The Daunting Task of Loving Others

I can spend two whole days in silence with God and still want to scream at my children the next day during school when they throw a tantrum over practicing the piano.
love is hard
Loving others is hard.
This second greatest command is easy to say, yet ridiculously difficult to do.
It always seems to me that it should be easier than it is.
love should be easier
To be sure, loving a stranger might be difficult, giving of yourself to someone who habitually behaves horribly would be a challenge, but offering love to those dearest to you? It is a task that should be effortless.
It is not. It is a near impossibility to consistently love people day in and day out, no matter how much we adore them.
Why is this so difficult? Why is it so daunting a task to truly love another person?
I think it is because this kind of true other-love involves a death.
It involves a kind of death of our own self as we set aside ourselves, our desires and dreams, for the sake of the other.
No matter how hard we try, we resist this death: we fight back … We seek any convenient excuse to break off and give up the difficult task. ~ Thomas Merton in The Wisdom of the Desert
Just as our physical bodies fight to cling to life, our inner selves also repels any attempt at self-crucifixion.
Our only hope in this fight to obey this most necessary command is in surrender.
We cannot hope to succeed in the battle to die to self without the deliverance of the only One who has laid down his life of his own accord.
What is required as we learn to love is not a greater effort on our part to will our selves into obedience but a laying down of our works and a waiting on God.
love requires waiting on God
We must become like Israel with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s chariots coming up quickly behind them.
The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.
In the end, being able to love my children, the stranger we invite into our home, even the poorly behaved acquaintance, requires not that I try harder, screwing up my will in an attempt to force myself to behave in a loving way.
Being able to love others requires that I spend more time in silence with God, allowing him to change me into a person who can die to myself.
I must be silent and let God fight this battle for me.

Art credit: The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea by Juan de la Corte

Good Work

I’ve been thinking about work lately.
good work
good work
The idea of work has changed a great deal over the centuries, but more recently (relatively speaking) it has undergone a more dramatic change. In the beginning, we were created to work.
good work
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We were made to do significant and meaningful work and we were made to do it well.
Mankind moved from the practice of each person or family creating all that they needed themselves to the practice of families gathering together in villages and having specific people working to make what was needed for everyone (the metal smith making tools for the hunters, the potter making jars to hold water, etc.). Yet now, in our modern age, we have moved even farther down this road. Now we have work that is solely for the purpose of earning money.
work for money
No longer do we consider whether a work is good in itself, nor do we consider whether an unnecessary work is done well. It has, in fact, become necessary that work is not done in a way that is good. How else would people continue to consume, and workers therefore continue to have work, if the products being made were not designed to wear out quickly?
There is still plenty of work that is both good in itself and that is good to do well: agricultural laborers, doctors, teachers, artists, and many others do work which they would do even if there were no pay to be had in it. Yet there is another whole category of work that has no significance and no importance. It was only created to allow the maximum number of people to be employed.
work for efficiency
Employing people is not an evil, of course.  It was an act of love that led from talk of reducing the “surplus population” to talk of reducing unemployment.  The danger is that this has led us to forget that unemployment is not an end in itself.  We want people, as C.S. Lewis put it, to be employed only as a means to their being fed – believing that it is better to feed them even for making bad things badly than for doing nothing.
Perhaps this view is correct, but it should not lead us into forced appreciation for work that is not good.
I, of course, have no comprehensive plan or brilliant strategy for ending this sort of endless cycle of meaningless jobs producing poor quality products that are consumed briefly and then discarded, requiring a new replacement product.  Yet perhaps it is something just to recognize the problem and the insanity of the idea of meaningless work.
Just as the Christian has a great advantage over other men, not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that he is a fallen man in a fallen world; so we shall do better if we remember at every moment what Good Work was and how impossible it has now become for the majority.  ~ C.S. Lewis
One of the areas in which I see this most clearly is in Christian art.  It is another topic for another essay to discuss whether or not there even IS such a thing as Christian art but, as Madeleine L’Engle said, if it is bad art, it is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.  When art is done well it testifies to God, even if the artist does not know God.
good work
Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
In the same way, work that is done well, even if the worker does not personally believe in God, testifies to the glory of God. It is not an insignificant instruction of Paul’s that whatever we do, we should work at it as if we were working for God rather than only for men.
Whatever we do, whether we are leading a meeting or scrubbing a toilet, whether we are painting the sunrise or designing a bookshelf that will be put together by a young father, we are to do good work.
We may have to earn our living by taking part in the production of objects which…would not be worth producing – the demand or ‘market’ for them having been simply engineered by advertisement. Beside the waters of Babylon – or the assembly belt – we shall still say inwardly, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” ~ C.S. Lewis
In this way we will testify to the glory of God and will draw others to Him so that they, too, may bask in His presence.
What do you think? Should anything be done about work that is unnecessary or of poor quality? Can anything be done? What about your own job: would you still do it if you did not need the income to survive?

