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January 2010

The Room of the World

Huge.46.232470While we can't pull back the cloak of eternity and peek behind the "In the beginning, God" of Genesis 1:1, to know all that God has been up to in an eternity past (if "past" is even a meaningful way to address the silence of that eternity), it is not all mystery.  If He is changeless --- if in fact his character is immutable --- then who He is as represented to us in Scripture is who He was even before Creation.  He was the same then as He is now as He will be in the future to come.  He is timeless and changeless.

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

Yesterday we were blanketed with a nice snow, something not terribly common where I live.  Normal routines are upset, yet in a good way.  Time to clean house!  My wife and I braced ourselves, opened the door to our college-bound son's room (while he was out), and began trying to sift, save, salvage, and (serendipitously) share the memories of his 18 years.  It's all here.  Rare is it that he actually throws things away.  Things mean something to him, as they are visual reminders of interests, memories, and life, rooting him.  Not so in the room across the hall (sibling), where what matters is what is now, where possessions are expendable. 

Buried in a drawer is the carefully organized coin collection of his childhood, each compartment labeled in a child's handwriting, a one-time interest from which he has moved on.  There are Cub Scout Pinewood derby awards, pieces of paper with elaborate train and then aircraft designs, and scores of cassette tapes (that dates him), CDs, and books of stories.  We discovered unopened gifts from Christmas gone by, models, bead work, knitting paraphernalia, and more.  Underneath a pile of miscellany is a wooden desk we sometimes forget is the small desk at which he sat in childhood.  To work in his room is to discover a life, to see what interested him, what occupied his time.  It is to discover him.  And as he moves on with life, it's a comfort to know that the child he was he in essence remains, is what he is and will be --- that while he will grow and mature, he will not, even for eternity, be someone else, be someone we do not recognize.   Coming to faith, we may be new creations thank God but, in the end, we are not different persons --- the essence of our personality, as deep and mysterious as that might be, remains, even for eternity.

What a comfort.

Everything else changes.

Cleaning that room yesterday was an exercise of stewardly care for what my son imagined, created, and did for 18 years.  I might not have said it then, but ask me now and I might say, in the words of Genesis 2:15, that I was tilling and keeping creation --- his creation, the room of his world, the outpouring of his life.  I had no right to destroy anything, just rearrange, properly care for, and take care of what he had. OK, so I did throw away the broken plastic airplane, an agonizing decision that had to be made jointly by my wife and I.  But mostly, we need to ask him about what we do, do our best to cultivate the life he gave the room, and help it be a place that becomes more of what he already is.  Rightly understood, we're making it a place that better glorifies him, not in the sense that we worship him or stroke his ego, but in the sense that it better reflects the person God made him to be.

Never knew people could think so deeply about cleaning a room, did you?  It was a snow day.  I had time on my hands.  Idle thoughts are fertile ground for philosophizing, you know.

Sometimes we act as if we own the world. We don't.  The bright red cardinal that just landed on the snow outside my window was dreamed up by God, created for His glory, and exists to glorify him, to, if nothing else, be enjoyed by him.  The snow that fell has been a beautiful playground for many kids and even many more adults.  But it's enough that He enjoyed it.  Everything matters like that.  It's His stuff, not ours.  We can enjoy it, stand in awe at the mind that dreamed it up and molded and shaped it, grumble at its messiness and the clutter of a Person who never stops imagining, creating, recreating, tearing down, preserving, scribbling, drawing, and telling us. . . telling us every day that He loves the world, that He loves what he made, and who will one day put all things right --- will rearrange, reorder, renew, and even resurrect it all.  It is, after all, His room.

What a comfort.

But my son is not Him, of course, is good but not all good like Him, naturally, and this room is not the world, after all, so full of distractions and half-realized or poorly-tended creations.  Right now, I need to know what to do with all these old baseball cards, this book full of cut outs of vacuum cleaners (an old fascination), and the rock polishing set, for starters. I haven't even dared look under the bed.

Everything changes, but not my son, and certainly not God.  They're timeless, eternal.  And while my son's room just gets bigger next year along with his dreams, his creations, and his messes, the One who dreamed him up will just keep remaking him into more of who he really is or is meant to be, into more my son.

And that really is a comfort to me. Today, looking around his cluttered room, that gives me hope --- for his room and the room of this world.

"The Little Book"

[I first published this post in January 2006, and I still love this book, particularly in its illustrated edition.  It is a testament to the power of brevity, the timelessness of wit and good humor, and the importance of good grammar (no matter what the post-moderns say).  You should get a copy and read it, just for fun first, then for grammar, then as a model of good writing.]

Language is a gift, no doubt, but one that is much abused.  Few heed the admonitions of scripture or good sense to be "quick to listen, and slow to speak" (Js. 1:19) or remember the reward of an apt word over an inept pronouncement.  How many times I have spoken, or written, only to realize what dribble hangs in air or rests on paper?  Not so with E.B. White.

