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.


On Eagle’s Wings Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the e...