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.
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
One of my favorite types of work is photo retouching. Recently, a client learned that I have some expertise at this, and she’s been paying me to perform magic like turning dirt into asphalt parking lots, and carefully removing live power lines from in front of buildings. Don’t tell her, but I enjoy this work so much that I’d do it for free. Take the one below. On one of my walks, I snapped a photo of this 1932 Packard and posted on Facebook.
My sister commented, “That’s my favorite car era…only mine would be deep emerald green.” So I obliged her:
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.
These little trails have always intrigued me, be they in the mountains or in a local park. Why do they evoke such strong emotion?
Seriously… I took the photo, walked another 200 yards, and sat down on a park bench to edit the photo and pen a few words. Then, as I continued walking home, I felt a tremendous lump in my throat. Why?
As I have revealed before, I’m seeing a counselor to help me explore what may be some deep-seated emotional “problems.” I don’t say that with shame. Frankly, I think we all have deep-seated emotional “problems.” I just have the luxury right now of exploring mine.
One of the things my counselor has encouraged me to do is to try to figure out what relationship some of my poetry has to my life story. Now that’s a good challenge for a poet!
Really a problem? Is it really a problem that I get inexplicably emotional? After all, what do we expect of someone God crafted to be a poet? If a poet cannot feel deeply, and desire with determination to express that emotion, what hope is there for any of us? God is an intelligent designer. We are not random results of happenstance. God has a purpose for making us as He did.
There must have been some interesting conditions in the sky over Dallas yesterday. A little after I took this photo of clouds with finger-like extensions, I noticed the formation of mammatus clouds* a little to the East.
So, I wanted to share the photograph, and to confess that I actually looked to where the clouds seemed to be pointing.
Is that silly? I suspect most adults would have looked for where the lines converged just as I did. But only if they haven’t killed off a God-given imagination and sense of the transcendent. We expect nature to communicate something — for very good reasons.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Disappointed? So, I didn’t see a rider in the sky. But the conclusion of my little poem is not anti-supernatural. Rather, it’s based on a notion that creation is continually celebrating the pleasure and provision of a good Creator. Are you? Am I?
Related Poem I’m not sure HOW this poem is related, but I thought of it when writing the above: “A Meditation.” Also, see “Voice Lessons.”
*From www.whatisthiscloud.com: “Mammatus clouds are formed the same way cumulus clouds are formed, but in reverse. They are formed by sinking cold air that form pouch-like figures as they’re carried into a warmer layer of air, contrary to the puffs of clouds rising through the convection of warm air.”
I’m not aware of any deep meaning in this.* I had taken a photo of broomweed by the path and began editing it, trying to help the viewer see the yellow flowers standing out as much in the photograph as they did in my eye. Stereoscopic vision is a magnificent gift. With it, we isolate objects from their background. Flowers stand out from foliage. That’s what we SEE. But most photographs fail to convey their subject in three dimensions — photographic images are flat.** In this photograph, there was little separation between the yellow flowers and the green foliage, especially in the yellow light of late afternoon.
So…. I was editing. And the more that I edited, the more I isolated the yellow flowers from their background. Eventually, I pushed all but yellow to black. That’s when I thought of the line, “Imagine if at night….” Phosphorescent flowers…. Wouldn’t THAT be something?!
THE ORIGINAL, AND A MEMORY Below is the original photograph. And here’s a memory about broomweed: When I was a teenager, I got to help the gardener at a camp I was working at in Mexico. One day we drove to the other side of the lake where Cayo gathered stiff little bushes that we fashioned into brooms and rakes. I recall that they worked better than the store-bought ones.
*On the other hand, one could easily make the case that all beauty in creation illumines our path to understanding a beautiful Creator.
**Incidentally, this is part of why I insist that in editing photographs, “you have to lie to tell the truth.” That is, you have to lie about what the camera captured in order to tell the truth of what our magnificent vision captured.
