Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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words and realities

One of the most insidious philosophical ideas in the 20th century is that words are not to be trusted.

Here is the insidious idea: a word -- any word -- doesn't mean only what you think it means. That is because it cannot mean only what you think it means.

You see, a word can mean a whole lot of things. And so as a result: language -- which is made up of words -- is inherently undependable because it is infinitely negotiable.

Language at best paints situational truths: points of view that make sense in the social situation one finds one's self. But since social situations always change, there are NEVER any permanent truths.

In the famous (ahem) words of a recent president of the United States: "It all depends on what 'is' is."

It all depends, you see, on what "is" is.

In exchange for this inability to come to any conclusions, there is great freedom to paint reality as you see it. Enormous freedom.

In a jam? Just call the whole thing by another name. Describe it with other words. Paint your own reality.

It is no wonder that, in our world, "spin" has become reality. The problem is that spin can be spun in every which way, and in multiple ways. And so we live in fragmented realities.

Deconstructivist philosophy, the linguistic theory that is leader in this kind of "analysis" of language, calls this freedom of meaning -- actually it is freedom FROM meaning -- "the infinite play of signs."

Words, you see, are nothing but signs -- and all signs are constantly "in play" as to what they actually represent.

This is because they don't in fact represent much of anything; the very idea that signs can represent substances is old fashioned.

Substance itself, you see, is a convenient myth.

But here is the problem:
when substance is taken away, facts are also taken away.

The only thing that counts is the

And it all depends on what is is.


Matthew 24.35
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Psalm 119.105 Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.

Behold, a sower went forth to sow


Matthew 13.3-8 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.

Three older guys ... and what if

The lunch had been eaten and the separate checks paid. We were just sitting there, still shooting the breeze.

Well, we were talking about our elderly parents. We ourselves are in our mid to late 50s -- and the upcoming years ... well, pick up the conversation:

"Just think how fast the last 20 years went by."

"Yea, so the next twenty'll come and go before you know it."

"Ah, the life to come. You know guys ... after all of this; after all the sermons and the Bible studies and all of it ... what if none of it is true?"

"Yea, what if ... "


"It has to be true. Look around. All of this just didn't happen by chance ..."

"Hey, even if there is nothing on the other side, we'd have nothing to regret. We would've done it right."

"Yea, it would be better to have lived confessing, and then find out there's nothing -- than to have lived not confessing -- just to find out that there is."


"But it has to be true. Look at all of this ... in us and around us ... it all fits together so wonderfully."

"Yea ..."


1 Corinthians 15.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

2 Timothy 2.12 Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.

Blaise Pascal, in Pensees: "... Let us weigh up the gain and the loss in calling heads that God exists ... if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing..." (in Unclassified Papers, Series II, "The Wager", translated A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books 1995, p. 123).

1% vision, 99% measurement

It was Edison who said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You can easily adapt that to great buildings:

Great architecture is 1% vision, 99% measurement.

I'm struck by the importance given to measurement when the architecture of the House of God is mentioned in Scripture. For example, during the construction of the Second Temple in 520BC, as construction was underway, Zechariah saw a vision of a man with a measuring line in his hand. This got me to thinking about the many ways good measurements are needed in both physical and spiritual construction:

1. Fixing the site. Contours of the land must be surveyed, not to mention test borings taken to determine the ability of the land to hold the foundations. How about the metes and bounds of the property? In building the house of God, we need to know the spiritual boundaries, and the ability of the congregation to bear weight.

2. Giving form to vision. Non-architects don't appreciate this too much: But the key in "visioning" a great design is translating that vision into measured drawings. I would say 95% of all design ideas are lost when you try to draw them to scale. It looks great in your mind. It looks terrible on paper. In building the house of God, great ideas are a dime a dozen. But did you know that Mrs. Jones doesn't have grocery money to get through the month?

3. Setting the WP. Every construction is measured off of a working point, or WP. The measurements for an entire shopping complex, for example, may be traceable back to a fixed metal plate, or equivalent, somewhere on the site. When it comes to spiritual construction, the Church is grounded on the teachings of the apostles and the prophets. Otherwise you just have free floating good intentions.

