Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Most Excellent Way

 

Today as I depart a summer spent in the Northwest for six more weeks of photographic work in the Southwest, I would like to share another set of images I was blessed to make recently along the truly incredible Oregon coast. I hope through these photographs you can sense the power of the Creator, his unparalleled artistic hand, and a glimpse of his love. It is on that topic of love I am now compelled to write more about.

 

The Haceta Head Lighthouse watches over the Pacific Ocean on the central Oregon coast

The Haceta Head Lighthouse watches over the Pacific Ocean on the central Oregon coast

 

Bumper stickers can be irritating. Sure, a few resonate with me when they align with my own opinions and biases, but often times bumper stickers have provided an opportunity for me to criticize and rant about why the particular phrase is messed up, and so must be the driver of that car. One sticker in particular used to elicit from me loud groanings about how oversimplified and naive it was, that there was much more important and profound truth the vehicle owner clearly did not grasp if this was all he had to say. The bumper sticker simply read, “Love God and People.”

I’m sad to say that much of my Christian life has not been about loving, but about rule-keeping, and splitting fine hairs of doctrine. I grew up obsessed with trying to follow the law as laid down by my Christian parents, in hopes of earning their approval and love. And I became obsessed about doctrine, believing that I need to be ‘right’ about every fine point and nuance of Christian belief. This became the way I related to God for many years. My faith was focused on trying to live by rules, harshly judging myself and others when rules were broken. And an arrogance that grew in proportion to my attempt at absolute theological ‘correctness.’

What I failed to see in God’s law, in all of the scriptures, in the living out of daily faith, was the beautiful heart of God behind it, and how he summed it all up.

 

A sliver of moon highlights a coastal composition made in the waning light of dusk

A sliver of moon highlights a coastal composition made in the waning light of dusk

 

My first glimpse of light came from reading the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 22. When one of the professional rule-keepers and theological perfectionists of the day (called a Pharisee) asked Jesus which of the hundreds of Jewish laws were most important, Jesus created the basis for a future bumper sticker with his reply:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. 

And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

These simple but profound words of Christ should have been enough to clear up any confusion and wrong-headedness, but at the time it was just a hint, a seed planted, and it would be years later that my eyes were further opened to the primacy of love. It was through the teaching and guidance of a wonderful counselor that my heart looked deeper into the truth. In Romans chapter 13 the apostle Paul writes:

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal, ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command:

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

A lot of things clicked when these verses were unpacked for me. I saw God’s heart behind his commands. He wasn’t being harsh. He wasn’t trying to limit our freedom or fun. Rather, he was creating the most loving environment possible for me and my neighbor. He was seeking to protect us all from harm and help us thrive in peace and joy. I suddenly realized that all of the laws of the Bible were ultimately about loving God and people, because they were an outpouring of the heart of God, who is in himself the very definition of perfect love.

I don’t discard the importance of essential doctrines. I am grateful that God has provided foundational truths that enable us to know who Jesus is and to be able to rest our faith in him alone as sovereign savior and king. But the newfound focus on love is keeping me from returning to the days of lording assumed theological precision over others. The growing focus of life for me is spelled out eloquently by Paul in a section from the famous ‘love chapter,’ 1 Corinthians 13:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

The next time I spot a “Love God and People” bumper sticker I will smile warmly and give the driver a big thumbs up.

 

A telephoto lens gives a magnified view of the setting sun north of Florence, Oregon

A telephoto lens gives a magnified view of the setting sun north of Florence, Oregon

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The Loss of a Light

 

High school can be brutal. We all likely have memories of the constant weight of peer pressure, the desire to conform so you don’t stick out from the crowd and get mocked, the fear in your belly as you try to engage socially without looking like a fool.

And most of us probably remember those who, for whatever reason, did not quite fit in, and how they suffered for that. One of those in my high school was a girl named Marni.

Marni was one of the first kids to show me kindness when I moved from Idaho to Oregon as an awkward and terrified seventh-grader. We were neighbors and rode the same bus. In high school my evolving friendships took me into different social circles than Marni, and I regret to this day that we did not develop a stronger friendship back then.