About four miles into my hike, I called one of the ladies in our church. I rely on her for advice. “Do you have time to talk?” “Yes,” she answered. For the next two miles, we talked about hospitality. By the time I reached my half-way point, we had thought through several options for how our church can practice hospitality in this lingering pandemic. We wrapped up the conversation. “Thanks,” I said, hung up the call, and began retracing my steps to home.
As I walked, I reflected on how hospitable my friend had been to me in our conversation abouthospitality. “Here, where the weeds give way to a mowed meadow… it’s one of several places in the path where she suddenly grew silent, yielding to my impetuous mind.” There, where rainwater recently rushed through the grass, “I was babbling, while she listened politely.” Up the white rock path a ways, I remembered what solid footing I felt when we shared a memory of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. There, where petrified wood sticks out of the limestone… “That’s where I was stepping when she recalled how Count Rostov arranged the seating at dinner parties, thus insuring a perfect evening for everyone.”
These weeds, that grass, this petrified wood in a limestone path…. Insignificant, except when they mark moments in a good conversation, an outcropping of hospitality.
Back in late May, Joshua rescued a kitten that he found on Ferguson Road. Here’s what I wrote a day or two after:
Jonathan promptly renamed him Furrgie. I’m going with Furrguson. So far, he understands that friends check you for fleas, and that purring melts hearts.
As the days and weeks passed, Furrguson seemed to forget all about his “early life.” He got his first kitten vaccination. All the fleas are gone, and he is fattening up. Now he pounces on anything and everything, often terrorizing the older cats despite their hissing and powerful bat-downs. But when he has expended all his kitten energy, he does still like to curl up as close to our faces as possible. He purrs his little heart out, and occasionally reaches up to gently touch our lips or noses with his velveted paws.
This poem comes out of struggling with what constitutes love for the Creator. Is it only fixation on signs of his return? Will we even recognize his voice then if we cannot recognize it now?
[NOTE: the following may be gobbledygook. Perhaps I’ll wake up early tomorrow morning and do major edits to the post, or even take it offline. That occasionally happens. Let’s just say for now that I’m “thinking out loud.” I’m trying to put words to something I sense more than understand]
Not Just an Expression
Nature expresses the majesty of the Creator. King David spoke of that in Psalm 19:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. 2 Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. 3 There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. 4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon.
Creation and the Creator are not the same thing. That would be pantheism. HOWEVER, let me suggest that creation bears the same relationship to God as the soundwaves of speech bear to the speaker: they are his expression. When a child hears her father say, “I love you,” she doesn’t look around and say, “How curious… sound waves emanated from somewhere and landed in my ears.” If she separates the sound waves from the speaker at all, it’s only to say, “Those sound waves tell me that Daddy loves me.”
Nature expresses the majesty of our loving Father. Perhaps it would be better to say that in creating the universe, our Father spoke to us, He expressed his glory (intelligence, kindness, power, beauty, love), and creation is the “sound waves” of His voice.
Are we impressed by what He has expressed? That’s not an idle question.
“They’re Just Flowers”
Long ago and far away, I accompanied two friends on a long hike. Our path entered and followed an arroyo. At one place the walls of the arroyo were covered with tropical flowers. “How beautiful!” said one friend. I agreed. “They’re just flowers!” said the other friend. To this day, I think of that second friend’s response with pain and sadness. God’s beauty was there speaking to us in those flowers, expressing His powerful love. But the second friend was not impressed. He seemed to make no connection between creation and the Creator, between the expression — the “words” — and the Speaker. For him, it seems, Daddy wasn’t saying “I love you.” It was just flowers, random sound waves from who knows where.
If this NEVER happens to you, please spend time with me. Perhaps you can pull me up, and I won’t pull you down.
It’s almost impossible to write this commentary without doing the very thing I do NOT want to do: to claim credit for something God has empowered me to do. But I’m tempted, over and over. I’ve succumbed often enough to know the short-lived intoxication.
Is it wrong to feel affirmed in our exercise of God’s gifts, even to revel in them? I don’t think so. Don Regier and I talk about this occasionally. As a fellow creative, he knows what it’s like to create something and then to enjoy the creation. Don points out that we are made in the image of the One who looked on His creation and concluded that “it was very good.”
