Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Away in a Manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

--James Murray

There was indeed a manger near Bethlehem, a cave full of foul odors and animal waste. There a homeless couple crept when the door of the inn was shut in their faces. There the little Lord Jesus “laid down his sweet head”--a helpless infant with unfocused eyes and uncontrollable limbs, needing to be cuddled and cared for.[1] "The infinite made infinitesimally small," G. K. Chesterton said; the little Lord Jesus. An easy thing it is to love him.

Fredrick Buechner wrote "The child is born among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again. Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be what lengths he will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of mankind..."[2]

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, but nothing can match what happened that night in that manger. Now we know to what lengths God will go to be near us. "Ludicrous depths of self-humiliation." Indeed!

This is Christmas, the final, irrefutable proof that God will do anything to get next to us, to be close by us forever. And the startling thought is this: If there were but one of us he still would have come.

Mozart's Requiem contains a wonderful line: "Remember, merciful Jesu, that I am the cause of your journey."


[1] "No crying he makes?" Nonsense. There is no sin in crying: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35)
[2] Fredrick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Odd, this twisted form
should be the work of God.
God, who makes, without mistakes,
the happy norm, the status quo--
The usual--made me, you know.

The Royal Palm He made;
and, too, the stunted pine.
With joy I see the lovely shapes;
with pride I live in mine.
No accident I am:
a Master Craftsman's plan.

-Ruth Bell Graham

I came across a tortured, twisted pine tree some years ago, high on a ridge--an ugly, misshapen thing at first glance. But I looked again and saw something deeper and better and thought of those whose deformities are overwhelmed by rare beauty.

Appearance is overrated, a mere sensation in the eyes (or brain) produced by shape, color and motion and conditioned a good deal by society and association. (In some cultures, foot-long ear lobes and distended lips are thought to be the essence of loveliness.)

A philosopher-friend of mine once pointed out to me that objects cannot be beautiful in themselves for they're only arrangements of colorless, shapeless, invisible atoms. We can't see them, but if we could, they would bring us no delight or satisfaction.

There is a spiritual beauty, however, that is much deeper and more enduring than anything we can see with our natural eyes. It is the symmetry and splendor that God brings to his children, what scripture calls "the beauty of holiness."

Our present culture turns the phrase upside down, worshipping outward appearance and the holiness of beauty.[1] But that's a terrible mistake, for it leads us to vanity--the desire to exceed the limits God has appointed for us--and is the means by which pride and self-preoccupation enter in and we miss the highest good. Preoccupation with our bodies, as even pagan philosophers affirm, unavoidably leads to the diminishment of our souls. Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo, argues that we can love wisdom, or we can love our bodies, but we cannot, at the same time, love both.

We must be satisfied, then, with the way God has formed us. Our disabilities and deformities are not a mistake, but part of God's eternal plan. His way of dealing with them is not to remove them, but to endow them with godlike strength, dignity and beauty and put them to his intended use-as they are.

McGuffey had it exactly right...

Beautiful faces are they that wear,
The light of a pleasant spirit there;
Beautiful hands are they that do,
Deeds that are noble, good and true;
Beautiful feet are they that go,
Swiftly to lighten an other's woe.

-McGuffey's Second Reader

Has aging brought humiliating disfigurement? Do you consider yourself an eyesore, too ugly to be of use?

No, you are "(God's) workmanship" created as you are for good works (Ephesians 2:10). You are his special creation, designed from birth to manifest God's loveliness in a unique way. The Craftsman's plan surpasses the material.

Your countenance, though wrinkled and blemished, can be adorned with the joy of the Lord and made lovely with his kindness and compassion. Your body, be it ever so humble and lumpish, can be graceful in unselfish service and love. This is "grace beyond reach of art," human ugliness hidden in divine loveliness, beauty at its very best.

And, of course, this is not all that will be. On ahead lies the redemption of our bodies. One day soon we will be made new: "We are as God has made us, but we are not as God will make us. We will be made over again and everything will once for all be set right" (George MacDonald).

And so I pray, may the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us.


[1] I'm reminded here of the character on "Saturday Night Live" that always ended his monologue with the reminder: "Looking good is better than being good."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Give me a world, to part for praise and sunder.
The brooks be bells; the winds, in caverns dumb,
Wake fife and flute and flageolet and voice;
The fire-shook earth itself be the great drum;
And let the air the region's bass out thunder;
The firs be violins; the reeds hautboys (oboes);
Rivers, seas, icebergs fill the great score up and under!

But rather dost thou hear the blundered words
Of breathing creatures; the music-lowing herds
Of thy great cattle; thy soft-bleating sheep;
O'erhovered by the trebles of thy birds,
Whose Christ-praised carelessness song-fills the deep;
Still rather a child's talk who apart doth hide him,
And make a tent for God to come and sit beside him.

-George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, December 12,13

MacDonald hears creation alive with the sound of music; nature is singing the praises of her Creator. Brooks, storms, volcanoes, trees, rivers, seas, and icebergs "fill the great score up and under!" Cattle, sheep, birds and other breathing creatures fill out the chorus with "Christ-praised carelessness." But children, apart from all the rest of creation, in simple, playful trust "make a tent for God" and invite him to come and sit beside them.[1]

David, in Psalm 8, says the same thing and much more. His poem begins with a startling contrast between the witness of the heavens and the chatter of little children.

O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies-
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger. [2]

David, like MacDonald, argues that God has revealed his glory and greatness in the skies, but the most persuasive answer to his critics is not the universe at large, as magnificent as it is, but the utterances of a little child: A toddler, accordingly, is a more compelling witness than the cosmos, for, unlike the unknowing universe, the smallest child can know and love God.

Jesus, you may recall, quoted this verse when the chief priests and scribes of Israel were scandalized by the children, running around in the temple and shouting "Hosanna ('Save, I pray!') to the Son of David."[3] These little ones knew, as Israel's wise and learned men did not know--indeed could not know for they did not have the wisdom of a child--that Jesus was the long-awaited and much-loved Messiah.

Some of my most memorable moments as a parent were those when Carolyn and I knelt beside each child's bed at night and they, wearied by a long day of play, "made a tent for God" and invited Him to come and sit beside them. The simplicity of their love and faith as they poured out their prayers moved me deeply, often dispelling my doubt and fear and drawing me back to their simple trust in a tender and caring Friend.

"I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." [4]


[1] The analogy, of course, is to child-play in which children make tents of blankets draped over chairs and tables and invite their playmates to sit in hiding beside them.
[2] Psalm 8:1,2
[3] Matthew 21:16
[4] Matthew 11:25

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Hymn To God the Father

--John Donne (1573-1631)

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Theologians tell us we're guilty of "original sin," not that we sin in original or novel ways--most of our sinning is common-place, banal, and boring--but that we're sinful in our origins, sinful from the day our mothers conceived us.[1] We're hurled into the world like a curveball with a hard spin on it, with a predilection to break down and away.

