Saturday, March 31, 2018

The heavens are telling the glory of God

Start with an old iPhone. Add an unskilled photographer. Throw in a below zero windchill. Zoom in as far as you can. And yet, the Easter Eve full moon rising over the meadow below my place tonight is still pretty spectacular.

In the wisdom of God, the date for Easter is calculated based on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

A couple observations based on this: We know that as Jesus walked with his disciples out of the upper room on Thursday night of Holy Week (see the end of John 14) and up toward the garden of Gethsemane (see John 18), they would have been walking under a full moon. It's powerful to imagine Jesus pointing out a vineyard along the side of the road as they crossed the Kidron Valley, perhaps, when he launches into "I am the vine, you are the branches" in John 15.

Second, it means that whether we're paying attention or not to the lights that God put in the sky to be signs (see Genesis 1), Easter always happens just after a full moon. So if it's clear, like it is tonight, we get this witness of the light reflected into our darkness (see John 1:5). And no matter how dark the darkness, no matter our circumstances, the darkness cannot put out the light.

Happy Easter.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

A doe followed by four fawns -- nearly yearlings, this season's babies won't be born until late May -- strode through my yard yesterday afternoon. They are not all hers; I suspect it's the twins I've seen with her through last fall, as well as another pair of twins that must have been orphaned along the way. I've seen these five together a few times lately. They look like a bright and fulsome family, calmly navigating from the lakeshore up into the woods to the south of me. They remind me of the faithfulness and abundance of God each time I see them.

Last fall I saw Momma and her twins many times on the hill next to my cabin, feeding on acorns. The fawns were trusting and beautiful as only fawns can be. A friend of mine, walking carefully up behind the screen of an oak tree, approached within eight or ten feet of one of them. They have learned a little wariness since, but I still see them dancing sometimes in the twilight, looking for all the world like they're just happy to be alive in the fading light.

I was thinking yesterday about the winter we're leaving behind. While it was cold -- bitterly cold at times, and dark, and lonely as winters in Minnesota can be -- there was little snow here, and the deer seem to have come through healthy and strong. I fully expect to see more sets of twins in late May and early June when the fawns first appear with their tiny frames and brilliant dappling of white spots. Hard winters mean more single births for whitetails, and a low-stress winter means more sets of twins, and even triplets.

So much of how I mark the turn of the seasons wraps around what the deer are up to, whether the ice is out of the lake (it isn't, not even close), if the sap is rising in the maples, the buds starting to pop on the boxelders, and -- above all right now -- whether the frost has come out of the ground (nope). We are at that last gasp of winter, still, and nothing looks alive just yet -- but you can feel the earth turning these days, turning under your feet. You can feel life yearning to begin again. It's like everything is waiting to breathe. Mud and patches of ice and brown, withered grass will very soon give way to rich greens and the evening smells of moist, warming earth pushing flowers up to greet the sun. But not yet.

Almost a year ago I snapped this picture of a bird sitting in the grass -- whether because her feet were stuck in the thick mud, or because she was just taking a breather from learning to fly, I never did decide. (Rational, naturalistic minds would say the latter, but who knows? I like to leave a little room for storytelling and delight and mystery.) She reminds me that life is an adventure, and gives me hope. I wonder if this particular bird is back in that same valley now, but grown to strength and maturity? I wish I knew.

It's amazing to think about those fawns, or that little bird, or the sunfish waiting patiently under the ice outside my back door. Think of all the variables required for each of those creatures to experience life, life to the fullest. And that, more than anything, is what today is all about. What is required for us to experience life to the fullest, what Jesus called "abundant life?" So many variables. So many choices. So many possibilities. While we would like to think that life is all just upward mobility and choice driven by our free will (if such a thing exists), the reality for us is much more like that of the deer and the sunfish than we would like to admit. There are deadly forces at work around us, and we are set in competition with a world in remorseless motion. Life is hard, and rising to the challenge is a daily struggle.

It is Good Friday, the day when Jesus bled out his life on a Roman cross. The sanctuary at Faaberg Lutheran Church where I was nurtured as a child focuses your worship on an altar piece that made an enormous impact on my growing mind and heart in those days. When I think of the crucifixion this is the image that first springs to mind:

The more-or-less realistic portrayal of Jesus' suffering (contextualized a bit for its Scandinavian audience); the hint of shekinah glory around Jesus' head, even in death; the titulus, written by Pilate, above Jesus' head proclaiming him (in Latin) the King of the Jews; the inscription below the painting that proclaims (in Norwegian) "Behold, the Lamb of God!" See what is needful -- the blood, the struggle, the grief, the presence of God's people in the corrupt political arena, the patience to grieve in the face of unjust loss, the cosmic agonies as the sun is hidden -- for us to have life! 