You'll recognize White's name as the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, two children's classics that were much loved in our home, but his prose ranged beyond children's stories.  He wrote a daily column or essay for The New Yorker for many years (before my time).  However, before I knew any of these other accomplishments and before I had children to read to, I knew him as the apparent co-author of the bible of English usage, The Elements of Style.   The 'little book," as White's Cornell professor William Strunk affectionately called it, was originally written by Strunk and privately published for his students and years later revised and modestly enlarged by White at his publisher's request, after Strunk had died.

The book is a model of brevity.  It says things like "Do not overstate," or "Do not explain too much," "Omit needless words," "Avoid fancy words," or simply "Be clear.  All are issued in just such commanding tones, and the writer, properly chastened, returns to his craft -- whether letter, article, or novel -- with renewed vigor.  I know I do.

The injunction "be clear" could not be more clear, and yet the authors' three-paragraph rationale is both fun and informative to read.  Listen:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded highway sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!  When you say something, make sure you have said it.  The chances of your having said it are only fair.

Oh, the pitfalls of language, the litter of unclarity.  "Be obscure clearly," he says, if obscure is what you want.  Say what you want to say. Say it well.  Language matters.

Knowingly or unknowingly, in fashioning rules, in emphasizing clarity and brevity, Strunk and White were mimicking the Author of Life, whose first recorded words over creation were simply "Let there be light."  No flowery or fanciful language.  Simply that: "Let there be light."  In contrast, in Eve's first recorded words, she actually adds words to what God had so clearly said (as in, ". . . and you must not touch it, or you will die"), and so is born the news commentator.  And still we go on.  One wonders if God sometimes regrets having given us language, and yet, even that he must have called "good."

Remembering Strunk, his college professor, White says this:

In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed to be in the position of having shortchanged himself --- a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of the predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said,"Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!"

At that, I can imagine him packing his briefcase and leaving the classroom, a visible demonstration of his three-word point.  Politicians, pundits, and pastors take heed! Omit needless words!  And as Strunk often said, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  Better to be wrong than irresolute or inaudible, he would say.

I recommend The Elements if Style, as well as The Essays of E.B. White (an immensely pleasurable read on various topics)or, failing that, Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little.  They are models of clarity, brevity, and style, and full of life and humor -- like hearing God talk.

Not I Alone: A Poem

Not I Alone

"A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all."

(Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life)

What is it that I alone love at all?

Maybe the fact that here is here and
     there is there, even the vast difference between
     life inside and life outside, the separation by only a pane of glass.

Perhaps the obscure corner, the very cornerness of corners,
     the vantage point they offer on life, the
     fact that they have our back.

The shape of a word, its sound in my mouth, not
     only its height and width but it depth, its
     roundness, its shapeliness, the way its sound hangs in the air.

Maybe the particular slant of sunlight through the window,
     the universe of dust revealed in its glare, the 
     thought of what worlds I am breathing in.

Perhaps the hope that memories of yesterday,
     redeemed and shorn of all that is hurtful, will
     live on in heightened color, sound, and smell in eternity.

The sound of the library, the aroma of its bindings,
    the hope of new discoveries, the smile of 7-year old Betsy Pendergraph,
    the sound of God walking among the words, His words, His world.

But then, maybe you love this too.  Maybe it's not mine alone.


At the Scholarship Interview

Huge.25.126565 How's it going buddy?  Mind if I sit here?

Man it's cold out there, like the friggin' North Pole.  Ha, ha.  I knew I shoulda stayed in Florida. Had a nice house in Naples, too.  No air.  Open to the breeze.  Had big fans in every room.  Man, you could smell the sea breeze even ten miles inland.

No, I shoulda stayed in Florida.

What's that?  You like cold weather?  Are you insane?  Ha, ha.  Just kidding man.  Where you from anyway?

INDIA?  It's hot there, isn't it?  They got mountains?  Really?  It gets cold?  I thought Africa was hot everywhere, either desert or jungle.  Asia?  Yeah, that's what I meant.   Sure.  Asia.  Africa, Asia. . . Hey, what's the difference anyway, right?  

Yeah, my kid, he's like Einstein on steroids.  One uptight kid.  A walking brain.  I don't know where it comes from.  I can't even understand him sometimes.  I wouldn't know a calculus from my. . . well you know what I mean.

But I can hear that money talking to me, you know what I mean.  Ha, ha.  They wanna give him money I'm all for it.  Ha, ha.  I'm hoping he becomes a millionaire, take care of me in my old age.

What do you do anyway, for a living, I mean?   You're what?  A PASTOR?  An Indian pastor?  You got a church and all?  

Ah, no man.  No, I'm not the religious type.  I'm just trying to keep it in the road, you know. Keeping it together. Ha, ha. You know what I mean?  Nobody'd confuse me and Billy Graham, that's for sure.  Ha, ha.  I figure there's something to it, you know.  Hey --- don't get all touchy-feely, none of that stuff.  Don't go gettin' weird and all.  Ha, ha.

Yeah, yeah, I see your point on that.  He wants to be a missionary, huh?  That's great.  That's just great. No, I don't know what my son wants to do.  I never asked him that.  He don't talk to me much, really. Ah, teenagers, go figure.  Ha, ha.  Yeah, yeah, good idea,  Maybe I will.  Maybe I'll ask him.  I'll say "look, kid, what's it gonna be, brain surgeon, rocket scientist, take your pick."  I don't tell him what to do, you know.  He'll figure it out.

