Monday, November 22, 2010

RECOMMENDATION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Hey, I hope you'll think about reading the recent biography by Eric Metaxas called Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

The biography reads more like a novel at times. Yeah, it's a thorough and scholarly work, but Metaxas (also the author of Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce) tells the story of Dietrich's life in a personal and passionate way.  Dietrich has blazed a trail for those of us today who see dark cultural storm clouds looming and growing black overhead.  Dietrich's life not only teaches but shows us that God is real, that we who are His children have no need for any fear, even should we be imprisoned or killed, and that instead we should shine like stars in the night, diligent to help the Church and do each day's simple task with a spirit of gratitude, though faced with terrorists above and below.

POEM: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Firework

Resolutely you rose into the evening air
Through the deepening darkness
You shouted louder and louder

Don't hide a candle in days of hardness
A rocket must go up and always higher
Come! Rise with me to my Father's house!

For where I'm going you can come later
The truth will make a path always
The truth is Alive--He's the Word, the Shepherd.

Suddenly the screaming rocket lights:
Death is dancing with Dietrich Bonhoeffer--

A brightness shines over a thousand hills,

Sparks rain down for a century after

Yet there is also a sudden silence.

Oh, light my fuse too, fiery Word
That I may fly to heaven like that one did.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Watching a Baby Die

Today I visited some orphans. One of them was lying in his crib. As I walked by him for the second time, he fussed slightly.  I looked down at him. His eyes were slightly glazed, and the snot was dried around his small nose.

Part of me wanted to find some way to clean him up, but the rest of me felt icky about it.  I'm being honest here.  So I went to hold the hand of another kid and talk to him for a while, but I came back a few minutes later.  Bing started fussing again, trying to twist his head and body into a more comfortable position. I checked his feet, one of which was sticking out from under his blanket into the cool fall air of the room. I put a blanket over his cold foot.

He had squirmed his head up against the wooden rails of the crib, and was looking up at me, seeming to listen to me.  I rubbed his head for a few minutes, speaking a few soothing words to him.  He looked bad.  I heard of another baby that our friend JennLu watched die the other day. It was death-gasping for a few hours before it passed away in her arms.

So I leaned down and listened, but he seemed to be breathing calmly, with only a slight strain.  But there was something about him: he looked in a bad way.  Still somehow I felt he appreciated the head rub and words I gave him. I saw a bottle of thick milk nearby, so I grabbed it and put a few drops on his tongue. For a minute he just kept his mouth open with the thick milk drops on his tongue, then he closed his mouth and looked a little happy.

Thirty minutes later I was holding another kid, feeding him a bottle, when the resident nurse came and looked at him, and took him out to the clinic to see the doctor. She came in a few minutes later.

"He passed," she said. "He'd had some epileptic seizures this morning. The Chinese caregivers are pretty sad about it, still in shock."

Lord, we commit into your hands this person I met so briefly. I know he is in a much better place. Please help us make the most of these few years of breathing you give to us. We are coming soon into Your eternal presence also.

2 Samuel 12:22-23

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Met God One Time

First I want to say I'm a rather lazy person, often self-absorbed, secretly lustful, or publicly complaining.  I preface my account with that because my encounter with God had little to do with my personal virtues.

I was house-sitting that summer in college. During the days I would go out and work construction, and at nights return to houses of people in our church.  One day I was off from work and reading a book, "Wisdom Hunter."  It's a challenging book.  At one point a girl I was rooting for was raped by someone she trusted. At the moment I finished the chapter, I remembered all the actual rapists and murderers running around on earth.  Girls are being raped and tortured even right now as you're comfortably reading this.  I grew furious and threw the book across the room, cussing.  I stormed outside the house in my socks, slamming the door behind me. 

The house was set back in the woods, and I walked onto the gravel driveway in my socks, tears running down my face, shouting at God.  "How can you let this happen?" "How can you let these rapists and murderers just wander the earth and you not do a blessed thing!?"  I raved and shouted at God perhaps like Job did once.  I let him "have it."  And I was so upset, so furious at it all I knew I wasn't going to stop asking unless He answered me.  "I'm not going anywhere! I'm going to keep shouting and walking outside for two days if I have to until You answer me!  I don't care about anything else now."

I did wander the shaded gravel driveway sobbing and yelling for about an hour.  The condition of the world was no longer something I could put up with; I couldn't go on and damn it, wouldn't unless God answered me.

Sometimes we read God's coming to Job and think God was a little high and mighty.  But as you hear about my experience, can you see the arrogance was on my side, and God humbled Himself terribly to even answer?

He came like a whirlwind.  The trees seemed to blow and through me pierced bright stabs of Presence. My protest plans were interrupted and I fell to my knees on the gravel, barely noticing them, my head grasped between my knees.  An awful silence and roaring bore down on me, as though the sun had left its place in the sky and was lowering its immensity over me. 

And bright and hot as a looming sun I felt God's love for me, and His hatred for sin.  They were equally distinct emotions, both his love and hatred as much larger than ours as two suns would be to two candles.  I felt the unbearable intensity of his love for me, for me individually, an enormous world of fiery love that left my heart blinded. And I felt equally the fire of his hatred for sin, his burning wrath and consuming anger at all the injustice and wrong in our world.

Then God spoke to me.  I don't know if his words were audible, but they were crystal clear as they came.  I think I wrote them down after the experience, but without the paper in front of me I can't now recall them exactly. But he explained to me that if he destroyed from the earth all who grieved him by sinning, I would be in the batch.  He gently flayed open my heart and pointed out some particular sins worming their way around in me.  I was speechless. There was nothing I could say to this God blinding me with the weight of His presence, with the fierceness of his hatred of sin, and most of all with the burning of his love for me, personally.

