The English Language

From an unknown author:

I take it you already know of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you, on hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps, to learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word that looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead — for goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!
Watch out for meat and great and threat (they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there, nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose — just look them up — and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward, and font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart — come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive. I’d mastered it when I was five! 🙂

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I Wish Everything Was Boolean

I wish everything was Boolean
A world of ones and zeros
A world of clear choices
A world of villains and heroes

Some think it is that way
Everything’s black and white
A world of simplicity
A story in a sound bite

What about death and life
Seems like it’s either or
Moses said choose life
Israel played the whore

But in between zero and one
In between good and bad
There exists a world
weary, colorless, and sad

We live life in the gray
between wrong and right
not quite dead or alive
without the will to fight

Oh just to be a computer
to live either off or on
to obey Boole’s rules
You’re here then you’re gone

The Spoken Word

The spoken word can be as beautiful as the written word, especially when it’s spoken by Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 years (now retired). I particularly remember a golf match at Pebble Beach that he announced. As they were going to commercial, there was a shot of the Pacific with a sailboat, and it was a particularly windy day with lots of white caps. Vin said, in his unique way, “The waves run before the wind like children before their mother.” I thought that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. Below are two examples of his handsome spoken word, one much longer than the other, but both worth reading — you feel as if you are there, and he is helping you see the way life could be.

His famous call of the final inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game:

“Three times in his sensational career has Sandy Koufax walked out to the mound to pitch a fateful ninth where he turned in a no-hitter. But tonight, September the ninth, nineteen hundred and sixty-five, he made the toughest walk of his career, I’m sure, because through eight innings he has pitched a perfect game. He has struck out 11, he has retired 24 consecutive batters, and the first man he will look at is catcher Chris Krug, big right-hand hitter, flied to second, grounded to short. Dick Tracewski is now at second base and Koufax ready and delivers: curveball for a strike.

“Oh-and-one the count to Chris Krug. Out on deck to pinch-hit is one of the men we mentioned earlier as a possible, Joey Amalfitano. Here’s the strike one pitch to Krug: fastball, swung on and missed, strike two. And you can almost taste the pressure now. Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it too as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate. Tracewski is over to his right to fill up the middle, Kennedy is deep to guard the line. The strike two pitch on the way: fastball, outside, ball one. Krug started to go after it and held up and Torborg held the ball high in the air trying to convince Vargo [the umpire] but Eddie said no sir. One and two the count to Chris Krug. It is 9:41 p.m. on September the ninth. The one-two pitch on the way: curveball, tapped foul off to the left of the plate.

“The Dodgers defensively in this spine-tingling moment: Sandy Koufax and Jeff Torborg. The boys who will try and stop anything hit their way: Wes Parker, Dick Tracewski, Maury Wills and John Kennedy; the outfield of Lou Johnson, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly. And there’s twenty-nine thousand people in the ballpark and a million butterflies. Twenty nine thousand, one hundred and thirty-nine paid.

“Koufax into his windup and the one-two pitch: fastball, fouled back out of play. In the Dodger dugout Al Ferrara gets up and walks down near the runway, and it begins to get tough to be a teammate and sit in the dugout and have to watch. Sandy back of the rubber, now toes it. All the boys in the bullpen straining to get a better look as they look through the wire fence in left field. One and two the count to Chris Krug. Koufax, feet together, now to his windup and the one-two pitch: fastball outside, ball two. (Crowd booing on the tape.)

“A lot of people in the ballpark now are starting to see the pitches with their hearts. The pitch was outside, Torborg tried to pull it over the plate but Vargo, an experienced umpire, wouldn’t go for it. Two and two the count to Chris Krug. Sandy reading signs, into his windup, two-two pitch: fastball, got him swinging.

“Sandy Koufax has struck out twelve. He is two outs away from a perfect game.

