We Are Not Pools

Commentary (Thoughts Running Amok)

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 oringinally 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.

A Long Road to Lament

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?

TWO SEQUELS

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.

Brad Hepp

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.

Debbie Johnson

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?

The Elder’s Garden

Commentary

I covered what used to be the walkway leading up to the glass door and windows of my office with moss. It’s a far more pleasant vista when I’m working than the concrete walkway ever used to be. Along with the moss that I “liberated” from stream banks, there’s a mass of wild violets, also “liberated” from vacant fields. Finally, there’s an area where wheat grass will soon be sprouting for our cat.

Invariably, my transplants bring in some weeds and even fungus. Last year, I watched what would happen if I left a big puffball mushroom to “do its thing.” Its “thing” turned out to be killing a section of the moss. So this year, I’m being diligent about removing fungus as soon as I notice it growing in amongst the moss.

WITCHES’ BUTTER
One annoying invader is a small black, gelatinous fungus that really seems to enjoy the moist environment. If you look real close in the background image for the poem, you may be able to see some that remains after I spent 20 minutes picking it out this morning. If I’m not confusing it with another fungus, it goes by the names “Black Jelly Roll Fungus” and “Witches’ Butter.” Yuck! I like my butter yellow, not black.

PRAYER
So, while picking out that fungus, my mind turned to invaders that have destroyed the lives of family and friends. Initially, what came to mind was cancers: brain cancer, bone cancer, etc. I prayed for friends who are still fighting this battle. But then, my mind turned to other invaders, like hatred and bitterness. Other acquaintances came to mind, and I prayed for them.

Prayer is an increasingly important part of my life. Soon after I became an elder in my church, it began to dawn on me that I will somehow be held accountable for the spiritual health of people in my care. In that day, I want to be able at least to say, “Lord, I asked for your intervention. There was far more than I could handle.”

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Hebrews 13:17

P.S. The dime was there in the photo initially because I was trying to identify the fungus, and I needed it for scale. Then, when I wrote the poem, I realized that the dime could be left in the photo… it reinforces the smallness of the plot. If I think long enough, I may realize there was some other, subconscious reason for leaving it in there. I hate to admit it, but I don’t always KNOW what I’m saying or why!

To a Misguided Cedar

Commentary

I saw this cedar growing in the crotch of a liveoak in front of Lakepointe Church. The poem is not about that church. But it does issue from thinking about churches. Every time a new church is planted, there are certain goals that the church planters are trying to achieve. While they may state a fine-sounding church “mission,” there is sometimes what Robert Schnase refers to as a “shadow mission,” the REAL mission of the church. If that shadow mission is some piece of idolatry like “having a form of worship that is comfortable to us,” the church may initially attract a lot of like-minded idolaters. Thus, it may grow rapidly. But such a mission can only carry the church so far; it contains the seed of its own eventual failure. A dedication to comfort rules out the willingness to change when change becomes necessary. There are probably as many “shadow missions” as there are sinners. I have just described one I see in myself.

As I was thinking about that, I remembered the photo above. Then I knew that the baby cedar may seem attractive in its current location, but it’s doomed to failure. The “shadow mission” of having “altitude” is no use to a cedar. As any cedar-burning Texas rancher will tell you, what cedars do exceptionally well is not to grow tall, but to send roots deep down into hard ground and draw up water for themselves, water that the ranchers need for other purposes! And so, they chop them down, and burn them.

MORE BROADLY, BECAUSE GOD IS MERCIFUL
It isn’t sad when cedars miss their purpose in life. But how about us? What if we are wasting our strength on things that won’t last? Who will save us from such a bad investment? The poem concludes by pointing to the mercy of humbling, of being brought low. This seems to be what James had in mind in his powerful letter:

9Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

James 1:9-10 (ESV)

Matters More and Less

Commentary

BACKGROUND
Recently, I have been trying to imagine what it might look like to be in a church that welcomes people from all kinds of backgrounds. Would I be willing to give up my comfort for their sake? What if they’re REALLY different? What if their politics are different than mine, different than the politics of most others in the church? Would we be able to keep things in perspective, or would we chase them off because their politics make them feel like pariahs?

