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