Like the world outside my door, this painting is a powerful reminder that God's love is stronger even than the brutal realities of death. Those loves, those dreams, that we place in the ground in the chilling fall, are not lost. It seems like fall in my life has been so often a mixed season of joy and of funerals, a season of the effervescence of adventurous delight, and the death of dreams. Spring is a season of renewal and hope, bringing resurrections, bringing new life. This is a season of promise, rooted in the love of God that overcomes even death. Today we hang with Jesus in the balance, knowing the harsh reality, the alienation, the desperate forsaken cry of death. And we trust the promise of abundant life, for ourselves and for all that we love. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Bad heroes

This morning I read an amazing blog post by Scott Sauls -- I've recommended his stuff before -- that specifically deals with pastors and failure. Not just failure to preach a good sermon or grow a ministry, but failure in the most personal areas of life -- the kinds of failure that destroy churches, ministries, families, and sometimes lives. I've spent a lot of time thinking over the past year about those kinds of failures. Sad to say, I know those kinds of failures from way too many angles -- having served churches that were wounded from the failings of previous leadership, and having seen the consequences of my own failures and how they devastate those I love and serve.

I learned shame and silence at an early age. Don't talk about your weakness. Don't talk about your needs. Definitely don't talk about your failures. Fake it till you make it. One of our favorite ways to twist Christianity is to make it a religion of sin management. In other words, it's not about God and what he's done for me in Jesus, it's about me getting better, whatever it takes. It's about me focusing on myself and overcoming my sin, rather than focusing on Jesus. Jesus gets lip service in this, but this "faith" is really about me and whether I'm making the grade or not. Hear me clearly: This is not biblical Christianity. If you doubt this, read the gospels, read the New Testament. You will find out that yes, our conduct matters -- but Jesus matters more. He is the focus of real, biblical Christian faith -- not you and your sin.

Millions of people have been impacted by Brene Brown's research on shame and vulnerability. If you haven't seen her TED talk from 2010, definitely do that. I've recommended it before. But this talk from two years later includes a couple things that build on her first TED talk. In this 2012 talk, among other things, she specifically addresses shame and how it impacts men. She tells a story of a man who comes up to her at a book signing and says that his wife and three daughters would rather see him die than to let him get down off his white horse. The message to men is, never be weak.

That makes it tough to be vulnerable and tougher to deal in a healthy way with shame.

Scott Sauls says that pastors make really bad heroes. I so agree. But part of the system we've created is that pastors are set up -- by seminaries, by churches, by our own misreading of biblical leadership, by the demands of congregations, by the cheerleaders we surround ourselves with -- to be up on a pedestal, looking for all the world like a hero. Pedestals are lonely places, and without incredible intentionality, discipline, empathy and support, the hero on the pedestal will fall. Notice that those last two items on the list are NOT things you can provide for yourself. They require safe relationships.

Many months ago I met with a young man who was considering the truths of Christianity. He was drawn to Jesus more and more as we had talked over a couple years, but the immediate reason for this meeting was that I needed to apologize for some things I'd done that deeply wounded him. In the course of the conversation I told him, Christianity is not true based on whether I'm a good person. Fact is, I'm going to get things wrong and I'm going to fail you at some point. I wish that wasn't true, but it is. In fact, it is because of what Jesus has done and how he has dealt with me in my imperfection -- that is the truth of Christianity. It's not about me, it's about Jesus. That doesn't mean my actions don't matter -- obviously they do, and I'm so sorry for the way my actions have hurt you. But Christianity is true or not based on Jesus and what he has done. And the comfort in that is that when you get it wrong -- and sometimes you will -- Jesus died and rose from the grave to forgive you and welcome you back into relationship, without shame.

Yes, I think Scott Sauls gets it exactly right. Pastors make bad heroes. During Holy Week and Easter, at the crux of the story of Jesus, we would do well to remember this -- as it is also the most demanding season in the lives of those who lead churches. The truth is, none of us is supposed to be the hero of the Christian story. Jesus is that hero. We are sinners in need of a Savior, beggars telling one another where to find bread.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pondering Pilate

I've been pondering Pontius Pilate lately. A couple reasons for this -- first, I'm portraying him in the Good Friday drama at our church, so I'm memorizing many of his lines (lifted pretty much verbatim from John's gospel) and trying to get inside his head as I portray him.

Second, there's the way I ended up with the role. I'd been avoiding eye contact with anyone involved with the drama for a few weeks, and then one Sunday I felt compelled to see if they needed any help. Cindy, the woman directing the play, took one look at me and exclaimed, "You look like Pontius Pilate!" I had a good laugh about that, accepted the role, and ever since then I've been wondering about this murky historical character and his intersection with Jesus.

Third, this isn't the first time I have portrayed Pilate. It must have been about 2 am on New Year's Day 1983 that I came home from being out with friends and discovered my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a sea of open Bibles, commentaries, and dozens of handwritten paragraphs in front of her on a half dozen legal pads. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I'm writing an Easter pageant," she responded. "Easter!" I exclaimed. "Mom, it's New Year's Day. Go to bed!" She shook her head. "If I put this away, I'll lose it." So she wrote the script, developed the costumes, and recruited all the young men she could from our church for "Voices of the Crucifixion." At Mom's request, I played Pilate. (By the way, a few years later she did another production that was all women's voices around the crucifixion. That drama was produced again in the same congregation not long ago.)