When the trees seemed still again and the sky was an empty blue I stumbled back to the house.  After meeting with God it is hard to do anything but stumble.  My protest was over.  My life would go on in this broken world, of which I was one of the broken but beloved parts.

I have never forgotten the immense sight of the greatness of His love for me, and the burning hatred he has for sin.  It was like meeting the sun.

Perhaps a psychologist could explain away the experience in materialistic terms, as some have done for Saul of Tarsus' experience on the road to Damascus. All I know is that if I deny the blessed reality of the experience I will be held accountable.

And anyway, read God's Word and I think He will say the same things to you which He was saying to me that day.

Friday, September 17, 2010

POEM: The Moon is a Mystery to Me

I walk along the beat of the street
To look at the rising moonlight
Two bicyclists fly whizzing by
Barely dodging headlights.

No matter how many ways I gaze
No matter how many nights
Still that moon is a mystery to me
And all the starry sights.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Governor and the Mother

As is the custom of many foreigners in China, I was stuck on the john, contemplating which oily or spicy dish it was that sent me there. I picked up a year-old issue of Time Magazine to pass the time.  And I was astonished in that secular rag to find an article truly worth reading.  A writer named Caitlin Flanagan raged like a present-day prophet against our modern selfishness in marriage and the ruin it brings our children. 

The article was excellent, but it was the last paragraph comparing a governor Sanford and his wife that stuck with me and made me look at life with a clearer perspective.

"Who is left to ensure that these kids grow up into estimable people once the Mark Sanfords and other marital frauds and casual sadists have jumped ship? The good among us, the ones who are willing to sacrifice the thrill of a love letter for the betterment of their children. "His career is not a concern of mine," says Jenny Sanford. "He'll be worrying about that, and I'll be worrying about my family and the character of my children." ...

I sat there, thinking. Jenny and Mark Sanford met, married, and rode the stars to governorship. Can you imagine yourself as the governor of a state, or married to one?  But this woman of character effortlessly makes governorhood look like small potatoes compared to faithfully raising your children.  She's not caught up in all the hoopla of how marvelous it is to be rich and powerful.  Being faithful to your spouse, self-sacrificing for your family, self-giving to those around you--those are the weighty roles, the overlooked chores that will headline in eternity.  Governorship is a smaller matter than I had thought. Or at least daily life is a much bigger matter.

p.s. "Is There Hope for the American Marriage" by Caitlin Flanagan,8599,1908243,00.html

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

POEM: The Best of Forests are Built at Night

The best of the forests are built at night
When spiders are spinning their web-like songs
And the lumberjack angels in delight
Kiss the fallen trees to heal their wrongs

When the wind is your friend and your enemy
And the moon peers at you with a wink or two
Like a tiger eye from the bars at the zoo
As the forest lights dance in the dew.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

About Yesterday's Question

My wife suggested that perhaps Christians could set up a copyright that would expire after five years or so. As it is, copyrights today expire after 95 years, or at times, after the death of the individual copyrighter plus 70 more years.  I guess her plan could work like the medical drug system in America: a new drug is copyrighted for a few years, then the market is opened for generic drugs to copy. 

A friend of mine named Easten suggested another idea:  It's an organization that's worked out riders to tack onto copyrights. You can choose to modify your copyright for free in several ways: to allow others to share it, or modify it, for non-commercial or even for commercial reasons.  Worth checking out.

How selfish is a traditional copyright for a Christian, in light of Acts 4:32?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Christian Copyrights?

My wife has a pet peeve--Christian artists and writers clinging to their copyrights.  For example, Henry Blackabee has a life-changing study called "Experiencing God."  What if someone is overseas and wants to make copies for people interested in studying?  But it's a little hard to get 40 copies of a book overseas.  Or what about praise and worship music?  Should Christian artists and publishers really barb-wire their products as they do today? 

I hadn't thought much about this before. As an aspiring writer, I thought that writers need to make a living.  Still, we would shudder at the thought of making everyone pay at the door to enter a church and hear a sermon.  We've found other ways to provide for a pastor.  And artists like Keith Green, Rich Mullins, and Derek Webb have found ways to get around the worldly money-mongering we do.  Derek Webb apparently gave a recent album away on the internet with just an option for donations (which I think all went to a charity anyway).  What do you think?

POEM: Clutching for Chocolate Grace

My muddy hands clutch for the chocolate of your grace
My black fingernails peeling off the foil
Hungrily with tears this starving street-boy
Sits in the gutter at your feet and eats with darting eyes

But now you lean and grip my shoulder firmly
Here you wipe my grimy cheeks with your smooth skin
Here-I don't understand-you sit down beside me
As the passerbys snicker and grin

And suddenly the world spins slower
Suddenly my worst mistakes, my dirty thoughts
Wash off me bit by bit
As I lean against your beating chest and rest.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Everybody has the Same Great-Grandparents

DNA turns up some interesting stuff. Recently it has informed us that every single person on the earth had a common ancestor, very recently.

"All humans alive today share a surprisingly recent common ancestor, perhaps even within the last 5,000 years, even for people born on different continents" ( This from the evolutionists. They go on to say there was a geneological line leading to this common ancestor that we all have in common too, going back to our first parents, who they theorize lived 50,000-75,000 years ago.

In a nutshell, scientifically speaking, a very long time ago there were these first parents of humanity. They had children and earth's population increased rapidly. Then suddenly a disaster struck 5,000 years ago (scientists theorize a giant meteor or volcano) and only one family survived, the ancestors of all people alive today.

If you ask this wild-eyed Christian, it sounds suspiciously like the story of Noah and the Flood, the disaster the Bible claims happened 5,000 year ago. All right, I know I'm a little wild-eyed and frothy at the mouth. Still.