There really was no good reason Marni should have suffered as an outcast in school, for she was adorable and had a sweet temperament. But she was extremely shy, and that was enough for the harsh conformist system of high school to discard her. She had almost no friends in our school, no sense of being valued for who she was, certainly no sense of belonging. Sadly, I was among those who let her slip under the radar.

 

Poppies explode with color on a hillside in the Merced River Canyon, California

Poppies explode with color on a hillside in the Merced River Canyon, California

 

Now more than thirty years have passed. I finally joined the Facebook world this summer and learned of my high school class reunion event in August, and on the reunion page I saw the profile for Marni. Memories of my childhood neighbor flooded my mind and I felt an unexplainable sense of her suffering, both back then in school as well as in her adulthood since. I felt compelled to connect with her at the reunion, like a brother who cares for a sister, and before the gathering I began praying over our time together, and praying for all of my other classmates as well.

The high school reunion was indeed an incredible time, I think for everyone who attended. It felt like almost no years had passed as classmates hugged and fellowshipped and related to one another as caring adults, without the immature social class structure of our youth. And among those many wonderful connections there that I am so grateful for was a unique bonding with Marni.

We were able to be vulnerable and share our respective stories of brokenness. I felt deep compassion as she talked with me about how brutal high school was for her, and as she also told me of much more pain she experienced later on in life. And she patiently entered my world also and allowed me to be transparent about my failings over the years.

I had the pleasure of meeting her husband Michael and enjoying conversation with him, and I was so happy she found a quality man to love and value her. I was already looking forward to next summer when my wife could join me for an informal classmate picnic so she could get to know Marni and Michael as well.

In the past several weeks since the high school reunion I have kept in touch with Marni. I wanted to be a brotherly encourager to her, and she ended up being a strong encourager to me. She regularly read my blog and told how it blessed her, and one day she sketched a beautiful graphic to illustrate the phrase ‘all creation sings’ as a logo idea for my website.

I kept her in frequent prayer and thanked God for the blessing of this reconnection.

 

A beautiful sketch created by my friend Marni to illustrate 'All Creation Sings'

A beautiful sketch created by my friend Marni to illustrate ‘All Creation Sings’

 

Then suddenly without warning, this friendship came to a halt when I learned this Saturday that Marni had passed away in her sleep.

This is where I have no adequate words as a writer.

I am still raw. The pain of tragic and unexpected loss is haunting me. I cannot wrap my mind around it. Marni was too young at only 48. Her departure was too abrupt.

And if my grief as a recent friend hurts this much, I cannot imagine what her husband and all of her daughters must be going through. My heart goes out to each of them. I feel broken for them. I cry out to our Heavenly Father on their behalf.

Today, two things about Marni’s life are beginning to bring some hopefulness to my heart: first, that her gentle spirit of acceptance and love touched so many lives (as evidenced by the outpouring on Facebook). I do not think she realized just how much of a light she was, blessing so many people. Second, Marni confessed faith and trust in Christ as Savior, so I know that today she is with Him for all eternity, enjoying His amazing glory and pure love in a way that we only get mere glimpses of now in our fallen world.

I pray the Father would continue pouring out abundant mercy and comfort on all who are grieving the loss of gentle Marni. And I pray that somehow through the pain, there will be people who follow Marni’s example of turning to Jesus as their hope for this life and eternity to come. May God be glorified in our suffering.

I close with words of Jesus that my heart needs to hear and experience over and over again:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

 

Shafts of sunlight break through storm clouds in rural Wyoming

Shafts of sunlight break through storm clouds in rural Wyoming


Musings on Marriage and the Magic Kingdom

 

Passengers arriving at the Orlando airport are greeted by a Mickey Mouse statue

Passengers arriving at the Orlando airport are greeted by a Mickey Mouse statue

 

The magical kingdom of Mickey Mouse has long been a special place for my wife Wendy and me. We both grew up watching the Mouseketeers on television and soaking up plenty of Disney cartoons and movies. In college together at the University of Oregon our official school mascot was none other than Donald Duck, licensed to the school by Walt Disney himself many years ago. And early in our marriage we traveled to Disneyland and discovered what a special place it was to spend quality time together.