4. Setting internal relationships. For example in the design of a nursing home, if you know the number of beds, I can tell you the square footage of the entire building. That's because nursing homes are so regulated by functional demands that many internal measurements are prescribed before you even have your bright design idea. In church life, we often have no idea how to relate to people we've been meeting with for years. Or we pick and choose who to relate to. Just because you go to church, don't assume any actual building is going on in the eyes of God.

5. Plumbs. Measuring lines horizontally turn into plumb lines vertically. If a wall is not plumb, you can't frame into it correctly, and the building may be structurally compromised. Plus it just looks ugly. Think of the preaching of the Word of God as a plumb line: it should set you straight. But we often assess sermons (how did he do? how was his technique? was he humorous? etc) like they are decorative ribbons rather than plumb lines.

6. Inventory. One of the most memorable tasks I had in an architect's office is doing the inventory of the hardware for all the doors of a major hospital. If you leave out a kick plate for a particular kind of door -- and there are hundreds of those doors throughout the hospital -- the budget can be off thousands of dollars.

7. Scheduling is also an important kind of measurement. These days I worry about architecture students who click a mouse on the computer and an entire wall appears on the screen. In my day you drew the wall in the order of the trades who build the wall. For example, if your drywall is already up when the electrician comes to put in the wires, you've got a problem.

Church construction: 1% vision, 99% measurement.

Ok, maybe 5% vision, 95% measurement.


Zechariah 1.1-2 Then I raised my eyes and looked, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand. So I said, "Where are you going?" And he said to me, "To measure Jerusalem, to see what [is] its width and what [is] its length."

1 Corinthians 3.10 (Paul speaking): ... According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.

Luke 14.28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has [enough] to finish [it]--lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see [it] begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'

Ephesians 2.20-21 Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows up in the a holy temple in the Lord ...

Healthy friendships are in the middle

The Xs clustered inside the center circle are your healthy friendships.

Towards the left are relationships in which you play some sort of mentor role: you are the older, wiser, or in some other way the consistent role model.

To the right are relationships in which
you are the one looking up to someone else: perhaps a pastor; or that senior person you get along with at work, but who influences your promotion, etc.

some of the relationships at the two ends can be friendships. But these should be rarer. For example, towards my left, I have good relationships with students. But very few of them are, or have become, friends. I think that's normal. I know a case of a young professor who treated students just like friends; he's no longer teaching.

Neither should all of the Xs towards the right end be friends. In fact for a former mentor who does become a friend, something should have happened such that the hierarchical nature of the relationship has significantly decreased -- in exchange for the parity of mutual respect as co-travelers in grace.

For example, I have a friend who was a former student years ago. These days I have to remind myself: hey ... he was a student of mine once. I never think of him that way now because, well, because he's friend.

Which brings up the Xs in the middle, what I simply call healthy friendships. These relationships ...

1. ... are energized by mutual respect, such that encouragement and critique can equally be shared and received in trust.

2. ... have no agenda in which one party benefits from the other in an on-going uni-directional manner.

3. ... share common interests that are mutually furthered by the relationship.

4. ... are such that the lives of all involved continue to be encouraged, enlarged, and enriched by being together, AND

5. ... have a trustful and standing willingness to allow the other to grow and bloom, and if it comes to it, to move on ...

How many Xs do you have in this middle cluster? If many, it's an indicator of social healthiness.

But if all your relationships are towards the two ends, and the center is empty, you probably have some social issues.

Because you don't really have friends; you just think you do.

Probably even the relationships you have at the two ends are not as healthy as you think they are.


Proverbs 27.9
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one's friend springs from his earnest counsel.

The jigsaw puzzle of good works

The fit will never be perfect. But the imperfections of the fit are not the same as the imperfections in the pieces.

The pieces are not the works. The pieces are people doing and receiving good works. Together they make one puzzle.

The imperfect meshing of the pieces delivers us from the tyranny of theory. Theory demands perfection. And I think I've loved the peaceable kingdom of theory too much.

Practice sets aside the theory, and simply accepts the bumps and bruises of imperfection. It goes with the territory.

My suspicion is this: a theoretically balanced life needs to be disrupted by the bruises that come with practice. In that way it will be a more balanced life.

What results is a kind of unframed beauty.

This drawing came to me as I signed up to be a volunteer at the Union Gospel Mission.


James 2.20-22 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works ...

