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

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The man in the myrtle trees

While the people were busy building the temple -- this was the Second Temple, the one still standing in Jesus' day -- Zechariah saw a night vision of a man on a horse amidst a valley of myrtle trees.

It was 516BC, and in that day, God used two servants to speak His word into the construction process.

Haggai had the to-do list: Go to the hills, get wood, and build the house of God!

But Zechariah saw eight visions. The man in the myrtle trees was just one of the visions he saw.

It is easy for our culture to comprehend the to-do list.

But every to-do list requires a symphony of visions.

A lot of activity goes on in the spiritual kitchen for every command that is served.

A lot of activity.


Haggai 1.8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord .

Zechariah 1.8-10 "I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses."Then I said, 'What are these, my lord?' The angel who talked with me said to me, 'I will show you what they are.' "So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, 'These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.'

2 Kings 2.17 And Elisha prayed, and said, "LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see." Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

God has brought us Laughter

His name had been selected months earlier, but appropriately, his parents kept it a secret.

But when my first grandchild Isaac was born yesterday, I reflected on just what an extraordinary person his biblical namesake was.

Isaac means Laughter.

The biblical Isaac was not like his powerful father, who his entire life risked everything to respond to the call of God. And so all those of faith today are called the children of Abraham.

Neither was the biblical Isaac like his powerful son, Jacob, who was emblematic of human conniving ... and hence endures as the greatest object lesson of the need for all men to be sanctified -- made holy -- by the disciplines of God.

But right in the middle of Calling and Sanctification is, ...


It is the laughter of Justification.

You can't say God -- the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- doesn't have a sense of humor.


Genesis 18.10-15
Then the Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son. Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Genesis 21.5-6 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

Romans 8.30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

1 Corinthians 6.11 But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Women at the tomb

Throughout the centuries, art history has left us a rich tradition of femmes au tombeau, or women at the tomb. As Easter approaches, here is a rendition I did in pencil.

This is an early Medieval depiction by Giotto (1304). Perspective
projection was just becoming a factor in Western art. The figures look like cutouts placed over a flat plane.

Here is the same theme by Fra Angelico (1400-1455), early Italian Renaissance. Still the flattened plane of medieval painting. The artist's interest is not this physical world, but depiction of a spiritual reality.

This one is by Hubert van Eyck, older brother to Jan van Eyck, painted 1425. Always the importance of the landscape in this northern tradition. Notice how much more the resurrection is set in the nature of this world when compared to Angelico's, which is roughly contemporary.

This one is from the Renaissance, by Marco Palmezzano (1506). By this time, the setting is not only this "real" world, it is all about the affairs of this world: note the politics represented by the various flags.

Here is
The Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Italian Baroque. Painting used in service of psychological effects was the innovation of the Baroque. It was during this period -- the period of the Counter-Reformation -- that the Catholic Church used art to emotionally draw the flock back to the fold.

Here is
The Holy Women at the Sepulchre, Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, c. 1611-14. Rubens' signature use of dark in contrast to light.

This is by the French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905). The scientific precision of the Enlightenment, admixed with the emotion of the Baroque, persists here.

And this by the post-Impressionist painter Maurice Denis, 1894. The holy theme of femmes au tombeau is now something like what some women saw on an enchanted stroll. The realism of perspective is once again beginning to fade -- this time not into spiritual realities, but into subjective human states. Did these women really see something unusual?

Or was it just a dream?


Mark 16.1-6 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

Powerpoints and preaching

This is the latest challenge to the centuries-old craft of preaching:


I use Powerpoint in the classroom always, but from the pulpit I have long resisted it.

The famous preacher D. Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote that effective preaching involves more than just speaking; the preacher's entire body has to be engaged in the delivery. Delivering the Word of God demands the whole person, not just the voice.

How do you do that when you have to read from a Powerpoint? "And this is what the Word of God says ... oops, let's see ... I clicked too soon ... hold on."

The Word of God must come through the human vessel, not through the bullets on a Powerpoint.

The technology adds multiple challenges to an already difficult craft. And the deception is that we think it makes the job easier.

Easier in what way?

You who can't speak well to begin with, do you think pictures and graphics can help you?

You who are not certain of the Holy Spirit's anointing, do you hide that anxiety behind the appeal of moving parts on a screen?

The printed Word and the spoken Word, historically, have played different roles in the ingesting of the revelation of God. Powerpoints bring the two together in an extremely complicated way -- complicated because, again, it seems so simple.

But often it reduces giving a sermon to giving a report.