Furthermore, we're said to be "totally depraved," an unpleasant phrase that implies that we’re always on the wrong side of the law. Nonsense. We’re made in the image of God, capable of extraordinary acts of altruism and heroism. But sin and selfishness do touch the totality of our being. If sin were blue we would be some shade of blue all over.

But, though sin is systemic and our sins (the manifestation of our inherent sinfulness) are many, and though sin itself is inexcusable, it is not, thank God, unforgivable. Love has paid the price. Beyond the bad news of our habitual failure, there is the good news of God's amazing grace that has unreservedly forgiven and forgotten our most outrageous and oft-repeated transgressions. [2]

But what of the sin that lingers? I ask with Donne, "Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run, and do run still, though still I do deplore?" I lament with him: "When Thou hast done (forgiving), Thou hast not done, for I have more," i.e., I have a lot more sinning to do.

But God is not done, for there is no end to his mercy and forgiveness. Long ago, before we are born, before we did anything good or bad, our Lord paid for all our sins--those that were, those that are, and those that shall be. No matter what we have done, are doing, or will ever do, our sins are gone forever--replaced by Love that "covers a multitude of sins," even sin and guilt not yet acquired. Thus, we live, "by faith in future grace."[3]

Now, despite our false starts and failures, God is at work conforming some part of us to his likeness, making us his masterpiece, his work of fine art.[4 ] We can be confident of this: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion..." (Philippians 1:6). God is never in a hurry, but he does mean business, and someday, because he has done all, our battle with sin will be over--God will have "done"--and we will stand, without fear, "faultless before his glorious presence with great joy!"[5]

But, you ask, won’t this unqualified assurance lead to spiritual sloth? To the contrary, it draws us to long for greater holiness and to pray, an inexplicable but indispensable part of the process by which God completes us.[7]

And so I pray with David, God's better poet...

Finish what you started in me, God.
Your love is eternal--don't quit on me now.[6]


[1] Psalm 51:5
[2] Ephesians 1:7
[3] Theologian John Piper’s luminous phrase
[4] Paul says "We are (God's) poiema" (Ephesians 2:10), a word Plato and other Greek writers used for "a work of art."
[5] Jude 24
[6] Psalm 138:8 (The Message) The Hebrew text reads,

Yahweh will perfect that which concerns me;
Yahweh, your love is everlasting.
As for the work of your hands (me!)--do not give up (until the work is done).

[7] It’s worth noting that our Lord’s promises to unconditionally answer prayer are linked to “fruit,” i.e., the acquisition of Christ-like character. Cf., John 15:7 in context.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lovesick and Dumbfounded

Carolyn and I often spend our quiet times reading from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, an Upper Room publication (If you've visited Shepherd's Rest you've seen the copies in each bedroom.) The Old Testament passage for this morning was Zephaniah 3:17.

With apologies to Zephaniah and Bruce Waltke, my old Hebrew professor, here is my translation...

The LORD, your God is with you--
your hero, mighty to save!

He takes great delight in you.
He is speechless with love for you.
Every time he thinks of you he breaks into joyful song!

-Zephaniah 3:17

I'm awed by the notion that God takes great delight in me and breaks into song each time he thinks of my name. But it's the phrase I render, "He is speechless with love for you" that captivated me.

The verse is usually translated, "He will be quiet in his love," or in some translations, "He will quiet you." But the verb doesn't suggest tranquility or rest. It actually means, "to strike dumb."[1] And since the verb is in parallel with other verbs that suggest God's strong emotions ("takes great delight," and "breaks into joyful song") it must point to what He himself feels.

I wonder then: Could the analogy be that of a lovesick swain who is bowled-over, flabbergasted and dumb-founded by his love for the beloved-so overcome with fondness that he is tongue-tied? Is God, in some inexplicable, anthropomorphic way, "struck dumb" with love each time he thinks of us? If so, to be loved like this is, in turn, to be rendered speechless. As Isaiah would say, "I am undone."

And who is it that God so loves? One who is strong and able, brilliant, and breathtakingly beautiful? No, it is one who is "weak and the weary... who takes refuge in the name of the LORD" (Zephaniah 3:12).


[1] Jenni-Westerman, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How to Sound Smart

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)

-T. S. Eliot, from "Burnt Norton"

I've been asked more than once, "Why do you write?" "I write because I have a point of view," I answer pompously.

What twaddle! I write because I want to be read. Would I bother myself to write books and essays if nobody noticed? I doubt it.

I read widely and take copious notes. Do I read for the simple love of learning? No, my curiosity is driven by vanity. I read so I can be "well-read." I learn things so I can talk and write about them, so others will think of me as "learned." (Why else would I quote T. S. Eliot?) I labor over every sentence to get it just right-"where every word is at home"-so others will say, "How clever!" I have a book in my library entitled, How to Sound Smart. Why, but for self-importance, would I buy such a book?

Pascal said that, "Vanity is so firmly anchored in man's heart that a soldier, a rough, a cook or a porter will boast and expect admirers, and even philosophers want them; those who write well, those who read them want the prestige of having read them, and I who write this want the same
thing..." (Penseés 150).

I find myself in Pascal's confession: I too "expect admirers."

And so I see that vast parts of me are yet unconverted. I want my heart to be pure, yet "shadows walk in its ruins." I have good intentions, yet shady motives haunt and harass me. I am a double-minded man. How can I justify my prose?

I find comfort in John's words: "If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things"(1 John 3:20). What should I do with my motives? Fuggedaboutem! God knows my duplicitous heart and he will deal with it in due time. In the meantime, he is great enough to use my heart as it is for good.

Amazing grace!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lantern Out of Doors

G. M. Hopkins

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

Hopkins sits by his window at night and sees a traveler, making his way along a path, with a lantern to guide his steps as he "wades" through the darkness.

"Who goes there?" he asks himself, and wonders, "Where has he come from, and where is he bound?"

The sight reminds him of those who have passed by and whose rare physical, mental or spiritual beauty has, like a lantern, rained rich beams of light into his dark, murky world. They have passed out of sight through death or distance and have been forgotten. He wonders what happened to them "at the end," but admits that he has lost interest in them. Out of sight is out of mind.

Out of his mind? Perhaps, but never out of Christ's mind. He pursues them to avow the good he has brought into being and to amend the evil that remains in them. His eyes are on them (He "eyes" them), his heart "wants" them, his care haunts them, his "foot follows kind."[1] He is a friend like no other.

We get old, obsolete, and out of circulation. Others forget us, but there is one who never forgets, who relentlessly pursues us, who perseveres to the end as our ransom, our rescue. He is our first, fast, last friend.

Our Lord is not one to give up on his friends. He makes them in this life and takes them with him into eternity. He makes friends the only way there is to make them--forever.

And so I pray, may I "run my course with even joy, and closely walk with Thee to heaven"[2] --like old Enoch, who was walking with God one day and then was simply gone, for God took him in (Genesis 5:22-24).


[1] A reference to the incarnation: "He is one of our kind."
[2] From Charles Wesley's hymn, "Forth in Thy Name."

