last drops of coffee in my coffee cup. It struggled to escape, but was trapped by the coffee’s surface tension. I broke the tension and let it go.
In the lunchroom, I told this story to a friend who was struggling with anorexia. Somehow — don’t ask me how — that story created a breakthrough for her, a step of recovery.
You never know how painting a little picture, telling a little story, will break the surface tension for a struggling friend.
Increasingly, I find myself turning even simple statements into poems. Perhaps I’m as annoying in this as Fezzik was to Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”:
Inigo: That Vizzini, he can fuss. Fezzik: Fuss, fuss … I think he like to scream at us. Inigo: Probably he means no harm. Fezzik: He’s really very short on charm. Inigo: You have a great gift for rhyme. Fezzik: Yes, yes, some of the time. Vizzini: Enough of that. Inigo: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead? Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead. Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it. Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
From “The Princess Bride”
The Poem’s Inspiration I don’t recall the context of the exchange, but one of my Facebook friends wrote the following, and her first two sentences seemed like the beginning and premise for a limerick:
I once met a woman at the mall who had seven children in tow: an oldest child, a pair of twins, and, youngest of all, a set of quadruplets. Each pregnancy subsequent to the first doubled the outcome the one prior. If I were in her shoes, I think I’d probably put my foot down regarding future pregnancies.
Twenty months ago, seven miles into a hike, I suddenly had to sit down. It wasn’t from physical exhaustion. It was from the sudden realization that I was leaving the comfort of a familiar identity. There, at a picnic table, I wrote this reflection. Then I resumed the hike. A journey had just begun.
May 25, 2020 A HOPEFUL LAMENT ON MEMORIAL DAY: HOMELESS AT LAST?
I can tell you where I was when I learned that my best friends were homeless. In two cases, it was on the road, as we drove to the mountains. In another case, it was sitting in my friend’s back yard. In a fourth case, I’m not as sure of where we were as of what we were discussing.
As I look back now, those revelations, spanning several decades, fill me with emotion. That my friends have gone this many years feeling the loss I now feel makes me sad.
POLITICAL EXILES Christians should be good citizens of whatever nation they live in. But if they set their heart too firmly on the advancement and perfectability of that nation, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. I could have told you this when I was a young man. But saying and knowing can be miles — and decades — apart.
Recently, I have observed fellow believers identifying closely with every bit of goodness, evil, and sheer stupidity of “their” particular side of an increasingly polarized political scene. It has now degenerated to the point that I simply cannot join them in identifying with the left or right. I’m feeling homeless.
My closest friends tend to be smarter and wiser than me (of course they are, but that’s not my point!). They grew past my naiveté long ago. They understood what I’m just now coming to understand — that we are exiles, citizens of a Kingdom yet to be fully and finally established.
Perhaps this day of sadness is also a day of celebration. Realizing at last that I am homeless is a very good thing. Now I can fall more fully in love with the hope to which I was called.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Ecclesiastes 7:4 ESV
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
1 Peter 2:9 ESV
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
A few years ago, when I went full-time with my web business and suddenly had plenty of time on my hands, I began taking walks around White Rock Lake. Sometimes it was from a parking lot (a 9 miles hike) and sometimes from home (a 12 miles hike). That was the beginning of one of the best periods in my life. Here’s why….
Paying Attention On those long hikes, one of the things I did was pay close attention to how I was responding to people I encountered along the way: “The site of that elderly lady elicited warm feelings. Why? When I saw that young man, I felt disgust. Why? Why am I so ready to love some people, but not others?” Even after years of paying attention to my responses, it’s often still a mystery. But at least I’m a little more attuned to my emotional state now than I was before.
So I Asked Myself…. Yesterday, I walked by the bench in the background photo. Thanks to the habit of paying attention to my emotional state, I knew there was something I feel every time I pass by a person sitting on that bench. Could I put that feeling in words? Here’s what I initially wrote:
Often, when I’m walking at White Rock Lake and find someone sitting on this bench, I wish to sit with them, to share their experience. People taking in the beauty of a place like this are close to God, whether they realize it or not. But usually I just smile and walk on by.
