Tag Archives: featured

The Sun Also Rises

It’s between the rock and the hard place.  Between the devil you know and the devil you don’t.  It’s at the crossroads of unanswered prayers and thwarted desires, deeply held but conflicting priorities, impending doom to the one side and catastrophes to the other.  It’s where ironies tumble one upon the next and paradox makes your head spin.  God is working the intersections.

Here where what you hoped for proves to be a nightmare, you might yet catch a glimpse of Him.  Or there, where the worst has happened and it seems to be strangely turning out for the best.

You’d think a benevolent God would show up with a third choice when you’re stuck between two equally abhorrent options.  So often He doesn’t.  Through the agonizing pros and cons, the Wise One teaches wisdom.  We learn to cry out for help when we stumble.  And the church always shines brightest, grows strongest, in the throes of persecution.

It shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, this is a God whose greatest moments seem to coincide with the ugliest history:  the drowning of an army, the murder of a king.  This is a God who gave us Job and Ecclesiastes, who doesn’t flinch at the hammer and anvil, but pounds out blessing with a weighty thump.

But this is also the God who, right from the beginning, spoke light into the darkness.  “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”  Dawn, as it’s been said, always gets the last word.

This is no distant, clean hands God, but a born-in-a-barn God, a get-down-in-the-muck God.  He doesn’t dole out suffering nonchalantly, He is a weeping God, a longing God, God of passion and compassion.  Whatever else we know, we know He is Love.

It doesn’t do us any good to downplay the obstacles, to trade in fortitude for fluff.  But it’s not any better to sink under calamity like a broken boat in a storm.  Listen, if the only thing you know for certain is that God is good, and God is in control, that’s enough.  Hope will be an anchor for your soul.

Should CNN batter our hearts with relentless bad news, we can hang on to that hope, grip the ropes, ride the waves.  Healing follows pain, beauty’s born in ashes, grace always bends to meet us in our brokenness.

Maybe this will be a year for beatitudes.  Listen to Jesus’ words from Matthew 5.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The Fray found God at the corner of 1st and Amistad.  I say we can find Him between a rock and a hard place, under the mercy, in the mystery.  And hey — what’s that gleaming in the shadows?  I’ll be darned.  Hope leads straight on to joy.

We’re not home yet, not by a long shot.  But one day soon(ish), the sun will rise and just keep on rising.  (There is evening, and there is morning, the Last Day.)  image

The Greatest Story Ever Told

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” Sometimes a moment is so powerful that a hush falls over the crowd. Sometimes a whole throng of people turns, as one body, to stareslack-jawed at the sky. Christmas is such a moment.

It’s a simple story, quickly sketched in just 3 chapters of Matthew and Luke—147 verses in all. And yet, 2,000 years later, we still catch our breath to hear it told. Embedded in the little tale is enough to ponder annually for millennia. Here are a few takeaways from the greatest story ever told.

See Eternally.

Christmas is a mystery play. Like the medieval acting troupes who traveled town to town and performed stories from the back of a rickety wagon, all of the characters in the drama are humble folk—their costumes tattered, their astonishment not eloquent, but too stunned for words. It’s not sophisticated, it’s hardly Shakespeare. Christmas is like a comet over a trailer park….

To read more, head on over to Godcenteredlife.org!  I am honored to be blogging there again today.

9 For Nerds: A Book Lover’s Bucket List

Last week we took the kids to a great second hand bookstore called 2nd and Charles.  It was vast.  Since they weren’t bound to recent bestsellers, we found all kinds of treasures that Barnes and Noble doesn’t stock and the library has forgotten.  I found a great copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and my sweet Abbey walked out with a stack of books — $1.50 for Emily of New Moon.  You can’t find that anywhere!

Got me thinking about my deep and insatiable love of books, the slow, sad, extinction of the indie bookstore, and the places I absolutely need to go before I die.  So here’s my Book Loving Bucket List — three author’s haunts to explore,  three experiences to plum, and three places to shop. All of the photos below are links to fuel your own daydreams.  Enjoy!