Monday, November 17, 2008

They brought the sheep down from the high country last October and penned them in a field behind Shepherd’s Rest.

Reminded me of Sunday mornings long ago when I was a shepherd.

Friend of mine asked, Where’s the wolf?”

Good question.

He’s there, in the flock—indistinguishable (Matthew 7:15).


Friday, November 14, 2008

Elegy IX: An Autumnal Face[1]
by John Donne

No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one autumnal face;
Young beauties force our love, and that's a rape;
This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If 'twere a shame to love, here 'twere no shame;
Affections here take reverence's name.
Were her first years the Golden Age? that's true,
But now they're gold oft tried, and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time;
This is her tolerable tropic clime.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
Age must be loveliest at the latest day.

Sarah, our granddaughter, when she was very small, explained to me what happens when you die: "Only your face goes to heaven, not your body. You get a new body, but keep the same old face." Exactly! Faces are us.[2]

Faces are unique in their function for, unlike our other parts, there is more to them than meets the eye. Faces point beyond themselves. They are a visible reflection of the invisible soul-the place "on the surface" where the self, the personality, the "I" becomes evident.

The biblical Hebrew word for "face" may suggest that idea. It always occurs in the plural, a nicety some grammarians explain by pointing out that we do, in fact, have two faces: a left and right side. But that's only conjecture. I prefer to think that we have two faces, outer and inner, visible and invisible--a surface face that mirrors the "face" of the soul.

The Greek language enshrines the same thought: The Greek word for "face," prosopon, means "person," [3] suggesting that one's face identifies and reflects the individual. "As such, it can be a substitute for the self, or for the feelings and attitudes of the self."[4]

My mother had the same insight. She used to tell me that a mad look might someday freeze on my face--an attitude fixed for all time and for all to see.

A worried brow, an angry set to our mouths, a sly look in our eyes reveal a wretched and miserable soul. On the other hand, kind eyes, a gentle "look," a warm and welcoming smile (and the beautiful wrinkles that smiles leave behind) are the ineradicable marks of inner goodness. In time, it appears, we get the faces we deserve. [5]

We can't do much about the faces we were born with, but we can do something about the faces we're growing into. We can do "soul work" as the old Puritans used to say: We can pray for humility, patience, kindness, tolerance, mercy, and unconditional love, and by God's grace and in his time you and I may grow toward an inner resemblance to our Lord, a likeness reflected in a fine old face. "Those who look to Him are radiant," Israel's poet wrote. "Their faces are never covered with shame."[6] Thus age becomes "loveliest at the latest day."

George MacDonald insists that good old faces are like an old church: "It has got stained, and weather-beaten, and worn; but if the organ of truth has been playing on inside the temple of the Lord, which St Paul says our bodies are, there is in the old face, though both form and complexion are gone, just the beauty of the music inside. The wrinkles and the brownness can't spoil it. A light shines through it all-that of the indwelling spirit. I wish we all grew old like old churches."[7]

So do I.


[1] Extracted from a much longer poem. Written of George Herbert's mother, Lady Magdalen Herbert.
[2] I'm reminded here of Garrison Keillor's comment: "All our grandchildren are above average."
[3] Paul, for example, writes, "that ... thanksgiving for us may be expressed ... by many people (faces)" 2 Corinthians 1:11.
[4] Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.
[5] Philosopher Albertus Camus noted that, "People over forty are responsible for their own faces."
[6] Psalm 34:5
[7] The Seaboard Parish

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From a Distance

—Julie Gold

From a distance the world looks blue and green,
And the snow-capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
And the eagle takes to flight
From a distance, there is harmony,
And it echoes through the land
It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace,
It’s the voice of every man

From a distance we all have enough,
And no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
No hungry mouths to feed
From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man

God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

I heard today this song that Bette Midler popularized so many years ago. It promised that someday there will be an end to suffering and disharmony, for...

God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.

What utter nonsense.

God is not “watching us from a distance.” He is present, in the room with you, right in front of you, a foot away from your face, gazing at you with boundless love in his eyes. Think of that!

I’m sure you’ve heard of Brother Lawrence, the Carmelite lay brother who spent long years working in a monastery kitchen washing pots and pans and repairing the sandals of other monks, “a great awkward fellow who broke everything.” Though untutored, his profound wisdom and deep peace drew others to him to seek spiritual guidance. The wisdom he passed on to them, in conversations and in letters, later became the basis for the book, The Practice of the Presence of God, one of the most popular spiritual guides of all time. In it he writes: “As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence.” This must be our fixation as well.

But we forget. We need constant reminders. (A friend of mine, Bob Roe, used to throw wadded paper into corners of his room to remind himself that God was present. For myself and for the same reason, I have driven an old hand-wrought nail into the shelf over my desk.)

Our task is to remember—to remember that he is really, really with us, even to the end of the age, or to the end of our age, whichever comes first. Remembering is simply looking back at him and saying, ”Hi,” or ”Thanks,” or ”Help!” or “I love you too,” throughout the day

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

As Light as a Feather

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.

If you never did
You should.
These things are fun.
These things are good.

—Dr. Seuss (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish)

“What do you do for fun?” is a question I like to ask pastors. The answer, quite often, is, “Nothing.” “Nothing!” I exclaim, “What for, when there’s so much fun to be had in this world? Fun is good and good is fun; a merry heart is like medicine!

We Christians can be a dour, joyless lot, preoccupied with maintaining our sobriety and dignity. That’s an odd attitude since we’re joined to a God who has given us the gift of laughter.

Some households, I know, are more reserved and restrained, but our home has always been a house of laughter. We like nonsense. Water-fights, good–natured (albeit stiff) competition, gentle ribbing, high jinks and hilarity came easily to us. Laughter has been a gift of God’s goodness that has carried us through some of life’s darkest days. The joy of the Lord has been our refuge.[1]

I read the other day of David’s efforts to bring the ark to Jerusalem from the house of Obed-Edom and that he “danced” before the Lord along the way.[2] The Hebrew word, translated “dance” in most versions, has the idea of joyful exuberance and is akin to our expression “kick up your heels.” Michal, David’s wife, felt his antics were unbecoming the dignity of a king and reacted with stern severity. David’s response was to announce that he would become even more “undignified,” a word that actually means, “to be light,” as in “as light as a feather.”

So we must lighten up, I say. There is, as Solomon declared, “a time to laugh.”[3]


[1] Nehemiah 8:10. The word often translated “strength,” actually means “a place of safety.”
[2] 2 Samuel 6:21,22
[3] Ecclesiastes 3:4

Monday, November 10, 2008


Last fall Carolyn and I were driving up a winding mountain road into the Sawtooths when we came across a large band of sheep moving down the road toward us. A lone shepherd with his dogs was in the vanguard, leading his flock out of summer pasture into the lowlands and winter quarters.

We pulled to the side of the road and waited while the flock swirled around us—and watched them until they were out of sight.