Darwin and scientists after him generally guessed that humans evolved in different branches all over the earth. Thus, Darwin assumed that Caucasians had evolved on a branch before other races like Africans and Australian Aborigines. In fact, he guessed that one day Caucasians would exterminate the more primitive races as Caucasians continued to evolve.

"At some future period … the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races...The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope … the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla."

--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., A.L. Burt Co., New York, p. 178, 1874

This idea that some humans are genetically superior to others supported racism in the 20th century, including some of Hitler's rationalizations for German racial supremecy.

But this DNA discovery turns that idea on its ear. It means we are closely related (relatively speaking) to every other human on earth. Not to sound like a hippie, but we are all one family. There are no branches of various 'homo sapien' species.

I sometimes feel shy of strangers. But this discovery tells me (as the Bible has always taught) that all of us humans are close family. When I look at a Chinese person, squatting strangely on the street, spitting, his Asian face staring back at me, the realization has been sinking in that he is my brother, that she is my sister. None of us are any closer to monkeys than anyone else, as scientists tried to suggest for a while. We are closely related. We are family.

"From one he created all the nations throughout the whole earth....For in [God] we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."

--Paul of Tarsus, (circa 40 C.E.), Acts 17:26

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

God, Sex, and Chemicals

I learned something fascinating today.  Apparently scientists are still in the midst of researching neurochemicals--chemicals connected with our brain. Although our amazing brains work generally like a super-computer, they aren't made of silicon and wires, they're made of living cells, which is way more astounding.  But these living cells are susceptible to chemicals which alter the way the brain works, records, and responds to life. Those chemical interactions point to an amazing Design.

For example, today I was reading about four brain chemicals associated with sex.  When someone becomes sexually aroused, DOPAMINE is released in the brain.  This powerful chemical narrows and focuses the mind, tuning the attention to the object of desire.  That narrowed focus blocks out other thoughts, including negative concerns or problems. So Dopamine not only makes you locked-in, it also makes you feel happy, even ecstatic.  In a sexual experience between a husband and wife, this is the drug responsible for those puppy-dog eyes and the feeling that those two people are only people alive in the world. 

As the sexual experience continues, NOREPINEPHRINE kicks in.  This chemical in your brain kicks up your memory, branding small details of the encounter deep into your mind. These may pop up later in flashbacks or vivid recounting of the sexual encounter for years and years.

At the climax of the sexual encounter, OXYTOCIN trickles into the brain. Scientists first discovered this chemical in new mothers holding their child for the first time. It floods their brain, bonding them to their new baby, making them desire to hold it, and conveniently also signalling milk production to begin in earnest.  New fathers also may get a dose when they hold their baby for the first time.  And someone having a sexual climax gets a dose too, bonding them to the object of their desire and increasing the desire to cuddle and hold.  (For that matter, holding hands or kissing may release amounts of oxytocin as well.)

After sex, SERATONIN oozes into the brain's bloodstream.  This better-known chemical relaxes, calms, and gives a sense of satisfaction and well-being.

What's the up-shot?  Well, when we look at a husband and wife, we see written God's good and crafty plan.  At just the right times, chemicals we barely understand are released into our fragile brains. Chemicals to focus us on our mate, to help us remember and cherish every detail, to bond, and to feel satisfied in each other.  In fact, these drugs are powerful enough that some compare them to a cocaine addiction--the husband and wife can literally become somewhat dependent on each other.

But switch the situation. Make it an illicit affair or someone masturbating alone to lifeless pictures.  This person will be obssessed to focus on their desire, these images will be seared into their brain, bonding them together, releasing some of their stress and give them a chemical induced sense of calm.

Insidious.  On one hand, we must admire the good God for his fatherly desire and design for his chilren. On the other we are dismayed at the trap Satan has waiting to snare us.  How little we understand even our own bodies! Praise God and beware Satan.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Stop Listening

It's so easy to listen like a lump and absorb like a sponge. It's hard to plan to change and stand up and do something.

Tonight I listened to a sermon that moved me to tears. The speaker's mother had lived with patched and threadbare clothes so she could send more money to gospel workers. She fasted often in her passion for those who hadn't heard. When she died her sons discovered she didn't have any money saved up of the amounts they had sent her each month for support. When the sermon was over a group of us discussed the message for a few minutes, talking about indigenous workers and their worth, the pastor's mother and her earnestness. Talking.

Then I came back to my apartment and sat down to read a wonderful book on cross-cultural ethics called "Strange Virtue" by Bernard Adeney. I read and read. So interesting, entertaining to my brain.

Lord, I read and listen about how to follow you year after year. When will I do? Bless me with the help of these other brothers and sisters to drop apathy and commit to action. I want (but don't want) to fast and pray, and to give money, to be a doer and not a hearer only, deceiving myself.

"Little children, let us not love in word and tongue, but in action and in deed."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

POEM: When We Kneel Small

It's a beautiful thing when we kneel small
And let the Son of Man grow tall
Sorrows shrink back down to size
And the sun dawns and begins to rise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

POEM: Sometimes Just a Presence

sometimes just water is enough
sometimes just a presence
you are not the only one
wordless in these rooms

the Spirit with us here
often speaks with groans
too deep for words to bear

Saturday, May 8, 2010

POEM: After Hanging Up

The phone connection to daylit America closes,
The crickets start their song
In the darkness outside the apartment,

And in the moist stillness
I only feel the ache of separations
The urgency of His plan
Who is making all things new.

Friday, May 7, 2010

POEM: Aching

Aching is a word we use--
A label on a jar
With a writhing snake inside
The scrawl on a chart
At the foot of a hospital bed
The way a broken bone feels
Too deep below the skin to show--
Somewhere down here in the heart
Hurts a place so deep
Only God can go
And He does.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dogs and Mexican Food

Built into dogs' DNA is the ability to vary greatly in appearance. They can be as small as a Chihuahua, as large as a St. Bernard.  It's micro-evolution, and it's the opposite of macro-evolution. It shows clear design parameters pre-built into the DNA, pre-programmed to be able to change within boundaries.  A dog's DNA will never let it become a cat. But it suggests a creator who likes variety and diversity. 