Is it So? What I want to do (sit with them) is something I can report with more confidence than why I want to do so. In the prose explanation and subsequent poem, I connect my desire to a sense that God is somehow involved in the experience. That’s still just a theory of what’s going on in my head and heart. This theory may get support from a book I started into last night: “The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community,” by Curt Thompson.
Why Wistful? It makes me sad that I either cannot or do not always act on my good impulses. To sit and talk with a stranger? There’s nothing wrong with that impulse. But something usually stops me. What?
Recently, I have been listening to American historians who specialize in the Civil War: Gary Gallagher, Allen Guelzo, Ty Seidule, Stephanie McCurry. Listening to them, I begin to see the lies that I have bought. It comes as no surprise that I’ve been influenced by a false narrative, one that exonerates and glorifies my surrounding culture.
What am I referring to? I’m referring to the myth that the Confederate States of America were led by noble generals (esp. Robert E. Lee) in pursuit of noble causes (“States Rights!”). It was always a face-saving, sin-excusing myth on the part of slave-owning states, and a nation-unifying accommodation by still largely racist non-slave-owning states. Too many in the North, and way too many in the South bought the distortions of history. Why? In many cases, because it suited them: privileged whites were thereby excused in their continued oppression of blacks.
Still an Issue 160 Years Later? You bet. Look at the furor over the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and the renaming of military bases, schools, roads, etc. that were erected and named in the 20th Century in reaction to desegregation and the civil rights movement. Racists desperately wanted then to assert their continued privilege. They still do. We’re on to them. We’re on to US. I’m on to ME!
I’m a sinner, saved by grace. How about you?
Below are some of the lectures I have been listening to:
In the glory days, we called ourselves The Better Batter Beaters. We were the best cake club in town. That was back before Betty and Beatrice got all humble on us.
Betty’s cakes were to die for… without fail. But then, Betty up and quit. “That’s it,” she said. “This cake-making is a source of pride I really must live without.”
Beatrice was our best judge and critic. “That cake is not as good as Betty’s” she’d say. “You need a better butter.” And Beatrice was always right. We’d bring our always-inferior cakes, and Beatrice could always identify just where we’d gone wrong. But then Beatrice came up with some nonsense about “taking inordinate pride” in her role as the Better Batter Beaters’ chief critic. “No more!” she said, “From now on, I’ll just eat cake. No more judging!”
Naturally, things went downhill. When we get together these days, we just eat so-so cake with our so-so coffee and talk about our so-so lives. Even Betty and Beatrice tell so-so stories.
All this mediocrity has me thinking…. Maybe we should start a Stellar Story-Tellers Club! That’s something I could really sink my teeth into! Who would serve as club president? I’d proudly run!
I just heard Susan telling someone on the phone that our last name is spelled with two Ps, “as in pretty.” I sure am glad that works for her.
Once, when I was buying running shoes at Luke’s Locker, I told the ladies behind the counter, “That’s two Ps, as in ‘pneumatic pterodactyl’.” One of the ladies, my equal in smart aleckry, shot back: “You just don’t want to say ‘peepee’.”
I guess not. Shame is a silly game.
By the way, SHAME is something I am starting to learn about. Several people whom I respect have pointed out that this is important to understand as we try to help people who are struggling emotionally. So it isn’t all silly.
The morning that I wrote this, I had read a post on the meaning of “headship” in the Bible (https://juniaproject.com/5-myths-of-male-headship/). The subject of egalitarianism versus patriarchy or complementarianism is one of several that I am revisiting now that I recognize how much my thinking has been tainted by selfishness. I haven’t changed my opinion yet, but I’m more prepared than ever before to do so, if the evidence pushes me that way.
I RECOGNIZE MY IGNORANCE Anyway, while the article was well written, some of its greatest value was in the — mostly — intelligent and respectful debate carried on in the long comments section. I have enough training in hermeneutics and linguistics to recognize when someone else has far deeper knowledge than I do. Several such people showed up in this conversation. All the years I have spent learning about language… and still there are people whose expertise makes all my learning look like so much Play-Doh.
IF I’M CONFIDENT THAT I UNDERSTAND One fellow in the comments basically said, “You’re wrong little woman. You don’t know much. I’m an expert. Now shut up.” To the extent that I ever respond with such hubris, may God have mercy on me. May I always remember how foolish that little, little man appears.