I wondered: Sheep are the embodiment of all that is feeble and helpless. Do they fear moveßment and new places?”

Like most old folks I like the “fold”—the old, familiar regimens (Like Bilbo, the aging hobbit, “I miss my meal at noon.”) But all is shifting and changing these days; I’m being led out—away from familiar surroundings and into a vast unknown. I wonder: What new limits will overtake me this year, now that I’m older than old? What nameless fears will awaken? Jesus’ words come to mind: “When I lead my sheep out, I go before them (John 10:4).

I may well be dismayed at what life holds in store for me this year and next, but my shepherd knows the way I’m taking—He goes before. He will not lead me down paths too dangerous, too arduous for me; He knows my limits and will strike a leisurely pace. He knows the way to green pasture and good water; all I have to do is follow.

Thus I need not fear tomorrow, or take on its obligations, for tomorrow will take care of itself: Tomorrow “must pass through Him before it gets to me”

Doubt has cast its weird, unwelcome shadows o’er me
Thoughts that life’s best and choisest things are o’er.
What but His word can strengthen and restore me.
And this blest fact: that still He goes before.

—J. Danson Smith


Saturday, November 8, 2008


“Goodness is something so simple: always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage.”

—Dag Hammerskjold

Harry Tupper is a fishing legend here in Idaho. In fact there's a place on Henry's Lake near Staley Springs that’s named for him: Tupper's Hole it's called.

I fished alongside Harry a time or two several years ago, but I never lingered long. He tended to be a little cranky and would shoo you away if you got too close.

The thing I remember most about Harry, aside from his rare ability to hook those huge Henry’s Lake hybrids, was his dog, Dingo. Now there was a dog!

Dingo used to sit alongside Harry in his boat and watch him intently while he fished. When the old fisherman hooked a trout, Dingo would bark furiously until the fish was netted and released.

As Dingo got older he spent a good portion of each day sleeping in the bottom of Harry’s boat. He would snooze until Harry hooked a trout, and then rouse himself out of slumber, shake himself, and bark to show his approval. Then he would lie down and go back to sleep. (I once saw Harry hook a fish and nudge the slumbering dog gently with his toe so Dingo could wake up and bark his applause.)

Harry and Dingo are gone now, more is the pity, but their “dance of two” often comes to mind. Dingo had it right: it’s better to get more excited about what others are doing than what we’re doing ourselves.

Paul put it this way: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but in humility of mind let each one of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not look out for your own personal interests, but also look out for the interests of others”—a concept so staggering that Paul has to validate it by the example of Jesus, “who was in very nature God,” but who emptied himself of self–interest, and became a servant to all—who gave his entire life to further others’ interests and ultimately to secure their eternal salvation (2:3-8).

This was the “attitude” of Jesus, or, as we would say, his “mind–set” and the attitude we’re to adopt as well. For in self–giving, if anywhere, we manifest the essence of God’s character, for it has always been God’s nature to think more of others than he thinks of himself. Why else would he humble himself, “and became obedient to death — even death on a cross” (2:8).

God knows we regard ourselves too highly. Our natural response to every issue is to consider our own interests first, to look at everything from the perspective of our own needs and wants. The call here is to unlearn that natural proclivity. What are others’ best interests? What do they want? What concerns do they have; what needs do they feel?

And so, I ask myself, do I deem others’ interests more important than my own? Do I get as excited about what God is doing in and through them as I do about what he is doing in and through me? Do I long to see others grow in grace and gain recognition though it may have been my efforts that made them successful? Do I find satisfaction in seeing my spiritual children outstrip me in the spiritual work they are called to do?

Do you? If so, this is the measure of our greatness, for we are most like God when our thoughts for ourselves are lost in our thoughts for others. Such simplicity; no greater love (John 15:13).


Thursday, November 6, 2008


I was walking through a garden last summer and this rose-bud caught my eye. Its beauty was breathtaking. I could only stop and stare.

Have you ever really looked at a rose—looked at it for its own beauty, for “itself?” Some may tear it apart to analyze it, see all its elements and name them, but it would kill the rose. Wordsworth said, “Our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—We murder to dissect.”

People are like roses, only more beautiful. Don’t pick them apart. Don’t try to classify, compare, analyze or catalogue them. Just enjoy them. Take the time to sit down and listen to them. Love them for “themselves.” That’s the only way to know them.

Oh, I should warn you, roses, like people, have thorns, but don’t let that stop you from loving them.


Sunday, November 2, 2008


Pablo Neruda, the Peruvian poet, was a solitary, isolated child, with no brothers or sisters, playmates or friends; no one to play with. He was very lonely and unhappy.

One day he was investigating the backyard of his home when he came across a hole in the high fence that surrounded the yard. He looked through the hole into a new world, a wild, unexplored landscape that he had never seen before.

Suddenly, a small hand reach out. Then just as suddenly the hand was withdrawn and in its place was a little sheep, a small toy sheep that had wheels and you pulled with a string.
Neruda ran back inside the house and brought the best toy he had—a pinecone “full of odor and resin.” He set it down in the same spot and ran off with the sheep. The little sheep became his most cherished possession.

Later the sheep was destroyed in a fire, but Neruda said that for years after he could not pass a toy store without looking inside to find another one like it. He never found one. “They don't make sheep like that any more,” he concluded.

The exchange brought home to the poet a profound yet simple fact: Life’s greatest gift is “to feel an affection that comes from Someone we do not know… Someone who is watching over us in our solitude.”

I read the story and I thought of God’s “little sheep”—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). His hand is reaching out, forever—holding out that gift. Someone loves you and is watching over you in your solitude. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Thoughts on "Crafty Means"

"The best thing you can do for your fellow is not to tell him, but to wake things up that are already in him." -George MacDonald

I wrote in my last e-musing that Jesus was master of subtle indirection. There are numerous examples of this subtlety, but one that comes to mind is his use of the non sequitur: an answer that doesn't follow-at least until you’ve thought about it for awhile.

For example, a man once queried Jesus: "Are only a few people going to be saved?" Jesus' teaching, in an earlier gathering-in which he compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed-probably triggered the question. It was natural, therefore, for this man to assume that Jesus believed that the number of subjects in the Kingdom would very small. That question-the number of the elect-was an academic theological issue the rabbis often debated.

Jesus went straight to the heart: "You," he said, "must make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to" (Luke 13:24).

By his unexpected response Jesus turned the theoretical, "How few?" into the personal, "How about you?"

It occurs to me that the man's question is analogous to the "What about people who've never heard?" rejoinder from those who are trying to stave off the gospel. Rather than trying to explain the enigma, perhaps our response might be: "Good question. I don't know about those who've never heard the gospel, though I do believe God will do what's right. But you’ve heard. How about you?”

And then, there was an occasion on which someone in a crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me" (Luke 12:13). Jesus answer was a terse, "Beware of greed," speaking to the selfish motives underlying this man's demand for fairness, exposing our own hypocrisy, for many of our demands for legal redress are driven by personal greed and self-interest. It’s not injustice but greed that destroys our souls. "Why not rather be defrauded?" Paul would say. That's what Love would do.