“Here is Joe Amalfitano to pinch-hit for Don Kessinger. Amalfitano is from Southern California, from San Pedro. He was an original bonus boy with the Giants. Joey’s been around, and as we mentioned earlier, he has helped to beat the Dodgers twice, and on deck is Harvey Kuenn. Kennedy is tight to the bag at third, the fastball, a strike. Oh and one with one out in the ninth inning, 1-0, Dodgers. Sandy reading, into his windup and the strike one pitch: curveball, tapped foul, Oh and two. And Amalfitano walks away and shakes himself a little bit, and swings the bat. And Koufax with a new ball, takes a hitch at his belt and walks behind the mound.

“I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium right now is the loneliest place in the world. Sandy fussing, looks in to get his sign, Oh and two to Amalfitano. The strike two pitch to Joe: fastball, swung on and missed, strike three. He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is comin’ up.

“So Harvey Kuenn is batting for Bob Hendley. The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date, September the ninth, 1965, and Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn. Sandy into his windup and the pitch, a fastball for a strike. He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and that’s gone unnoticed. Sandy ready and the strike one pitch: very high, and he lost his hat. He really forced that one. That’s only the second time tonight where I have had the feeling that Sandy threw instead of pitched, trying to get that little extra, and that time he tried so hard his hat fell off — he took an extremely long stride to the plate — and Torborg had to go up to get it.

“One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready: fastball, high, ball two. You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while Kuenn just waiting. Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup and the two-one pitch to Kuenn: swung on and missed, strike two. It is 9:46 p.m.

“Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch:

“Swung on and missed, a perfect game! (Crowd cheering for 38 seconds)

“On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it: On his fourth no-hitter he made it a perfect game. And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flourish. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So, when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that “K” stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”

His final words as a Dodgers broadcaster:

“You know, friends, so many people have wished me congratulations on a 67-year career in baseball, and they’ve wished me a wonderful retirement with my family, and now, all I can do is tell you what I wish for you. May God give you, for every storm, a rainbow; for every tear, a smile; for every care, a promise; and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life seems, a faithful friend to share; for every sigh, a sweet song, and an answer for each prayer. You and I have been friends for a long time, but I know, in my heart, I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me, and I’ll miss our time together more than I can say. But, you know what, there will be a new day, and, eventually, a new year, and when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, ooh, rest assured, once again, it will be time for Dodger baseball. So, this is Vin Scully wishing you a pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.”

A Crushed Spirit

“The human spirit can endure a sick body,
but who can bear a crushed spirit?” Proverbs 18:14 (NLT)

In Ken Burns’ epic documentary Baseball, presidential biographer and rabid Boston Red Sox fan, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of her grandchildren becoming Red Sox fans. It was the 1986 World Series and the Red Sox looked for all the world like they would finally win the Series, after seven decades of futility. The futility, so the story goes, was due to what was known as the Curse of the Bambino, the trade that sent Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player in history, to the hated New York Yankees way back in 1919. And the Red Sox had not won the Series since. Yes, the Red Sox had lost tragically to the New York Mets in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, but the series was tied and they could still win game 7, right? That’s what Goodwin’s grandchildren thought. “Come watch the game Grandma, we’re winning!” they shouted from the living room. And in that moment Goodwin had a new thought: “They don’t know.” They didn’t know about the curse, they didn’t know about the decades of crushed dreams, they didn’t know the team would still find a way to lose, which they did.

The verse above sums up the experience of the typical Red Sox fan in the latter 20th century. It would not be until 2004 that they would finally win the World Series, but in 1986 that was still almost 20 years and a world away. One of the things that makes baseball unique among sports is its devotion to superstitions. My team didn’t win, so it must be my fault. I should/shouldn’t have watched the game on tv, I should/shouldn’t have gone to the game, I should/shouldn’t have worn my jersey, I should/shouldn’t have turned my cap around. It’s all very personal. This is why spirits get crushed each time the team loses – it’s not just the team’s fault, it’s my fault too.