So I remember thinking in depth about Pilate many, many years ago. And I am back at it these days. The script for this current production does a good job of highlighting Pilate's predicament -- caught between his own convictions, his distaste for his assignment of governing the unruly province of Judea, pressure from the Jewish authorities, and the need to be more than a little loyal to Caesar. It must have been an uncomfortable place to try to find solid footing. No matter what Pilate believed to be true -- and from the gospel accounts he seemed to believe Jesus was innocent -- his choices were difficult. Maybe impossible. According to Matthew's gospel, even Pilate's wife weighed in, pleading with him to have nothing to do with this innocent man. But everything in Pilate's life militated against declaring Jesus innocent.

Probably worst of all, Pilate enjoyed the status of being a "friend of Caesar" -- a sort of quasi-official status as one in favor at the Roman court. So it was no idle threat when the Jewish leaders told Pilate, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar." A Roman official could lose far more than just career opportunities if he betrayed the trust of the emperor, and Pilate knew it, as did the temple leaders. Pilate had already been censured for not doing a better job of keeping the peace in Judea. One accusatory report sent to Rome could end Pilate's governorship and possibly his life.

It is enough to make you think, though, about decision making. How do we judge Pilate today? How was he judged in his own time? Some reports, hard to substantiate, indicate that he took his own life several years later, on assignment somewhere in the western Mediterranean. It's tempting for Christians two thousand years later to read back into the story, diagnosing Pilate's guilt over the crucifixion of an innocent Jewish prophet. Fact is, we have no way of knowing if he even remembered Jesus a week later. From our perspective, of course, the story reads better if he did -- if the ineffectual handwashing stayed with him, and (as the script had it back in 1983) he was ever after trying to get his hands to come clean.

More to the point, it's enough to make you think about the decisions you face these days. What weighs in the balance? Stability? Income? Career advancement? How does one include the less tangible elements like truth, beauty, love, or loyalty? Think too long about these things and we all might find ourselves looking for a washbasin, a towel, and really strong soap.

Fact is, Pilate, like each of us, was a sinner. He probably would not have described himself with that word, but it's still the truth. And the sentence Pilate handed down, that this young prophet, Messiah, Christ, should be crucified, in a mysterious way opens the door for God's love to have its way with this broken world, and our own broken humanity. Ironically enough, Pilate, like all of us, needed the death to which he sentenced Jesus.

Pilate's last mentioned act in the gospels is the one that intrigues me the most. When it came time to post a sign above Jesus' head enumerating his crimes, Pilate dictated that it should read "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudoream" and that it should be translated into Greek and Aramaic so that no literate person wandering by could miss its significance: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," placarded for all to see. The Bible says some objected, saying it should have read, "This man said, 'I am the king of the Jews,'" But Pilate stoically replied, "What I have written I have written."

It's a hopeful bit of stubbornness at the very least, that maybe deep down Pilate recognized an aura of kingship in the man he'd just sentenced to the most brutal torture and death possible, whatever came later.

Poring through an old photo album a few weeks ago, I found a grainy photo of a scrawny kid wearing a bit of old drapery, a bedsheet, and some brocade, wringing his hands like the bloodstains still won't come off -- a youthful Pontius Pilate in cool shades:

Friday, March 23, 2018

Living in hope

These days I am rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm in the third book now, The Return of the King. Deeply enjoying it, of course, as I always do. I'm struck this time by the partial knowledge each character has of their place in the grander story, and Tolkien's craft in weaving together different strands of a grand narrative so that the reader knows more than the characters in the story do. Still, when the tragedies and joys happen in the story, though you've seen it coming for some time, you're still swept up in it. This is perhaps the greatness of a great story.

The way Tolkien presents this narrative, things look darker and darker. Evil has the upper hand. Any positive ending to the story hangs by the most fragile of threads, and that sense of anxiety, of near hopelessness, is part of what keeps the reader so engaged. I suppose in some ways this is the way we experience life -- we have grand dreams, even God-given visions, of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and we long for these things. But each of our days is filled with a sense that other powers oppose these positives. We yearn for the vision but everything from evil to entropy stands in the way.

Tolkien talked about the requirement in fantasy stories (what he called "fairy stories") of a eucatastrophe. This is the turn, the joyous, surprising turn in which good overcomes evil. This triumph does not come without cost or without pain, not at all. But beyond expectation, sometimes even beyond hope, the vision is accomplished, sometimes in a surprising way. So in LOTR Frodo does in fact bring the ring to the Cracks of Doom, and through the most surprising series of events the ring is in fact destroyed and Sauron is thrown down. This crux of the action changes the other narratives dramatically -- so that characters you've come to care deeply about as a reader suddenly discover that where they had come to expect defeat, a future full of joy is now open to them. The wounds they've received, the damage that has been done, continues to work itself out. Frodo is not able to settle down and enjoy the Shire when he returns home. But evil has, in fact, been defeated, and even Frodo's deep wounds can be healed and a way lies open toward joy.