Jeez.  Look at this place.  That guy musta given them a boatload of gold to build this.

Oh, hey.  Here he comes.  Looks beat up.  Looks like a hound dog lost his bird.  Ha, ha.  Good talking with you man.  Hey, you too.  God bless you too.

[I'm waiting for my son while he's in an interview for a scholarship.  I imagined this unlikely conversation.  Pure fiction.]

Hold It Up To the Light

Sun “To the child of God, there is no such thing as an accident. He travels an appointed way. Accidents may indeed appear to befall him and misfortune stalk his way, but these evils will be so in appearance only and will seem evils only because we cannot read the secret script of God’s hidden providence and so cannot discover the ends at which He aims…The man of true faith may live in the absolute assurance that his steps are ordered by the Lord. For him, misfortune is outside the bounds of possibility. He cannot be torn from this earth one hour ahead of the time which God has appointed, and he cannot be detained on earth one moment after God is done with him here.”

(A.W. Tozer)

Accidents?  Wrong turns in life?  Bad karma?  I like to say that if you seek after God you can't go wrong, that even if you make a decision that appears to be wrong, then all paths lead back to the way you are on so that, in retrospect, it doesn't seem wrong at all but in fact all a part of right.  Did you get that?

Maybe you applied to one college, somehow got in and enrolled there, all because your high school girlfriend happened to already be there and you were worried she was seeing other guys and cheating on you out at the disco under the mirrorball every night while you languished in twelfth grade with Mrs. Gervase who taught Russian history by reading out of a book until she got frustrated with you and let you alone, and then when you get there (to college, that is), your girlfriend drops you for a med student who is just too nice to hate.  You say, "Best thing that ever happened to me," right?  Nope.  And yet what seems so wrong turns so right when you meet the woman who would become your wife about the same time.

Or maybe you got caught dumping that sorry weekly newspaper in the sewer drains, cheating your employer, because you got tired of walking your stubby 12-year old legs up and down the asphalt, getting yelled at by people who didn't want the paper and chased by dogs and threatened by Brad Bullah the neighborhood bully, and you just got sick and tired of all that and decided to dump the papers because nobody cared about them anyway and you were just sick and tired of it all (did I say that).  And you got caught.  You had to pay back all the money you made.  You say, "That was great. Best thing that ever happened to me." Right?  Nope.  But who knows.  It may have saved you from a life of crime, or at least from being a slack stockroom employee who lays around most of the time and plays video games.  And maybe that oh so bad thing that happened and cost you your not too hard earned money (including your coin collection) and embarrassed you and got you grounded for weeks ends up leading to your reformation, to preventing you from leading a life of crime.  You even become a lawyer, even an honest one. Go figure. It could happen, couldn't it?

Now maybe you had a bunch of sisters and no brothers growing up and you wondered where was the justice in that what with them dressing you up like a girl before you knew any better and having you play with dolls before you got your man card, girls always yakking about boys and makeup and what other girls were wearing and all that, and scratching you with those extra long fingernails and saying they'd tell Daddy on you and then looking all moon-eyed and sweet when the belt came out.  And you'd say "Great life.  Piece of cake living with all these women."  Right?  Nope.   But maybe you got in touch with your feminine side, or something (yech) or, more realistically, maybe you learned enough about women that you weren't such a horse's behind (pardon my french) when you grew up and started dating and by the time you got married were fully acculturated to the opposite gender, washing dishes and doing laundry and able to manage conversation with a gaggle of girls like the best.  Well, that's good, that's good from bad, right?

But then worse than all that is that maybe your Dad died when you were 13 and you wondered what you were supposed to do about that.  You went out and lay on top of his car and watched the stars and your friend came over and said he was sorry and watched the stars too.  And then you both got up and took a walk around the neighborhood together just like nothing ever happened and in a couple days even went back to school.  You said "Best thing that ever happened to me.  Tough, but I'm sure it's for my good." Nope, you didn't say that.  And decades later you still don't say that.  And yet sometimes, you catch just a glimmer of how even that was good, though you can't quite say "good," because being dead was just not in the plan, His plan, and yet here it is.  And you can't quite say it was good, but you begin to see something underneath it all, like invisible ink, a secret code of good, if you hold it up to the light just right.  You might just begin to read the good story hidden in that sorry tale.

And one day you might just be able to say, "Look at what He did.  Just look at that.  Would you ever have thought. . ."  Now can you believe that? Can you?  

Changing Joseph's Life (Updated 1/30): Goal Met!

DSCN1123  [Thanks to all of you who have responded to my request to help Joseph.  his need for funds for schooling has been covered.  A school has been secured, textbooks and materials purchased, and Joseph has started school. This will literally change Joseph's life and lift him up! I hope to update you later in the week with a report from Joseph on his first days in school.  Thank you! If you'd like to know more about how to support kids like Joseph, check out the work of Embrace Uganda.  (If you don't know about this, read my former post below.)]