Humans also have variety programmed into our DNA.  That's where skin-color, facial shape, preferences, and personalities come from. And in case we stagnate, every father and mother brings fresh variables to shake it up.  But I believe not only our bodies and personalities, but even our cultures are within His design.  I believe He loves the variety of cultures. In specific, I want to mention food, probably because I'm hungry and my wife is making me a birthday dinner of Mexican fajitas from scratch. (The refried beans take about two to three days to make.) 

There's a lot to say for Chinese food, for Italian pastas and American hamburgers. But personally I'm most grateful for Mexican food, including that cultural mutt called Tex-Mex.  The world would be emptier without it.  And I like to suspect that God himself is delighted in Mexican food, just as he laughs for joy at tiny Chihuahuas and giant St. Bernards.  Splendid plan, God!  Time to eat.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

THOUGHTS: As the Sparks Fly Upward

They say man is born for misery as the sparks fly upward. I won't deny it's true. Too many aches creep over me with each passing year--my back, my knees already growing creaky. Like black dust from this nearby factory too many disappointments gather on me, heroes fallen, friends hurt, hopes dashed, dreams laid aside in a quiet cabinet.  Too many times I have seen tears, especially tears that I have caused, to deny our misery.

But somehow in the soot and ashes of our lives You live.  Take us as a child again, grown old and cold into the gathering of Your arms. Wash us with the tears we wept, take frayed ends and mend and dust and wash and shine until Your own divine glows in our face again, until the sin and sadness we have brought ourselves are long forgotten beneath Your blue skies and sun. Remember our frail frames, our names written in the sand, for the wind is blowing.

Because we are indeed Your own give us enough sunshine to walk and reach our home. Give us enough shelter to find strength. And from there we stagger out under the stars and raise our hands, for the wind is joy, and the sand is warm, and even in the night there is enough light. We sit with the others you have sent around the firelight and raise our eyes to heaven as the sparks fly upward.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

They Don't Deserve Compassion

Apparently I've got the spiritual gift of Mercy in large doses. But some of my thoughts recently might not seem very merciful.

I was walking by a courtyard near our apartment in China the other day on the way to a meeting. Heaps of trash were littered around the edges of the small courtyard, and two or three small children were sitting in the dusty middle and playing with their plastic toys.  My heart was at first wrenched at the sight of their poor living condition.  After a minute of thought, however, I changed my mind. The trash didn't get there by accident. Their families are the ones who threw all the trash carelessly around the courtyard.  They made their own mess.

Another example of my recent hard-heartedness:  After seeing beggars in China (and even more sad, those who should be begging but are too proud), I began to have little patience with American beggars.

Beggars and many homeless in America, as far as I can tell, live that way as their choice of lifestyle.  I've dabbled a little in street ministries, enough to know there are places devoted to giving people a roof over their head and getting people back on their feet. Say what you want about the difficult situations of homeless beggars in America, it doesn't hold a candle to the plight of a Chinese beggar.  They have truly fallen between the cracks and there is no way back up again, ever.

*Flush* went my merciful feelings for American beggars.

So those who loudly clamor about how people deserve compassion are often mistaken.  There are some orphans and truly helpless to whom I still award the label "deserving" to, but so many others get themselves into deep doo through their own ignorance and stupid choices.  My neighbors don't "deserve" compassion for playing by the trash piles they themselves made.

Then I got snagged by the word "deserve."

Do I deserve the education I've gotten?  Or forgiveness for the various mistakes I've made that have put me deep in the doo?   Or the patience and untiring help of the Only Good One?

I realized I can still have mercy and compassion on my neighbors and their trash, and on American beggars. Not because they deserve it, but because God loves to give undeserved compassion.  He is more understanding than we deserve, more patient than we deserve, and more helpful than we deserve.  And I have the joy of learning to be like Him.  Not to mention taking advantage of His compassion myself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Beggars and Burning Questions

I've been preparing to leave for China, travelling to China, and getting set up in a new apartment with my wife in China for the past some weeks, so I haven't had the chance to blog. In addition, blogspot is one of the many sites that are blocked from viewing in China. But for the moment I've found a way around the Great Firewall and am blogging again.

China is getting along fine compared to many countries in the world.  Few people are starving to death, and if you're intellectually gifted you have a chance to rise in society.  There is a sense of order and progress of sorts here, not the hopeless despondency hanging over many places on our globe.  But still, compared to the American suburbs I frequent, there is a lot of raw poverty here.

So how do you respond when you walk past a girl sitting in a huge pile of trash, smiling?  What do you do about the man in tattered clothes standing over there, picking some leftover food out of another trash pile in the alley?  And what do you do when you try to give him some food but he refuses it?  And what about the crippled boy with open sores lying on the sidewalk, begging?  Most likely the sores were purposefully given to him by a beggar boss, and all his proceeds go to the local Fagin. (It feels like Oliver Twist here at times.)

Once I bought an ice cream cone from McDonald's for one of these boys, preferring to give him food instead of money.  He violently refused the ice cream cone, and when I put it in front of him, he batted it away onto the sidewalk.  I suspected his boss was watching, so I went back inside and kept an eye on him.  After a few minutes, the boy looked around, and cautiously crawled over to the ice cream cone melting on the dirty sidewalk. As I left I saw him licking it hungrily.

If there were one or two such sad cases I could try to handle it. But in a country of 1.3 billion they seem limitless and this Ugly American realizes how tiny his fists are that beat against the vast iron wheel of the world.