DESCENDS… ASCENDS When I recognize my limitless limitations (the futility of mastering anything), the appropriate response is to acknowledge that my Savior and Master is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good.
I’ll never forget the pain of turning a group back just minutes from the summit of Horn Peak. It had begun sleeting, and the slopes on either side of the remaining 600-meter ridge were unforgivingly steep. #hornpeak #climbinglessons #unpopulardecisions #hebrews13v17
I left the hashtags in here to remind me that this reflection was prompted not by mountain climbing but by something much harder: leading when the decisions are not popular with everyone.
There are people out there who don’t ask “WHY did you lead in this or that way?” Instead, they TELL ME (and other leaders) “Here’s why you did this or that.” Somehow, they “know” the leader’s motivation. And what they “know” is always the worst possible motive: “You’re fearful,” “You like to control people,” “You are following political motives rather than the Spirit of God.”
To such complainers, I could explain things in a better way. But why even try, when they already “know”?
Ever since I began writing poetry on a regular basis, I have also pondered what this activity indicates about me: what are the weaknesses a poet needs to acknowledge, and what are the strengths he can celebrate?
A Sample Weakness [EDIT: I originally wrote and published this late at night, but woke up before dawn with the realization that I had to UNpublish the post and come back with some edits. I had revealed more than I ought to reveal, which is the very tendency I lament in a paragraph below. Someday, the world will suit a poet like me. But not today]
Today, I had a conversation with the senior pastor of a local church. Before I headed over to his church, Susan cautioned me: “Don’t reveal more than you should.” She knows me well. I said, “Pray that I’ll control my mouth, and that I’ll be a blessing to him.”
So, I met the senior pastor at the back door of his church. We walked in, and I immediately began pelting him with questions about his church: how they interact with the neighborhood, how well that is working, etc. After looking at his sanctuary, and talking about how it has served during the pandemic, we went to a more private setting downstairs. I began….
“These last few years, I have been developing as a poet. While some think that poets conceal, their actual drive is to reveal. That’s my natural inclination. But today, I need to control that. I’ll be talking about [something private], and there are things I should not say. Forgive me.” The pastor was understanding, and we talked for another 40 minutes. I believe that by God’s grace I did not tell him more about [the private matter] than I should. Reflecting on what I shared, the pastor gave me hope that I 1) am not alone and 2) serve a God who is changing lives.
The Poet as a Lithe Cat Who Loves Counselors The little story above is about how I deal with the downside of being a poet: I have to be extra careful about not revealing what’s in my heart. But I usually am not so guarded. Think about it…. A poet is always digging into his own heart to surface emotions and thoughts that would rather stay hidden. He drags them up and exposes them to the light of day where they can be dealt with, sometimes by the poet himself, but more often by the reader, by wiser souls, by counselors. That’s why the poet is a friend of counselors. Like a domestic cat, he brings his daily offering of lizards and rats, and lays them at their door. “Here’s a rat that was running through my heart. What’s its name, and how do we deal with it?”
“Wine That Fills Our Cup” In the poem I refer to “wine that fills our cup.” Believe me, I like wine, and wine’s not a dead rat. Forget about rats and death. A poet — at least this poet — celebrates life in his expression of emotion. It is not despair that drives me, but hope. Even when speaking of negative, deadly emotions, there is an essential optimism: “This emotion is not my master. I discovered it, am revealing it, and by God’s grace I will see its cure. He will make me whole.”
Even the Wine of Lament I have been seeking lately to replace anger and bitterness with sadness and sorrow. In essence, to learn lament. Here’s what’s great about lament (at least as I understand it): it is sorrow felt and expressed in the presence of One who can change things, who will change things. When I move to lament, I move closer to hope. Wine is that which dulls, but also cheers.
I’ve always had to find creative ways to cope with my short attention span. In seminary, one of my stranger tricks was to find good climbing trees in out-of-the-way places, climb up to a comfortable perch, and do reading assignments there.
On one such foray, I encountered a nest crowded with baby doves all eager to be fed. Figuring that my presence would make the Mama Dove nervous, I climbed back down and found another tree.