Last Summer, when I was in Uganda with my family, the Embrace Uganda team we were with moved into the orphanage at Agape Children's Village, located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital.  It was there I met Joseph, then 17, who slept in the bunk opposite mine.  Learning of Joseph's interest in astronomy, one night my son and I took him out on the field above the orphanage to name constellations.  I was impressed at his desire to learn and, later that evening, when he gave the devotion in our house, at his ability to give the truth of Scripture.

There were many children at Agape, of course, and many in our house, so in the five days we were there our one-to-one time with each of them was limited.  Providentially, however, on the fourth day we were there, I was sick (the usual stomach problems), and Joseph was sent home from school because he was tardy, and so we spent the afternoon in our bunks across from each other talking.  He agreed to tell me his story.

At four months of age he said his mother, who suffered from a mental disability, was crossing the road and was struck by a car and killed.  She managed, however, to throw him under a bush on the side of the road where he lay overnight.  When he was found the next day, a policeman took him to his father's house.  As he was firstborn, his father wanted to sacrifice him to the ancestors (seriously!), so his grandmother fled with him to Kampala with only the clothes on her back.  She couldn't care for him, so he lived with his brother, who shortly thereafter died, and then with his sister, where he was barely provided for.  At nine, he was taken into a Compassion International project, coming to Agape at age 12.

Recently Joseph had to leave Agape, as he turned 18 and, in Uganda, when you turn 18 you can no longer stay in a children's village.  He is living with his sister again, in a small house with no electricity, with no funds to continue his education (which, in Uganda, is free only for primary school).  In his last email to me, this is what Joseph said: "I am scared that I may not be able to achieve what I need in life, most especially access to high quality education, not only due to lack of encouragement and love from my relatives. I am feeling very sad and rejected for that. Thats why I am striving for an education, that I may forget all this. It has forced me experience feelings I would not at my age. Every time I am asking myself whether God will enable me to achieve my dream because every day down the road things worsen."

There are a lot of children in Uganda that need an education, but this is one that God has put on my heart.  I'd like to raise $1200, so that Joseph can be educated for an entire year in a boarding school, out of the difficult environment within which he now finds himself.  I already have more than enough for 1/2 year, but I want o give him the whole year.  If you are moved to give, you can do it through Paypal. See the box in the sidebar, or click on Give in the box below.  Or if you need a tax deduction, give via the Embrace Uganda website.  (You'll need to click the Donate button by Scholarship Fund, and then on the PayPal screen click the "Special Instructions for Seller" link and note that the contribution is for "Joseph Semanobe Scholarship." I'll be regularly updating the site with information about Joseph, so stay tuned. You can also create your own widget  and insert it in your own blog.  Help me get the word out! (Note that all excess funds, if any, will be given to Embrace Uganda to benefit other kids like Joseph.)

Finally, to ensure accountability, I am sending the funds to an African pastor in Uganda, Michael Okwakol, who we have worked with in the past.  He has located an appropriate school for Joseph and has ensured that the funds are properly applied.  Furthermore, he will maintain contact with Joseph and monitor his progress.

Thank you!

His Love Will Follow You

Now Take your suitcase and take your heart
Take the train to the boulevard
My love will follow you
My love will follow you

There are a lot of people who have been left behind.  Imagine a mother who leaves her four young children behind in a hotel room, who just leaves town and doesn't say goodbye.  I know of one.

You can try to lose yourself downtown
You can burn all your bridges down
My love will follow you
My love will follow you

I know one child who moved clear across the continent, to a city of strangers.  He doesn't call his family. He's cut off communication.  I saw him once in diner off the PCH in Santa Monica, and he looked lost, tattooed and pierced, trying to lose himself among the crowd.

My love will follow you
Down every highway of your soul
You can leave me far behind
But my love will be a shadow
Everywhere you go

If you should go so far 
That you cannot get back
You may not remember
But my heart will not lose track

My love will follow you
My love will follow you 

Beneath the veneer of civility, busyness, and provision,in the subterranean soul, I suspect many people are more lost than they know.  Sometimes as I prepare for lawsuits, as I drill down deep into the lives of strangers, assembling a picture of their private lives and public face, I am awed by what I have to do, a kind of holy awe that I am peering into the life of another person in a way that even a close friend would not, in a way that only God should, maybe, and it doesn't seem right, even if it is necessary.  In their credit card and bank statements I see a picture of their hopes and dreams and desperation.  It's not all black and white down here.  I see a picture of lostness. I see people who behave like orphans, who live like all they have is themselves.

But for a God of relentless love, it would be easy to lose heart.

I first heard this song, "My Love Will Follow You," when Richard Shindell sung it in a small bar in Memphis.  He told us he went to seminary and dropped out.  He's into Ba' Hai.   It struck me then that he was singing it for himself, that he was a little lost himself and that the song was an expression of his hope.  He didn't write it.  Julie Miller wrote it.  It's absolutely true.

No matter where we go, no matter what bridges we think we burned, no matter if we think we can't get back, God is there.  He pursues us, shadows us, like the song says "down every highway of our soul."  In fact, if, as Scripture says, "God is love," then He can't help himself.  He can't not love us.  He'll follow us as long as it takes.