Having said all this, I plan on using a Powerpoint this Friday when I speak at the Camp Wooten Men's Retreat. I do it for the following reasons:

1. I want to remain open to how the delivery of God's Word changes with technology. The Holy Spirit is bigger than technology.

2. It is an evening session -- after a long day and a long drive for everyone. Can some graphics help in keeping the audience alert?

I must admit: I used the Powerpoint to organize my thoughts in preparation. But now that I think I have the message in me, I'm a little nervous about using it.

But I do think the message is in me now, so I am open to giving the Powerpoint a try.


Romans 10.17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

D. Martin-Lloyd Jones, "The Act of Preaching" in Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapid, MI.: Zondervan, 1971), 81-83cf.

The still small voice at rejection

One of my academic papers I was sure would be accepted for publication was rejected yesterday.

Not even "revise and resubmit."

Just a plain

The nerve of them.

I was sky high about the paper! In my mind's eye I saw it in print! It might even make a splash! It'll make me feeeel better during these few depressive months I've had! But ...

Just a plain

No matter how many times I go through this, it's never easy.

But I have come to appreciate the still small voice at rejections.

This was a paper not in my field (the design disciplines) but in philosophy! The still small voice:
Don't think you can do this by your wits. Maybe I don't want you tampering with that stuff.

But this topic was my doctoral dissertation and, 13 years later, I can say it much better! The still small voice:
That doctorate was only because I let you pass.

But this paper would bone up my CV for a more appropriate teaching position! The still small voice:
Dream on pal. (I paraphrase).

But what to do now??? The still small voice:
Be content with what you have.

But what to do now????? The still small voice: ........

Well, I got some ideas, but I need to see if it's from the still small voice, or just more of my hokey plans.


1 Kings 19.11-13 ... And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD,
but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" ...

but the absence of its presence in time

In early morning dimness I see three summer scenes with my children at Vet's Pool in Ann Arbor.

Here is a piece dated June 16, 1996.

Those kids have gone on to their own lives.

The years are a vapor that are gone.

We visited the Glass Museum in Tacoma last month and stayed at the Hotel Murano. Here is a piece by Bruno Romanelli on display at the hotel. It is of a faded head in glass. Romanelli's accompanying caption said something about time an
d the human presence. His work is about capturing not the presence of the body in space, but the absence of its presence in time.

A kind of vapor in glass.


James 4.14 For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.

Psalm 144.4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

emptiness and the tao

Until very recently the far Eastern cultures have prized a radical emptying of one's self as the means to achieve higher meaning.

Usually this is associated with the Tao, but you can get to Asian emptiness from a variety of paths.

For example, Confucian teaching can also get you there. While the Taoists taught spontaneous emptying, the Confucianists favored cultivation of social behavior (they call it
Li, a word also used for "manners"). But the whole point of Li is to achieve one-ness with the patterns of nature, which is to say, to achieve a loss of one's own identity. To be nothing is something of a virtue in these cultures.


But there is nothing in these systems that tell you what you'll find once you get to emptiness.

That is because, well, then the emptiness would not be empty.

This is not deep calling unto deep.

This is deep calling unto nothing.

This is not the emptiness of which I speak.


John 3.30 He must become greater; I must become less.

Psalms 42.7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Why shapes have forms

Nowadays we think of shape and form as the same thing. It didn't use to be this way.

1. Form could mean essence, which is then expressed in various copies that have shape. Usually this was Plato's idea of form. For example, Plato famously said that there are pictures of beds, and physical (actual) beds ... but both pictures of beds and physical beds are shapes because they express the essence (the form) of bed -- which has no shape.

Nowadays we have traces of this when we say, for example, "The form of the argument was such and so..."

2. Form could mean the vital force which combines with materiality to bring something into being. Usually this was Aristotle's idea of form. So for Aristotle there was a wonder in completed wholes -- trees, horse saddles, houses, so on. These wholes are whole because they express an existential unity of just the right vitality with just the right shape. This is what is known as substantial form.

In both cases, the early Greeks recognized that, by the time you get to the physical shape of something, a profound immaterial domain had to have been active in making the shape what it is.

3. Nowadays we just think of shape and form as the same thing. This is why it is so much harder to derive definitions for beauty and morality.

If physical shapes are all there is, we eagerly await the next contortion.

This is one result of Progress.