Tolkien himself saw Jesus' resurrection as the ultimate eucatastrophe. Here, when all reason suggests that another Jewish prophet has died a brutal, meaningless death at the hands of the occupying Romans, when all political expediency suggests that it's time to get back to the grim business of placating the powers that be so we can continue to function as what T.S. Eliot called "the hollow men," doing what he described in another place as "living and partly living," the women on Sunday morning suddenly discover that Jesus is standing there, speaking to them, not having escaped evil but having defeated it. The way to joy lies open, and that joy includes the healing of deep wounds. Jesus still bears scars. The resurrection is the ultimate fairy story, not in the sense that it is simply fiction -- it's not -- but in the sense that it is history in all its fullness, and far more than history. It is the archetypal narrative that gives depth and meaning and joy to our angst-filled lives. All of life is now shaped, defined by the cross and resurrection. If we have eyes to see, our own narratives can be defined by this greater story, and the doorways for us stand open to the fulfillment of the promises of God in the face of very real opposition, very real pain. Joy is possible.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

White upon the slippery reins

It was Thoreau who wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Pink Floyd took the quote a step further, picturing a woman seeing off the soldiers as they depart for the battles of World War Two:

She stands upon Southampton dock
With her handkerchief and her summer frock
Clings to her wet body in the rain
In quiet desperation, knuckles white upon the slippery reins
She bravely waves the boys goodbye again.
(Pink Floyd, "Southampton Dock / The Final Cut")

There is a sense in those quotes that we are up against something far more powerful than ourselves, something we cannot overcome and so we are quietly resigned to frustration. The pain and suffering of the day seems to overwhelm us and our dim efforts seem like the desperate flailings of those already defeated.

I don't know about you, but I've lived many, many days like this.

One of the things I've been pondering this winter (and by the way, happy first day of Spring! It's snowing beautifully as I write this in Minnesota ...) is some specific ways in which I have contributed to my own defeat and frustration over the years. In part I've been greatly helped in this pondering by some of the teachings of the Enneagram. If you're new to it, the Enneagram can be an intimidating and complicated thing to get your mind around. If you take the time, however, it can be incredibly helpful. The Enneagram says that there are nine basic types of people, each described with a number. Each has various strengths and weaknesses. One of the most helpful aspects of this system is that you can learn how your type functions at its worst, or least mature, and at its best.

Without going into too much depth, I am a "9". One of my basic characteristics is that I find it incredibly difficult to advocate for my own needs. Frankly, I don't deal well with conflict. Instead, I often retreat into quiet reflection -- brooding? -- instead of speaking up about what I want. Many days here is what it looks like: Something comes up that I want or need. I think about it at length -- "pondering" is sometimes a way to avoid action -- and eventually, I may even mention it to those closest to me. This can be something incredibly simple, like "I want to buy a pickup" or it might be something that makes me feel terribly vulnerable, like "I need you to touch me" or it might be something at the very core of me, so much so that it's hard for me even to get my own head around it: "I need a sense that I'm making a significant difference in the world." Each of us has all kinds of needs. That's not the point.

The point is that when I mention this need to anyone, especially to those closest to me, it feels like I'm screaming it, like I'm shouting from the rooftops. The more this particular need is near the core of my being, the less likely I am to repeat it. If it feels fairly trivial, I might bring it up in conversation once in a while. But the deeper it is, the harder it is for me to get vocal about it. I'll bring it up, but here's the reality: When it feels to me like I am screaming out my needs, I'm probably just mumbling in my coffee cup. The statements are so loud and so important inside my head that I feel like I'm selfishly shouting others down.

Reality is, all those people are preoccupied with their own needs, their own concerns, their own perspectives and responsibilities. While they may hear what I say, it's hard for them to value my needs. And really, it's my job to advocate for those things I need. It's my job to be vocal and persistent about my perspectives.

Some of you are reading this and saying, "Duh. Of course that's your job. Why are you writing this?"

Others are shaking your head and thinking (though not saying out loud), "No, no, no -- I can't do that. It's too frightening to get vocal about my needs. What if nobody hears me? What if I go to all that trouble and nobody cares? And what if all it is, is self-centeredness on my part?"

This winter, as I said above, has been a good time to be reflecting on these things. I've spent a lot of time reviewing things over the past few years I should have said much louder ... insisted on, even. There are many statements I should have parked on in relationships at home, at work -- everything from preferences about daily activities, to deeply held dreams I longed for but rarely shared, or only shared quietly, to deep needs to find healthy ways to cope with my own struggles and pain.

So I'm learning to get louder. I'm learning to intentionally voice my needs outside my own head. I'm learning to take responsibility for the things I want and the limits I need to set. I'm learning to walk away from people who don't respect my voice when I do speak. I'm learning to speak and act and choose rather than simply pondering.