Luke mentions another situation in which some people reported to Jesus the tragic news about certain Galileans "whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). Apparently Pilate's troops had surrounded and slaughtered a group of Jews while they were worshipping in the temple. We don't know anything more about the massacre, but it's in keeping with what we do know about Pilate's character.

Once again Jesus' answer was unexpected: "Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:2-5).

Jesus' answer laid bare the hearts of those who reported this event. Apparently, their take on this slaughter was that these "Galileans" were worse sinners than they and deserved the punishment they received. Pilate's cruelty was surely God's wrath turned on these wicked folks. "No," Jesus replied, "Unless you repent you too will perish in your sin."

All of which reminds me of a severe, self-righteous man who sat across from me at lunch one day and growled, "9/11 is the wrath of God against gays!" I was stunned into silence. Looking back, I should have said, "Unless we repent, we too will perish in our sin."


Monday, October 13, 2008


—By Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

One of the first books on fly fishing I know anything about appeared in the late fifteenth century. It was written by Dame Juliana Berners, an English nun, of all things, and entitled A Treatyse of Fysshyng Wyth an Angle.

Dame Berners’ book covered all aspects of fly-fishing from the crafting of equipment to fly-tying. One of her flies, the “stone flye,” remains a popular pattern on Idaho streams to this day.

“It is a very great pleasure,” she wrote, addressing the reader in a true angler’s spirit, “to see the fair, bright, shiney–scaled fishes deceived by your crafty means and drawn to land.”

It is a great pleasure to put it all together: to read the water and see the seams and other places where fish are likely to hold; to select the right pattern; to make a well–placed and delicate presentation; to time the strike; to play a large trout that “bores and sulks” (her words), that “springs from the deep and tries aërial ways”; and then to bring it to net. To fool a wild and wary trout “and draw it to land.” “Crafty means” is the name of the game.

When it comes to our presentations of the gospel, however, we’re often anything but crafty. Bumper stickers, turn-or-burn tee shirts and other in–your–face techniques are largely ignored and serve only to depersonalize and trivialize the gospel, or so it seems to me. “The best thing you can do for your fellow,” George MacDonald said, “is not to tell him, but to wake things up that are in him; or to make him think things for himself.”

It impresses me that Jesus was so oblique in his witness in contrast to our directness. He often used indirection, plying his listeners with puckish, unexpected comments that surprised them, subverted their minds with the unexpected and unaccustomed and went straight to their hearts. To use Kierkegaard’s marvelous word, He “smuggled” the gospel into their hearts.

I have a friend. Matt Prince, who got himself invited to a dinner party in which he discovered he had been set up: brought in to witness to a belligerent unbeliever who loved to bait Christians.

Throughout the evening the man hassled Matt mercilessly about the evils of Christendom, citing the Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, Apartheid, colonialism, the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisition, the Aryan Nation, churchmen burning one another at the stake, and all the other atrocious and ungodly things so-called Christians have done throughout history to the greater glory of God. In each case Matt calmly replied, “That’s an interesting point of view. Tell me what do you do in your spare time?” or some such thing, showing genuine interest in the man and deflecting the discussion away from each dividing issue.

As the two men were walking out the door at the end of the evening the non–Christian fired his final salvo, at which point Matt put his arm around the other man’s shoulders and replied. “My friend,” he said with a chuckle, “all night long, you’ve been trying to talk to me about religion. Tell me. Are you some kind of religious nut?”

The man’s animosity dissolved in a burst of laughter. Matt made a friend that day and had other opportunities to show him the love of Christ, I’m told. I don’t know the end of the story, but then we rarely do. God only knows each finale.

Evangelism is not mugging people, but befriending them, loving them and telling the truth “slant.” I’m reminded here of Jesus’ words: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”


Saturday, October 4, 2008

I read somewhere that ethics is the test of anyone's philosophy. Some philosophers have no ethic; others have an ethic, but it's not do-able. Philosopher Peter Kreeft, I find (to no one's surprise), is both ethical and practical.

I came across this paragraph this morning in Kreeft's discussion of "Justice," one of the Cardinal Virtues:

Some say the road to peace is justice. Some say the road to justice is peace. I say the only way to justice, between nations in the world or between individuals in families, is to stop demanding justice and seek forgiveness instead. Seek it and also give it. It's hard to get from injustice to justice in places like Palestine, but it's always possible to get to forgiveness. For we can't get to justice just by choosing it, but we can get to forgiveness just by choosing it. Warring Israelis and Palestinians will never stop accusing each other of injustices, because they are both right. Each side keeps committing injustices against the other. That's the basic fact, even if one side is more unjust than the other, and even if one "started it." They will never find a mutually acceptable justice. Neither will any pair of feuding spouses, friends, or nations. The more we demand justice, the more we demand our rights, the harder it will be to achieve them, except by force. The only road to peace is radical forgiveness. Jesus didn't talk about justice, He talked about forgiveness.

I read that paragraph and thought about our families and our churches and about us. There are three things I hope we will keep saying to one another.

1. I love you.
2. I forgive you.
3. Please forgive me.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One thought led to another…

I watched the stock market plummet yesterday, and thought about the effects of fear and greed. Gordon Gekko's rant rang in my ears: "Greed is good! Greed is right! Greed works! Greed will save the USA!" What fools we are.

Then I thought of that occasion on which a man asked Jesus to serve as an arbiter and make his brother share their inheritance. Jesus refused the request, but went on to do the man a greater kindness: He pointed out the motive behind the man's request and it's consequences: "Beware of greed, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses"

And then, because parables wake up things within us, Jesus told a story about a man who harvested a bumper crop and began to make plans to increase and enjoy his wealth. "But God said to him, 'Foolish man! This night your soul will be required of you… So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:13-21).

All of which reminded me of a story I heard years ago about an investment counselor who encountered a genie on the way to the office. When granted a wish he asked for a copy of The Wall Street Journal one year hence and hurriedly turned to the market page to plan his killing.

He got more than he bargained for, however. There on the opposite page he spied his own face—in an obituary describing his death in an automobile accident the previous day.

That's the trouble with greed, you know: it's not our goods that go. We go.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Parable:

"Once upon a time there was a small city with only a few people in it. A
great king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks around
it. There lived in that city a poor,[1] wise man who saved the city by his
wisdom. But, when the siege was over, no one remembered that poor man."
-Ecclesiastes 9:14-15

Luther, in his commentary on this verse, insists that there's an enduring principle here, and cites as his example, the story of Themistocles, the Athenian soldier and statesman who convinced his fellow Athenians that a powerful navy was needed to protect them against the Persians. During the second Persian invasion under Xerxes I, he commanded the Athenian squadron and through his strategy won the Battle of Salamis, drove the Persian army from Greek soil and saved his city. A few years later fell out of favor, was ostracized by his countrymen and banished from Athens. "Thus, Luther concludes, "Themistocles did much good for his city, but received much ingratitude."