The Robert Frost Museum
9.  The Robert Frost Museum, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Vermont is one of the only states back east I’ve never visited, and Robert Frost is such a favorite.  While I’m at it, I’d love to swing over to Amherst and visit the Emily Dickinson house (and maybe Mark Twain’s, Louisa May Alcott’s… OK, maybe just a dozen or so in New England.  Why not?)  I think Frost’s words and his landscape were so wedded, you’d feel you were walking into a poem.  “A breeze discovered my open book / And began to flutter the leaves to look.”

 

Jane Austen's House
8.  Jane Austen’s House

There are scads of Jane Austen tours that take you through the countryside she knew and loved, but of course, the must-see spot is her actual house.  I can only imagine it’s packed.  All the time.  Because Mr. Darcy!  Emma!  Says Miss Austen, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  Wow, Jane.  Don’t hold back.

 

Visit Guernsey shoot at Victor Hugo's Hauteville House
7.  Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House in Guernsey

Little bit influenced by the scenery, not gonna lie.  I am loving reading Les Mis right now, but it is work in spots, for sure.  But Guernsey!  And not only would I need to pack Les Mis, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is one of my all-time favorites.  I might need to stay for a week.  Clear the calendar.

 

American Writer's Museum
6.  American Writer’s Museum, coming to Chicago in 2017

Y’all, this looks so great.  Last night when I couldn’t sleep I started daydreaming about a writer’s museum.  Why is there not one?  It was a happy thought, and when I googled it today, lo and behold, there’s one coming!  And I don’t even particularly like Chicago — but now it’s on the list.  Yippee.

 

The Rabbit Room
5.  The Rabbit Room

So The Rabbit Room is more of an online destination, and it is fantastic.  Enough distraction to derail a month of workdays.  But they actually do host really incredible events, often at the Art House in Nashville, pictured above.  They have this crazy idea that art and music and faith and stories all flow out of the same great place.  I don’t have the chutzpah to join in, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall.  From their website, “Through books, movies, theater, and other media, the magic of storytelling has the power to shape not only our minds, but the world around us. And story, like music, has the kind of magic that not only draws people closer to one another, but draws them further up and further into the great Story.”

 

The Glen Workshop
4.  The Glen Workshop

The Glen Workshop is the brainchild of Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s MFA program.  I torture myself by looking into it every year and then not going.  (Money.  Sad but true.)  Participants in the MFA go to two residencies per year, one in Whidby Island, one in Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe version is open to non-MFA students as well, and brings in an amazing assortment of artists from many disciplines, authors, and crazy respected speakers.  Someday, friends.  Someday.

 

Signs of Life
3.  Signs of Life Bookstore, Lawrence, KS

So it’s not better than Guernsey.  It doesn’t beat Santa Fe.  But it’s practically local, a mere 8 hours away.  I’ve been to Signs of Life (the only one on the list with this distinction) several times, and it’s my favorite bookstore in the world.  So very cool.  Like The Rabbit Room and The Glen, this little gem is saturated in an Art/Faith/Mystery worldview that embraces visual arts, poetry, theology, and literary fiction.  There’s a café for chatting, a gallery for contemplating, and lotsa books.

 

The Last Bookstore
2. The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles

I love the whole gutsy story of The Last Bookstore.  You have got to click on the link above and watch this beautiful little story, of a guy who was pretty broken, who nevertheless had vision and determination, who built maybe the coolest bookstore you’ll ever see.  Redeem your next visit to LA with something extraordinary.

 

Hay-on-Wye
1. Hay-on-Wye, Wales

I think I could live here forever.  It is the land of books.  An entire village of bookstores.  And where the books aren’t shelved in shops, they’re shelved up and down the streets and ruined castle walls, honor system style.  Just be sure to buy a round-trip ticket or you’ll spend all your traveling money and be stuck there forever.  Unless that’s not such a bad thing, after all.

Counter-Culture

Christianity is so much more ridiculous than most people give us credit for.  Oh, there are a lot of stereotypes:  we’re narrow-minded or we’re stuffy, we’re anti-intellectual or we’re honorable.  It depends who you ask.  But the truth?