"Verily how great is even the humblest beauty of this world, and how pleasing to the eye of reason diligently considering not only the modes and numbers and orders of things, so decorously appointed throughout the universe ... I confess, sinner as I am, with mind befouled in flesh, that I am moved with spiritual sweetness towards the creator and ruler of this world, and honor Him with greater veneration, when I behold at once the magnitude, and beauty and permanence of His Creation..." Vincent of Beauvais (1190 b). Cited in Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University, 1986), 37. Eco cites from H. O. Taylor, The Medieval Mind, II, pp. 347-8.

Why is it so good you can't put it down?

I just finished one of those rare books “so good you can’t put it down”:

The Book Thief.

It is about a little girl in Nazi Germany. A frail little girl – a German little girl mind you -- against the inhuman machine that is the Nazi world. The Nazi world is spreading all over Europe. The little girl’s world is in her adopted family’s basement.

But the little girl’s world is a much bigger world.

Like the few books that attain to this stature, The Book Thief is so good you can’t put it down because it transports you from your world into its world.

And you marvel at the creative gift of the author. How does he do it? How does he create such a world, woven through and through with real human beings, through and through with hope, through and through with the accidents of daily life that, months later, years later, against all odds, blossom into lifelines to the future?

If reality is simply survival of the fittest, survival by brute strength in which the weak are eliminated, why do we admire these pictures of super-human resistance -- in the heart of a little girl no less -- against the incredible strength of the Nazi machine?

The Nazi’s were all about making a world of their own by survival of the fittest. Why do we not want that kind of a world?

Why do we so promote this evolutionary dogma when, upon seeing it in action, we simply root for the alternative?

Why do we chose, rather, to root for a world filled with the dignity of the human heart?

A world tapestried through and through with the image of God ... in the worst of circumstances.

A world so filled with hope that we can't put it down.



Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

Friendships in cultural bubbles

Something else happened as all of those truths in cultural bubbles were translated into action during Jesus' trial and crucifixion:

Pilate and Herod became friends.

What a wonderful thing! No? Well, isn't friendship a wonderful thing?

I will be speaking on "Men and Friendships" later this month at the EV Free Men's Retreat so this little feature caught my eye. In all my years of reading the Gospels, I'd never noticed this bit of good fortune that happened to Pilate and Herod.

You see, prior to this the two had been adversaries. But the common task of condemning Jesus to death made them friends. What could be better?

At the Men's Retreat, I will say that unlike relationships such as husband-wife, parent-child, or master-servant, there are no specific passages in the Bible that define what friendship is.

It seems friendship simply arises out of common bonds two people share as they head towards a common goal. The warm feelings of affection that emerge from these common bonds, ah ... this is friendship.

In other words, there's nothing holy about friendship per se. It all depends on the goal, and the shared interests that come from it.

Let's just say that Pilate and Herod became friends because their mutual interest in brushing Jesus off created a shared cultural bubble. They were both Important People; they had more Important Things to tend to than to waste more time on this pesky Galilean.

So they just had him executed.

Not only did their cultural bubble permit such a thing; no doubt having Jesus executed wasn't even a very important thing. The important thing was that, in this Celebration of Their Importance, Pilate and Herod became friends.

So look at your friends. They are a portrait of your cultural bubble. The portrait makes clear the interests you Celebrate.

Don't like what you see?

Well, what is your goal?


Luke 23.6-12 ... On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends - before this they had been enemies.

The power of truth in cultural bubbles

Pilate didn't really want to find Jesus guilty. He didn't want to find him innocent either. He just didn't care.

In Pilate's cultural bubble, the "truth" was to find some way to get Jesus off his hands -- after all, he was a busy man and had more important things to attend to. So when he found out that Jesus was Galilean, he was relieved to foist Jesus onto Herod...

In Herod's cultural bubble, the "truth" was -- wow -- I've heard about this Jesus; bring him to me so I can see a miracle or two. But Jesus wouldn't comply. In fact, he said nothing. This was deeply irritating to Herod, so he had Jesus ridiculed and mocked ... and foisted him back on Pilate.

This time Pilate -- (good grief! Him again!??) -- this time the "truth" in Pilate's cultural bubble was simply to release him. Maybe punish him a little to satisfy the Jews, and then release him.

But for the Jews in their cultural bubble, claiming you are the son of God equals the death sentence. So to have Jesus punished and released was of course not enough. He must die. That was the "truth" in their cultural bubble.

So, finally, the "truth" in Pilate's cultural bubble was to accede to the Jews' wishes ...

In Pilate's case, Herod's case, and the Jews' case, the TRUE truth -- the bubble-less truth that the Son of God was actually standing before them -- never even occurred to any of them. All they were after was to each affirm the "truth" in their cultural bubbles.