It seems to me this is the way we approach a lot of what’s wrong with our lives, especially the family we are born into and the way we grow up. My parents are getting a divorce, it must be my fault. My father is an angry man, it must be my fault. My mother is an alcoholic, it must be my fault. And gradually, little by little, our spirits are crushed into fine powder. And we carry this crushing into adulthood. Of course we tell ourselves that our lives will be different, that we will make different decisions and have better marriages, happier homes, closer friends. But the baggage we carry with us prevents a lot of this, because there is always doubt, always guilt, always pain.

It’s been said that we spend most of our time thinking about the past, with regret, or thinking about the future, with fear. We spend comparatively little time thinking about the present. But now is the only thing we can actually control – the way we respond to life right now, the healing we experience in this moment. It is not escapism or rationalization to remind ourselves that we live in a fallen world, that sin controls people, and that’s why people do what they do. But as much as we need to hear that message about others, especially about our families and the way we were brought up, the challenge is to avoid fatalism. Doris Kearns Goodwin realized “They don’t know,” and longed to set the record straight with her grandchildren about who exactly the Red Sox were and what had taken place over their history. But despite knowing the truth, she couldn’t help succumbing to the fatalist idea that they would never win – there really is a curse and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

I want to assure you that as real as sin is, Jesus Christ is just as real. And redemption isn’t a hobby for Him, it is who He is, the Redeemer. It delights His heart to take the cold dark night of our lives and turn it into a bright summer day. But we have to give it to Him. We have to not buy into the lie that this is just the way things are, because that will cause us to embrace the curse so tightly that Jesus has no way to get between it and us. It doesn’t matter how long some of these circumstances and emotions have been around, He can still make something beautiful out of it. But we have to give Him control. Jesus is a gentleman, and if our hands are clinched in fists of anger or hurt, all He can do is wait until we open our hands. Our part is release, His part is healing. And it’s never too late.

Inspiring Writing

I read for work, I read for pleasure, but I also read for inspiration. Toward the latter, I’m currently reading The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. It’s the story of the characters, events and intrigue that brought about the start of World War I. For your own inspiration, here’s a sample:

The long-desired moment when the French flag would be raised again in Alsace had come. The covering troops, waiting among the thick, rich pines of the Vosges, trembled with readiness. These were the remembered mountains with their lakes and waterfalls and the damp delicious smell of the forests where fragrant ferns grew between the pines. Hilltop pastures, grazed by cattle, alternated with patches of forest. Ahead, the shadowed purple line of the Ballon d’Alsace, highest point in the Vosges, was hidden in mist. Patrols who ventured to the top could see down below the red-roofed villages of the lost territory, the gray church spires, and the tiny, gleaming line of the Moselle where, young and near its source, it was narrow enough to be waded. Squares of white potato blossom alternated with strips of scarlet-runner beans and gray-green-purple rows of cabbages. Haycocks like small fat pyramids dotted the fields as if arranged by a painter. The land was at its peak of fertility. The sun sparkled over all. Never had it looked so much worth fighting for.

Now that’s inspiring writing!

Inspiration

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” 2 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)

We’re doing an interesting study right now in my house church. We’re looking at Scripture from the point of view of an atheist (or at least we’re trying to). So, for instance, we looked this week at the story of Jesus walking on the water and wondered out loud what questions someone who does not believe in Jesus or the Bible might ask about the account. There are the more technical questions about how exactly He accomplished it and whether he had help from natural forces or some such (and some of the theories out there are quite outrageous), but there are also the bigger questions, like why is the story in only three of the gospels and not all four? And why are the accounts different? And why are there four gospels anyway and not just one? Those larger questions reminded me of the 2 Timothy verse above, and specifically the phrase “All Scripture is inspired by God…”

In all the controversy about the inerrancy of the Bible that we hear so much of these days, we’ve kind of lost the fundamental fact that the Bible is not just words on a page, or even a collection of stories, but rather the product of inspiration. Have you ever been inspired by someone? It might have been a parent or teacher or friend. Let’s suppose we’re in a class together and we both have a very inspiring person teaching us. What does the outworking of that inspiration look like for each of us? I’m a teacher by profession, and I get inspired by good teaching; it makes me want to emulate their approach and strategies in my own teaching. But you may be more focused on the content. Say they are not only a great teacher, but also an outstanding scientist, or a captivating writer, or they have an exceptional fluency with language. And it’s their mastery of the content they teach that you are inspired by. So you decide to become a scientist or writer or linguist. Someone else in our class may hear that the teacher lived overseas for a time and absolutely revels in their stories of adventure, so that classmate of ours makes the decision to become a world traveler after graduation. We have all been inspired by this one teacher, but we have been inspired in vastly different ways.