We believe in miracles, and beauty.  We sing — a lot.  We give away a chunk of everything we earn, value children, turn the other cheek.  We give up sex outside of marriage and persevere in marriages that are hard.  We spend a lot of time reading really, really old books.  We expect to be insulted and pray for our enemies.  That is to say, some of us do some of these things some of the time.  But our hero did all of them all of the time.

More than any time since the decadent Romans roamed the world, Christians stick out like a sore thumb.  A group that used to be fairly mainstream is more and more a fringe society, out of place.  We’re like the Amish.  Our ethics are antiquated and even our happiness is old-fashioned.  Almost everything we believe and all actions proceeding from that faith are out of step with the spirit of the times.

For starters, Christianity is built around the worship of a heroic, self-sacrificial, transcendent God-man who preached love, justice, restoration, and purity of heart.  But the zeitgeist worships self; scoffs at transcendence; and preaches scorn, comfort, futility, and self-determined, conditional ethics.  Taken one at a time, these beliefs of ours are radical.  Even the preliminary notion of a hero is a jolt.

It’s a sign of the times that movies with good guys who come out ahead are universally panned by the critics.  Take Steven Spielberg, for example.  Though his blockbuster hits keep coming, critics dog him over and again with the sneering assessment:  he’s too soft.  As Robert Dougherty states in a review for themovienetwork.com, “The seemingly easy solution is to just make a movie that is completely bleak, has no uplifting message about mankind, humanity, family or ordinary men, and makes audiences feel there is no such thing as heroes — basically the hallmarks of ‘prestige’ television these days.”  While the masses like their popcorn flicks, the critics, arbiters of culture that they are, consistently complain that a movie with hope cannot ring true.  So even The Lego Movie proclaims, “I’m dark and brooding, too!”fontcandy-5

No, heroes are for the unenlightened.  And in the absence of a good that triumphs over evil, we’re left without hope.  And since that’s kind of a bummer, we flip a switch and get… apathy.  Pass the popcorn.

Christians love beauty.  Historically, Christianity accounts for some of the world’s greatest architecture (think cathedrals), sculpture (Michelangelo springs to mind), music (hello, Bach) and literature (Milton) ever created.  As C.S. Lewis put it in Till We Have Faces, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from – my country, the place where I ought to have been born.”

In a world where Robert Mapplethorpe’s pornography is regarded as high art and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (it’s a toilet, folks) is considered an icon, the Christian insistence on light, hope, and purpose seems naïve and childish.  Not that abandoning beauty was ever the humanist’s goal; there is a persistent wistfulness underneath most of the scorn.  But having jettisoned God, and with him any fontcandy-4sense of otherworldly beauty, there can be no hope, and the best we can settle for is facing despair head-on.  But leaving Eden left a vacuum in the human heart, which our jaded culture attempts endlessly to fill.  And so while Christians seek transcendence, our neighbor lives for his appetite, a gloomy proposition of ever-diminishing returns.

That strange evangelical family down the block?  The one with a half-dozen kids?  They talk a lot about their heritage.  They plan for future generations.  When a friend is in the hospital (probably to have a baby — they seem to have a lot of babies), they drop everything to bring a meal.  When someone needs a place to stay, they cram the kids like sardines into one room to open up a guest bed.  They come and go a lot — church on Sunday, Bible study on Wednesday, their lives oriented around a community of like-minded weirdos, a family that extends beyond the four walls.  In contrast, secular millennials often have no particular attachment to the past.  Family ties are loose.  Relationships are somewhat transient.  Marriage (of any variety) is perceived as a fun option insofar as it comes with a big wedding party; children are a cute accessory, maybe, if and when they don’t interfere with other plans.  According to recent reports, the birth rates for women in their 20s saw a 15 percent drop from 2007 to 2012.  One writer went so far as to suggest giving all working adults the equivalent of maternity leave, baby or no baby, calling her invention “me-ternity.”  Christians tend to look at their secular counterparts and say selfish (yep, Christians can be judgy), seculars shrug innocently and say, logical.  And why not?  Jesus summed up this fancy-free attitude:  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

But is it merry, this void of connection?  Christians aim for timeless values, while seculars, feeling free, are paradoxically trapped in time.  Having rejected history and disregarded the future, all they have to live for is this moment, with its gossamer-fragile relationships, its long string of goodbyes.