Vince yesterday

I bumped into Vince yesterday in town. I was walking down the street and he was just getting into his truck. If he saw me he didn't let on, so I made the first move:

"Hey Vince!"

He was humble and hesitant as usual. But Vince is solid in his own vulnerable way. You get the feeling he's gone through a lot in life; an old rock that's weathered many storms. But still there.

"How's your family, Vince? You have a daughter on the East Coast, don't you?"

"Yea, but ... but she's back in town now doing substitute teaching ... it's ... it's hard getting a full time position."

Vince was a student of mine years ago. He was one of those "returning students." I think he needed a degree to get ahead in his job. I was rough on him then; his writing was not up to par, and I had a hard time understanding him. He switched professors and finished his degree with other faculty.

"You know Vince, I'm sorry we weren't able to work together. I think we can now because, well, because I've learned a lot about being kinder to students ..."

I said something like that. He was very gracious, and muttered some pleasantries as he got into his truck.

As I walked on, I heard him drive away.

I hope he received what I said as an apology, because I meant it as one.


Ephesians 4.32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

Colossians 4.1 Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

The risks of sowing

There's something disconcerting about the parable of the sower:

Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured the seeds ...

Why did the birds devour those seeds? That's not counting other seeds that were scorched by the hot sun and choked by thorns.

Only some of the seeds made it onto good soil, and produced fruit ...

We find later that the seeds are the words of the kingdom.

Words of the kingdom ... and only some result in fruit?

You might be critical, and think God's love is insufficient to protect the seeds so that they all bear fruit.

Or you might be astounded at the generosity of God, that he would indiscriminately scatter his word everywhere without reserve so that all possible fruit can be assured of its yield.

It's either chintzy-ness on God's part.

OR: God loved the world so much He risked sowing everywhere.


Mark 4.1-9 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Matthew 13.18-19 Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it ...

The art of tares and wheat

It is amazing that the tares and the wheat are meant to grow together, at least for now.

It is even more amazing that this state of affairs is a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We want our kingdom of heaven to be simpler, purer. We want the tares to be gotten rid of now. We want chords that resolve; vistas that balance; lines that rhyme. We want a peaceable kingdom within the frame.

But the true Kingdom of Heaven is more "modern art" than that.

Jesus never did frame anything, but simply made art out of the hodgepodge of life that is at hand.


Matthew 13.24-30 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn." '"

The I AM from God's point of view

God first introduced Himself to Moses as I AM at the incident of the burning bush.

That was thousands of years ago. But ever since then the I AM has been recognized as one of the names of God.

We tend to think about this name -- to the extent we're able to think about it -- from our point of view.

From our point of view, God the I AM means He is with us today just as He was with Moses in his day.

God is always present tense NOW. And that is a comforting thought.

But how does the I AM look from God's point of view?

(The very term "point of view" is limiting because it assumes a view from one vista. As I understand it, there are no single vistas of view for God; He sees from every vista. But for now, let's put up with the limitations of language ...)

... From God's point of view, it is not a matter of Him existing in Moses' day and also existing in our day. That would "just" mean that He is eternal.

Here is what the I AM looks like from God's "point of view":

From God's point of view, we and Moses BOTH EXIST NOW.

And so He is God of the living: "for to him all are alive ..."


Exodus 3.14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

Luke 20.38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.

C.S. Lewis and the toy garden

One day, before he was six years old, C.S. Lewis' brother, older by "about three years," came into the nursery with the lid of a biscuit tin covered with moss and twigs and flowers.

"That was the first beauty I ever knew," Lewis was to recollect later, "... as long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother's toy garden..."

Fast forward many years. Now Lewis is on the faculty of Oxford, and he was a committed atheist -- not the least because of the trials he had experienced, coupled with his keen intellectual assessments of life's horrors and idiosyncrasies. All of this is documented in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.

But during those Oxford years, to Lewis' quiet aggravation, his atheist resolve was beginning to erode.

All his life he had been searching for an elusive something he called Joy. It occurred to him about this time that Joy itself was not the object of the search; Joy was always a pointer to something else:

"It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?"

Lewis' first encounter with beauty was a toy garden.


C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Inc, 1955), 6-7, 220

Jesus never framed

One way you can tell that a work of art is "modern" is by noticing it has no frame around it.