At Disneyland, any cares of this world would vanish the moment we entered the gates and began strolling down Main Street. Here we could embrace the innocence of being kids again, let our imaginations run free, escape into the exciting world of Indiana Jones or the dark thrill of Space Mountain, marvel at the work of the imagineers in Pirates of the Caribbean, munch on churros, bask in Southern California sunshine, ooh and aah at the spectacular fireworks set to classic Disney music.

 

One of the classics scenes in the boat ride through the fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean

One of the classics scenes in the boat ride through the fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean

 

Fireworks light up the sky above Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom

Fireworks light up the sky above Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom

 

After a dozen or so trips to Disneyland over the course of our 29 married years we’ve now made Disney World in Orlando our new couple’s retreat since moving to Florida last year. At 48 years young we still feel like kids again when we stroll hand in hand through these four parks that comprise Disneyworld – the pure joy of riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the Magic Kingdom, exploring the food and festivities of different countries at Epcot, taking in the animal life and thrill rides at Animal Kingdom, or blasting off to the music of Aerosmith on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios. Our childlike wonder with Disney is still going strong.

Looking to celebrate our anniversary this past weekend during the middle of a multi-month trans-continental separation necessitated by our jobs, we naturally chose to rendezvous at Disney World, and it proved to be just the ticket. The past five nights in a beautiful Disney hotel along the Boardwalk, with excellent conversation, great food, loads of pool time, and fun forays into the parks, served our reconnection time extremely well. It was difficult to depart the land of fun yesterday and even more painful to once again say goodbye to each other until we meet up again next month.

 

A tiger rests against the backdrop of beautifully themed architecture in Disney's Animal Kingdom

A tiger rests against the backdrop of beautifully themed architecture in Disney’s Animal Kingdom

 

The enormous Spaceship Earth glows in the light of dusk at Epcot

The enormous Spaceship Earth glows in the light of dusk at Epcot

 

Now there was a time when I naively expected marriage to be a bit like the Disney experience – carefree, non-stop fun, full of inspiration and romance, no earthly cares, a magical experience every day, with no work involved. Some years later reality had made it clear just how ill-informed my early expectations were. I would love to hide behind the phrase ‘life happened’, but I need to be more transparent than that. The truth is, *I* happened. My brokenness entered the picture, not mere circumstances. A boy who was likely not mature enough yet for marriage at age 19 became, well, a man who was still not mature enough. Oh how I regret the selfishness and stupidity of those earlier years, all of the ways I hurt the woman I was supposed to be loving with every fiber of my being. Now if Wendy were reading over my shoulder she would insist that she too is broken and part of the equation that adds up to marriage sometimes being more difficult and discouraging than we dreamed it would be.

If the reality is that marriage involves two imperfect people who are going to sin against each other, where is the hope for that dreamy wonderful marriage we assumed in our youth we would have? I think the answer is articulated well by the late Ruth Bell Graham:

“A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers”

Ah yes, the grace of forgiveness. Without it, my marriage would not exist. Wendy and I did not ‘accomplish’ 29 years and counting of marriage by our own efforts, but rather through the grace of forgiveness that first pours forth from God to us, and then transforms us slowly but surely into willing forgivers of each other.  It’s not by our strength that we have persevered, but rather by the powerful grace of our God that we have been preserved.

That’s the beauty of our human frailty and brokenness: in all of our marital weaknesses, God supplies his strength to keep us and grow us, and in doing that his great glory gets magnified.

