Refuge

Our confidence in Christ as refuge and fortress in the storm builds as we discern His presence in all ordinary moments of human existence. Jesus does not “show up” in times of trouble; He is always with us. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

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Retaining Scars

“In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” ~ Tim Keller

A noticeable scar still protrudes above my left kneecap, although it is barely visible to the unknowing eye. I feel no pain from the wound because it healed over fifty years ago, but I remember the reason it is there–it signifies very little to others, but leaves an inescapable impression on me. Stated simply, I remember the reason for the wound. A seven-year-old cannot understand the intent underlying every parental injunction, and I was no exception to the rule. Mine warned me not to run down the narrow cement sidewalk bordered by a brick flower bed that led to our front door, especially when coastal humidity gathered on the concrete surface creating an ice-effect in the tropical climate. I refused to heed the warning, and instead turned it into a game when Mom and Dad were not looking. On one particularly balmy day, I failed to navigate the turn near the far end of the brick enclosure, jamming my knee into its jagged edge. The brick sliced deep, and the cut opened the shallow skin, exposing blood and tissue. Stitches would have helped, but we were not emergency room types. That was the last time I disobeyed my parents with regards to running on the sidewalk. Fifty years is a long time to heal, but I remember my misguided choice each time I bend and catch a glimpse of the unnaturally bunched skin on my knee. The pain is gone, but the warning remains. 

No one and no society can avoid scars. We are not perfect people and this is not a perfect world; to pretend that we are and that we were in the past is lunacy. It is not only unwise to attempt to rewrite history and remove all visages of past atrocity, it is dangerous. Scars serve a purpose; they teach by warning against replicating failure. There are things in my past I would love to forget, but choose to remember so as not to repeat them. I refuse to relinquish memory and forfeit the benefit of my wounds. Scars are defined as marks left on the skin or within body tissue where a wound, burn, or sore has not healed completely and fibrous connective tissue has developed, but they hold greater significance if they are blemishes from our past. It is not perfection, but healing that defines us. Cosmetic surgery could smooth the skin, but doing so would rob me of the benefit of wound.

Slogging Through

“But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” ~St. Paul (Acts 20:24 | NRSV)

It is a good thing we don’t know the outcome before beginning; most wouldn’t have courage enough to initiate the journey. This life is anything but a cakewalk for the vast majority, meaning perseverance trumps giftedness. It is likely that the preacher had this in mind when he quipped:

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 | NRSV).

While most enjoy occasional triumphs along the way, much of life is spent slogging through the mundane. As a younger man I eschewed anything that smacked of ordinariness; in my latter triad of life I am discovering that God rests in the people and experiences easily taken for granted. The everydayness of our existence will never enjoy good press, simply because it is so, for lack of a better word, common. You must grant yourself permission to discern grace in the commonplace. This is more than stopping to smell the roses. It is reveling in the rose’s glory and, more importantly, finding delight in its Creator who designed such beauty for our enjoyment. Make today an experiment that may change your life: Look hard to detect meaning in the most mundane aspects of your day, and then voice praise to your Heavenly Father for granting that moment or person or trial for your benefit. If Scripture is true in stating that God gives good gifts to his children, this day is replete with gifts waiting to be unwrapped by the discerning heart. Do yourself a favor as Brother Lawrence did, and practice the presence of God by establishing an altar in your heart that turns each moment into fuel for red hot passion for Holy God. In so doing, you will discover not only joy for the journey, but endurance needed to finish well. 

Disagreement

“‘That was excellently observed’, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.” ~Jonathan Swift

We are not all the same, but we were never intended to be. A single note holds meaning, but greater beauty is produced by dissimilar notes pressed into service cooperatively. Single notes sound forth a simple melody, but chords navigate and convey the complexity of a symphony. The larger question in life is not how to avoid conflict, but rather, how do I manage dissonance? I rarely read authors with whom I know I fully agree. Frankly, I am convinced of what I believe, making it all the more critical that I test those beliefs against divergent voices. I am stretched to think deeply when someone challenges my sacred presuppositions and forces me to reexamine in light of Scripture rightly divided. The individuals that help refine me are those who refuse to accept me at face value and push to see if there is substance behind profession. Disagreement may be voiced in love. There is no plot without conflict; I am able to improve because of friction rising from dissonance. Never give hatred a foothold. Choose to rise above anger and learn from it. Re-evaluate your position and humbly admit when you are wrong. “One of the truest signs of maturity is the ability to disagree with someone while still remaining respectful” (Dave Willis). Humble yourself by refusing to gloat when you are right. Whether we want to admit it or not, we do not grow in an environ of sameness. We flourish as we push back from what we recognize of ourselves in those we oppose, and as we give the Father space and permission to prune us in the process.

Words Are Life

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ~Ernest Hemingway

Imagination budded as a child and written expression gave it wing to soar. I learned the comfort of words and the ecstasy of a reader’s admiration. Literary growth stalled in my youth as creativity succumbed to academic necessity. What began as an extension of myself muddled into stifling limitation, graded boxes that confined imagination. I place no blame for this on my teachers or curriculum, realizing the responsibility rests squarely on my shoulders. In college, I found new pleasure in research and academic writing that in turn prepared me for fulfillment through sermon preparation. I rarely read from a manuscript when preaching, but preparation for oral expression comes primarily through written construction. Words are life.