Or at least it tries not to have a frame.

By the late 1800s and into the 20th century, art in the West began to free itself from frames. For example, Marcel Duchamp famously attached a bicycle wheel to a stool -- and it became a work of art. Or: he signed a urinal and ... presto: a work of art.

These objects have no frames around them.

Framing something is too sentimental. It is as if you, Mr. or Ms. Artist, are saying by your framed art that there is an idealized world of perfect resolution within that frame -- and you know there isn't.

Symphonies should not resolve in final, harmonious chords. That would be framing them unrealistically.

Poems don't need to rhyme. That would presume a world of perfect order underneath the mess on the surface of things -- all you need is to stitch harmony together in little meanings.

And so on.

Jesus never framed.


John 6.15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Luke 4.28-30 And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way ...

"... in other words, the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising emotion. (It is worth adding that part of this satisfaction comes from knowing the impression the emotion makes on others. We like others to realize that we are compassionate, tender and so forth. And even if others are not around, there can be something deeply gratifying about exercising feelings that most would admire). ... We only need think of the friend who flatters us ceaselessly, regardless of our glaring faults, enjoying the pleasure it affords, or the obsessive counselor, often found in churches, waiting to descend on someone in crisis in order to feed on their own emotional "need to be needed." Inasmuch as sentimentality is directed at other people, the other person becomes a means to an end -- he or she is absorbed into the subjectivity of the sentimentalist. The sentimentalist loves and hates, grieves or pities not for the sake of the other but for the sake of enjoying love, hate, grief or pity ..." From Jeremy S. Begbie, "Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts" in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, ed. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 51.

what-if versus what-now thoughts

What percentage of our daily thoughts are what-if thoughts -- as opposed to what-now thoughts?

What if I go after that job? (And then you fantasize about yourself in that job, and this goes on and on ...).

What if I told that person off? (And then you imagine his/her response ... and a whole conversation ensues... all in your head).

What if so-and-so is out of my life; then what? (And then you figure out then what ... and it gets really elaborate).

What if I go buy that thing? (And then you count your pennies, imagine convincing your wife ... maybe you do need a higher-paying job ... yada yada).

What if ... what if ...?

Many of us are virtuosos at what-if thinking: we can play multiple what-if themes at one time. It's like a poor man's Mozart symphony or something.

All in our heads.

On the other hand, what-now thoughts are those dealing with actual matters on the table.

Here is a true confession: for as many academic papers as I work on ... it is the hardest thing to focus on what to say in the next paragraph of any of these papers.

It's a lot easier thinking what-if thoughts about how great a paper will be when it's published.

I'm imagining myself famous ... but I have no clue what-now to say after the opening paragraph ...


James 4.13-17 Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"-- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

The architecture of friendship

I often puzzle over what friendship means, particularly in relation to fellowship. Here is my latest insight:

Fellowship is to friendship as the structural frame of a building is to the finished building.

When you look at a nicely finished building, you tend not to see its structural frame.

That frame, whether made of steel or wood, is usually covered over by all sorts of pleasantly designed finishes: paneled walls, attractive fixtures, choice carpeting. And then there are paintings adorning the walls, along with other decor.

For all of that to stand up, to resist the wind and the rain, not to mention to withstand earthquakes, you need a strong structural frame.

But you never see much of the structural frame. You see the adorned building. You experience the adorned building.

Here is my insight: friendship is that adorned building.

Fellowship, on the other hand, is the structural frame that enables the adorned building to hold together.

But friendship is the architectural ornamentation of fellowship.

Of course, by fellowship, I mean the New Testament term koinonia -- sharing things in common. This term might evoke pleasant mental images: sharing things in common. And it should.

But the essential things shared in common are the confessions of the faith: and these are usually expressed by dogmas and doctrines. For example: God is love. This is a structurally recognized principle enabling Christian fellowship.

But God is love, as a doctrine, is "only" a structural principle.

When you actually live it out -- IF you live it out -- what results is friendship.

And you need friendship to protect you from the wind and the rain.


1 Corinthians 1.9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 John 4.8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

John 15.15 No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.

When there are no apprentices ...

... there are also fewer masters.

In other times and in other cultures, the apprentice system of learning yielded a steady crop of leaders through the generations.