The 2 Timothy verse doesn’t say that all Scripture is handed down from God verbatim, as when He wrote the commandments on stone tablets for Moses. And it certainly doesn’t say that all Scripture was made to look identical so that there would be no question that God was the ultimate author. It says that all Scripture is inspired, and as we know, the Apostle Paul chose his words very carefully for his letters so that he would be clearly understood by those he was separated from but whom he loved very much, like Timothy. We understand letters to be personal things, full of the personality of the writer and intended for specific purposes, whether encouragement or correction, as the verse above tells us. But somehow we place books of the Bible like the gospel accounts or prophecy or poetry in a completely different category, as if nothing of the human writer is involved in that book.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, and that is especially true of the gospels. They were written to entirely different audiences for entirely different purposes, so why should they look the same? But they were also written by very different individuals who had different life experiences and were different ages when writing. And as we understand from biblical scholarship, for those who might not have been eye witnesses to the full gamut of Jesus’ ministry on earth, such as Mark and Luke, they likely drew heavily from accounts of those who were with Jesus who had more first-hand knowledge and experience, Mark from Peter, and Luke from Jesus’ mother Mary.

Yet, all Scripture is inspired by God, and so it is precisely that diversity of perspectives that allows us to relate to the Bible in ways that are personal and meaningful. And so we have John referring to himself in his gospel as the disciple Jesus loved, a moniker that no other gospel writer uses. Recall also that the story of Jesus walking on the water includes a key moment is when Peter asks if he can join Jesus on the water, then walks a few steps, then starts sinking and has to be rescued by Jesus who wags a finger at him and chides him for his lack of faith. Guess which gospel writer left out the part about Peter getting a reprimand from Jesus? You guessed it, Mark, the one dependent on Peter’s recounting of his experiences with Christ. Far from opening up the gospels to criticism about being historically inaccurate, these accounts and many others show us that God respects the writers and us as individuals, who He intentionally created with a multiplicity of personalities and giftings and viewpoints which, inspired and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, can point to the Kingdom of heaven. I find that inspiring!

Friendship

There are “friends” who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24, NLT)

I want to tell you a story, a story that is almost 100 years old. It’s a story of salvation, but also of friendship and commitment. It’s a story that has affected almost all of us without our even knowing it, and which literally changed the world, but which has almost entirely been forgotten. I visited Oxford in England this past summer and had the privilege of being told this story for the first time, and actually getting to visit the site where it took place. It was pretty heady stuff.

The main protagonists of the story are C.S. Lewis, author of many books, including the Chronicles of Narnia series, and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They were professors together at Magdalen College (spelled like Mary of Magdalen, but pronounced Maudlin) in Oxford. Though the men really couldn’t have been much more different from each other, the primary thing that distinguished them was that for the first 5 years of their friendship, Tolkien was a Christian and Lewis was an atheist.

Sometime before 3 am on Sunday morning the 20th of September, 1931 Tolkien, Lewis and another friend, Hugo Dyson, strolled along the Cherwell River on the grounds of Magdalen College in Oxford. All that evening the three of them had been discussing their lifelong fascination with myths. It’s sad, Lewis declared, to think that classic tales of courage, beauty, sacrifice and virtue are all untrue and ultimately worthless. Tolkien stopped his skeptical friend cold and made the stunning statement that no, they are not lies; myths contain great spiritual truths.