Which is more valuable: a soul, or my opinion?

I was once part of a church plant where my chief motivation was comfort: I wanted to be comfortable with the style of worship, and the kind of people I’d be worshipping with. Now, I recognize comfort as an idol. Doubtless, I retain — and am even now creating — other idols, things that are more important than God’s glory. May He have mercy on me.

SEE THE DARK IRONY?
I’m not smart enough to have intended the searing irony in the next-to-last line. “Like hell” was drawn lightly from recent events. But there is a reality darker than current darkness, infinitely more consequential than current comfort.

THE PHOTOGRAPH
The background photo is of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which I pass by on my walks from home to Flag Pole Hill. One evening, the clouds were threatening. I confess: “HDR Scape” in Snapseed accentuated the drama. Do I feel bad about editing a photo? Not in the least…. It’s part of artistic expression. I’m not a mimeograph!

Sour Grapes

[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.

My “Bernie” Memes

A photo of Bernie Sanders sitting at the Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021 made its way into thousands of Photoshop memes on social media. Here are my three contributions:

With apologies to Dr. David Lowery, who I replaced in this screen shot from a December 2017 Dallas Seminary Table Podcast. Below is a screen shot from the same video:

Next, I thought of one of my favorite images: Tutanbernie

Finally, one of my friends asked on Facebook if there are “Any posts today that are NOT shared pictures of Bernie?” This was all I had, a pretty mountain picture:

You may recognize the background shot from other recent posts. It comes from a 2017 climb of Mount Belford. I used this in my post “Wobbly at the Immense.

Reflection Inversion

This is the stream that runs down from Norbuck Park and feeds into White Rock Creek before it enters White Rock Lake. I pass by this on my frequent walks over to Flagpole Hill. One day, I stopped, sat down on the bridge, and started filming. For interest, I tossed pebbles into the stream. Back home, I turned the footage upside down and added music in the InShot app (on Google Play; on the App Store). There’s something really satisfying about creating graphics and tweaking videos on my phone. Yes, I have the full Adobe Creative Suite on my workstation, but it’s just fun to see how far I can push the smartphone.

Wobbly at the Immense

About five miles into my walk today, I suddenly got all wobbly. In my ear, Sir Kenneth Branagh was reading “The Magician’s Nephew,” by C. S. Lewis. Maybe you remember what happens in that book. I had forgotten. Shhh… don’t give it away.

Blessed by a spotty memory of books I read long ago, and verses I read this morning, I was led to a mountainside. There, in the company of our older Brother, I imagined what it was like in the beginning, when…

The “walk” I referred to above was just one of my around-town hikes. But the background photo is one I took from high camp on a climb of Mount Belford in 2017. There were several great photo opportunities on that climb. See, for example this PHOTOSPHERE (opens in a new tab). Also, I used a photo taken by Peter Beverage on that climb as the background for my poem “Job’s One Good Friend” (also opens in a new tab).

Far From Done

My comment on Facebook:

I just wrote about a musician who got better over the years. It felt odd to say of him that with age, he was “increasingly full of promise.” Does language banish Eternity in our hearts?#eternityintheirhearts #ecclesiastes311 #wetmorevalley #westcliffecolorado #poetography

My friend Scott Thibaut posted an insightful comment:

It’s nice to read a poem that recaps the song of Simeon in six lines.

The background image

The background image is part of a photo I took of the Wetmore Valley July 21, 2004. I was staying with my family at Horn Creek Family Camp. In the late afternoon, after suppers, I’d go out driving with the family, as that was the magical time when light was especially interesting and animals were venturing out from the woods.