Now we just have distance learning.

An apprentice is someone who learns not by memorizing facts in a book, but by the teacher's quality of life. This is accomplished by the apprentice coming to live with the master, if not in his home, at least in his studio.

The apprentice, in effect, gives up his life to take on (eventually) the kind of life his master lived. Out of this grows greatness.

We forget that many of the paintings attributed to the likes of a Michelangelo or a Leonardo da Vinci were in part executed by their apprentices. The point is that the portions of a great painting done by an apprentice are no different than the portions the master painted.

I love that wonderful scene in the movie Karate Kid: the kid shows up at the master's house ready to do karate...

... and the master tells him to wash his car: No, you don't apply the soap like that; you apply the soap like this. What does swirling a soapy sponge on a car have to do with becoming a karate master?


These days I suspect even masters -- which is to say, teachers -- have forgotten the correct way to swirl their sponges.

I think of my friend Sue Lani's post, in which she bewails how legislators are wanting to change the term "kids-at-risk" to "kids-at-hope."

These legislators think they can help society just by labeling children-at-risk with a different word.

But are these legislators willing to take some of these at-risk children into their homes, into their lives? Are they actually willing to do the hard work of mentoring them? I think not. They don't have time for that.

And in their case, it's probably a good thing they don't.


John 1.38-39 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" "Come," he replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.

2 Kings 2.15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

Why we don't educate plants

With my students last night we discussed the relationship of education to art.

Art education.

Philosophers have puzzled over what "art" is for centuries. But you would think education is easier to define. Not really.

It is widely accepted that educating someone about a work of art -- in the sense of giving him or her more information about that work (say, the Mona Lisa) -- would result in increased appreciation of the artwork.

But the puzzle is this: it is equally agreed that art, in essence, involves indeterminate realities -- meaning things that cannot be defined in a fixed manner. Feelings, for example, are indeterminate realities, as opposed to, say, mathematical calculations: 2+2=4 is a determinate affair. You learn it once and it's fixed in your mind.

But how do you teach indeterminate realities to someone with the result that his or her appreciation of art is measurably greater?

This is why art education is more a matter of cultivation. Appreciation for art has to be cultivated, not exactly educated. Unless of course education is cultivation.

Ah ... education equals cultivation. This is a comforting equation because it touches on the essence of education in general.

Truly educating someone is cultivating that person.
Cultivation ... the same word we use when we grow a garden.

We don't educate plants, we cultivate them.

When something is living, you don't educate it; you cultivate it.

This is why teaching is an art.


1 Corinthians 15.33 Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character."

What I like about Valerie

What I like about Valerie is that she never pities herself.

She just never does.

She went through such a year last year: the cancer; her father passing away. And yet she was a beacon of steadiness and trust in God's goodness.

Sometimes you think you're life is okay, just okay. And sometimes you even think you're wife is, well, just okay. We take the people in our lives so much for granted -- sometimes the closest to us are the most taken for granted.

But this just hit me.

I mean: this just hit me. I'm rushing out the door to the office as this hits me. And I say to myself: no. NO. I'm going to sit down, and put it down in writing for all to see:

I don't ever recall Valerie pitying herself. Not in 31 years of marriage.

And that's enough for me not to pity myself either.

What a gift from God.


Proverbs 31.27-28 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her ...

Hi, I'm Pat Summerall

I'm washing dishes at my kitchen sink and a radio commercial comes on:

"Hi, I'm Pat Summerall..."

Actually there's a lead-in sentence that usually sets up a problem. In Summerall's case I forget what the problem was. But let's say it goes something like this:

"Ever eat so much you feel like your stomach's going to explode? ... Hi, I'm Pat Summerall..."

Then Summerall pitches the solution; I also forget what that was. (In any commercial worth thinking about, I always forget the point of the commercial).

My question is this: What kind of person qualifies to do this kind of commercial? What kind of person can say, soothingly, "Hi, I'm So-and-So ...." and it would be a fitting pitch for the product? For example, I certainly can't because ...

"Hi, I'm David Wang ..." just won't work. Nobody knows me. Or:

"Hi, I'm George W. Bush..." ABSOLUTELY NOT! Because, well, the former president is just too divisive of a personality to pitch a remedy to keep your stomach from exploding. Or:

"Hi, I'm Tiger Woods..." Well, no.