So should I sorrow or not sorrow?  If you allow all the sorrows of the world into your heart you will be broken. I have done that before.  Yet tomorrow I'm going to an IKEA to buy some modern furniture or appliances for our new apartment. How does that fit in with the squalor nearby me?

Somehow I must find life with sensible compassion. I must do what I can in my small way to bring the kingdom. But is there a place for beauty and brightly furnished apartments? Where is the place for laughter and even pleasure? If I lose all my joy what do I have to give those without joy?

How wide do I open the door of my heart to the world's sorrows? How often should I allow my smile to become a grimace?

And in the back of my mind I always hear the warning:
"You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

PRAYER: To my God when in troubles

My God, here in the hours of the late night I rest in your presence. I came boldly, dragging my ragged self into your holy light.  You know, my God, that I do not read your word because I am holy, but because I am sick, and need your medicine. 

You are the source of all that is sweet and bright in my life, the one who refreshes me when I am beyond refreshing.  Those who look to you are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame!  Do good to your servant that I may live and obey your word.  Remember your promise to never think of my sins again.  Deal gently with me and lift up my face, for I am dust, a whisper of smoke that quickly passes. 

How great is your love for those who fear you!  And you keep my tears in a bottle.  So now grant me this, Lord: that you come near to me, for I am lonely and weak in heart.  Come here, please, as I come to you.  Let me be as St. John who rested his head on your chest at the table.  And I will look up with joy, because you have heard my request.  I will hold my chin high because you have been kind to me.  I know you have heard my prayers for help and will deliver me from all my troubles. 

"The righteous man has many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Suffering: Pointing Fingers in the Wrong Direction?

A whole lot of passionate and upset talk goes on about God and Suffering.  How can a Loving God permit us to suffer unfairly?  If He is so powerful why doesn't He stop our suffering?  What about all the innocents who for example are homeless or crushed or crippled by the earthquake in Haiti or the hurricane in New Orleans? 

It seems to some of us sensitive moderns that God doesn't do a very good job at being nice.  The best excuse for him we can scrape together is that perhaps he doesn't ordain or control this world, but that he is somehow experiencing it as we do, in a sort of state of constant surprise. 

That sort of stuff won't do.  Either God wears the pants or He needs to find another name for himself.  And maybe someone should slap me, but I think generally we're pointing fingers in the wrong direction when we have a problem with God.  Don't get me wrong. I've worked with crippled orphans in China, ached for frost-bitten beggars in the street, been furious over child-prostitution in Cambodia, and been so angry at God for all the suffering in the world I have shouted at him for an hour or not talked to him for months. 

I don't have all the logical answers I used to have. Maybe I'll have them again someday. But I've learned enough to know that any wrath and finger-pointing really needs to point at us.  The more I see of humans and into my own heart, the more I feel sad for us and our selfishness.  God doesn't need a PR guy but I want to say this anyway:  He's the good guy.  I've touched the hem of his garments and caught glimpses of his eyes and seen and felt the sunshine of his face.  "Taste and see that the Lord is good."  He's the force for good and healing in this world.  If I can point a finger for a minute, I want to point it at Jesus, God in the flesh, hanging on the cross.  That's a hint to what God is really like, even when we don't know all the why's of what he's doing. Save your angry questions for those who deserve it. Like you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

THOUGHTS: The Coming Dawn

May your hearts burn warm as gold.  May sunshine be ever growing in your face and cheeks and eyes.  May peace like a river swell in your heart as you hum and break into singing in your living room and in your car.  May the stars speak love to you in the night and the sun shout it by day.  May every frog and dog and bird you see bring messages of life from the Lover of all things.  And may your days wax richer, your passion burn deeper, your hand hold tighter to the swinging hand of the Almighty Father of all things. 

Forever you will live, those of you blessed to abide in His shadow. Forever you will rest and run for joy.  No eye has seen the peace you will experience, no ear has heard the fitting things He plans toward us through time and space. 

For now you wait on the racked and dying crust of a lonely planet. For a time you see with the eyes of pain and restlessness the blood and hear the tears that also ache the heart of God.  But peace will come to you who rest in Jesus. He will gather His sheep in His arms and lead them home.  The age of evil is breathing its last days. The sunrise of righteousness sweeps toward us. Let those in the night know the Sun is rushing over a turning world to the time of dawn. 

And after the ashes of this earth are blown away a crisp, fresh world will rise like the scent of flowers on an April breeze.  And prophetic words will cease in the knowing peace. And miracles will be no more for all things will be new.  Rest your hearts in the darkness. Listen to the song of the nightingale for he sings of day.  And light will rise on the righteous in the coming dawn.  And all will see in the light the Son of Man, a sword in hand for evildoers. He will rise with healing in His wings. May your hearts burn warm as gold refined by fire.

Friday, January 29, 2010

POEM: A Lament for Morgan

A Lament for Morgan Harrington

Lie quiet in this grassy field
At last it's over
The painful hours are almost healed
In the whisper of breeze and crickets
As you leave behind
Your flesh and bone
Your broken earthly home
And now you leave us
Our concerts, our cars, our short careers
Our tears

We are sad for you
Sad for the unspeakable things
That happen in our world
By humans hands.
We wonder if God has left us to ourselves.
We turn our eyes from the mystery of you
And shake our heads
At the hole you leave behind.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ponderings on Morgan's Murder

So, I'm sitting here at a local coffee shop in Roanoke, staring out the front window.  There's a newspaper stand a few feet from the window with a big headline: "Remains likely Tech student's." 

I was shocked and saddened when I saw it--people around here have been looking for 20-year old Morgan Harrington's remains for the past three months since she disappeared from a Metallica concert.  Apparently she was a little drunk at the concert and had gone to find a restroom. In the process she wandered out of the John Paul Jones arena there in Charlottesville, VA and when she tried to get back in they told her there was a strict no-readmission policy. 