Pinnacle of Creation

I was sitting outside our Air BnB while on vacation in Silverthorne, Colorado. It was a crisp mountain morning. The birds were singing, occasionally geese flew over in formation, and this beautiful mountain filled my view (Red Peak?). But next door, there was a workman happily whistling as he worked outside. He distracted from “nature.” But I knew my being annoyed was wrong. I had to write this rebuke to myself.

Nearer, My God, To Thee

Commentary

I dedicated this little poem to my friends of color, by whose grace, wisdom, and other beauties I hope to better appreciate our Heavenly Father. It’s a slow process. Foolishness is bound up in this heart of mine.

The background image is a stylized photo that I took from my office window. There are times of day when several birds come to my garden. I haven’t figured out why the various species pick the same time, but they do. Almost always, the titmouse and chickadee couples come at the same time. And when they come, they are often joined by a cardinal couple. Is there a certain light or temperature that is just right? I don’t know. Thus the question: “What is that secret chime?”

I titled this “Nearer, My God, to Thee” because the pleasure that I take in the variety of birds who congregate in my little garden must be akin to the pleasure God takes when people of every nation peacefully enjoy the world he created.

My Virtual Background

Commentary

DREAMS OF ANOTHER LAND

That life should get progressively better, and satisfactory here and now is illusory. We are exiles, who learn our condition slowly, if at all.

This week, I got to do the scripture reading for our church’s virtual worship service. The passage was 1 Peter 1:1-2. That’s a short passage, easy to read. But when my pastor indicated that he liked the idea of a personal introduction, I had an extremely hard time recording it. Thinking about what it means to be an exile, and the hope we have — given God’s kind plans for us — I was overwhelmed with a mixture of sadness, hope, and thankfulness. I’d get to “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” and stop the recording, because I just couldn’t go on. By the way, the background image above is a frame from the reading when I finally got hold of my emotions.

Thinking of my birth city in another land brought back memories last night, and I had to work them out in a poem this morning.

Mourning, Too Soon

Commentary

This is not an Easter poem. Or is it?

I jotted this down yesterday morning after a sleepless night, one where an admittedly minor ailment was reminding me of what took the lives of my parents. I’d have posted it yesterday, but ran out of time. Now, as I post this, it is Easter.

If you see ambivalence, mixed with annoyance, mixed with underlying hope, you see well. Hopefully, my reading of the poem (above) will reveal the negative side of my feelings.

The background photo is one I took up in the mountains last year on a similar morning, after a similar night.

Here is an exchange I had with a concerned friend, when he asked about the ailment. After describing the ailment, I wrote:

So, the poem was written out of fear and mild exhaustion, but with the realization that I was not acting in the full hope that often moves me. It’s full of double meaning.

Darol responded:

Yes, the middle of the night amplifies our fears and disappointments. I tell myself that the daylight will scatter them, and that they will end forever in that eternal morning.

Good, wise friends. They’re the best!

Broken Sunset

How I Built This

On a rainy day walk around the lake, I came across a smashed-up smartphone. It had no identification on it, and wouldn’t power on after charging, so I gave up on trying to find its owner. However, I did notice that there was a pretty interesting reflection when I turned the phone just right. I initially tried to take a picture of that, but gave up. Instead, I took this straight-on shot:

I decided to see if that could be layered over an older shot that I took near the Bath House:

I boosted the saturation of the above shot with Snapseed on my Pixel 3a phone:

Then, I used the double-exposure tool in Snapseed to combine the broken screen shot with the super-saturated sunset.

Grape Hyacinths With a View

Often, I have to sit on the ground or lie down in the grass to get the best perspective for photographs. It always occurs to me that this is the view that little critters in the field have of the world around them. Do they appreciate beauty? I hope so.

In the days since I took this picture, the grape hyacinths have really taken off in other areas around the lake. But I want you to see how small THIS patch actually is, so you can appreciate the importance of a selective point of view. Also, you’ll see that I pushed the post-processing of the image above pretty far (maybe too far). I was trying to isolate the colors in a late-afternoon shot. At that time of day, the light is very yellow, and to separate out the elements as our magnificent eyes do, I had to reduce yellow (increase blue). In any case, I was doing the post-processing on my phone, which isn’t always the best idea!