It's challenging, to say the least, because this is one of my most debilitating weaknesses and one of my most deeply entrenched patterns. But if I own it, if I step up and advocate for myself, life no longer has to feel like quiet desperation. I do in fact hold the reins in some sense, and while I can't -- and don't really want to -- control others and their responses, I can make choices. That may well be what Thoreau's "mass of men" were missing.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Enjoying the day

The season is turning. Slowly, ever so slowly, the frost is working its way out of the ground. A skunk woke up the other night and though we didn't see her, you could smell her all over the campus. Normally skunks don't like their smell any more than we do, so the odor probably means she ran into a coyote or a dog as she was waking up from a long winter's nap.

Most of the winter, deer were scarce around here. I'd see their tracks but rarely glimpse them. Yesterday morning a half mile east of here a doe and four fawns (rapidly coming up on their one-year birthdays) sauntered across the road in front of me. This morning at first light, the same group (probably?) wandered through the meadow below my cabin on their way back to bed. I suspect this is the doe and twin fawns I have seen here quite a lot, along with another pair of fawns that likely got orphaned along the way. At any rate, they're out and about more during daylight hours, and it's fun to see them.

I was looking out at the lake in our youth building this morning and saw the bright flash of a cardinal in the trees. I know they're here, but they rarely come to my feeders.

So things are changing around here -- the patterns of the wild things and the humans alike. It's fun to have a front row seat.

I've been deep in conversation for most of the last day or so with my daughter Mathea. We compare notes on how the seasons change internally as well as externally. We've been playing with metaphors and comparing notes on music and making plans for upcoming adventures. It's great fun, and sometimes piercingly painful and others, incredibly joyful. The way relationships should be, I guess.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't have any particular pondering to grind through today. Instead, I'm deeply grateful for the good things in life, whether they are comfortable all the time or not. Life is an incredible gift full of diverse joys and sorrows, and it's a good thing to live it to the fullest extent possible.

So we just got back from sliding around the trails on the 4-wheeler. And we had one burning question when we started out: With two of us on board, and the St. Patrick's Day sunshine beating down on the hillside and the snowmelt keeping the mud as slick as possible, will we be able to get up that one hill way back in the woods?

Answer? Yes -- but it was quite a ride.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where is your focus?

This is a little outside my current train of thought on this blog, so please be patient.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a Bible study series from many years ago called "Crossways." It was developed by Dr. Harry Wendt and used ingenious symbols to communicate important biblical principles. The symbol I've been thinking about lately is his symbol for human beings after the fall.

Before the fall (before our choice to sin, whether you believe that occurred at a moment long ago in human history or that it occurs in each of our lives repeatedly, or both) Wendt symbolized humans with two red arrows coming out of the human figure, which stood with upraised arms, representing praise. The red arrow -- symbolizing the direction of our love -- went skyward, toward God. But en route, it went outward horizontally, representing love for other humans. This symbol encapsulated Jesus' statement that the first and greatest command was to love God, and the second command was to love one's neighbor. (Incidentally, in Wendt's symbology, God was pictured as a circle with four outward-pointing arrows of love.)

Once sin entered the picture, however, Wendt's symbol changed. Now the human figure's arms were squarely placed on hips in an attitude of defiance. The red arrow symbolizing the direction of human love came out from the person, then circled back around into that same person. In other words, instead of lovers of God and neighbor, we became, bound by sin, lovers of self. The focus of our affections and our attention were squarely on ourselves.

So here's a picture from the Crossways material that incorporates all I've described so far:

Here is why I have been thinking so much lately about these symbols. The last few weeks I've been running up against people who are focused on their own sinfulness so much that they lose focus on God's love in Jesus Christ. When asked about this, they certainly agree that Christian faith is all about Jesus. But listening to daily conversation with these individuals, I almost never hear them talk about Jesus. I hear them repeatedly talk about sin, about habitual sin, about our accountability for sin, about taking every thought captive so they will sin less frequently, and about punishment for sin. Very rarely does Jesus make an appearance in their conversations.

Here's my difficulty with all this. As I listen to these people, who without a doubt long to be good Christians, I see how clearly their focus on their own sin keeps them operating in the right half of Wendt's picture. Their focus is almost entirely on themselves, though they would say that they just want to get rid of their sin so they can be closer to God. (I'm reminded of a woman I knew many years ago who kept a careful diary of how many minutes she spent in prayer each day because she wanted to be known as a person of prayer. Her focus was sadly much more on herself than it was on prayer as a way to grow in relationship with God.)

All of Christian faith is built on the foundation that we are not able to deal with our own sin -- that's why Jesus took it for us. That's the whole reason for the cross. That's why our task is to accept the overwhelming gift of God's grace and mercy and forgiveness -- and then live lives of freedom in response to God's gracious gift.

It's a dangerous thing to focus too much on our own sin. I asked one of these individuals why they talked so much about sin and so little about Jesus and his gift of grace. His answer? "Grace is assumed. It's inherent in everything I say!"