(That strikes me because I was in that same arena a few months ago for a U2 concert. Amber and I stepped outside after the concert and when we tried to go back in to find friends we were very annoyed to be refused re-entry.)    So, she phoned her friends and told them she'd find another ride home.  Apparently she went out thumbing a ride.  Her cell phone (without a battery) and purse were found in one of the grass parking lots nearby.  Now a farmer 10 miles south of Charlottesville just found her body along the fence line in the tall grass. 

I'll be honest. After the initial shock of sadness, I immediately felt critical of Morgan. I thought, "You tried to hitch a ride home in the dark from a metal concert while wearing a mini-skirt and drunk?"   It was pretty dumb, but then I remembered that I've done some pretty thoughtless or immature things too.  And I bet if she had lived another twenty years she would have matured.

Then I thought about the guy or guys that did it.  People usually shake their heads and moan, "I can't understand how one human could do this to another."  The scary thing for me is I've always understood.  Maybe it's time with God has shed more light in the dark places of my soul, or maybe I'm just worse than others, but I know the grip a wrong desire can have on a heart. I know how stubbornly you can pursue it, and how painful the guilt and regret are the next day.  I know what it's like to try stuffing that guilt down, to get caught in cycles of bondage.  Honestly, I think we all know what I'm talking about, on one level or another, whether it was the choice to smoke just one more cigarette or the choice to lash out and say something that really hurts someone else.  There are a lot fewer steps between a "small" sin and guilty pleasure and a big one than we are comfortable knowing. 

Maybe that's one reason Jesus said, "I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart," and equated anger and hatred with murder, which can send a person to hell (Matthew 5).
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
                                     (John wrote this in 1 John 3:15)

The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."                     (Paul wrote this in Romans 13:9)

So, according to God, if you and me find ourselves hating or lusting, we are in the same boat as the guy who gave in to his wrong desires and harmed Morgan so permanently.  In fact, by failing to love our neighbor as ourself, we are breaking God's law.  This guy failed to love his neighbor as himself--he was self-absorbed, to put it simply. 
All that leaves me personally wide-eyed.  Don't worry, God won't forget to punish whoever did this to Morgan.  "For He who avenges blood remembers" (Psalm 9).  But unless we want to share in his punishment for lusting and murdering we should tremble and humbly ask His forgiveness ourselves. He longs to forgive us sinners, but He won't unless we turn from our sins and seek forgiveness under the blood of His Son.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Unnecessary Trauma

Last night while it rained outside, water began flooding into the basement where my wife and I live.  (Some good friends have let us stay in their well-furnished basement apartment for free while we're on leave from China for six months.) The water began coming in more and more quickly, puddling and pooling and then working its way across the floor.  Together with Caleb and Beth (our 'landlords') we fought it valiantly with towels and a carpet steam cleaner for some hours. 

To ravage a little Lewis Carroll: We fought it with thimbles, we fought it with care; we pursued it with forks and hope.

The fight against the water lasted from about 11:00pm last night to almost 5:00am early this morning. We kept it from rising enough to ruin the furniture.  We soaked up and sucked up between 100 and 150 gallons of dirty water.  But I was blessed by Beth and Caleb's calm, matter-of-fact approach to the disaster.  They knew they might have to replace their wood-flooring they just put down last year.  They had to go out and spend almost two hundred bucks on shop-vacs and other supplies.  But they just accepted it, worked at it, rolled with the punches.  The night ended up being fun. We were comrades in the fight, and somehow it was meaningful.  The two pizzas we cooked up at 3:00am and 4:30am didn't hurt either.  But what I'm saying is there wasn't angst, tears, agony, or hair-pulling.  What could have been a traumatic event became a blessing.  We handled it together.  We'll work it out one way or the other. 

Reminds me of a verse from Hebrews 10:

You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

These people had their hard-earned possessions unfairly confiscated by bullies or by the government of that day because they were Christians.  But they took it calmly, even joyfully.  One translation I think says they took it "cheerfully." 
I think they could do that because they were keeping it in perspective.  They knew which things were really important, and really lasting, and they didn't get hung up on temporary losses and painful setbacks here and now.  I was blessed by Beth and Caleb's response last night.  I hope I can gain that roll-up-the-sleeves cheerful approach to life's many troubles as well.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What should Writers Write?

My mother-in-law recently gave me an excellent Christmas present. She subscribed me to Writer's Digest, a monthly magazine for writers. The articles are very practical for any aspiring writer, and I recommend it--not as a deep, inspirational, soul-changing effort, but as a technical encouragement. 

But I did notice one thing.  Again and again and again articles and advertisements promise to "inspire" my writing, give me new ideas, spur me on to brainstorms of immense proportions.  It seems in the writing field everyone is scrambling for a new idea, a hot plot, a smooth style, or a catchy character.  There's just one thing lacking in most--truth and deeper meaning.  It feels like many of my fellow writer's highest aspirations are just to be read. I admit I feel that deeply, too. 

"To create something you want to sell, you first study and research the market, then you develop the product to the best of your ability." 
                                                              -Clive Cussler

"Ask yourself, 'Will other people find this story so interesting that they will tell others about it?' Remember: A bestselling book usually follows a simple rule, 'It's a wonderful story, wonderfully told'; not, 'It's a wonderfully told story."
                                                              -Nicholas Sparks

"Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it's up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting."
                                                              -John Updike
I don't want to disillusion you by looking at the man behind the curtain, but here it is--many writer's highest hopes are to snag the attention and appreciation of readers.  A large number of writers carry on mysteriously as though they have something really deep and meaningful to say, but if boiled down their stories leave only a couple beans and a noodle at the bottom of the pot.  Take almost any novel off the New York Times' bestseller list and boil down what it says. Most likely it says that life is tough but we just have to get through it--and those are the deep ones.