Art credits: photo of factory by Henno Jacques; Ford assembly line photo from Wiki Commons; The Water Lily Pond painting by Claude Monet

edited from the archives

The Danger in Killing Time

Here we are again, at the start of another school year.
School time
School time
School time
School time
Most of the schools in our area began last week.
We actually launched into school four weeks ago, but that is another story.
In our home, this is the time when the lazy days of summer come to a close and the busier school days begin to ramp up.
It is the time when we look toward the year ahead, consider which activities we want to participate in, think about how busy we want to be.
That is, when we are at our best we take in all of these considerations. Too often we merely fall into all the activities because our kids want to do them, because they sound fun, because a friend is already doing them.
Even if you do not have children at home, it is often easier to thoughtlessly agree to the busyness than to take time to reflect on what would be the wisest use of time.
Easier in the short term, that is.
odd time
killing time
valuing time
Time is an odd notion.
We even speak of time in an odd way.
One saying that comes to mind is “killing time.”
Such a sinister phrase.
The time you are killing is, of course, your own time, and we are given precious little of it as it is.
It seems that our default, the default of a great many people in this world, is to simply get through our lives, killing time, living on the surface of things.
It takes such enormous effort to break through the outer crust and into the very depth and marrow of life. We wonder whether it is worth it.
So many of us
are so bad at hearing each other and seeing each other that it is little wonder that one life seems enough to them or more than enough: seeing so little in this world, they think that there is little to see and that they have seen most of it already so that the rest probably is not worth seeing anyway and there is nothing new under the sun. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Hungering Dark
Yet with only a small amount of effort, we can break through the surface of things into the beauty and joy that lies just below the outer crust of indifference.
With only a small amount of waking up, of paying attention, we can open our eyes to the wonder and variety that lies in the people and places all around us. Especially in the people and places most dear to us.
We often look for ways to make the days go by faster, wishing the years to pass quickly in order to move on to some other phase of life, while we completely miss all the joy, beauty, and wonder in which God has placed us.
This missing out on all that God has waiting for us is the danger in our busyness, the danger in merely falling carelessly into all the activities rather than choosing deliberately and wisely.
You often hear the advice that if you keep busy, it will be over before you know it, and the tragedy of it is that it is true. ~ Frederick Buechner

Art credits: World Time by rizeli53; Clock Tower by Miriam Wickett; Ornate Clock by Kevin Tuck