Both stories are ancient examples of the modern cliché that no good deed ever goes unpunished.

The crowd, for some perverse reason, will always prefer proud fools to humble, wise woman and men, and will quickly forget the good that their wisdom has done. No matter. "Wisdom is (still) better than strength" even if "the wisdom of the poor man is despised" (vs. 16). It's better to be a quiet, honest sage who, though forgotten, leaves much good behind, than a swaggering, vociferous fool who, though many applaud him, "destroys much good" (vs. 18).

Accordingly, what matters in the end is not the recognition and gratitude we receive for the work we've done, but the souls of those gentle folk in which we've sown the seeds of righteousness. Put another way: "Wisdom is vindicated by the children she leaves behind." -Luke 7:35


[1] The Hebrew word here, misken ("poor") means humble or "poor in spirit"
(Cf., its use in Isaiah 66:2).

Monday, September 22, 2008

by George MacDonald

By degrees,
They knew not how, men trusted in him. When
He spoke, his word had all the force of deeds
That lay unsaid within him. To be good
Is more than holy words or definite acts;
Embodying itself unconsciously
In simple forms of human helpfulness,
And understanding of the need that prays.
And when he read the weary tales of crime,
And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad
With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words,
He would walk sadly for an afternoon,
With head down-bent, and pondering footstep slow;
And to himself conclude: "The best I can
For the great world, is, just the best I can
For this my world. The influence will go
In widening circles to the darksome lanes
In London's self." When a philanthropist
Said pompously: "With your great gifts you ought
To work for the great world, not spend yourself
On common labours like a common man;"
He answered him: "The world is in God's hands.
This part he gives to me; for which my past,
Built up on loves inherited, hath made
Me fittest. Neither will He let me think
Primaeval, godlike work too low to need,
For its perfection, manhood's noblest powers
And deepest knowledge, far beyond my gifts.
And for the crowds of men, in whom a soul
Cries through the windows of their hollow eyes
For bare humanity, and leave to grow,-
Would I could help them! But all crowds are made
Of individuals; and their grief, and pain,
And thirst, and hunger, all are of the one,
Not of the many. And the power that helps
Enters the individual, and extends
Thence in a thousand gentle influences
To other hearts. It is not made one's own
By laying hold of an allotted share
Of general good divided faithfully.
Now here I labour whole upon the place
Where they have known me from my childhood up.
I know the individual man; and he
Knows me. If there is power in me to help,
It goeth forth beyond the present will,
Clothing itself in very common deeds
Of any humble day's necessity:
I would not always consciously do good;
Not always feel a helper of the men,
Who make me full return for my poor deeds
(Which I must do for my own highest sake,
If I forgot my brethren for themselves)
By human trust, and confidence of eyes
That look me in the face, and hands that do
My work at will -'tis more than I deserve.
But in the city, with a few lame words,
And a few scanty handfuls of weak coin,
Misunderstood, or, at the best, unknown,
I should toil on, and seldom reach the man.
And if I leave the thing that lieth next,
To go and do the thing that is afar,
I take the very strength out of my deed,
Seeking the needy not for pure need's sake."

Thus he. The world-wise schemer for the good
Held his poor peace, and left him to his way.

This poem, excerpted from a much longer work by George MacDonald, has to do with an intellectually gifted young Scot who turns his back on a prestigious academic career to return to his aging father and to the family farm, there to engage in "simple forms of human helpfulness." What a waste," a world-wise schemer lamented and "left him to his way."

So we too may serve in some unnoticed, hidden place, doing nothing more than "very common deeds / Of any humble day's necessity." Others may ask, "Why this waste?"

God wastes nothing. Every act of love, no matter how small, rendered to him, is noted and has eternal consequences. Every place, no matter how small and humble is holy ground. If we are faithful in the small duties of our lives, we will have grace for greater things, should they come our way.[1]

In the meantime, "We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one past or the one to come... Each moment imposes a virtuous obligation on us," Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote. Love is "the duty of the present moment."

But, we ask, what of the world? I too "read the weary tales of crime, / And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad / With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words. What can I do to bring salvation to the world?

"The best I can for the great world, is the best I can do for this my world." My influence on my small part of the world will go where God determines it will go. "And the power that helps / Enters the individual, and extends / Thence in a thousand gentle influences / To other hearts." [2]

Influence is more than high and "holy words and definite acts." It's a simple matter-often an unconscious matter-of human helpfulness: being there, listening, understanding the need, loving and praying. This is what turns daily duty into worship and service. There is no greater spiritual work and no greater influence than that of a gentle, caring, unselfish servant of God.

Evelyn Underhill has written, "Among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind, so long as we link all these by intention with God and the great movement of his Will."

She goes on to say, “We must see that our small action is part of the total action of God."[3] In other words, every small action, done for Jesus’ sake, is part of God's larger work to bring salvation to the world. "All may of Thee partake: / Nothing can be so mean (small) / Which with his tincture, 'for Thy sake,' / Will not grow bright and clean. / A servant with this clause / Makes drudgery divine; / Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws / Makes that and th' action fine."[4]

Having "swept," however, it does no good to ponder the consequences of our actions. Our task is the duty of the moment, whether we experience success or heartbreaking failure. "Every man proclaims his own goodness, but a faithful man who can find?" the wise man mused, lamenting the strange dearth of that simple, noble virtue.

I often think of the Father's words to Jesus at his baptism: "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." What had Jesus done for the past thirty years? He had not worked one miracle, preached a single sermon or done any of the mighty works we normally associate with greatness. Yet, he, by his obedience and love, had gained his Father's unqualified acceptance.

Recently, a friend sent these words, "During the past few months, I've struggled to make sense of what feels like a shrinking vision for my life. I once aspired to greatness-not great in the sense of being President or world famous but great in the sense of dreaming and attempting great things for God... More and more, I'm content to stay close to home. Content to preach to the faithful flock entrusted to my care and who love me more deeply than I deserve. Content to leave the reformation of denominational culture to others gifted in that area. Content with a shrinking sphere of influence. The uncharacteristic contentment baffles me. I've wondered if... Jesus still considers me faithful." He does, my friend. "Well done thou good and faithful servant."

So, for those of us who wonder where we are to begin, we must begin where we are: by loving those nearest to us and giving human help where it's most needed, whether our lives are filled with mundane duties, or matters of international concern. "Who is my neighbor," the rich man asked Jesus, to which our Lord responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and its unexpected answer: The very next person I meet.


[1] Luke 16:10
[2] This was certainly true of poet Amy Carmichael, that cloistered, arthritic, bed-ridden saint who rarely ventured outside her room, yet whose gentle influence has gone in "widening circles" to the ends of the earth.
[3] From The Spiritual Life
[4] George Herbert, "The Elixer"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


--John Berryman (1814-1972)

Nothin’ very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? -I explain that, Mr. Bones,
terms o' your bafflin’ odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr. Bones?
-If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long ago to leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spread-eagled on an island, by my knee.
-You is from hunger, Mr. Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
-I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

"Mr. Bones" was a character in early 19th century minstrel shows that was a straight man for an "interlocutor," a performer that asked questions and engaged the other actors in conversation. The minstrel-show twist in this poem is that Henry, the interlocutor, Mr. Bones, the straight man, and John Berryman are one in the same.