I can't find a New Testament preacher who spoke in this way -- focusing exclusively on sin, but assuming God's grace as a given. The New Testament writers all focused on God's goodness in sending Jesus as a gift of mercy and grace to deal with the issue of our sin so we could be free to live in relationship with him. My heart is heavy for these brothers and sisters who are so burdened by their own sin and feel such urgency to deal with it that they are seemingly blind to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Like starlight reaching for the sky

Had a great time tonight burning a big pile of buckthorn. In the spring and summer it's pocket gophers, in the winter it's buckthorn. So this fire is a minor victory in an ongoing campaign against the invading aliens (X-Files, anyone?). The fun, however, is watching the "sparks released by firelight  / sail on vapors overhead / while I turn wearily to bed," with a huge expanse of stars spanning from horizon to treeline and the Milky Way like a bright pathway through the middle of it all.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

My good and God's glory

I've never been big on that whole thing Facebook does where it says "four years ago today ..." or "seven years ago today ..." and reminds you of what you were posting back when. Sometimes it's entertaining, but until recently I haven't really been stuck on calendar dates. I'm happy celebrating my birthday sometime the week of, and pretty much the same with Christmas or any other holiday. But the past many months, I've gone through some pretty significant life-altering things, and I've noticed that my emotions tend to ride the one-year-later roller coaster pretty hard.

I have been pondering today what the takeaway is from this past year. Pain, frustration, hopes and yearnings and disappointments galore -- what is God up to in all that?

First, I'm going to park on the fact that God is faithful. There is an insidious voice inside my heart that over and over again wants me to believe that God has been playing dice with my life. This little voice wants me to say I've never really heard God speak or experienced his guidance -- all the times I thought I did were just coincidences paired with my overactive imagination. But if I take that to its conclusion, there are so many things that are hard for my inner agnostic to explain: supernaturally perfect timing in dozens of interactions and conversations; key words that were spoken by what I thought was God's Spirit, then reiterated within a day or two by a preacher, a friend, an enemy, a song on the radio; unlikely decisions I made or risks I took because I believed I was stepping out in faith and contrary to all expectations, those actions bore good fruit; doors of opportunity that opened over and over, sometimes in spite of others trying to slam those same doors. There's a lot for my inner agnostic to explain, if I start to believe he's right. Objectively I have to say there's evidence for God doing good work in all these things.

I'm not saying that this past year and more has been easy. Far, far from it. But when I am tempted to disbelieve in the goodness and sovereignty of God, it's helpful for me to take a step back and remember all the good he's done this past year as well. And that's just the good I know about! I've often shuddered to think what my life must have looked like this past year in the spiritual realm. What attacks were thwarted that I didn't even see? What oppression was broken without my knowledge? What plots were foiled by God because he has chosen to love me and show mercy to me? I have a hunch that if I could see those things, I would fall to the ground in worship -- because just the little fragments I've glimpsed along the way amaze me.

So I'm choosing to default to Romans 8:28, that promises God works in all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purposes. And while I make a ton of mistakes and fail more ways than I can count, I do love him, and he has called me for his own purposes. Deep down, I'm still confident in his faithfulness to keep his promises. So I will choose to be delighted in him, to commit my way to him. He is faithful, and while I might not understand all his agendas, I trust that he is working for my good and his glory. One year, or four years, or seven years later, that's not a bad place to park.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thinking about writing ...

I've been pondering this matter of writing, as you might expect, the last few days. (The last few decades, to be honest, but let's try to stay focused, now.) Rereading my last blog post I was disturbed because it sounds (at least to me) like all I do, ever, is sit around angsting about whether and what I should write.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If that was the case, I would do far more writing than I actually do. The fact that most of my life is a mess of "doing" -- doing laundry, taking care of my friend's dog, buying groceries, or the many and various things I do that qualify as "work" -- means that I have this luxury of pondering time without feeling undue pressure to accomplish something. Thinking about writing becomes a fun thing I do at the beginning or the end of the day, partly because I have no pressure from an audience or any other kind of deadline to produce a written product, so I have the luxury of ideating about writing rather than doing the hard work of writing.

So after a long, busy day of work and necessities yesterday, I had an hour or two in the evening while puttering with a few other things to come back to this business of pondering the work of words. I read a little poetry (rediscovering Yeats, for one) and some online articles and a little Tolkien. You see, reading is the fuel of writing, and you have to read something with substance, I believe, to write things with substance. In the midst of those various readings I pondered more about this business of writing.

Then I set that carefully aside, because today I have a couple big tasks at work and I need to be disciplined about my time and mental energy.

A few weeks ago my daughter and son-in-law were visiting and they made a comment I've been rolling around in my head ever since. They said, "You could probably make a living writing -- but not if you set out with that as your goal. You just need to write what's in you to write and let it happen."