And so it goes.  Christians espousing personal holiness and self-denial uphold ancient prescriptions for sexual purity: one man, one woman, for a lifetime.  We didn’t set out in our conviction to infuriate three-quarters of the world, but that’s what happened.  While I’m content to be the odd duck and let my neighbor do whatever she wants in her own bedroom, my commitment, my very existence, it would seem, is an affront to her.

In Sweden, forerunners of the gender revolution have abolished gender-specific pronouns in favor of enforced neutrality.  You’ll not likely meet a Christian who feels strongly about grammar, but share with him this development and watch sadness wash across his face.  Why?  We grieve the loss of God-given distinctives.  While seculars literally hold parades for diversity, we Christians quietly revel in it.  Step into my church and meet immigrants, professors, high school dropouts, alcoholics, cowboys, girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, old people, toddlers — all welcomed, loved, and genuinely enjoyed for all their quirks.  We reject snobbish, vapid, body-obsessed androgyny.  We relish our differences.

Do you actually know any Christians?  The word (a religious slur that went viral) means “little Christs.”  Not someone who grew up Lutheran a million years ago or goes to church occasionally or someone who celebrates Santa Claus, but someone who celebrates truth and beauty, love and justice, prayer and worship.  Someone poor in spirit and pure in heart.  Someone who cherishes robust community, authentic relationships, matchless grace and the occasional miracle.  Perhaps we who worship Jesus are even more counter-cultural than you think we are .fontcandy-6

That prayer is weak sauce.

Maybe you’ve prayed it, too —  Dear God, please don’t let my kid become an illiterate hobo.  Please don’t let me kill that woman, not today.  Please let most of the regulars show up this week.  Please don’t let us elect Hitler.

Maybe it started out as a joke — she’d lose her head if it wasn’t attached — and turned into a plea — Dear God, just let her be gainfully employed someday.  Or maybe — well, I’ve successfully ruined everything — Dear God, please don’t let me ruin everything!  After a while it’s not a joke anymore.  After a while it’s a settling.

I found myself last week praying one of those prayers for my children.  A tired prayer, a low expectations prayer.  And as I was muttering the words, I suddenly heard them.  Is this the best God would do for His children?  Can He, would He, not do more?

The problem with weak little prayers is that they are a barometer of the faith speaking them.  Puny prayers pour out of weak faith.  Sad little prayers betray resignation and disbelief, or perhaps a whittled-down God.  Years ago I copied a Eugene Peterson quote into the front of my Bible:

“‘Fears the Lord.’  Reverence might be a better word.  Awe.  The Bible isn’t interested in whether we believe in God or not.  It assumes that everyone more or less does.  What it is interested in is the response we have to Him:  Will we let God be as he is, majestic and holy, vast and wondrous, or will we always be trying to whittle him down to the size of our small minds…?”

Little prayers whittle.  They shrink down our view of God, bit by bit.  We fail to see God as Redeemer — one who redeems, one who transforms, one who picks up the rubble and with it builds a temple.  Asking God to just please not let the worst happen is like asking Michelangelo to please cover up the crude, unfinished block of marble with a nice drape and hide it in the corner.Calacatta-Quarry-Header

It’s not that Jesus taught us to pray entitled prayers, you-owe-me-God prayers.  It’s not “God is a piñata and prayer is the stick,” as one pastor memorably put it.  He’s the one, after all, who gave us “Our Father, who is in heaven, holy be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Humble.  Simple.  Daily bread, not lavish feasts.  Your kingdom come, not my own.

But Jesus’ simple prayer is nevertheless huge.  Imagine if you prayed that way for your strong-willed child, your broken marriage, your floundering career, or your insignificant little church.01dx5075-edit

“My good, good Father, who reigns over everything, who controls every last detail, even your name should amaze me.  Oh, Lord, may your crazy, beautiful, upside-down kingdom come.  May all you set out to do triumph over all that your enemy tries to screw up.  May all that you had in mind when you made me and put me here at this exact moment come to pass — I want what You want for my life, and I believe that Your imagination is bigger and better than mine.  Lord God, You know what I need better than I know it myself — do that.  And help me to be completely, deeply, joyfully satisfied in You.  Give me the power to forgive, to believe the best, to hope all things, to love the way You always, unfailingly love me.”