So who is Pat Summerall? I vaguely remember him to be some kind of sports figure. So I do a Google search and, I see, he also did some work with Billy Graham...

I think actors and actresses do these "Hi, I'm So-and-So..." commercials. But they tend to be minor actors and actresses. For example, this probably wouldn't happen:

"Ever eat so much your stomach feels like exploding? ... Hi, I'm Harrison Ford."

I don't think so. He's just too big of a name.

So: Ed McMahon, yes. Johnny himself, no.

Maybe this will work: "Hi, I'm William Shatner..." Isn't he pitching all sorts of stuff? Cheap airline tickes, etc? The Captain of the Starship Enterprise pitching cheap airfare...

One thing is clear: to be a good pitchman, you'll need to have done something in your past that people remember you by, or at least vaguely rings a bell as a benign something your name is attached to:

A sportsmen (with no dalliances). Captain of an imaginary spaceship. Sidekick to a famous comedian. That sort of thing.

Something famous but benign.

Something that contributed to the general culture, but in an supplemental -- not an essential -- sort of way. Something ...


Galatians 6.10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

John 15.17 This is my command: Love each other. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.

Small beginnings and plumb lines

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions but this year circumstances are more or less making some for me.

Most beginnings are small: babies, for example.

I may be wrong but I think both Microsoft and ESPN started out in their owners' garages.

In fact, if something starts off with a big bang, well, be wary how long the energy lasts. The Big Bang itself remains unproven. (The only Bang in which the pieces beautifully came together...hmmm).

And then there was the big bang of last year's inaugural: where's all of that energy now? Ooops.

This January I'm looking at circumstances that seem like small beginnings. And this morning I am taken by this verse from Zechariah:

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel's hand.

So some small beginnings are good things.

And a plumb line is what makes a construction project true; not off-kilter, not cluttered, but true. Plumb.

A small new beginning that is nevertheless plumbed. That is better than a large clutter of old things.

And through it all, the scent of the joy of the Lord.


Zechariah 4.10 Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel's hand.

Uyghur pollo (a recipe)

In faraway Urumqi, the local Uyghur people eat pollo.

With my Uyghur friend visiting us this week, I had occasion to make my version of pollo.

Urumqi is the capital city of Xinjiang Province, situated in the extreme northwestern corner of China. Put the words "bleak" and "beautiful" together and Xinjiang would fit that description.

I've been to Urumqi twice to teach English, and my memories of the city are never too far from pollo. Pollo is a Uyghur staple, made of lamb and rice and an assortment of dried fruits and spices.

I usually make pollo with chicken. I was a little "sheepish" using chicken for my Uyghur friend, but was relieved when he told me even he makes it with chicken. So here:

(By the way, I'm not one for measuring all items in recipes. I view cooking as an art, not a science. So I give visual indicators of when a quantity is enough. The recipe below served eight adults, with generous leftovers).

Chicken thigh fillets (about 2 lbs), cut into 3/4" cubes.

24 hours prior to serving: marinate the chicken pieces in a mixture of: olive oil, white wine, corn starch, salt, cinnamon, garam marsala, ground coriander, and paprika. In what quantities? Well, toss the chicken in the marinade, adding the ingredients, until the whole composition has a reddish-brown hue to it. You will be adjusting these quantities during cooking anyway.

Separately, make 4 cups of jasmine rice (or basmati) in a rice cooker. Use a little more water than needed; this'll make the cooked rice additionally moist in preparation for mixing with the chicken.

In a large pan or wok (I mean large): place one coarsely chopped onion, some chopped dried apricots, and some raisins, into about 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and heat. When hot, stir-fry in the marinated chicken. How much apricots and raisins? Well, enough to notice them. Stir until the chicken pieces are tender and edible.

Then: add the rice, and keep working the mixture until the chicken and flavoring permeates throughout the rice. Add salt and the various spices until it suits your taste. If the mixture gets too dry, add some additional olive oil and stir it in. Serve.

The drink in the picture is kvaas, also a Uyhgur staple. I simulate it this way: 50% apple cider, 50% diet Squirt. If you want a little extra kick, dump in some beer.


Act 20:11
When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.