A couple of days later, I returned, armed with a camera instead of a book. I climbed up to where I’d seen the doves’ nest. IT WAS EMPTY.
My wish to photograph something beautiful was foiled. I began imagining what might have happened to the baby birds. They could not have developed quickly enough to leave the nest. Had a predator found them? Worse, had my brief presence resulted in the failure of that nest?
A year or two after the story above, I was about to graduate from seminary. By this time, I was tired of the studies. I was also tired of a handful of classmates who, though they were “big men on campus” seemed very foolish. Let me tell you a story about them….
One day, I was heading home from the seminary. On the tree-lined walk between Mosher Library and Stearns Hall, I encountered these — God forgive me — fools. They were taking turns throwing books up into one of the trees, trying to dislodge a nest. Need I say more?
Skip forward several decades. In semi-retirement now, I have had more time than ever to focus on the beauty of God’s creation. On one of my long walks, I found a nest on the ground. I took it home, and placed it carefully in the Japanese Yew just outside my home office. It was just a decoration.
This brings us up to a second sequel one week ago….
Looking out my office window, I was astonished and delighted to see a bird sitting in the nest I had placed. At first, seeing its tail sticking almost straight up as it sat in the nest, I thought it must be Christopher Wren or his wife. They often flit about, inspecting the architecture of my secret garden. But then, I caught sight of its beak, and knew it was Carnelia Cardinal.
The next day, poking my smartphone on a selfie stick into the Yew, I snuck a photograph of the nest. There were three speckled blue eggs!
I found a way to position a camera inside my office such that it had a clear view down to the nest. From that vantage point, behind the glass, I was able to film the mother cardinal returning to her nest after food “runs.” She would always chirp several times as she arrived, so I knew when to turn on the camera. Then she would settle into the nest, fluffing out her belly feathers to warm the eggs. And she’d sit there for hours, patiently warming her developing brood.
[In the video below, I think she may have been agitated by a mayfly. She usually just settled right in after two or three chirps]
Yesterday, when I drove home from an errand, I stopped by the Yew long enough to inspect the moss, violets, and wheat grass growing below. A blue egg was sitting on the ground. I turned it over, and found a gaping hole, with ants crawling in and out. Need I say more?
I went inside, and watched through the window for Carnelia to return. Four minutes. Eight minutes. She had never left the nest this long. An hour. She didn’t return. The nest had failed. There’s still one egg in the nest. By now, it has cooled, and died.
Now, in place of expectancy, there is sadness.
I’ve been here before. Last year, when our old cat Princess was dying, excruciating sadness introduced me to sorrow. In a moment, a small window opened, and I recognized that a pet’s death is partly my fault. Beauty is sullied, life is snuffed because I — in Adam — sin. [see “A Very Small Window, Open at Last“]
SORROW AND LAMENT: MY HEAVENLY FATHER’S ONGOING LESSON
Recently, I cried out for help. I am keenly aware of the sin of people I must answer to God for, even when their sin takes the form of vile accusations against godly friends. Knowing the sincere love of many acquaintances on Facebook, I wrote,
MAY SORROW REPLACE ANGER…. I need desperately to substitute sorrow for the anger I feel about people’s hurtful ways. If your prayer list is not too long, please add this.
One amazing friend, a counselor in Portland Oregon wrote this beautiful prayer, though she is still grieving the recent death of her beloved husband, Phil:
Heavenly Father, hear Brad’s heart cry to morph the deep response to other’s fear & confusion in the brokenness of life into mercy and compassion. Jesus, thank you for making a way for us, at such an extreme cost to Yourself, to know truth and embrace life as you intend it to be. Holy Spirit, thank you for your relentless work, moment by moment, handcrafting our way to imaging God’s character. I join Brad’s request today to respond to brokenness and pain with sorrow and grief. May each of us who yield to Your will find the courage to extend the grace You are so eager for us to know, first to ourselves, and then to others. Amen.
Was Debbie’s prayer heard? Is it being answered? Does a cardinal nest fail for no reason? Or does it fail to remind me of the little I have learned about sorrow? The road behind me now is long. In contrast to all I know of beauty, this road is strewn with ugliness and failure. Is it a road to bitterness, or is it a road to lament?