Throughout this magazine I'm coming to love, there are "prompts" to help writers find something to write about.  Here's one: "Write a short story of 750 words or fewer based on this issue's prompt....  PROMPT: Something bizarre occurs at the table next to a couple on their first date."

Now, this is just a fun exercise and a good excuse to hone the technical craft of writing in a limited number of words. But my point is that the prompt doesn't say: "PROMPT: A single mother who is a woman of faith is unfairly fired from her job. Write a short story about her being fired and what she does about it." 

That would actually be quite a mouthful to write about in 750 words, but it has meaning.  And the words "of faith" are a key part of the meaning.  Presses are printing out numberless books about people in difficult situations who just go on suffering, making what scattered human sense they can of their short and disappointing lives. 

In the midst of these, the stories of the Jewish Old and New Testaments stand out. The tapestry of story these tales tell weaves a world of meaningfulness, a world of great importance and consequence, a world that may actually have a good ending, where the bad guys get it and the good guys live happily ever after.  "Great, a fairy tale," some may say. "We already have those." 

A fairy tale, until we run smack into the sweating body of Jesus, and realize His tomb is empty, and His scaredy-cat followers became filled with joy and boldness overnight and (without exception) spoke boldly of His death and resurrection though most were martyred.

Could it be our world has a meaning? Could it be the story of our lives is no mere accident growing like fungus on the tree of time?  When we look at our bodies and the world of nature can we really accept the tale that it is all a whim of chance?  Or is there something more to write about?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

No video camera recorded this

There are so many things no video camera sees:

-Our democratic leaders discussing our future health behind closed doors
 (They do not even allow sleepy C-SPAN in)

-The woman I read about who used RU-486, crying and screaming in the shower above the remains of her aborted baby
  (Though her boyfriend outside the locked door will never forget it)

-Me, staring at a lewd advertisement that popped up on the screen, hesitating, hesitating.
  (This time heaven won)

No human video cameras saw these moments. But I doubt the eyes of God forget anything.

     For He who avenges blood remembers...
                                           - Psalm 9: 12

While I long for justice in the world I find I should be careful throwing too many stones in my glass house.

     Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
     Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O LORD.
                                          - Psalm 25: 6-7

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

POEM: If Earth Were Ours Forever

If Earth Were Ours Forever

The latent stars swing overhead
Last gleams of ancient suns now dead
And leaning low across the sea
The ravaged moon hangs silently
How haggard here, how dread and drear
These wrinkled bones of sky appear
The upthrust of volcanic mounds
The silence in the cease of sounds
No life here, no laugh or cry
No scream for mercy, no asking why
This is the earth we'd have at last
If God just gave it all to us.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rejoice or Sin!

Yesterday I picked up C.S.Lewis's book, "The Problem of Pain."  I had found it dull reading until my eyes read this and I nearly dropped the book:

"My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentence of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to 'rejoice' as much as by anything else."

Some people say anger is okay--but only in a few situations. Outside of those anger is a sin.  Lewis is saying the same thing about sadness!  He says the only times God is pleased for us to be sad is if we are 1) actively repenting of a sin or 2) feeling pity for someone and hurrying to help them.  And both of those are temporary sadnesses.  All other sadness "is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to 'rejoice' as much as by anything else."

That was shotgun blast of light to a melancholic like myself.  I didn't have the strength to read any more of Lewis after that sentence, so I went and grabbed my daily devotional book "Daily Strength for Daily Needs" the classic by Mary Tileston.  Let me reprint here the devotion for that day (January 18) and leave it to you to ponder.

Thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee.
               -Deuteronomy 26:11

Rejoice evermore. . . . In every thing give thanks.
                -1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Grave on thy heart each past "red-letter day"!
Forget not all the sunshine of the way
By which the Lord hath led thee; answered prayers,
And joys unasked, strange blessings, lifted cares,
Grand promise-echoes! Thus thy life shall be
One record of His love and faithfulness to thee.
            -Frances Ridley Havergal

Gratitude consists in a watchful, minute attention to the particulars of our state, and to the multitude of GOd's gifts, taken one by one. It fills us with a consciousness that God loves and cares for us, even to the least event and smallest need of life. It is a blessed thought, that from our childhood God has been laying His fatherly hands upon us, and always in benediction; that even the strokes of His hands are blessings, and among the chiefest we have ever received...

When this feeling is awakened, the heart beats with a pulse of thankfulness. Every gift has its return of praise. It awakens an unceasing daily converse with our Father--He speaking to us by the descent of blessings, we to Him by the ascent of thanksgiving. And all our whole life is thereby drawn under the light of His countenance, and is filled with a gladness, serenity, and peace which only thankful hearts can know.
             -Henry Edward Manning

If you think of me, pray I would learn how to rejoice, even in trials!  -Daniel

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Should I Praise Myself?

Today a good friend of mine asked me, "Do you ever praise yourself?" 

We were talking about how I'm sometimes criticial of myself and insecure. And being insecure makes me feel defensive at times since I'm married to a competent and vivacious lady and I feel sometimes deep down that I'm not doing perfectly at being decisive and responsible and "taking care of things."

To make matters worse, I tend to grade myself down.  I expect myself to do perfectly, so when I only manage to do decently, I feel discouraged and criticize myself as a sorry loser.  That brought the question from my friend: "Do you ever praise yourself?" 

My friend and I both know the Sunday School answer. "I mustn't praise myself--that's proud and arrogant."
The Bible verse leapt to my mind: "Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips." (Proverbs 27:2).

But right behind that came Paul's words--Paul, that brokenly humble yet confident man. He wrote to us:

"Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else..."