I Don’t Care

acedia

I sometimes get a restless feeling.
acedia
A feeling that makes me want to take a trip, move to a new place, find a different job.
A feeling that tempts me to believe that my current place and work don’t really matter, that nothing I do is important, that continuing on with my life as it is seems utterly unappealing.
I’ve had this feeling off and on throughout most of my life, yet it was only recently that I discovered this feeling has a name:
Acedia.
Naming a thing has power.
Acedia.
It is the feeling that what you are doing does not matter, is utterly unimportant, and that you would rather be anywhere else doing anything else.
acedia
It is the feeling that causes us to feel bored and impatient with all of the “drudgery” of whatever role we have in our lives.
Doing the dishes after one more meal, sitting through one more meeting, driving the kids to one more practice, coming home to your spouse one more time,
these are all practices that can cause acedia in our hearts.
acedia
We live in a consumer culture, one that advises us to keep our options open so that we are free to seize the new and improved edition when it comes out.
It prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to that freedom … Whatever the place of our commitment — a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage — well, we are better off just walking away … But soon we discover that no place will satisfy us, and no one person, no group of friends, can meet our needs. The oppressive boredom we had hoped to escape is lodged firmly within us … ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
Acedia is a condition of the heart that has long been recognized by the Christian spiritual tradition as a temptation to be resisted.
It shows itself in a boredom with the mundane, repetitive tasks of life, in not caring about anything in our hectic schedules, in a listlessness and a desire to give up and move on to something else, anything else.
What is it like, this failure in the art of life? It is the failure which manifests itself in a loss of interest in really important things … But if … your feelings and sensibilities are withering, if your relationships with people near to you are becoming more and more superficial, if you are losing touch even with yourself, it is Acedia which has claimed you for its own.” ~ Robertson Davies in The Deadliest of the Sins
The problem is, of course, that acedia is a disorder of the heart rather than a disordering of any outward circumstances. That restless, listless feeling can and does come with any work, any community, any place.
Let me pause and say that acedia is different from depression or despair. I like the way Kathleen Norris puts it: “For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.”
Un-pause.
What, then, is the solution? If a change will not dislodge acedia from our hearts, what will?
Again we turn to our heritage, our earlier Fathers and Mothers of our faith, for help.
Their counsel lies in the spiritual practices of prayer and endurance.
Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century monk and theologian, urged, “Endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God … Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.” But also, “pray intelligently and with fervor, so that the spirit of listlessness will flee.”
Several of the desert Mothers and Fathers instructed their students to perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores.
It seems too simple, to merely carry on with your current task in your current place with your current people.
Yet I can attest to the wisdom of their counsel from my own experience. The times I have responded to acedia with change, the feeling continues to hound me. The times I have responded with endurance, the temptation eventually flees.
Perseverance is the essential condition for conquering the temptation of acedia.
The monks and mystics of my faith all teach that persevering in a spiritual discipline, especially when it seems futile, is the key to growth. ~ Kathleen Norris
The consequence of not enduring? A gradual withering of desires and passion and interest in anything at all, as well as an enslavement to your own self.
There is no longer any room for an abandonment … to the other or for the joy of gift; what remains is sadness or bitterness within the one who distances himself from the community and who, being separated from others, finds himself likewise separated from God. ~ Jean-Charles Nault, OSB in Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy
In my own life, I have found a great power in being able to name this feeling that comes upon me now and then. It gives me courage to hold on, knowing that if I will only continue to pray and endure, this temptation, like all others, will eventually flee.
I pray that this gives you courage as well.
I end with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Take these words and use them when you have trouble finding your own. Peace be on you.
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art credits: book images are from Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue by Maurice Sendak

Seeing Every Piece of Me as a Gift

I often have difficulty understanding what I am feeling.
emotions
emotions
emotions
emotions
That may seem strange, but I’ve always found it difficult to name my emotions and understand them.
emotions
emotions
emotions
emotions
Part of the trouble is that I generally have a fairly even-keeled sort of temperament. I don’t tend to sink into the depths of despair, but I don’t experience the dizzying heights of joy either.
There are benefits and drawbacks to every personality.
Another part of the trouble is that I mistrust the transience of emotions. Because emotions change quickly, because they don’t always tell what is true about something, I dismiss them as completely irrelevant. I am impatient with them.
I was recently reminded, however, that the One who created the sunset is the same One who created us as emotional beings.
Yes, some of us have bigger emotions than others, just as some of us have darker hair than others, but we all experience a range of emotions.
I was gently reminded by the Spirit that when I dismiss my feelings, I am dismissing a piece of God’s creation. I am throwing a piece of who God created me to be back in His face and telling Him that I do not think it is good.
My deep desire is to glorify God with everything that is in me. This means glorifying Him with the way I care for my emotional self.
I have neglected this part of me for so long.
This is hard.
I must be patient, bringing my emotions before God and asking His Holy Spirit to guide me in discernment and wisdom in caring for this gift that He has given me. I must ask Him to help to see it as a gift.
If there is a piece of you, mind or heart or body or soul, that you have tended to neglect (and probably we all have something), will you bring that fragment of you before God and ask Him how to better tend it, ask Him to knit it back into your whole?
This is part of the way in which we become whole people, capable of becoming who God created us to be, capable of glorifying our Lord with all that we are.