J.I. Packer says that when Paul says "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us," the words literally mean poured or dumped out on us.  It's inexhaustible.  Like a flood. Imagine that kind of love.

If I had only one prayer I could pray, I think I would pray that I would fully know the love of God for me and for the world.  It seems to me that if I really knew that, then everything else would fall in place, every other prayer subsumed in that.

And if that mother knew that, she'd come home.  And if that wayward son felt that, he'd go home. And all those inhabitants of my files that lie, steal, and cheat, who've turned their backs on Love --- well if they knew that love, then they'd come Home too.  They'd have to.  They couldn't help themselves. 

A Plea for Routine

Huge.10.50617"It looks as if they [Anglican clergymen] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgments, simplifications, and complications of the service.  And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations.  The majority, I believe, never are. . . . [T]hey don't go to church to be entertained.  They go to use the service, or, if you will, to enact it. . . . The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. . . . I can make do with almost any kind of church service, if only it will stay put."   

(C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm)

When out walking today, I did not wear my long underwear.  I hope I can say that here, reader.  Search all my blogs and you'll find nary a mention of underwear.  So, it's overdue.

Six days a week, on good weeks, I walk the same well-trod sidewalks and streets.  I turn the same corners, register the same trees, say hello to the same elderly gentleman out walking the same dog, make note and avoid the same tree root thrust out of the sidewalk, give a Monk-like touch to the same stop sign as I round the final turn, traverse the same rutted road side where there is no sidewalk, and silently tick off the steps to home. And, in winter, I wear the same long underwear.

As much as I love walking in varied surroundings and enjoy the outdoors, whether natural areas or city streets, I'm not focused on my surroundings when I do this walk.  In fact, I'm barely aware of where I am. That's just the way I want it.  I have two objectives: exercise, and prayer, and stray thoughts.  (Oops, that's three.)  That's right, I want to let my mind come unhinged, a kind of free association permeated by prayer, a sanctified mindful distraction.  I don't need outside distractions when I'm trying to focus on following every thought that arises internally.  I don't need novelty.  I need to keep moving.  I need to focus my thoughts. Forgetting your long underwear on a nippy, windy day is a distraction, chilling both objectives.

Lewis has it right.  Just like my walk, there are settled paths in worship that are best when left in place so that the forms themselves recede like a well-worn pair of shoes, leaving us to just be the worshippers we were meant to be.  We breathe best when we don't have to think about breathing.  We fall asleep best when we're not thinking about falling to sleep.  We relate best to others when we're not trying to follow some technique.  We worship best when we are so at home in the forms of worship that we are simply enacting the worship, actors in a drama unaware of props and set.

So forget novelty.  Give me a ruddy path, an order of worship for the ages, hymns and songs that have endured. . .and long underwear.

I've seen a lot of church.  Novelty can be so boring.  More and more, I'm for staying put, for, as Lewis said, "permanence and uniformity."

Out of My Head (or Sometimes You Just Have to Say Whatever Comes to Mind)

Huge.1.8087 I'm back.  Did you miss me?  Did you know I was gone? Honestly, I had to take a break over the holidays.  I recycled the Twelve Days of Christmas from two years ago, and you know what, it was apparent that that cute little series ran out of steam toward the end.  Epiphany!  Nevertheless, there were a few moments I enjoyed.  A very few.  Funny. . . in the moment, when you first write something, it all sounds so wonderful, and then later it morphs into drivel like a gremlin came in later and rewrote it, someone from freshman English class.  But then again, maybe there will be a diamond in the rough, right?

I'm back.  Did you miss me?  I didn't think so.  Honestly, I doubt I have anything pithy, poignant, or promising to say, but you never know.  (Boy, that alliteration was a lot of "puh". . . excuse me while I wipe the keyboard off. . . did you know I always read everything I write out loud?)  Anyway, tonight I'm not going to waste your time. Or maybe I will.  I'm going for stream of consciousness.  Ten observations for January 7th, right off the cuff.  Take from it what you will.