Two days later, Lewis recounted the conversation in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:
He (Dyson) stayed the night with me in the College… Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning: and after seeing him out by the little postern on Magdalen bridge Dyson and I found still more to say to one another, strolling up and down the cloister of New Building, so that we did not get to bed till 4. It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth –interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship – then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

On October 18, 1931, Lewis wrote to Greeves again about his conversation with his friends:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

Thus it was, because of his friends’ pursuit of him, that in 1931 the hard-bitten atheist C.S. Lewis finally gave in and surrendered his life to Christ. Five years later, because of their shared love of myth, Lewis would challenge Tolkien that they should each write some Christian fantasy. As a result, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Lewis wrote his science fiction trilogy. Lewis would go on to write Screwtape Letters, the Chronicles of Narnia, and many defenses of the faith, including Mere Christianity. And the world has never been the same since.

As I strolled Addison’s Walk this past summer, I was struck with the power of friendship and the changes it can bring about. I wondered then if I could be as good a friend as Tolkien was to Lewis. They had met in 1926 as members of the faculty at Oxford, where Hugo Dyson also was. Initially Lewis didn’t really care for Tolkien, but after a while they found their common fascination with myth, as well as something they called “the northerness,” a love for Viking lore and adventure of all kinds. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and a “thorough-going supernaturalist,” as Lewis described him. Lewis was a realist, a materialist who had no time for the unseen world and especially God, yet who, strangely, was drawn to mythical lore about gods and goddesses. And this Tolkien saw as his way in.

For almost 5 years he hammered away at Lewis’ suit of armor. We all have these suits of armor, what we wear to protect ourselves from the pain of a fallen world and especially our growing up. Lewis had constructed his over many years, due to losing his mother when he was only 10 years old, having a father who was distant and detached from his world, and seeing first-hand the horrors of World War I, where Lewis lost many friends and which nearly took his own life. Tolkien had lost both of his parents early in his life and so could have had his own suit of armor, but he had taken another route, finding consolation in the arms of God, and he knew that was exactly what Lewis needed as well.

Tolkien had help from a phalanx of other Christians that Lewis and he worked with, including Hugo Dyson, as well as some of Lewis’ favorite authors who unbeknownst to him were Christians, people like G.K. Chesterton, John Milton and many others. But it took many years of persistence on the part of Tolkien and others. Lewis was an academic and a rationalist, and he had to be convinced. Hearing about others’ experience wasn’t enough, he had to know that the Bible and the God of the Bible were true. Once he did, though, he would do more than any other Christian in history to convince skeptics like himself of the reality of God.

So, let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself since I roamed along Addison’s Walk this summer. Who are you that kind of friend to, the kind of friend Tolkien was to Lewis? The kind of friend who would persist for years with someone who was so obstinate, someone who would stay up all night talking, hoping for a breakthrough with his friend? The book of James ends with a couple of remarkable verses:

My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God. (James 5:19-20, The Message)

No distinction is made here between sharing the Gospel with a non-Christian and discipling one who believes. One commentator has called this “the work of spiritual direction”. It is the ministry of cutting through the deceptions of a relativistic culture and setting before others a clear path of obedience.

We are surrounded by those who have wandered from the truth, who are on the precipice of death itself. As I often say to my teacher candidates, sometimes the only thing a person needs is one good idea. Tolkien had one good idea, the idea that all myth was just a shadow and form of the true myth, the greatest story ever told, the Bible. That insight, I would suggest to you, was inspired by the Holy Spirit, because it was exactly what Lewis needed to hear.

In his famous sermon Weight of Glory, delivered 10 years after his conversion, the believer C.S. Lewis spoke powerfully about his transformed view of myth:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves…For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

Tolkien’s good idea, 10 years earlier, was the missing piece of the puzzle that Lewis needed so badly. So, here is a question to ponder as we live the gospel together: What one good idea does your friend need to hear from you, or rather, from God? What one good idea will transform your friend’s view of God, of life, and perhaps even your friendship, just as Lewis’ perspective was radically changed? I encourage all of us to ask the Holy Spirit for insight, and then be the friend that person needs us to be.