 

 

Too Slow, Too Common

Slow.
Discipline.
Cultivation.
Practice.
slow
These are not popular ideas these days.
We prefer glitz and glamour, look for fast-paced action, demand instant results.
glitz
We are impatient of slow, meandering ways of reaching goals.
This is what we have been taught as we live in this technological age: this dismissal of slow as substandard, this elevation of streamlined over satisfying.
We want to rush through everything in order to cram in more. We strive to find the most efficient ways of reaching our goals so we can stretch ourselves toward newer, better achievements.
We want to do more, have more, be more.
There is much that is lost when we fall into this way of reaching career, parenting, or personal goals.
discipline
Everything is lost when applying these technological methods to our relationship with God.
We read our chapter of Scripture, have our devotion, talk at God for a moment or two, then rush off to the rest of our day, wondering all the while why we feel such deep emptiness inside.
We try to fill that emptiness with more worship music, more religious podcasts, more sermons, yet none of this will make up for what we have lost.
What can bring us back?
cultivation
That which we have rejected:
slow and steady,
being disciplined over a period of decades,
a long cultivation of spiritual habits,
practice and more practice and yet more practice.
The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. ~ A. W. Tozer
Spiritual practices such as silence and solitude, lectio divina, contemplation, self-examination and confession – these are the slow habits that bring us into a deep, abiding relationship with God.
We are called to abide with Christ, and abiding is necessarily a long and slow process, one that takes place by degrees over many decades.
practice
If you are wondering where God is, perhaps you need to slow down, make time.
He is here. He is always here. We do not often perceive him, but he is always here.
Perceiving takes time. It is a sacrifice of time to be sure. I won’t pretend that it is easy to move against the flow of our age.
Yet for me, at least, I want this awareness more than I want the illusive rewards of hurry and instant.
I am trying. I fail often. The process is so much slower than I would prefer.
slow
Slow as it may be, I begin to notice progress. I begin to notice God.
It is for increasing degrees of awareness that we pray, for a more perfect consciousness of the divine Presence…He is nearer than our own soul. ~ A. W. Tozer
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I Want My True Colors To Be Brilliant

Autumn is my favorite time of year.
Autumn
Colors
The cool, crisp air striking your skin, the blazing bonfire scent filling you up with every breath, the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Most of all, the leaves.
The dazzling display of fiery colors that fill your sight in every direction.
Dazzling
Those radiant colors that inspire poetry and art are, I recently discovered (or perhaps rediscovered as I feel sure I probably learned this at one time during my elementary school career), actually the true colors of the leaves.
The green that we see for most of the year, the green that fills up our springtime and summer, is just the tree-feeding chlorophyll covering up the brightness. It is not until the tree is no longer making food, not until the leaves are beginning to die, that their true colors blaze out.
Green
I want that.
Changing
Oh, how I desperately want that.
Becoming
As I age, as my body moves closer to death, I want for the colors of this life to begin to fade away and the colors of Jesus in me to blaze out.
Beginning
From the moment we choose life in Jesus, we are changing.
Fading
Little by little, day by day, the green of this world starts to fade.
Shining
Little by little, choice by choice, the light of the life to come begins to shine.
Light
The older I become, the more I want people to look at me and see Jesus. I want the colors of me, the colors of my natural self, to fade away.
I want the brilliance of Jesus to take over.
Brilliance
At the end of my life, my body will be bent and wrinkled, dry and withered.
My prayer is that by then my own self will be so one with Christ that when people look into my eyes, they are taken aback with the dazzling display of Jesus that fills their sight.
Dazzling
What are some of the lessons that Mother Nature is teaching you about our common Creator? She speaks loudly if we will only listen.
Beauty
Creation
Nature
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ~ Romans 1.20
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