Henry tells his story in the words of Mr. Bones (a.k.a John Berryman) whose father shot himself on the front porch of his home when John was twelve years old. The poet now longs for someone to "set your left foot by my right foot, shoulder to shoulder...arm in arm." Someone to offer him a handkerchief "sandwich"[1] to smother his sobs, someone to give him a reassuring hug.

But he sees no one coming, indeed expects no one to come. Hence the bitter "all that jazz." So Berryman comforts himself instead: "Hum a little, Mr. Bones."

This is the next-to-last of Berryman's 77 Dream Songs and perhaps the strangest and saddest of them all, reflecting more than any his tragic and lonely existence. In 1972, Berryman's life-long depression led him to follow the example of his father and to kill himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a "modesty of death" he joined his father who "dared so long ago" to leave him.

I can't help but wonder: Would it have made a difference to Mr. Bones if someone had put a hand on his shoulder--someone whose heart was filled with God's love?

It would have been difficult to love Mr. Berryman: He was a unpleasant man, known for his angry tirades, his inclination to bully students, and humiliate his colleagues and would-be friends. Who would have believed that underneath his terrible spite lay bottomless loneliness and longing--that he was "from hunger"?

My teacher and friend Ray Stedman once mused in an off-hand way that, "threatened people are often threatening," thus uttering one of those profound simplicities that help to explain life's perplexities. Why are some folks determined to drive us away? Can it be that tragedy, sorrow and bitter disappointment lie at the root of their anger and aggression? Can we look away from the effect-the dry, hard rage they convey-and look to the cause? Can we bring the love of Christ to bear on our understanding of the sad process that turned them into hostile, unattractive people? Can we offer loving kindness in exchange for spitefulness and hate?

Several years ago I came across a Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine depicting a sour-faced curmudgeon, garbed in rumpled pajamas and robe, standing at his apartment door. He had just secured the door for the night with not one, but four locks. He had shut two deadbolts and had secured the chain latch. Only after the last lock was fastened did he notice a small white envelope stuck beneath the door. On the envelope was a large sticker in the shape of a heart. His security system had been breached. Someone finally got in--with a valentine!

Love always looks for a way!


[1] There's a note of irony here--as though a handkerchief sandwich could satisfy anyone.
There is no one political program, no one political
regime, even democracy, that necessarily follows from the
love of Christ. Each political system has pluses and minuses,
attractive and dangerous features. The key to a good society
is good people. Good people will make good systems. But
good systems will not make good people. Peter Maurin, the
thinker behind Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement,
defined the good society as simply “a society in which it is
easy to be good”.

To say the system is secondary sounds again like a cop-
out. But it is true, for bad people in a society with good
structures will make the structures bad or misuse the good
ones, while good people in a society with bad structures
will make the structures better. It is like putting good peo-
ple in decaying old buildings. They will improve them. But
put bad people in good new buildings and they will destroy
them. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “When the wrong
man uses the right means, the right means work in the
wrong way.”

If people were saints, our political problems would be
solved. They would not be solved magically, but they would
be solved as God would solve them because God would solve
them. For a saint is simply someone who lets God in. And
when God is in, He acts.

Of course, this sounds scandalously simplistic. But it is not
meant to substitute for the hard, specific questions, ques-
tions about institutions and laws and structures. These are
also important. But this is more important.

Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990) pp. 216-217

Monday, September 1, 2008


Doubt has cast its weird, unwelcome shadows o'er me
Thoughts that life's best and choicest things are o'er.
What but His word can strengthen and restore me.
And this blest fact: that still He goes before.

-J. Danson Smith

Last fall Carolyn and I were driving up a winding mountain road into the Sawtooths when we came across a large band of sheep moving down the road toward us. A lone shepherd with his dogs was in the vanguard, leading his flock out of summer pasture into the lowlands and winter quarters.

We pulled to the side of the road and waited while the flock swirled around us, and watched them until they were out of sight.

I wondered: Sheep are the embodiment of all that is feeble and helpless. Do they fear change, movement, new places?"
Like most old folks, I like the "fold"-the old, familiar places. Like Bilbo, the aging hobbit, "I miss my meal at noon."

But all is shifting and changing these days; I'm being led out, away from familiar haunts and surroundings and into a vast unknown. I wonder: What new limits will overtake me this year, now that I'm older than old? What nameless fears will awaken? Jesus' words come to mind: "When I lead my sheep out, I go before them (John 10:4).

I may well be dismayed at what life holds in store for me this year and next, but my shepherd knows the way I'm taking. And he goes before. He will not lead me down paths too dangerous, too arduous for me; He knows my limits and will strike a leisurely pace. He knows the way to green pasture and good water; all I have to do is follow.

Thus I need not fear tomorrow, or take on its obligations, for tomorrow will take care of itself. God knows all the trouble that lies before me. It "must pass through Him before it gets to me."[1]


[1] F. B. Meyer

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

By Sam Walter Foss

"The proper way for a man to pray,"
Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
"And the only proper attitude,
Is down upon the knees."

"No, I should say the way to pray,"
Said Reverend Doctor Wise
"Is standing straight with outstretched arms
And rapt and upturned eyes."

"Oh, no, no, no," said Elder Slow,
"Such posture is too proud.
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
And head contritely bowed."

"It seems to me his hands should be
Austerely clasped in front,
With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,"
Said Reverend Doctor Blunt.

"Last year I fell in Hidgekin's well
Headfirst," said Cyrus Brown,
"With both heels a-stickin' up
And my head a-pointing down.

"And I prayed a prayer right then and there,
The best prayer I ever said.
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standin' on my head."

I was raised in a tradition that prayed. We prayed before meals, before meetings, before bed-times, before football games, and before rodeos. We even had morning prayers at my public school, which gives you some idea of how far back I go.

I had no doubt then that prayer did something; I was never sure, however, what it did. And, I must confess, after all these years, I'm still a bit confused. Prayer "is a puzzlement for me," as Winnie the Pooh would say. I pray, but I’m not always sure how it works,

I do know this, however: theological explanations aside, when I'm in deep and desperate need, prayer springs naturally from my lips and from the deepest level of my heart, a solemn truth Foss' bit of whimsy enshrines.

There are no atheists in foxholes, or in any other holes we dig for ourselves. When we're frightened out of our wits, when we're pushed beyond our limits, when we're pulled out of our comfort zones, when our well-being is challenged and endangered, we reflexively and involuntarily resort to prayer. "God help me," is our first language, our natal cry.