 

Neon lights reflect off Echo Lake at night at Disney World's Hollywood Studios

Neon lights reflect off Echo Lake at night at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios


Filling the Void

 

The ten-year-old girl stood in front of the congregation and sang with a purity of tone that pierced through heart-walls and commanded attention to the lyrics. I paused at the back of the auditorium doorway, unable to move. Normally I’d already be in my car heading home after the worship team I served on had finished up for the second service, but on this Sunday I could not get myself to leave until this child had fully delivered her message. I will never forget how I felt as she sang simply but profoundly of the great love of God the Father for her. I welled up with tears. Not tears of joy, but sorrowful tears of deep longing. For this personal love from God that she sang of, that she seemed to rest so confidently in, was a love I did not yet know for myself.

 

The setting sun disappears between seastacks at the Haceta Head lighthouse beach

The setting sun disappears between seastacks at the Haceta Head lighthouse beach

 

I wish I could report that I experienced dramatic life-change at that moment and went on to bask joyfully in the love of God the remainder of my years. But it would not be so easy. The days following continued a long battle with feelings of shame, inadequacy, fears of not performing well enough, a desperation to be approved and accepted, an unspoken void that remained unfilled. As a result I was immature, often foolish, full of defensive pride as a protective mechanism, slinging my pain around wildly and hurting many people in the process.

It’s been two decades since that girl sang her sweet song of grace, and it has taken me all of those twenty years to grow into a true knowing of that precious love of my Creator for me, his child.  I mean the kind of knowing that comes from an interior place where you don’t have to think about it before answering, where you just know it in the way you know the most foundational facts about life itself. An experiential knowing, rather than mere head knowledge of the doctrine of that love.

Coming to know God’s love has been a process for me, gradual baby steps, along with a few moments where new clarity came to my heart abruptly in a crashing wave of grace. Though there has been growth, I also know that I still do not fully comprehend this most amazing love, that there is so much more of this glory to gaze upon and get deep into my bones. I remain desperate for God’s love, unable to live apart from it. I must remind my fretful heart constantly just how forgiven and loved I am in Christ. I must preach this good news to myself daily.

 

A high angle view of wave patterns along the northern Oregon coast

A high angle view of wave patterns along the northern Oregon coast

 

Now I have come to believe with all my heart that knowing deep down the personal love of God for me is the foundation for all change in me. If I am not resting in this incredible love, then everything I do will be endless striving. Without the constant reveling in the amazing gracious love of the Heavenly Father, there will be no true joy, no ability to risk, no living in freedom, no giving of myself to serve others. There is no doctrine, no commandment, no teaching that will ever be as fundamentally important for me, as absolutely necessary each and every day of my life, as the truth of God’s powerful never-ceasing love.

Perhaps others do not see it this way. But I suspect many of my readers get it. I think some of you know firsthand how coming to experience the love of God has changed you like nothing else could. And I wonder if perhaps some who read this are still not sure of God’s love and may be yearning to know that, through trusting him, he’s got you, that his love is overflowing to you through all that Jesus did for you, that he’ll never take it back and he’ll never let you go.

I’ve been marinating on these thoughts about the love of God filling the emptiness inside me as I prepared to post images of the glory of the Creator’s handiwork displayed on the rugged coastline of Oregon. It has been an unexpected joy to return this summer to the forgotten beauty of this coast, and my heart has soared with the sheer bliss of making compositions of seastacks at sunset, wave patterns, trees in fog, beach stones on sand, and more. But one spot in particular seems to represent that void I described. Along a particularly rugged section of headland near Cape Perpetua, there is a twelve foot wide round hole in the jagged rocks that fills with water when high tide brings a large wave, but just as soon as the water has washed over the rocks it flows rapidly down through the hole which becomes empty once again, looking like a bottomless pit leading down into the depths.

 

Waves at high tide are swallowed up into a large hole on the rocks near Cape Perpetua

Waves at high tide are swallowed up into a large hole in the rocks near Cape Perpetua

 

But God has not left me empty. Nor will he leave anyone empty who calls on his name. He came to fill the void in broken rebels like me. His words of assurance I can bet my very life on:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:8, NIV)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord  (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)


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