  • Mavis Staples is a great singer and I'm bringing her for a house concert, only I need a much bigger house, like Memorial Auditorium, maybe.
  • If God moves you to pray for someone, do it.  Do it right then.  If they happen to be in the room with you, do it then.  Do it even if you don't know where they are spiritually.  I don't do that often.  I did it today.  I had to.  You know what?  It's only a little weird.  You'll both get over it.
  • In Heaven, I want to take an alpine walk with Francis Schaeffer and then let Edith Schaeffer serve me a meal.  Then I'm going to take son Franky Schaeffer out back of the house and wrestle him to the ground.  Didn't anyone ever teach him not to talk about his parents that way?
  • There's some weird stuff in the Book of Daniel, like lions with eagles wings, four-headed beasts with ten horns, and so on, and if anyone tells me they have all that figured out, I'm going to avoid them.  You can't make this stuff up.  What a religion (if it is a religion)!  (I think Sufjan Stevens needs to compose a libretto from the Book of Daniel, complete with weird song titles.)
  • Suggestion 144 in How to Be Your Daughter's Daddy: 365 Ways to Show Her You You Care: Help her start a baseball card collection.  I don't think so.  She's 15 and into romance novels.  Yech.
  • Very strange:  Name all your songs with Bible references, a la Genesis 3:23 and so on, call your group The Mountain Goats, and make contradictory statements like "I am not a believer and" "I love God. . . whether I believe or not."  Nowadays, you can say "A" and "not A" and have people fall at your feet.  Baaaa. . . . . .d.
  • "Look at your work as a deed directed by God, like a part in a play, or a step in a dance, or a song.  God's the author.  We act from him, instead of for ourselves."  (Peter Kreeft, in Prayer: The Great Conversation).  Do you think lawyers are included?  I don't think most of them are listening, or else they think it's a one-act play about themselves.
  • My wife and I have begun praying together for our children each day.  I recommend it.  It's amazing how they begin to look a little bit better to you as you pray for them.  Tonight she told me that if I was going to pray a novel she wanted to begin earlier in the day.  OK.  So I got carried away.  I might remind her that Kreeft (see prior paragraph) says we can pray in our sleep.  I'm not going to say anything more about that.  Just think about it.
  • Listen: 10 Nothing Can Separate
    Carolyn Arends can sing in my house as well.  Fantastic singer-songwriter.
  • Pray this:
    God be in my head and understanding.
    God be in my eyes and in my looking.
    God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
    God be in my heart and in my thinking.
    God be at my end and my departing.

And that, folks, is about enough of this.

I'm back.  I missed you.  I promise to write.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Twelfth Night

Snow_11Fittingly, the last stanza of the song, with its twelve drummers drumming, is symbolic of the twelve points of doctrine found in the Apostles Creed.  Actually, I never counted them, but it appears there are in fact twelve!

I'm stopped short for a moment when I read the very first article of the creed --- "Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth" -- because so much is affirmed in this short phrase.  I like what the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 26) says about what we mean when we say this: "That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father.  I trust him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father."  There's really great truth and warm assurance in that summary of what we confess. 

With that, we come to the end of the 12 days of Christmas, a merry song that might also be a good mnemonic for Christian truths.  For some Christians, tonight is celebrated as the Twelfth Night, the last night before Epiphany, which historically is a celebration of the Visitation of the Magi.  I've always wanted to have a 12th Night party!  It's not to happen this year.  But at least I can remember what great gifts I have been given in faith and celebrate the gift of a New Year.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas

Snow_10In a time when we can connect with and be a part of a worldwide community of people through the internet (though I doubt such a tenuous connection qualifies one in using the word "community"), it's instructive to note that Jesus spent most of his limited public ministry with a small group of men and a few women.  As the song intimates there were eleven faithful apostles (the eleven pipers piping), as Judas betrayed him.

That this is a good model of ministry has been recognized by many.  One I remember well is that of Robert E. Coleman's Master Plan of Evangelism, first published in 1963, and which is now in its second edition and ninth printing, meaning it must have something to say.  In it Coleman states his premise that Jesus's methods were as much a part of his evangelism as was his message, and he proceeds to detail a method that focused on intensive discipleship of a small group of men as opposed to mass conversions.  Master_plan Coleman said that "[m]ost of the evangelistic efforts of the church begin with the multitudes under the assumption that the church is qualified to preserve what good is done. The result is our spectacular emphasis on numbers of converts, candidates for baptism, and more members for the church, with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God, let alone the preservation and continuation of the work."

I doubt there's any serious disagreement with the thrust of what he said, which was a healthy corrective to large scale evangelistic campaigns which tallied up converts and then moved on to their next conquests.  With a Christianity that's a mile wide and an inch thin, not only here but in places like South Korea and Africa where there are many converts and a growing church, his book is worth revisiting.

But I'd go farther than Coleman, or at least farther than his book details.  Christians need discipling not only in spiritual disciplines -- Bible reading and study, prayer, and worship, for example -- and moral instruction, but also in integrating faith and all of life.  That's nothing new, and yet it's not often practiced.  We're put here to "till and keep" the Creation, given a mandate to develop culture with love and zeal for God's glory.  There's a lot of work to do because we spend so much time running from the culture, setting up our own alt-culture, that we fail to do the challenging work of loving the one we're in, of helping restore in some small way the communities, cities, trades, vocations, and institutions we all find ourselves a part of.

That has to be a part of any master plan of evangelism.  What does Jesus say?  "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."  Would it not be evangelistic for Christians who have been discipled in a culture-reforming Christianity to so live such that others see us as the ones who will preserve culture?  (It doesn't mean everyone would like us, as some want to destroy a culture built on Christian assumptions about the good, true, and beautiful.)  Maybe we need to leave the church building and spend most of our time with non-Christians, involved with them in our communities.  Scary thought, isn't it?

Coleman's method also seems a good one for a cynical culture, one mistrustful of institutions like the church.  Personal contact and deep community is necessary for the building of the church.  And yet, it's risky.  And it's uncomfortable.  Maybe that's where we (where I) need to be.

The Tenth . . . Day . . .of Christmas. . . Are We There Yet???