The advice from Proverbs is general good sense: don't go around trumpeting your praises if you really want others to honor you.  Paul answers my more personal question:  Yes, praise yourself in your heart, Daniel, without comparing yourself to others.  (Of course don't emptily praise yourself. Paul also had cautioned: "If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself." Galatians 6)
In the end, the real praise we will value is God's praise, I think.  Our own praise and even others will be forgotten when we hear His voice. 

But maybe praising myself if I've done something well is helping me to hear His voice now. Maybe if accusations are from the enemy, praise can be from God.  A few times I've tuned out the voices in me that constantly accuse, and tuned in to God's radio station. He knows how to rebuke, but most often when I listen He is encouraging me, pointing out the good I've done and overlooking the failures, praising me as any proud father would. It brings tears to my eyes when I hear His eager praises of me.
Martin Luther said we need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day.
I still feel Sunday School shame to praise myself in my heart for the good things I've done.  And find it so easy to criticize myself for every small mistake.

Is the God of the Old Testament a Scrooge?

The God of the Old Testament gets a bad rap.

It seems like here He is bringing plagues on Egypt; there He is commanding armies to swarm across the face of the land like locusts destroying everything. Some people assume when He is not handing out laws He's handing out judgments. I won't get too deeply into it today, but I just want to make a note here:

The more I really started cracking the pages of the Old Testament and working honestly through it, the more an image of a gracious God grew in my mind.

Sure, He is eminently shrewd and unflappable--if the Israelites insist on sacrificing their infants to demonic gods and murdering the poor in the streets, they deserve an occasional foreign invasion to stop their madness. But most of the Old Testament seems interlaced with stories of God's unwearying patience. Before God tucked Noah on an ocean-liner and flushed the earth clean, at least two-thousand years had passed from Adam and Eve's first defiance, ages filled with violence and bloodshed.

Although the prophetic books are spotted with warnings of coming judgments, He let Israel and Judah run wild for hundreds of years before at last punishing them. In fact the more I read the more frustrated I grew at God for his patience and reluctance to slap down on these jackasses. Remember Jezebel and Ahab? Ahab had one of the longest reigns of any Israeli king. He and the first lady led the way in pagan idolatry and corruption. Ahab did things like allowing righteous Naboth to be killed to take his vineyard from him because it was a convenient walk from Ahab's bedroom. Does God strike Ahab with lightning?

Nope, He sends a prophet to proclaim some future punishment. Ahab tears his clothes and weeps. And lickety-split, God says, Okay, I won't punish Ahab during his life because he humbled himself. Or what about how after hundreds of years of sexual orgies and child sacrifice, God at last sends Babylon in slice and dice and take the leading citizens of Jeruslam into exile and tear down the smelly city of Jerusalem. Hundreds of years! I couldn't stand his agonizingly slow response time to these evils.

And while we humans were down here sinning up a storm like a stench in the nostrils of anyone good, God just yammers about how He can't bear to see us get punished.  Read through these three passages from three different Old Testament prophets and listen to God's heart for yourself:


"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called to him, the farther he moved from me, offering sacrifices to the images of Baal and burning incense to idols. I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along the hand. But he doesn't know or even care that it was I who took care of him....

War will swirl through their cities; their enemies will crash through their gates. They will destroy them, trapping them in their own evil plans. For my people are determined to desert me... 

Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. No, I will not unleash my fierce anger. I will not completely destroy Israel.... For someday the people will follow me. I, the LORD, will roar like a lion. And when I roar, my people will return trembling from the west."  (From Hosea 11)

In Isaiah after long chapters of angry judgments He says:

"Comfort, comfort my people,' says your God. 'Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned." (from Isaiah 40. And don't forget chapter 53 in your estimations.)

In Jeremiah, written in the last days of Judah as the city of Jerusalem was preparing to be at last destroyed by the Babylonians, we hear this:

"'My wayward children,' says the LORD, 'come back to me and I will heal your wayward hearts.' 'Yes, we're coming," the people reply, 'for You are the LORD our God. Our worship of idols on the hills and our religious orgies on the mountains are a delusion.'

"O Israel," says the LORD, "if you wanted to return to me, you could. You could throw away your detestable idols and stray away no more....Then you would be a blessing to the nations of the world, and all people would come and praise my name."

Does the God of the Old Testament sound like Scrooge? Or like God?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On receiving criticism

A year ago, one of my best friends and my girlfriend (now wife) came to visit me in my apartment in China. 

After grabbing a bag of my precious Doritos, they sat down and commanded me to bring forth my clothing wardrobe. What ho, you might say. Is this a burlesque or modeling show?  Not quite. They knew that I, a home-schooled aspiring writer, lacked something in the way of fashion. They were doing an intervention.  I pulled out one of my favorite long-sleeved collared shirts, a bright blue color.  "It's too large," they agreed.  I stared at my beloved shirt defensively.  Well, I suppose it did hang almost to my knees and flapped out like a sail on the HMS Bounty.  But still, a nice color.  But not as nice as the green floral Hawaiian shirt I pulled out next.  "Burn it!" they shouted in horror.  I was amused by their irony until I found out they lacked iron. 

The next hour blurred into a maelstrom of tongue-lashing.  I emerged, shaken, refined by fire, and minus one bag of Doritos.  Why did I put up with it?  First, because those two loved me.  And second, because I knew deep in my heart I needed it.  I pitched most of those clothes into trash bags and left them outside my apartment for the street beggars. (They were overjoyed.)  The end result is that I'm now usually sharply outfitted in clothes that actually match each other and fit my muscular figure. 

I was reminded of this earlier this evening when these same two, a best friend and my now-wife, once again gave me a tongue-lashing. They berated me up and down for saying I want to write and not writing.  For thirty minutes it was quite painful, and several times I wanted to lash back or tell them to shut up. But I knew first, that they loved me. And second, that I needed it.  I just didn't want it.

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil on my head.
My head will not refuse it.

                          -Psalm 141:5

Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear.

                          -Proverbs 25:12