Where does appropriate affirmation and pleasure bleed over into inappropriate pride? I’m still trying to figure this out, to put my finger on just when I go astray. But I sense it when I’m overstepping. Perhaps the Holy Spirit makes me aware.
The empty trophy shelf… I do have a sort of trophy shelf in my office. There are two actual trophies that I won back when I was running competitively. Everything else on the shelf is a memento: rocks from mountain climbs, a music box I made for my grandmother, a fun photo edit I collaborated on with Glenn Clark. The actual shelf is not empty. In fact it’s overcrowded:
While the shelf is not empty, I find that some of the trophies I’d like to display there and elsewhere ARE empty, vapid, vanishing as soon as displayed. The substance of those trophies is like whatever was in that little bottle I found in the firepit at high camp below Blanca Peak. It meant something to someone long ago. What’s left now is just a little broken bottle. As far as trophies go, it’s quite empty.
Monarch butterflies are unpalatable (so they say) because of toxins they ingest from this plant. I’m amazed at how different the cottony seed pods later in the year look as compared with these flowers.
All my life, I have seen these globs of spit on plants in the Spring, but I never stopped to explore until today. As though I were a normal little boy, I took twigs and poked around in several of the globs. In each case, a little bug emerged. I thought, “That must be called a “‘spitbug’.” Close. I’ve learned that it’s called the “spittlebug.” There are some great videos out there that tell all about them.
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 continue to be amazed by seeds. On my walk today, I saw these rubbery seed pods I had never noticed, or felt before, and then realized they are the seed of grape hyacinths, that were in full bloom a few weeks ago. More importantly, there’s something I’m trying to come to terms with: in this fallen world, not all that I think of as loss really IS loss. [I’m getting around to posting this two months after writing that last sentence. It’s a sentence that I’ll have to come back to many a time, to see how much better I understand the nascent thought]
I HAVE NOTICED THAT… In Spring, artists are drawn to Creation.
Back when I posted this on Facebook, I wrote, “Please subscribe to my blog, where I give the background of my simple poems like this one, and the more complex ones, the ones even I barely understand!”
“Simple poems like this one,” eh? So it’s over two months later, and I’m getting around to posting this on my blog. How simple was it? Do I remember what I was saying? Well, kinda….
I encountered this artist on Flagpole Hill, and asked her about her technique. Interestingly, she had a lot of dark areas on the canvas, areas whose eventual subject I could SEE, by looking where she was looking: the bright green grass, the shimmering green leaves. These, she began as dark blobs, explaining “I find it easier to start with the darkness as a base, and then apply the lighter colors.”
My poetic response is a reflection on how eternal life has barely begun (“canvas barely stretched”). We don’t understand yet how God will work beauty out of the painful and ugly experiences we now encounter. But we have hope, because we know Him to be a skillful artist.
A Skillful Artist I went home and looked up this artist (she sells in galleries). I like her finished work. What I saw that afternoon on Flagpole Hill was not a finished work. It is fair to say that if this is all I had seen, I might feel foolish admiring her “technique,” such as it is, in this unfinished work.
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?
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.
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!
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)
[September 4, 2021 Update]: Here’s a picture I took 9 months later, when folly gave birth to death:
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!
[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.
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.
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).
My friend Scott Thibaut posted an insightful comment:
It’s nice to read a poem that recaps the song of Simeon in six lines.
[August 15, 2021 Note] I recently used this poem to illustrate another post:
NEVER TOO OLD TO GROW In my 60s, I don’t expect big career developments. But how depressing would it be if I don’t make major headway in spiritual/emotional growth in this decade? Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people who help me in this, including a professional counselor, immediate family who keep me honest, and a wise friend who regularly goes for long walks with me. Is growth painful? Maybe, but not as painful as a long slow slide into futility.
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.
Every year, when my gift of homemade fruitcake arrives from elder brother John Stephen, I celebrate as my father did, by “Anointing the Fruitcake.” Dad passed away this day four years ago. I sure look forward to seeing him again!