Reflecting this morning on the responsibility church leaders have to make somewhat informed decisions about important matters, I thought back to Sunday School in 1965….
The teacher handed us line drawings to color in with crayons. Although I was five, I had never done that before. I looked at the mess my classmates were making with their crayons and said, “No thanks. I’ll wait until I’m old enough to stay in the lines!”
I’ve told this story before as an example of debilitating perfectionism. It is that. And I thank God that the perfectionism is dying off.
But here’s what MUST remain: a sense that I am not sufficient for the tasks I’m given. From that kernel of humility, I must cry out, “Help me! Forgive me!” I never was an expert.
In my nightmare last night, it was college all over again. I was exhausted, and couldn’t keep up with the lectures. A group of professors started hassling me about my inattentiveness. It made me mad! One professor in particular was busting my chops. In the dream, I was sprawling over a desk, lethargic but angry. With every ounce of strength, I dragged myself off the desk to go over and strike him.
Suddenly I woke up. My face had struck the nightstand a foot below my pillow. Susan cried out “Brad! Are you okay?” She was worried. But when she heard the nightmare, and figured out I wasn’t injured, she couldn’t stop laughing.When I landed face-first on the nightstand, the blow was softened by a pile of junk. Had I been a neat freak, I might have died. So there! Let that be a lesson.
[first published June 25, 2020] On long walks recently, I have listened to Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They cover a time of turmoil in Israel. I’m thinking about how both prophets handled a proverb that was apparently popular at the time: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Some quote the prophets’ apparent abrogation of that parable in a future time as reason for Christians now to not be concerned about the sins of our ancestors or of our surrounding culture. But I have my doubts. As I wrote a friend, it seems we must carefully delineate sin, responsibility, guilt, and consequences. That we are forgiven in Jesus Christ is not license to continue in the ugliness of sin. It is certainly a poor reason to miss out on the beauty that results from obedience! THE PHOTO: mustang grapes I found and tasted on my walks.
[first published June 29, 2020] Once, when I was in my mid-twenties, I tried to publicly shame one of the elders of my church. At the time, I thought I was successful: I really put that guy in his place!
Decades passed. Older, and slightly wiser, I myself served as an elder. This time, I watched another young man do what I had done. He resented that the church leadership had “failed” to honor him. So he wrote us an email, slamming us for our bad decision. But there’s more…. He also sent the email to a couple dozen other church members. Did his email convince us that we should have honored him in the first place? Of course not! Rather, it confirmed our earlier judgment. He wasn’t ready for honor. [Let’s hope by now he IS ready]
Back to the action of stupid young Bradley…. When I look back now on that episode in my twenties, it’s clear that what I perceived then as a “success” was one of my worst-ever failures. What irony!
Note: I wrote this after watching a young lady eviscerate a church elder on Facebook. In my opinion, he didn’t deserve her rebuke AT ALL. She had used the word “irony,” so I picked up on that word and used it in hopes that she would read MY post and remember what she had said.
[published July 2, 2020] Like most people, I have lived much of my life in one bubble or another, isolated from the beauty and wisdom of others’ perspectives. The bubble is not always intentional. But breaking out of it takes BEING intentional. One of the best things I have done for myself over the past two years is to reach out to black brothers and sisters in Christ and add them to my Facebook feed.* In this divisive time, that is helping me negotiate the intersection of Christianity and culture far more productively than I was able to before. It’s part of a bigger initiative to surround myself with wise voices and then not drive them off with my stupidity (which has happened once or twice).
ABOUT THAT STUPIDITY It’s easy to say stupid things and get by with it when your audience are all like-minded or share your sub-culture. But when you have to consider that what you write may be read by a very smart, spiritually mature brother or sister from another culture, or another perspective, it forces thoughtfulness. It forces THOUGHT.
*and then foster the friendship outside of social media (Image below by ArtTower from Pixabay)
[originally published July 25, 2020] A friend from way back (Scott Thibaut) sent me one of his poems this morning. Its self-awareness, honesty, and imagery gave me goosebumps. We talked about honesty. I wrote him what’s pictured below.