"Brief, urgent, frightened words-a person in trouble, crying out to God for help. The language is personal, direct, desperate. This is the language of prayer: men and women calling out their trouble-pain, guilt, doubt, despair-to God. Their lives are threatened. If they don't get help they will be dead, or diminished to some critical degree. The language of prayer is forged in the crucible of trouble. When we can't help ourselves and call for help, when we don't like where we are and want out, when we don't like who we are and want a change, we use primal language, and this language becomes the root language of prayer."[1]

Prayer begins in trouble (and continues because we're always in trouble to some degree.) It requires no special preparation, no precise language, no appropriate posture. We just do it! It springs from us impulsively in the face of necessity. "The natural thing is straight to the Father's knee." [2]

Doublehaul Dave


[1] Eugene Petterson, Answering God: the Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York, Harper Collins, 1989) p. 35
[2] George MacDonald

Saturday, August 2, 2008


By Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

And as for me, though that I know but lite,[1]

On bookes for to read I me delight,

And to them give I faith and good credence,

And in my heart have them in reverence,

So heartily, that there is game none[2]
That from my bookes maketh me to go'n,

But it be seldom on the holyday;

Save, certainly, when that the month of May

Is comen, and I hear the fowles sing,
And that the flowers ginnen for to spring,

Farewell my book and my devotion!

When Chaucer tired of his books and devotion he took to the fields and the "flowers in the mead." Me, I hie myself to a mountain stream.

Frivolous, you say, when the
re is so much work to be done. No, frivolity is a gift of God, a indispensable break from the necessities of life. But more than that: it is a foretaste of heaven's joy, a better metaphor for eternal pleasure than the "solemn" duties of this present world.

C. S. Lewis put it this way: "I do think that while we are in this 'valley of tears'--cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties-certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through...except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order-with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order?

"How can you find any image of this in the 'serious' activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? Either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?

"No, Malcolm. It is only in our 'hours-off,' only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for "down here!" is not their natural place. Here they are a moment's rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven."[3]

Doublehaul Dave

[1] "lite": little

[2] "game none": no longer fun

[3] C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p 92,93

Thursday, July 31, 2008


by Emily Dickinson

He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow-
The Broad are too broad to define
And of "Truth" until it proclaimed him a Liar-
The Truth never flaunted[1] a Sign-

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As Gold the Pyrites[2] would shun-
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a Man!

I think Miss Dickinson must have written this poem upon returning home from her Congregation Church in Amherst, and perhaps after listening to a visiting preacher. It's a reminder to all of us to keep things simple--not simpler than they are, but as simple as they can possibly be.

Her observation reminded me of a story I heard in my student days.

It seems that a young man arrived at the gate of heaven and was asked by Saint Peter who Jesus was. The man answered, "He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God." "Well said." Peter replied. "Enter into his rest."

Later, German theologian Paul Tillich arrived at the gate and was asked the same question. "Ah, who is Jesus," he reflected. "Theologically, he is the ground of all being; eschatologically, he is the ground of all hope; existentially, he is the ground of the divine-human encounter."

To which Peter replied, "Huh?"

Doublehaul Dave

[1] "flaunted": to display something ostentatiously
[2] "Pyrites": fools gold

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


by William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.[1] Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:[2]
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark[3]
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star[4] to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken[.5]
Love's not Time's fool,[6] though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:[7]
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.[8]
If this be error and upon me proved,[9]
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

This is, perhaps, the most loved of Shakespeare's sonnets with it's beautiful, oft-quoted summary: "Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds."

Love, it seems, is the art of persistence: it loves through every change of fortune, time and circumstance. It does not ask for fair exchange, a quid pro quo. It gives—profusely--expecting nothing in return.

Love does not change when a loved one changes. It does not withdraw when the other draws away. It endures love's tempests and torments willingly. It is not thrown off course, nor is it shaken by storms, but remains steady, resolute, and strong.

Love does not fade when outer beauty fades, but grows even stronger. It does not alter through time, but loves till death shall separate one from the other. It bears all things "to the edge of doom."

This cannot be error, for scripture strongly affirms it. To put it Paul's way, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."[10]

Doublehaul Dave

[1] An allusion to the words of the marriage service in The Book of Common Prayer: "If either of you know cause or just impediment why you should not be joined together in holy matrimony… you do now confess it."
[2] “bends with the remover to remove”: to remove (draw away) from the remover (one who has withdrawn).
[3] The "ever-fixed mark": a lighthouse. The "sea-mark of my utmost sail" (Othello 5.2.305)
[4] "star": Polaris, the north star
[5] "whose worth's unknown": Again, the north star. The star's value can never be calculated, although its height can be measured from the horizon.
[6] "Love's not Time's fool": Love is not at the mercy of time.
[7] "his": time's scythe. Physical beauty bends and falls under his sweep ("compass").
[8] "edge of doom": death. "Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily" (Henry IV, 4.1.141).
[9] "upon me proved": If I am proved to be wrong.
[10] 1 Corinthians 13:8

Friday, July 25, 2008


by Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Christina Rossetti was an Anglican Christian, who, after E. B. Browning's death, became England's most prominent poet, though today, in our modern/post-modern era she is largely overlooked. (Many modern anthologies of 19th century English poets do not contain or mention her works.)

Rossetti, like so many whose writings touch our souls deeply, suffered greatly, enduring long periods of melancholy, probably due to the fact that she was abused as a child, or so her biographers believe. Her road, in actual fact, wound uphill "the whole long day."

Yet her faith in God seldom wavered and in her final years Rossetti turned her pain into great good, writing and publishing her most compelling devotional and children's poetry and serving as a volunteer in a home in London for under-age prostitutes.

The structure of her poem, "Uphill," lends poignancy to its over-all appeal. Her questions lie buried deep in our own thoughts. Someone answers with authority and assurance.


Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you waiting at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

It's sometimes said, when old, that we're "over the hill," with the inference that everything now is downhill. I find aging to be just the opposite, however: the road winds uphill all the way and the steepest slopes may lay ahead. Old age does not necessarily bring respite and repose, but greater toil and effort "the whole long day"-'til night closes in.

But is there for the night a resting place?

There is a roof for when the slow, dark hours begin, for Jesus has promised, "I go to prepare a place for you." (If it were not so he would have told us.)

May not the darkness hide this place?

No, for Jesus has shown us the way to our Father's house. We cannot miss that inn.

Shall we meet other wayfarers at night?

Yes. Those who have gone before will be waiting for us there. The Lord has given and taken them away, but he will give them to us again, better, wiser, stronger, more beautiful than ever before.

Then must we knock or call when we're in sight?

No, Love, like the Prodigal's father, will rush to embrace us and bring us in from the night.

Shall we find comfort there, travel sore and weak?

Without a doubt, "the weary traveler will be welcomed home and will find rest there."[1]

Will there be beds for me, and all who seek?

Certainly, for our Lord has promised: "In My Father's house there are many places to dwell." All are welcome there where every comfort that Love can give awaits them.

"And you know the way..." Jesus said...[2]

Doublehaul Dave

[1]Samuel Rutherford
[2] Read John 14:1-6

Ferns Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the sh...