So this morning, while drinking coffee (of course) and reading (of course) some substantive things to center my heart in Jesus, and spending some time in conversation with him, and then revising today's presentation, and collecting my notes for the meeting after the presentation, and thinking through what doors need to be unlocked and at what time, and when will I get that big oak tree cut up, and can I get by one more day without doing dishes (probably not), all the while, along with a few other really important topics, I am rolling around this business of writing. And pondering how best to translate that into action.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Wrestling with writing

I have been wrestling for a very long time now with the craft of writing. Sadly, this rarely means that I wrestle to put down words on paper or my computer, crafting sentences and paragraphs (though that of course happens at times) but most of my wrestling is trying to figure out the reasons for and dynamics of writing, my own writing. There is a lot wrapped up in this, and it may take me a while to process. If you are not an artist, you might not want to read this lengthy diatribe. But if you pursue anything artistic -- whether your craft is words or woodwork or stroganoff or photos or the art of excellent conversation -- I hope you will find something of value in these reflections.

I used to believe that writing something down for public consumption -- having a work published, really -- meant that the work must be in a sense permanent. If you didn't have a corner on some unchanging truth, why publish it? Books, after all, are eternal. Exhibit A, I just finished rereading Homer's Odyssey. And I am currently reading a little book written down by a guy named Matthew in the first century A.D. in Syrian Antioch. How can I not believe that writing needs to be permanently true? 

That lie -- for I have come to believe it is absolutely a lie -- is debilitating. It paralyzes the writer and creates a block that is difficult to overcome. It is the lie of pragmatism, that says something must be useful to be beautiful, and that the cost / benefit analysis trumps all. Why build a table when you can buy it at Ikea? 

I've shifted my thinking on this. I have come to believe that writing need not be pragmatic or permanent -- the vast majority of the Odyssey no longer connects contextually with my current world as a reader in the 21st century -- but to be good writing, it must be a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. And the Odyssey certainly meets that challenge. That is not to say all writing needs to be overtly philosophical or literarily sophisticated, not at all. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are and A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh are some of the most transcendent works I know, though they are often dismissed as "cute" by those who should know better. (It is a very blustery day outside as I write this and I am smiling to think how many layers of meaning are wrapped up in Roo's joyful, plaintive request, "Can I fly Piglet next?") That statement (not the one about flying Piglet) has become incredibly important in my own thinking about writing -- that a work of crafted words, whether it be an essay, a poem, a short story, a novel, a book-length argument, or a worthwhile magazine article -- or even a blog post -- is well written and valuable to the extent that it functions as a signpost, however temporary, pointing to something transcendent. (NOTE: This is not to exclude the goofy, the humorous, the lighthearted. There is as much transcendence in our laughter and our delight as there is in any of our ponderous tomes.)

This is why reading things from a context other than your own is especially valuable. There's a cross-cultural move in reading the words of another writer, of delving into the soul of another person, especially if they live in a context or time other than your own. Though I have never been to Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner had a powerful impact on me. And though I was not alive in the 1800's (though my daughters might believe differently) Tennyson's "Ulysses" stirs my soul to its depths every time I read it. 

These ideas are fairly straightforward. Most of us can point to writers whose works have stirred us deeply, and we might not be embarrassed to use words like "transcendent" to describe their writing. But I said at the outset I was struggling not with reading but with writing. What does one do with one's own writing? And how does one stay motivated to write, and is that even the right question? There is a sense in which writing something down, especially if you have the audacity to let another read it, is like firing a bullet from a gun. Once fired, the bullet just goes -- it has no brain and no conscience, and the written word is a little like that. It just flies out into the void and impacts where and as it will. The strange -- and often uncomfortable -- change in metaphor is that one's own written words often function like a boomerang that circles back and hits you in the back of the head. Or the heart. This is not a bad thing.

The closer your writing comes to expressing your heart's own encounter with the transcendent -- with the deepest meanings in life, with encountering God, with death and guilt and suffering and love and joy and discovery and significance and brokenness -- the closer your writing comes to tapping any of these transcendent elements, the more likely that it has the power to come back and impact you, yourself, in powerful ways. Of course, most of us who write struggle to read our own writing. Like a carpenter looking at his own work, we see only the imperfections. We encounter our own words like someone who first hears their own voice in a recording and blurts, "That's not me, is it?" There's a shame and sense of inadequacy that we have to get past. If we can set this aside, however, if we can be gracious with our own imperfection and finitude, we may be enriched by the beauty of our own writing -- not least because reading your own writing, especially at a bit of a distance in time or context lays your own soul bare. It's a journey of self-discovery not for the faint of heart, because you feel the crooked knife of your words sliding between your own ribs, and you know it's also out there for everyone to see. Like Anna Nalick sings, "And I feel like I'm naked in front of a crowd / 'cause these words are my diary screaming out loud / and I know that you'll use them however you want to." And yet, there is also a joy, a pure and thorough joy in reading our own words when they capture something exquisite, if we can suspend self-condemnation and fear. 