The year Lewis died, in 1963, he wrote a poem entitled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” which not coincidentally is set in Addison’s Walk. He is remembering back to that walk he took with his friends so many years before, and as he says “a spell becoming undone,” but also, because he was so sick at the time he wrote the poem, he is perhaps looking ahead to a home-going that would happen soon. Here’s the poem:

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Lewis could write these words at the end of his life because his friends had not given up on him, but had gone after him and rescued him. They were the friend that sticks closer than a brother, the kind that never gives up, the kind that as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  This is what it means to live the gospel together in friendship.

Why Does Praise Even Matter?

My good friend Kandace Terry has written a remarkable reflection on the importance of praise. I am reposting her blog entry with her permission so that more people (who still read) can appreciate her deep revelation.

Why does praise even matter?

Any of you who have known me for any length of time are sure to notice that my typically upbeat nature has been, ahem, shall we say, tested, the last few weeks.  Writing?  Yeah, not happening.  There have been so many questions.  So many demands.  And on top of the legitimate challenges of the last couple years, there have been so many insignificant, first world nuisances that somehow have become a big deal to my normally easy going disposition.  There have been these brief moments when I think I’ve heard something from Daddy God, but distraction is right there on the spot to keep me from soaking in it.

“Are there themes that you’re showing me, God?  Help me to see.”

“What are you saying?  What am I missing?”

“I’m sorry I’m so distracted, God.  My kid is flooding the bathroom.”

But it’s coming into focus, and I’m unsettled about it.  “What do You want me to DO with this, Lord?”  Here’s the thing, friends: I don’t think God is interested in our glossed over and insincere platitudes that we call “praise”.  I’m going to go ahead and put myself in the middle of the intervention circle and admit to you straight up that sometimes (a lot of times) I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PRAISE GOD.  Yes, I know the formula: A.C.T.S — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But let’s all be honest for a skinny minute: don’t we really just want to jump to the supplication part?  That’s what comes most naturally.  I’m excellent at thinking about myself and the things I think I need in order for my life to be more comfortable.  (And in all fairness, we can usually come up with quite a few things to be thankful for, too.)  But adoration (and confession — that one deserves a post all it’s own)? Yikes!  Those are harder for most of us.  So we sit with it.  We think hard.  We ask, “God, how should I praise you? What do I say?  …Do?  How is praise any different than thanking you?”  We may eventually come up with a few things to name off as praises, but when we muster our courage to name them out loud — be it in a crowd or in private — where is the sense of conviction?  Where is the brokenness over our sin in relation to His holiness?  The strength of spirit?  The emotion?  We (I) sound so…melancholy.  So unconvincing.  And the painful reality that I can’t help but to remember is that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).  Yeah, I’ve been mulling over that convicting truth.

I’ve come under conviction, friends.  I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror and allow myself to see down into the ugly parts of my soul that I’d rather keep hidden in darkness.  He wants us to participate in praise, not observe it (or worse, critique it).  He doesn’t require a dark room with flashy lights, the latest music, and a producer at a board in the back of the room that makes it all look and sound good (or on the other extreme, He isn’t limited to our liturgical traditions or worship guides).  He doesn’t require fancy or culturally “hip” words/phrases.  He doesn’t even mind if I fumble over what I’m trying to say, or if I have some holes in my theology.  He wants my heart…my mind.  He wants me to let it all go in adoration, without regard for what other people may think.  He wants me to come to Him ready, expecting Him to meet me.  Ahhhh!!! His presence.

I’ve heard skeptics ask why God is so needy?  Is He really that egotistical that He demands our praise and worship?  But I would submit to you that while worship truly is about HIM…remembering HIM…esteeming HIM, He isn’t the only one who benefits.  And this seems especially true when we cause ourselves to profess the affection of our hearts toward Him even when we’re not feelin’ it. Because here’s a cold hard truth: sometimes we identify with David in Psalm 22.  He’s broken.  God feels absent.  He feels abandoned…forgotten.  The fascinating thing that is being revealed to me, though, is that something remarkable happens with praise.  Watch and see if you catch it:

¹My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
²Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
    Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.