We named our firstborn Joshua, with a confident prayer that he would be strong and courageous like his namesake.  Now two of our kids are teenagers, and I’m the one with knees knocking.  Now I ask God to make me brave, to give me strong and courageous prayers.  That prayer I prayed last week?  That was weak sauce.  The God of the universe is chiseling a masterpiece.  Get out the camera, folks, it’s going to be amazing.prisoner-atlas

Under the Sea

We’re all up to our necks in it: deadlines, bills, school supplies, car repairs, health concerns, the neighbor’s noisy music, that stinky something in the refrigerator that’s gone bad and can’t be located.  And when we’re personally standing firm and holding fast, others around us are drowning.  Look to your right and left at the next stoplight.  See that guy?  The weary one?  See the angry mom?  The weepy kid?  That’s the human condition, right there.  A philosopher might say it better than I can:  “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless!  What do people get for all their hard work?  Generations come and generations go, but nothing really changes.”  All our lonesome days under the sun, we strive, we struggle, we gain and lose again.  What’s it all about?                                       

I wasn’t familiar with Jason deCaires Taylor until last week, as I searched the internet for images of slavery.  The first sculpture I found, a ring of people holding hands, popped up on a number of sites and was described as a memorial to the slaves lost during the brutal Middle Passage.  (I have learned now that Taylor actually didn’t set out to create a memorial, but welcomed this interpretation.)  That image, and all the varying photos of it, haunted me.  Who built such beauty?  Who thought to leave it hidden under ocean?  Won’t it be destroyed by salt and water?

What else is tucked away out of view under the green waves?

I’ve been snorkeling in the Florida Keys just once, and never scuba diving.  I’ve put my face down out of the bright air and under the blue surface and discovered an entirely new world.  It boggles the mind that such beauty exists in our midst, under our noses (or under the hulls of our paddle boats, more like) unseen and unvisited by all but a few.  And I have only broken the surface, never dived down to the depths.

Of course, there are shipwrecks, fascinating museums to loss and adventure.  And in several scattered places in the world there are underwater sculpture gardens, or lone statues, like “Christ of the Abyss” in the Mediterranean.  But Taylor really takes the cake.  This man (born in 1974, same year as me! has he learned the secret of freezing time? how else can he have accomplished so much??) married his love of diving with his love of sculpture, and the result is dozens of incredible works of art making habitats for coral, starfish, shark.

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If his sculptures could think, if they took stock of the world, what would they find?  Look to your right, look to your left — sorrow and weariness and trouble and decay.  How quickly we age!  How alone, unseen, forgotten, we are.  Where is our creator, who set us here and left?

“So now I hate life because everything done here under the sun [under the water?] is so irrational.  Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind.  I am disgusted that I must leave the fruits of my hard work to others.  And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish?”  (Ecc. 2:17-19)

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And so, despair.  Look down, brood.  Stick your head in the sand.  Return to dust.  Oh, it’s all vanity.

And let’s face it, if Taylor’s ranks of men and women were all alone under the sea, if never visited by angelfish or mermaid, then all his work would fade to oblivion for no greater good than the fact that they existed in the first place.  Like Solomon’s parks and gardens, they would disappear under the silt of time, unmourned.

But some of Taylor’s creations seem to sense another story.  Instead of gazing down into the muck, they are looking up.

little girl underwater

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man in seaweed looking up

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The existence of an entire world above them must sound far-fetched to the underwater dweller.  Farms?  Airplanes?  Roller coasters?  Impossible, surely.  But then, what is that light that pierces the water day after day?  Who are these visitors who come and go?

Under the water, under the sun, everything is futility.  But if indeed there is another reality, another truth, an entire bright world where a person can breathe free, well, that puts another spin on it, don’t you think?

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(All photographs in this post are depictions of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, and I didn’t take a single one.  For more of his unbelievable work, visit http://www.underwatersculpture.com.)