And Jesus discerned this; he knew by this point in the process telling them the bubble-less truth was pointless. So he said very little.

This is quite remarkable, given that Jesus earlier told his disciples that, when they are brought before the authorities for their faith,"I will give you words and wisdom none of your adversaries will be able to resist ..."

But Jesus himself didn't say much in answer to his accusers, all busy trying to affirm their versions of truth.

Such is the power of truth in cultural bubbles.


Luke 23.6-7 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

Luke 23.8-9 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.

Luke 23.11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.

Luke 23.20-21 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Luke 23.24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand ...

Luke 21.12-15 ... they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

Three clues about friendship

Abraham is one of two men singled out as a friend of God. Moses was the other.

1. Abraham was the first to be justified by faith. Thus he is the father of all those justified by faith. So for Abraham to have been a friend of God makes friendship something that is "in the genes" of the children of Abraham.

2. From Moses came the Law. We don't think of the Law as a friendly thing, but its intent was for men to have a holy relationship with God.

In my on-going inquiry into friends and friendships, it is amazing to find only two in the entire Old Testament who qualified to be friends of God.

3. But then Grace came:


John 15.13-15 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

2 Chronicles 20.7 O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?

Exodus 33.11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

Romans 7.12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

True knowledge is always outside of you

When you master riding a bicycle, you achieve the high standard of not knowing what you are doing.

This is the insight of the chemist turned philosopher -- and sometime in that process he turned Christian as well -- Michael Polanyi.

When you are expert at doing something -- like baking a cake, playing the piano, raising a family -- when you are an expert at doing X, you forget the recipe for doing X. In fact, if asked to sit down and write out the recipe, say, for playing the piano well, not only can you NOT write down how to play the piano well, even if you could, that expertise is not transmittable by recipe.

Polanyi is the one who coined the term "tacit knowledge." When you know how to do something tacitly, you can do that thing without thinking about it.

Like riding a bicycle. Like swimming. Like speaking in your native language. (If you speak a second language, it is your second language precisely because you have to think about the words before saying them).

The point is this: daily life is filled with examples of tacit knowledge. We do many things -- and do them quite well -- without ever having to stop to think about how to do them.

Polanyi says we fill our world with extensions of our interior self -- because we are skillful in tacitly handling all sorts of actions in the world we live in; in the world we make.

Polanyi calls this indwelling.


When someone in-dwells his surroundings, the knowledge inside of him has gone outside of him, and has filled the world around him.

His knowledge has filled the world around Him.


Habakkuk 2.14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1962), 59: "Tools ... form part of ourselves, the operating persons. We pour ourselves out into them and assimilate them as parts of our own existence. We accept them existentially by dwelling in them."

Truth in cultural bubbles

In the hours leading up to the crucifixion, the maid thought she operated in truth. So she confidently charged Peter: "Aren't you one of those who were with Him?"

The maid was operating in a cultural context -- let's call it her cultural bubble -- within which her actions were understood as right. Little did she know that, outside of that bubble, she was party to the crucifixion of the Christ.

The guards also thought they operated in truth. This was a Man condemned, so it was within their job description to abuse Him. But the rightness of their actions only made sense in their cultural bubble. Little did they know that, outside of that bubble, they were striking God Himself.

Even the Jewish elders thought they operated in truth. This troublesome carpenter claimed He was the Son of God. What more proof did they need? This was blasphemy and He must die! The elders' cultural bubble offered them all the proof they needed. Little did they know that their "proof" was only "right" in their bubble. Little did they know that their cultural bubble had itself gone profoundly off track.

And religious cultural bubbles are the most difficult to be delivered from.

Who was proven wrong? Well, Peter was proven wrong. Peter himself wanted to be in the cultural bubble that would keep him safe. And so he went along with the demands of the bubble: he denied he ever knew this Man. And he was proven sadly wrong. How?

Well, Jesus looked at him.

And Peter knew he was wrong. This was because Jesus had predicted to Peter that he would deny Him three times. And that is what happened.

When the Word of God comes true, then you know that is truth that does not come wrapped in any cultural bubbles.


Luke 22.56-57 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, "This man was with him." But he denied it. "Woman, I don't know him," he said.

Luke 22.63 The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him.

Luke 22.66, 70-71 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them ... (70) They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?" He replied, "You are right in saying I am." Then they said, "Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips."

Luke 22.61-62 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Matthew 5.18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Luke 21.22 For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.