That’s honesty right there, friends.  My guess is that when David penned and sang those words, the bent of his emotion didn’t lean toward praise.  But YET.  The next word is YET.  (I have so much to learn from this example):

³Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our ancestors trusted in you,
    and you rescued them.
They cried out to you and were saved.
    They trusted in you and were never disgraced.

David makes himself remember the praiseworthiness of his God.  And my guess is that if we were a fly on the (cave?) wall when he first sang this song, we would be emotionally moved.  Praise in the midst of hardship, that’s what this is.  I can’t say with any true authority what David was feeling outside of what is written, but I DO know how I would feel:  I wouldn’t feel like praising God.  Remembering God’s goodness and faithfulness wouldn’t be my natural response.  I would probably have a hard time thinking of any kind of praise to offer to (in my estimation, a confusing and absent) God.  Maybe that’s how David felt too, because it sure seems to me that it was a battle even for him to keep the perspective and heart of praise, because what comes next?

But I am a worm and not a man.
    I am scorned and despised by all!
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
    Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
    let the Lord rescue him!”

Honest confession, ache, groaning, despair, feelings of abandonment and rejection…that’s what came next.  And then there it is again…YET.  There’s that word.

Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb
    and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.
10 I was thrust into your arms at my birth.
    You have been my God from the moment I was born.

Do you see it? He sure is trying!  Even though he anguishes, he is naming the steady presence of God in his life, from the very beginning.  He is naming things that prevent despair from isolating him from God and the rest of the world.  Again, in this example David demonstrates that sometimes praise looks like the discipline of remembrance. Sometimes we have to make ourselves remember God’s faithful goodness even when we don’t see it.  But even so, discipline to remember and praise God ≠ sullenness.  Or melancholy.  Or apathy.  It doesn’t mean we sit on the sidelines or the folding chairs or the pews and watch other people praise.  It doesn’t mean we wave the white flag when we can’t think of anything praiseworthy to say after 2 seconds of thinking about how to fill in the gap when we’re praying the “A” section of the A.C.T.S prayer.

David goes on to name the grim stakes of his dire situation.  He begs the Lord to be near.  He pleads for breakthrough…for mercy.  And as he goes on, you can almost hear it in his voice: “whom have I but You?  This situation is impossible.  You are my only chance for survival.”  And yet… as he goes on, you can feel David’s confidence building once again.  He knows the despair of his situation, but he also knows the LOVE and POWER of GOD.  He remembers God’s goodness from the dawn of time, and His constant faithfulness throughout his own life. His discipline to remember, to praise, has fed his own spirit. If he had been John’s contemporary, I’m sure he would’ve agreed: Greater is He who is in me than He who is in the world.

How encouraging would I be as a mother if I never praised my children, only asking them to do things for me?  And how effective would my praises to my children be if I lacked any depth of sincerity or applause in my expression of them? When our spiritual ancestors praised, they did so with musical instruments and singing, shouts of joy and clapping hands; they praised with broken and contrite hearts, weeping over their own sin as they reflect on the holiness of God; they praised in the assembly and as individuals; they praised sitting, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate, bowed heads, lifted hands, and dancing.

They meant it.

They felt it.

They expressed it.

I guess it may seem like I’m harping on the outward appearance of our praise, and yes, I do wish we invited and welcomed a move of the Spirit that just may surprise even ourselves in the way that we respond with our expression of worship.  But even deeper than that is my grief that we, *I*, forget His praiseworthiness.  That’s the real heart of it.  We’re so focused on ourselves that we rush past Him.  We’re so concerned about the things we desire from His hand, that we miss His heart.  But I can’t help but believe that we’re no different than David, and that as we remember our God, His mercy, His breakthroughs, His sacrifice, His revolutionary grace; as we lift our eyes from the despair of our situations, we see HIM.  And when we see HIM, confidence climbs, boldness builds, faith flourishes, and praises pour. It honors our God, and it moves us.  In fact, I also believe it moves Him toward us.  And as we come closer to one another, His presence overwhelms us.  Our perspective is made right.