Snow_9I have a petty love of perfection.  Having begun something, I feel compelled to finish it.  Tenth day of Christmas?  Bah!  I'm tired of the song and ready to move on.  And yet, maybe that's good.  Maybe it's time to get creative.  Sure, the ten lords-a-leaping are supposed to refer to the Ten Commandments, but there are a lot of other tens out there.

Like Bo Derek.  Dudley Moore thought she was a "10" but found out when he finally met up with her that a "10" isn't necessarily what you think it is, that reality doesn't match the ideal.

Ever wonder why it is we usually count to ten or rank things one to ten? Probably because we have ten toes and ten fingers.  And I'll let you wonder why we have ten of those.

And then there's those words with ten in them, words I'm seeing everywhere, like ten-tative, or ten-t, or ten-drils, or ten-dacious.  It's enough to make you ten-se.

But sticking to scripture, ten proves to be a popular number.  Ten shekels, ten silver coins, ten minas.  Ten days, ten times, ten years.  Ten female donkeys, ten bulls, ten sheep.  Ten loaves, ten cheeses, ten concubines.  Ten basins, ten candlesticks, ten tables, ten lampstands. Ten talents.  Ten is all over the place, almost as popular as three.

10Some people really are quite taken with what might be called Bible numerics.  For example, Andrew Harris says that "[t]en implies completeness of order, nothing lacking and nothing over. It signifies that the cycle is complete and that everything is in its proper order. Thus ten represents the perfection of divine order. "  Hmmm.  Indeed, he has a whole website devoted to such things.  (Ah, poor Aussie spends his time on such ten-der things!  It's a strange world down under.)

As for me, enough of such silliness.  I'm going to bed.  It's ten o'clock, and I've spent ten times too much time twittering on about these tens.  (Alliteration, now that's something worth talking about.  Another day maybe.)

The Ninth Day of Christmas

Snow_8You know, I just realized: Christmas is way over for the rest of the world and here I am on the ninth day of Christmas.  Oh, what contrarian glee!  Folks, it's not even Epiphany yet!  The candles in the windows are still lit.  Come on now.

The nine ladies dancing of the ninth day are supposed to symbolize the nine gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  When I think of each of these, I can think of something to do in regard to each, some way I can do something to effectuate the particular fruit in my life.  Self-control?  Bite my tongue.  Don't blurt out what I'm thinking.  Kindness? Take a sick neighbor a meal.  Rake their leaves.  Pick up the groceries the lady dropped in the grocery store.  Hold the door.

But two of these fruits -- joy and peace -- seem different. . . like in that you can't get there from here.  You can't just do something to see these fruit in your life.  You have to aim somewhere else to get the thing you want.

When I think of peace, I think of that oft-cited verse from Philippians 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  I used to dislike this verse because I focused on the "Do not be anxious part of it." I could never quite do that.  You can't aim at not worrying.  You just worry!  I found that the best thing I could do was simply to aim at Jesus, to focus on thanking him for what I had.  Then peace will come -- not immediately, perhaps, but sooner or later.  Aim at Jesus and you get peace as a byproduct of that relationship.  To the extent I don't experience that, I'm just imperfect and growing in my trust in God over the circumstances of my life.

Joy is the same way.  Get joy?  How do you do that?  It's not the same as being happy.  You can't just turn it on.  It's something different -- a deep, settled contentment that comes from knowing God.  Again, I think this comes by focusing not on what might make me happy but simply on God.

So what's new about all this?  Absolutely nothing.  But it's  a new year and I want to aim at the right thing, at the right person.  I might just have joy and peace.

The Eighth Day of Christmas

Snow_7Eight maids-a-milking?  You know, I really don't think the objects of the song have any relation to that which they are supposed to symbolize!  But these eight maids point to the eight beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matt. 5:3-10).

These eight "blesseds" become real to me many years ago when I read John Stott's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture.  Stott lays out the case for a truly counter-cultural community of Christian fellowship marked by radical obedience to Christ.  The beatitudes really are characteristics that each Christian, by God's grace, should strive to exemplify.  The promises follow as blessings for those who seek after each quality.

I used to trip over the one that says "blessed are the meek."  I don't want to be meek if being meek means being a doormat for the world.  But I've come to see the strength in humility, in not thinking more highly of myself than I ought, in bearing with the faults of others, and in serving others -- even if these things are a struggle for me.  To be honest, they are a huge struggle!  And sometimes, to be mourning over the sin the world, feeling the accumulated weight of it on heart and mind, is difficult to call blessed.  And yet the more we feel it the more we know God's grace, sense His presence.

Maybe today is enough to pause, reflect, look heavenward, and acknowledge the graciousness of a god who calls us blessed. who loves the ones he has made, and who graciously shows us glimpses of life beyond sufficient to shore up our short-sighted faith.

The Seventh Day of Christmas - New Years!

Snow_6". . . my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming."  These alliterative swans are generally taken to symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit -- prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11).  But there are many sevens in Scripture, and the seven that are more meaningful to me today are the seven "I am" statements by Jesus in John's gospel.