For me -- and I can't say if this is true for other writers -- the fear is less about being judged (though that is a tremendous and debilitating fear) as it is of being ignored, of being irrelevant, of not so much being shelved for later as just of being forgotten. (Note: There is also, of course, the danger of being entirely too captivated with one's own writing. That's a topic for another post.) So I have written pieces that encapsulate as much of my soul as I can pour onto paper in one time, carefully crafted and thematically arranged (the example I'm thinking of at the moment is a series of reflections primarily about hunting and Jesus, imagine that!) and I've timidly test-marketed it to a couple dozen people. The trouble is I don't know what to do with this piece of writing, yet it feels tremendously important to me. I keep hoping someone will read it and say (like Tolkien's Niggle hoped someone would say of his painting) "Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at! Do get on with it, and don't bother about anything else!" Just like I'm uncertain of the value of my own soul, I put this piece of writing (or any piece of writing more significant than a grocery list, and by the way now that I think about it I'm a little careful about sharing my grocery list publicly as well -- writers can be a little neurotic about words) out for an audience, even a carefully chosen audience, and I hope people will approve. I knew an author years ago who said writing a book is a little like walking naked on stage and saying, "Well? What do you think?" I probably would have shelved this manuscript myself except for the one person who read it and really seemed to get it. To value it. And now what? At that point I have to think maybe this piece just needs a little more work, like I need a little more work, but I still have doubts about the manuscript and about myself and about the universe. 

So one just has to learn to write in the face of doubt. And then to read one's own writing boldly in the face of doubt. Or, perhaps, not to write at all, to dismiss it as a particularly self-indulgent bad habit. That's really the discernment required, and it comes back to Oswald Chambers' writing this morning -- is this a call from God? Is this the particular niche for which I am created? Or is it just something narcissistic to be dismissed on the grounds that, as one person said after reading the manuscript cited above, "You think too much!" And even that response was far, far better than a few people closest to me who completely forgot to read it after I'd shared a copy with them.

Having tried, I don't think I can not write. The growing collection of partially finished manuscripts that clog my notebooks and my computers and my file folders -- fragments of poems and stories and essays and sermons and much, much more -- are like a tremendous reservoir of myself, and like I don't quite know what to do with myself most days, I'm not sure how to steward these words. I've burdened others with my words, giving stories and poems as gifts, turning them loose and letting them go. Occasionally I wish they'd come back because a narrative won't let me go and it seems to be trying to teach me something, so I wish I had it in hand to work through more completely. There's a story that had its spark in my mind fifteen years ago on an island in the Boundary Waters about a man whose life gets turned upside down and he ends up wintering there in the unforgiving northern wilderness. These days that story seems prescient at the very least, and I have been toying with the idea of working it beyond the short story I actually wrote down once but have since lost, and into a novel. It hasn't gone past the toying stage as yet, but it doesn't seem to want to let me go. Maybe one of these days it will come to fruition as well. 

There is a deep, deep hope in all this. It is a hope that Tolkien developed in his essay, "On Fairy Stories," and N. T. Wright has written extensively about in Surprised By Hope and other places. It's rooted in the biblical promise of 1 Corinthians 15:58 where, after a lengthy exposition about Jesus rising from the dead and what it means, Paul seems to turn a sharp corner and concludes, "So then, my brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for you know that in the Lord your work is not in vain." Tolkien says that our calling as humans is to be sub-creators, created in the image of the Creator God, putting all our gifts to work in imitation of his creativity and glory. In some sense, our artistry, our craft, will become part of the new heavens and the new earth promised in Jesus' resurrection. In this context, in this broken reality, our artistic pursuits serve as signposts pointing toward transcendence, toward truth and beauty and goodness, toward God, however implicitly or explicitly. And as a writer, you may find yourself preaching to yourself as often as not. The preacher always preaches the sermon that the preacher needs to hear. 

Yet there is a promise of fulfillment -- a promise that God stewards these words, that he gathers up the bedtime stories and the manuscript fragments and the forgotten old poems and the carefully crafted social media posts that are done out of a sincere heart that pursues truth and longs for the glory of God. There is a promise that God will keep these words and, like Niggle's painting, he will someday incorporate them into a greater new creation that is richer because of your art. In the meantime, in this broken world and in our broken souls, our words -- in all their incompleteness and imperfection -- can read us and point us toward transcendence. 

And that in itself may be reason enough to keep writing. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Footprints in the snow

As you know if you've been reading this blog, I have been just delighting in the snow here at Decision Hills these days. For the first time in a few years, I actually got my snowshoes out the other day, and I've been tracking deer and squirrels and coyotes and dogs and people around the property like reading an especially interesting novel. Fun stuff. So this prayer in my readings from the Daily Texts this morning just seemed to fit so well. It's a good reminder to me to keep following Jesus step by step:

"I praise you, Lord, that you are a trustworthy guide. You grant me grace to see your next step, like footprints in the snow. Forgive me when I forge my own trail without your leading. Refine my wandering heart to follow you faithfully. Amen."