Flowers In The Shadow

UNJAUNDICE VISION

Only in the shadow
Was the yellow light
Sufficiently subdued
For us to welcome
Beauty unforeseen.

— Brad Hepp, 2/22/2020

There, now I have tied this to the conversation I was having with a friend when I took the photo. We were pondering how weakness and inadequacy may actually be celebrated as part of the suffering that precedes restoration and exaltation in the Divine economy. See James 1:9-18

Funny Detail at World Missions Center

Today, the Director of the World Missions Center at SWBTS in Fort Worth gave me a great tour of the campus (we’re collaborating on a book for use in Brazil). One fun little thing: in the main foyer of the World Missions Center, the floor is a large map of the world with one color of terrazzo for the land masses and another for the oceans. Dr. Ray pointed out that there are no borders represented EXCEPT for that representing the country of origin of the floor construction foreman: El Salvador. As a lover of maps, I couldn’t help but appreciate this one! I have superimposed a map from Google to show that he was almost on the money (unless he’s actually from western Nicaragua!)

Lamp, Moon, and Blackbird

The Original

I was zoomed in as much as I could on my smartphone (Pixel 3a) when I took the above photo. Even though I had just been watching a flock of blackbirds, I didn’t notice this one flying in and out of the frame when I pressed the “shutter release.” Later, when I went to edit the shot (and crop square for Instagram), I just couldn’t resist my perfectionistic urge to move the bird exactly under the moon. I did that with the cloning tool in Photo Editor on my phone. All of the other tweaking (rotation, deepening of sky blue, extra contrast) was done with Snapseed.

The Man From Valladolid

I walked right past this man on one of my hikes around White Rock Lake. But then I turned and asked “May I take your photograph?” I couldn’t understand his response, but he seemed to be saying “Yes.” We soon discovered that both of us speak Spanish, and I learned that he is from Valladolid, Spain. He says that the cat really seems to enjoy riding in this carrier, and it doesn’t tire him at all to carry her that way.

Since my shadow was falling right between him and the bike, I walked back just a little on the path and took my photo from there. Below, you’ll see the original. Late afternoon sun casts such yellow light that I reduced the warmth in order to separate the colors a bit. It’s still too yellow, if you ask me, but you can only push color so far before it looks fake. As you’ll see from the original, the bicycle was positioned too far from the man for an effective square crop, so I did what I rarely ever do: cloned with Photoshop. That’s how I moved the bicycle closer to him. Can you see my error? Look closely at the left handle bar in the photo above. And now that I look more closely, I see another two other errors. Good thing nobody was paying me for this!

Original Photo:

[EDIT 1/31/2020]: I ran into Raul again today. This time he was without cat. We sat on a park bench by the lake about 20 or 30 minutes and talked about Spain (he returns in two weeks), the history of the Moorish conquest of Spain, work attitudes in Spain versus the U.S.A., and unemployment there. He says there’s 20% unemployment (50% among young people under 35, who end up living with their parents as a result). He attributes the lack of enthusiasm for working in Spain to low wages and the fact that everyone is paid the same. On the one hand, it sounds dreary ($1000/month average income), but then the simpler life there sounds attractive. Raul is mid-50s, and is already retired. He says that’s common. He was astonished when I told him I expect to do some work until I’m 70. I didn’t tell him that my Dad was doing heavy-duty theology and writing well into his 80s. More than once, Raul pointed to his watch, exemplifying how the Spanish worker watches the clock. He said many do that right up until they retire, and then — shortly after — they die. My Spanish may be attrocious, but I’m pretty sure it’s a relief to Raul to hear it, even if butchered by a Gringo.

The Wholesome Response

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

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

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

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

“Hi Phillip!”
“Hi Brad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What a wholesome response!” said Joshua.

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