According to Alister McGrath, "there is a direct similarity between the verbal form of these sayings and Exodus 3:14, in which God reveals himself to Moses as 'I am who I am.'  There thus seems to be an implicit declaration of divinity on the part of Jesus within each of these sayings" (McGrath, in Incarnation).  This renders the almost consistent tendency of people to refer to Jesus as a "great man" or great moral teacher as absurd or plain ignorant.  People who go around telling other people that they are God are the butt of jokes or the subject of pity or, in a few cases, the object of fear, as most of them inhabit our mental institutions or are the petty dictators of third-world countries.  They are not great men in any commonly understood way.  While I knew of this gospel writer's concern to establish the divinity of Christ (as in "the Word was God), I had never equated these seven metaphors that  Jesus applied to himself with a claim to divinity.

The seven "I am" sayings are as follows:

6:35            The bread of life
8:12, 9:5      The light of the world
10:7, 9         The gate for the sheep
10:11           The good shepherd
11:25           The resurrection and the life
14:6             The way, the truth, and the life
15:1, 5         The true vine

All of these "I am" sayings point back at the Old Testament acts of God as well as to the acts of Jesus.  For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life, he points back to the manna that was given the Israelites in the wilderness, the bread supplied by God which sustained them on the journey.  He's saying that when we feed on him, when we draw our life from him, we will never go hungry, that all our spiritual emptiness will be met.  As McGrath says, "We see here again one of the great themes of the New Testament: that God's gracious promises and gifts under the Old Covenant are continued and extended under the New."

I am, I am, I am.  These are powerful statements.  Jesus did not use the indirect simile, but the much more powerful metaphor, to state his identity.  He's saying "I'm your spiritual nourishment, I'm the source of enlightenment, I'm the only way to heaven, I'm the only one who can guide and protect and watch over you and keep you safe, I'm the only one who can give you life here and in eternity and raise you from the dead, I'm the one true path, the one truth, the only place you will be able to grow and be nourished.  People, am God."  Understood rightly, we'd either worship him or lock him up. 

I can't think of a better seven things to remember here at the cusp of a new year than these seven.  These great "I am" sayings are powerful reminders that God is able to keep us, to preserve us, to remake us.  He has made us a new creation, but He's not finished yet with me.  His recreative activity is constant, as He is remaking me in his image every day.  I'm not destined to repeat my failures of the past year.  Despite evidence to the contrary, people do grow and change.  I can lose 20 pounds, though I didn't last year.  I can grow in my love for my neighbor, though I failed many times at this last year.

If I just abide in Him, he will be my great I AM.  It is a new year, a new day, and a new moment.  Take heart: there is hope for us all.  Happy New Year.

New Year's Promise

Cd11  I'm so boring.  It's New Years Eve and I'm not at a party reveling, not even watching the hoopla of Times Square, but passing it listening to the somulant strains of The Innocence Mission's 2000 EP entitled Christ Is My Hope.  This collection of strummed hymns and originals seems of appropriate weight for reflection, saving me from making too much of the moment or too little.  Nothing much, after all, will change with the passing of the hour. And yet so much can happen in the space of one year.  Hearing these hushed hymns reminds me that some things don't change, that God does not change, that sin and need are in all generations and faith, hope, and love line the walk of life right out to its horizon. Charles Spurgeon used just that image of "looking down the long aisles of your years, at the green boughs of mercy overhead, and the strong pillars of lovingkindness and faithfulness which bears up your joys" to encourage his parishioners.  And so it encourages me.

The Psalmist says "The years of our life are seventy,/ or even by reason of strength eighty;/ yet their span is but toil and trouble;/ they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Ps. 90:10).  And later, "teach us to number our days/ that we may get a heart of wisdom.  And so, maybe it is appropriate to stop and reflect, to consider what was and what may be.

This year my son will graduate from high school and leave home, and that will be the hinge of a door opening leaf of a book turning that will mark time's passing.  This year my mother whose body and mind are giving way to the years will leave her home and enter a nursing home where she will most likely live out the rest of her days, bringing to an end a chapter of life but opening up new chapters as well.  We fly away.

There is no guarantee that I will not face hardship, sickness, or even death this year, though I feel fine now and things seem to be going well.  It's just that I have few guarantees.  God does not promise me freedom from hardship, illness, injury, nor does He shield me from the peril of prosperity, of forgetting from whence all good gifts come.  As I walked in the mornings this week I sometimes meditated on one line from Psalm 23: "I shall not want."  I wondered what that could possibly mean, as I have known want and certainly Ugandan Christians I have known have experienced devastating want.  "I shall not want." When it comes right down to it, the only promise I have for the new year is that God will be with me, is with me, whether feast or famine.  That's everything that matters and yet to all who watch for the external nothing much to see.  It's like the Psalmist said in beginning Psalm 90: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations."

When I walk tomorrow, I think I'll dwell on the last verse of Psalm 23, the one that says "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."  The house may be ramshackle on the outside, but inside the fire is warm and the company divine.  I could sit here and talk forever.  Sometimes, like when you are with a good friend, you need not even talk but just sit in each others' presence.  That's my hope for 2010: to dwell in God's house, to settle into residence, to quit trying to make the exterior look presentable and simply enjoy the hospitality of the Homemaker who gives rest to the weary.  I want to live in Him.  Don't you?