BUT THERE’S MORE When we start recognizing our deep-seated character flaws late in life, the result is not merely sorrow. As the Holy Spirit unearths such things, there is tremendous hope! Perhaps, with the removal of this impediment, I can run, maybe even fly. To God, the Potter we can cry with Browning,
So, take and use Thy work: Amend what flaws may lurk, What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim! My times be in Thy hand! Perfect the cup as planned! Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!
[written January 11, 2021] In recent months, I have been pursuing a theory that selfishness is an underlying motive in many of our sinful attitudes and actions. Discovering an adamant core of selfishness in myself was revolutionary.
But selfishness, greedy as it is, does not account for everything. I am noticing how it joins forces with deep-seated fear of suffering. Think of how often now we hear Christians expressing concern over what they perceive as rising persecution (and presumably its attendant suffering). How do they deal with this fear? Do they — do we — say, “As a follower of Jesus, I expect suffering, and will not run away from it?” I’m afraid there’s very little of that. Instead, we see many in the Church run to the shelter of whatever political ideology seems most likely to insure their safety, in the process giving aid and comfort to the selfishness that drives others to that ideology. Unfortunately, we tend to become like our companions. If our companions are driven by selfishness, we’ll tend to become more selfish. Thus, the deep motives feed each other [I need to work out this relationship a little better].
Am I saying that there’s another political ideology out there that IS safe harbor, that is driven by pure motives? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Rather, I think we must hold very lightly any association we have with a particular spot on the political spectrum. For Christians, marching orders must come from Christ, not from the polarized cow patties of politics.
[written January 14, 2021] One of my jobs as a web designer is to NOTICE how I’m responding to design, and to discern how others respond. It’s a useful habit.
Every now and then, I wisely observe how other things affect me. In High School, I became very aware of the effect different genres of music had on my ability to do homework. Since I wanted to keep my options open by making good grades, I sometimes listened to rock (good for math), but increasingly listened to classical or even the despised “easy listening” offerings. Many a night, I was still reading or writing as the radio station signed off with “Stardust” sung by Nat King Cole: “And now the purple dusk of twilight time Steals across the meadows of my heart….”
About two years ago, I realized the effect talk radio was having on me: it stirred up anger. I could drop in on a 3-hour show at any point, and know what was being said — the repetition is really astounding. That pounding repetition of outrage from the radio personalities would immediately echo in my mind, and predictable feelings of outrage would swirl up within me.
I have gotten away from listening to talk radio, and it has made a huge difference in my ability to think straight, to contemplate GOOD things, to see beauty, to concentrate on what matters for eternity. Adrenaline may be good for “fight or flight,” but it’s lousy for loveliness and delight (see related post).
Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.
I wish I could remember the content of a fellow student’s prayer at the beginning of a seminary class some 35 years ago. It was almost other-worldly in its simple sincerity. One had the sense, “This guy talks a lot with God!” Hearing that brother — who was NOT a “big man on campus” — forever set my benchmark for public prayer. I’ve heard plenty of skillful, smooth, inspiring prayers since, but none that moved me so. Where is that guy serving now? In obscurity? Do people still react to his prayer with arched eyebrows, saying, “I want THAT kind of relationship with God”? I sure hope so. God knows.
THE MUSICAL ARRANGEMENT When I was assigned a new roommate in college, they installed an old wooden desk for him before he arrived. Since I was building music boxes at the time, I took one of the movements and did my own installation…. I hid the movement in the back of the desk and arranged for it to start playing whenever he opened a desk drawer. For some reason, that guy didn’t last very long. I don’t even remember his name. Ask me sometime what happened when I took him to church with me. [see my reply to Don Regier below, when he did just that]
LONG-WINDED I was working as an all-night security guard at that time. Staying awake for classes or church services was a real challenge. So there we were — Whatshisname and me — on one of the front pews. I was employing my various surreptitious stay-awake techniques. Just before a long pastoral prayer, I took a big gulp of air, hoping the physical effort of holding that breath would keep me awake. It didn’t. Somewhere during that long pastoral prayer, I relaxed. Seconds later I woke up to a weird sound. It was me! The air was coming out in an involuntary low moan. Now mind you, this was Grace Bible Church, where low moans are rarely ever heard (at least not back in those days). I don’t recall what happened next. Nor do I recall whether this was before or after Ralph Busby invited me to sit in on elder meetings.