The beginning section of Psalm 22 and the ending…talk about stark contrast.  Despair has turned to boldness.  Groaning has turned to declarations of authority.  Hopelessness about even living to see another day has turned to hopeful confidence for many righteous generations to come. The difference?

A heart of praise.

So today, I will choose obedience.  I will choose remembrance.  I will choose praise…even if my circumstances aren’t comfortable.  Even if things aren’t going as planned or hoped, I will remember His faithful goodness. I have to, lest I become angry and isolated from the One who has always been faithful.  …and I will mean it when I speak it.  My heart and mind will join together in solidarity as I speak with gumption about His praiseworthiness.  And I expect that He will exchange my despair, and give hope; He will take my questions, and give peace;  He will take my offering, and give joy.  As I look to Him, I will remember and name what He said, and my own confidence will rise. Will you join me?  Let’s try this together!

Yes, a true heart of praise is humble and it is focused on the One who is worthy of praise.  But like David, I expect that in lifting His name, He blesses me in return by lifting my spirit.

Love Bade Me Welcome by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

A Good Word for Parents

This story is included in a book I’m reading called Organic Community, and it has so much truth in it for parents, I thought I’d pass it along. If you haven’t been there already, you will likely find yourself there at some point. Stay the course, you’re doing great!

Denise VanEck says this in a sermon titled “The Ache of a Mother”:

“What was it like for [Eve] as she had that second baby? Did she expect him to be exactly like the first one? What were her assumptions? What were her expectations? What was it like for Eve the first time that she looked at her little boy and thought to herself, ‘I could give you life, but I can’t decide what it is. I can’t decide who you are.’

“I think all of us moms when we have our babies, we know that they are going to be themselves; they are going to be an individual. But at some level we still believe that we can control that person and who they are. I remember the moment for me when I had to learn this lesson.

“Steven was [in] about the fourth grade, and I had always thought Steve would be my little blonde baseball player — I thought he’d be the little blonde builder like his dad. And so I was always buying him trucks, and trains, and all those boy toys and even though he’d play with them, what he really gravitated toward was the crayons, and the paints, and the clay.

“And so by the fourth grade Steve realized that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up, and in order to be an artist he was going to need to study art in Paris. He also realized that he only had about eight more years to get ready.

“So he started growing his hair out long, and he bought himself a beret, and then he begged me to spend twenty dollars on ‘Your First Thousand Words in French.’

“Steve grows his hair. Pretty soon it’s long enough for a ponytail. And this back in the ’80s — this was back when the big movement in the public school systems was the whole self-esteem movement. So I get a call one day from Steve’s teacher.

“I dutifully go in and the principal is there, and the teacher is there. They say, ‘Mrs. VanEck, we’re very worried about Steve. All the kids tease him about his long hair, his ponytail, and his beret. We think you should get his hair cut.’

“At that point, I thought there was God and the principal, and if [the principal] told you you had to do something, you had to do it. So I did!

“I made an appointment and he went off to get the haircut. I sat in the waiting room and finally I decided I needed to go back there and check on how this was going.

“The woman was just finishing this really hideous mullet. [She] turns him around slowly in the chair to face me, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to love his new haircut!’ But as she turned him around and I looked at his face, what I saw instead was was one tear, dripping down his cheek.

“And in that moment everything changed for me as a mom, because that was the moment that I realized that being a mother is more about discovery than it is control. That I had not just gotten my son a really bad haircut — I had violated him. I had violated who he was, I had violated his dreams, I had violated his sense of himself.

“And I realized in that moment that I really needed to learn who this little person was. My job wasn’t to just buy him baseball caps because that’s who I thought that he should be. My job was to make him everything that he could be.”