And Zechariah came alive

Last night we went to one of our favorite watering holes and ...

... there it was!

When the owner saw me, he reached under the counter and whipped out the small Bible I had been missing for weeks. It was like being reunited with an old friend.

I had been reading the Minor Prophets out of it and, after I lost it, somehow reading the Minor Prophets in another Bible wasn't the same.

This morning I return to reading out of my re-discovered Bible and ... Zechariah comes into focus!

I am persuaded that feeding out of the Word of God requires more than just the words printed on any page in any Bible. The words are most fruitful when printed on a page in my Bible. And not just any of my Bibles.

For Zechariah to light up, it needed to be this Bible; this one that was lost and now found, as it were.

And it probably helped that Zechariah, in this Bible, lit up in the midst of familiar surroundings: at home, early in the morning, with the landscape outside still emerging in the light, with my markings in pencil (precisely these markings), with my computer nearby, with me still clothed in my bathrobe, with my heart still clothed in the quiet of the early morning.

And Zechariah came alive.

I am not trying to limit the power of the Word of God. I am just saying that the Word of God mysteriously dwells with us, and extends to the objects and surroundings we have subsumed, and that have subsumed us, in our dwelling on earth.

This includes the feel of familiar pages, pages in a book that has been a friend, because they are pages I've had conversations with.

David rejected sword and armor, and chose to go to battle against Goliath using five smooth stones and a sling.

He had to use what he was familiar with.

And power came through it.


1 Samuel 17.39-40 ... and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them." So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd's pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine ...

The gift of the benefit of the doubt

As we get older, we think we have more discernment. We don't jump into commitments open-ended like we used to when younger. This is a good thing when it comes to impulse buys, political enthusiasms, perhaps proposed job changes.

By discernment I mean the ability to see more fully the consequences of a possible path or action. As Christians, we are asked to not only discern things, but even the spirit behind things. A tall order indeed.

But discernment is most problematic when assessing people for the first time. Upon meeting someone, it is often difficult to parse between discernment and pre-judgment.

This is why, when it comes to people, discernment should always be mixed with doubt.

Upon first meeting, the unimpressive person ought to be given the benefit of the doubt: He might turn out a great guy after all. At the beginning of things, we owe him the benefit -- or the gift -- of the doubt.

This is not to say that ultimately he will deserve this gift. He may indeed turn out to be the problematic person we first discerned him to be.

I've had these things go both ways. Sometimes the person is worse than even I thought he would be. In these cases, well, you still must forgive him seventy-times seven times. But forgiveness is a gift of a different kind.

Then there are the ones that turn out much better than I initially projected.

In these pleasures, the real discernment turns out to be nothing but the gift of doubt you willingly gave many moons ago.


Philemon 1.10-11 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

1 John 4.1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Matthew 18.21-22 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

The Rubiks Cube of Avatar

Flip around the pieces in the Rubiks Cube of Avatar, and the story would be curiously the same, with some important differences.

In Avatar, the world of the Na'vi is indescribably beautiful. It is so beautiful the flora of the forest light up when you walk by.

The Na'vi is -- for lack of a better word -- a "primitive" race living in an unspoiled natural world. In this world, sublime mountains somehow float in mid air, as the Na'vi glide by them riding enormous bird-like creatures. They ride these birds by melding with them, joining their tails (the Na'vi have tails) to tentacles on the birds.

Na'vi and nature in communion as one.

The life-center of this world is ... a tree. An enormous tree that reaches to the heavens, filled with life of all sorts dwelling in its branches and within its twists and turns.

It is a Tree of Life; that is what it is.

A human being can only safely enter the Na'vi world (that is, without an oxygen mask) by means his or her avatar. An avatar is a human being that takes on the form of life of the Na'vi -- but still retains his own humanness. One person, two natures?

Suffice it to simply say that we human beings live in a condition in which the beauty of the Na'vi world is not directly accessible to us.

Even worse, in contrast to the wonderful greenness of the Na'vi world, there is nothing green any more in the "real" human world. This is a point the movie goes out of its way to underline.

Na'vi nature is essentially alive. And of course, achieving communion with this natural world is the equivalent of spiritual well-being and wholeness.