In the late afternoon of life, I am discovering writing as calling; or perhaps I should say that writing is uncovering me. Instead of sudden insight, self-awareness more naturally unfolds like a quilt removed from cedar chest storage and unfurled into winter service. Personal exploration may be excruciating, but it is necessary preparation for higher expression. All that is to say that I write these days with hope that my words shaped by moral and spiritual underpinnings will linger long after I’m gone. Find what it is that allows you to most fully be yourself, and express it in such a way that others may be altered by it. What we do in life should grow beyond our death. Each of us is called to outlive ourselves. 

Fireworks and Fireflies

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.” ~Walt Whitman

We heard fireworks last night disturb the distance. At first I thought our grandchildren were having a late night soirée because our daughter had texted earlier to tell us they stopped by one of the numerous temporary stands to buy enough sparklers, Roman candles, and assorted noise makers to mark well the Birthday of our nation. When I looked at the time on my phone, I realized it was far too late for them to be outside disturbing the peace. I listened closely and recognized the sounds were reaching us from a decent span away. I decided to step outside anyway to see if any light displays accompanied the staccato blasts. I walked slowly up our circular drive and along the wooden fence that divides our place from the horse pasture to the south of us. Intent on determining proximity of the fireworks, I almost missed seeing the flash of light over my shoulder. The bright yellow blink was followed by another and still another, nudging me to turn around in the effort to discover their origin. I ended up witnessing a grand display of fireflies chasing one another with strobelike effect; however, much more was taking place than met my uninitiated eye. 

According to the Smithsonian Institute, fireflies have short lifespans. An adult firefly lives only long enough to mate and lay eggs—the larvae usually live for approximately one year, from mating season to mating season, before becoming adults and giving birth to the next generation. They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies, lightning bugs, or glow worms for obvious reasons. What may not be quite so obvious is the underlying purpose for their conspicuous bioluminescence during twilight. Fireflies emit light mostly to attract mates, although they also communicate for other reasons as well, such as to defend territory and warn predators away. In some firefly species, only one sex lights up. In most, however, both sexes glow; often the male will fly, while females will wait in trees, shrubs and grasses to spot an attractive male. If she finds one, she’ll signal it with a flash of her own. In some places at some times, fireflies synchronize their flashing. What appears as intermittent illumination is actually drama on a grand scale.

I frequently pursue the distant darkened rumble at the expense of enjoying spectacular bursts closer at hand. We are wired to crave the spectacular; theatrics trump commonplace for most of us. We prefer the stage or silver screen to the backyard. I can remember as a child expecting to hear symphonic scores trolling as I went through the motions of adolescence. There is glory in the ordinary if we will pull ourselves from distant thunder and recognize what lies closest at hand. A grandchild’s grin, your spouse’s touch, the laughter of a friend, a moment to sit and reflect on the gift each breath brings–these are the currents of splendor waiting to be embraced and cherished. Glory abounds for those intent on finding it. Will I chase after fireworks or treasure fireflies?


(Photo from the Natural History Museum of Utah)

Judging

“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their “right” place.” ~ Henri J. M. Nouwen

Walking the circuit comprised mainly of Horseshoe Bend is as close to an evening ritual as we get. Heading back home, my wife and I walked up on a woman gesticulating animatedly near the intersection with Rock Creek Road. Wary of a disturbed mental state, I moved between her and my wife. On closer observation, we saw that she was in her right mind and merely pointing excitedly across the road in the direction of dense vegetation and two towering elms. We heard them before seeing them. Mature owls were attempting to distract from young offspring in the trees. A family of barred owls calls our neighborhood home, and I’ll be the first to admit that their monkey calls to one another and stealth sightings are a pretty big deal. Still, the woman who first spotted them near the Bend was giddy to the point of appearing odd, and I said as much to me wife when we made our way around the S curve near the private lane we call home. I dismissed the strange woman’s worth and sanity with a sweeping statement something to the effect of, “That woman is crazy.” I stopped mid-sentence and remarked, “I’m judging aren’t I? Please forgive me.” Of all people, I have no right to judge anyone else, especially someone simply expressing enthusiasm over a seldom seen owl encounter.

I am offended by the world, largely because I see far too much of myself reflected in it. My heart rages at injustice, yet I detect my own prejudices staring back at me. I rant against liberal leanings and aberrant morality, but turn away in shame from the hypocrisy of my conservative theological and political stance juxtaposed against leniency toward sin in my own life. I cry out for light in a darkened world while refusing to be that light in fear it may cost too much, or anything for that matter. While proudly declaring myself Christian, all too often I fail to behave like Christ. Thank God there is hope for hypocrites like me. Recognizing our penchant for being spiritually two-faced is a first step toward singular devotion to Jesus Christ that transforms thought, behavior, and allegiance. Lower your head in confession, then raise it with your jaw set to live as Christ among a fallen humanity still waiting for someone to offer a hand up.

“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian” (Brennan Manning).