All photographs copyright Made Sacred 2020

Offering My Incompetent Fish

I feel incompetent in a lot of ways these days.
So much feels so new.
So different.
So…strange.
masks
Whether you are learning how to work from home, work with protective gear, or find work when your industry has collapsed,
whether you are learning how to help your children learn from home, learn online, or learn with a mask on their sweet faces,
whether you are dealing with hurricanes, fires, or derechos,
I would wager that most of you feel as I do.
Incompetent.
strange times
We want to serve and glorify God here in this little piece of the earth where he has placed us.
We want to love well the people God has placed within our small sphere of influence.
Yet all too often in these oh-so-bizarre days, we feel as though it takes all that we have inside of us just to survive.
We are hanging on by sheer grit, and even that fails us at times.
What are we to do when our hearts desire to do great things for God’s kingdom yet all of our energy is focused on not surrendering completely to the difficulties of life?
I have discovered that it helps to think about fish.
fish offering
Well, to be specific, fish and bread.
Remember the time when Jesus fed five thousand men plus women and children?
loaves and fish
When the hour for supper arrived, Jesus looked around and asked if anyone had any food to share.
Jesus, the bread of life, the one who spoke grain into being, asked for help in feeding his people.
While the grown-up Jesus followers were staring gape-mouthed in disbelief at each other, a little boy came up with his tiny little lunch and offered it to Jesus.
He only had enough for himself, and probably barely enough at that, but he offered what he had to Jesus.
And Jesus took that inadequate offering and multiplied it to feed all of those masses who were hungry
abundance
with abundance left over.
So rest in what Jesus is capable of doing rather than in what you are capable of doing.
Simply offer him what little you have and trust that he can make it more than enough.
You are not asked to do great things, only to offer what you have to the One who has done great things over and above all that you could ask or imagine.
Be still and rest in his more than competent hands.
To hear my blog post read aloud or to hear the music video, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art credits: Feeding the Five Thousand by Marten van Valckenborch; photos of fish are from a former band student of mine, Jon Miller, who now runs a successful fishing business in Louisiana

Is Tolerance All That We Can Manage?

 

I hear many voices crying out for tolerance in these days.
busy street
We are exhorted by our leaders, our culture, to show tolerance to those around us.
Everywhere I turn, I am pleaded with to be tolerant, to show tolerance to anyone who is different, anyone who thinks or behaves differently than I.
Is this what we who are Christ followers are called to be? Tolerant?
Is this really all that we can manage, all that we can aspire to do?
Tolerance is easy. It costs me nothing.
Tolerance shrugs its shoulders and walks away, leaving you to your own devices. Tolerance doesn’t care.
And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is much harder.
Natalie189
Love affirms the reality of the other person, culture and way of life.
Love takes the trouble to get to know the other person and find out what makes them special.
Love wants what is best for that person or culture.
It was love that drove William Wilberforce to lead the British parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade, not tolerance.
It was love that brought the world to oppose an apartheid regime in South Africa, not tolerance.
It was love that led Martin Luther King to pursue civil rights, not tolerance.
It was love that sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf, not tolerance.
Rembrandt_The_Three_Crosses_1653
As I live in this world that is increasingly intolerant of anything that is other, as I live my life in contact with people who are different than me, I will pray for strength to choose the harder way.
If I am to be Jesus to those around me, if I am to make a difference for Him in this world, I must choose love, not tolerance.
Love must confront Tolerance and insist, as it has always done, on a better way. ~ Tim Keller in Generous Justice
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

art credits: Crowds by J. Solis; The Three Crosses etching by Rembrandt

edited from the archives

What to Do With Your Half-Finished Songs

I often feel as though I fall short.
falling short
No, that’s not quite true. I mostly feel as though I fall short.
I fall short in my marriage. My pride so often chokes me up.
I fall short in my parenting. My selfishness makes me stumble.
I fall short in my writing. My laziness keeps me from doing all that God desires.
It is enough to make me quit.
failure
This continuous falling short is enough to make me want to stop trying.
Why bother, when all of my very best efforts are never quite enough?
I am learning in my God-life, and I think that it applies to all of life (as all of life is and should be my God-life), that falling short doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that I do not give up.
What matters is that I continue to persevere.
Trying matters.
We live in a broken world and we inhabit broken bodies. We shouldn’t be surprised when our best efforts fall short.
We shouldn’t be surprised when the outcome toward which we are aiming doesn’t quite come to fruition.
But all of our failures don’t change a thing about who we are.
For we are God’s beloved.
And as I wrote earlier, nothing that we do for God is ever wasted.
nothing is wasted
We are a part of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, and even our failures are used to that end.
It is a beautiful truth that God uses our broken efforts to restore His broken world.
All of creation is aimed with all of her being toward her creator, giving of herself in praise, waiting with eager longing for her freedom.
This is what we are asked to work toward in our marriage, in our parenting, in our art, in our work.
…since creation is going to declare (his great faithfulness) either way, we might as well jump in with our half-finished songs and join the chorus. ~ Andrew Peterson in Adorning the Dark
Dear one, we must not let our failures keep us from trying.
God desires even our failures, especially our failures, for His kingdom purposes.
He looks forward to hearing all of your half-finished songs.
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

all photographs are copyright Made Sacred 2020