* * * * *

A recurring theme in our culture is that we human beings -- particularly of the post-industrial Western variety -- have irretrievably separated ourselves from the natural world and, in the process, have ruined that natural world as well.

Our world is hopelessly un-beautiful.

Only primitive peoples -- meaning usually pre-industrial, non-Western peoples -- can point the way back to uninterrupted communion with nature and innocence, and to the essential beauty such innocence promises.

Avatar retells this point with the best cinematographic technology that post-industrial minds are able to conjure up.

But somehow technology is the culprit. On the beautiful side of the ledger: the innocent and primitive Na'vi in organic communion with nature. On the ugly side of the ledger: enormous gunships and forces of technological destruction.

All of it depicted, again, with the best cinematographic technology post-industrial minds are able to conjure up.

Irony is at many levels of this story.

If Avatar were a Rubiks Cube, flip a few of its pieces and you'd get the Gospel Story. A savior from a beautiful world who comes into an un-beautiful one. A savior who takes on the form of life of this un-beautiful world in order to save it from its own penchant for destruction.

A Savior who says the culprit is not technology, but sin.

A Savior who pays the price of sin with His life, to assure recovery of a beautiful creation beyond description.


John 1.11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Matthew 8.27 The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"

1 Corinthians 2.9 ... as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him..."

2 Corinthians 12.3-4 And I know that this man-whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows - was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

The humility of reading

A book so good you can't put it down is a rare find.

The last one for me was about seven years ago. Ever since then I've been looking for the next book so good I can't put down. Haven't found it yet.

Character comes with the rest of them, the ones that, frankly, you can put down.

We tend to be very unforgiving towards them. As if every book owes us the obligation of being so good it can't be put down. We treat them roughly, and gruffly.

We scan them.

I've scanned entire sections, and then am frustrated when I don't grasp the point, as if it is the author's fault.

In doing this I miss the opportunity of seeing new vistas -- even if it is of places I don't immediately wish to go.

More importantly, I miss out on a simple form of moral cultivation. One way to measure the humility of a man is by how much he reads a passage over and over again until he understands it. A man who does this is, in some way or another, a humble man.

Humility in reading is a measure of trustworthiness. Conversely, if someone scans almost all that he reads, well, don't trust him with your deeper concerns.

He'll just scan them.

I know of a famous theologian -- currently active, and still publishing his tomes. I will not say his name because, well, given the millions of people who read this blog, I may do damage to his reputation.

But seriously, this theologian recommended a way to read books, which is this: read the table of contents and (perhaps) the conclusion. And then scan the rest.

Ever since I heard that he said this, I've not been able to take his writings all that seriously.

Here is a rule of thumb: for every sentence you say, read one hundred sentences. Most of us are the other way around: we think every sentence we read calls for us to say a hundred sentences.

That is why most of us are so boring: we really have nothing to say, and we take a long time saying it.


Ephesians 3.2-4 Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ ...

Prayer is not a snapshot

Perhaps prayers don't seem to work because we think of them as snapshots.

Here is a snapshot of a person running:

If the snapshot is all you have, would you know where he is running from? Would you know where he is running to?

You would not know, because all you have is one snapshot.

But we want our prayers to be single snapshots. Someone is rude! And our snapshot prayer: "Oh, Lord, make him kind!"

And then we go on to other things. And then we notice no change. Ahhh... and then we have another prayer that did not work.

It does not occur to us that, for the prayer to work, perhaps we have to run with him. Perhaps we need to know a little of from whence he came, and influence a little of where he is headed.

If we are running along, the project of prayer is more like a moving picture: many, many snapshots elapsing in order.

And elapsing over time. Because it takes time.

And if we pray while running along the way with him, well ...

... then perhaps we'll see a Third Person running along with us, One who seems to have a certain knowledge of where we should go.


1 Thessalonians 5.17 Pray without ceasing.

2 Timothy 1.3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

Philemon 1.4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers ...

The best seat on the train

In describing his mother's family, C.S. Lewis wrote this:

"The Hamiltons ... had the talent for happiness in a high degree -- (they) went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train..."

Early this New Year's morning, I awake and read this. In response ...

My heart desires to write more like C.S. Lewis,

And my spirit desires to aim for the best seat -- at least the better seats -- on the train.

Happy New Year to all.


C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 3.