The name, the photo and the reason I do this

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10)

“That night the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order.” (Judges 6:25-26)

I started blogging in 2003 or 2004, when it involved lots of uploads and cumbersome but necessary chores, but I was immediately taken with the medium. And then, in a year or so, I was just as disappointed with the tone and content of a lot of the online discourse. (I wrote about it satirically here.)

I quit for awhile, started again and quit again. Now I’m here, enamored of the medium again and indifferent to the dissonance in the background. I suppose that in itself is an example of what the name is about.

When you read something in Scripture that’s all-inclusive—whoever, everyone, anyone, all—that means it’s time to sit up and take notice. Forget the often artificial and man-made distinctions we make between ourselves and others. Everyone means everyone, no exceptions.

I understood that intellectually as a young believer in my 20s (I became a Christian as a college freshman). But I had never experienced it.

But when I returned to my hometown after grad school, I found myself in the same position as Gideon (the second quote above). I might have been programmed for middle-class respectability and success (I came from a professional family, lawyers and doctors), but God had other plans.

Everything I was called to and found myself doing went against the grain of the kind of lifestyle that someone of my background and excellent education was expected naturally to ease into.

I turned down a bureau reporter’s position I was offered—exactly the kind of job you want to launch a career as a writer—for no other reason than that the Lord spoke to me to turn it down. Instead I became a carpenter’s helper for awhile. The first day I climbed up on the scaffold another carpenter asked me if I had just finished high school. I was 24 with a master’s degree in journalism.

So down came the altar and the idols of my father’s house. The altar to the Lord to replace those, of course, was my life as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1).

That’s not to say that all of this was as easy as falling off a log. I remember one time I went into my local bank to start a small savings account for each of my children (two of them at the time). And then about a month later I was faced with the unpleasant reality that I had to close both accounts because the money was needed to pay bills.

It’s still a little painful to recall that, because it’s a point of pride to do things like that for your children. But the morning I made the withdrawal the Lord spoke to me about the jars of water Elijah instructed the people to pour over the altar in his contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Ki 18:33-35).

The bit with the water wasn’t just a Houdini-like trick to heighten suspense and expectation. They were in the midst of a long drought, and water was like liquid gold. This was Elijah’s PowerPoint centuries before the concept was a gleam in some sales manager’s eye.

And the point is this: It is in dying to self that we stand on the threshold of life. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mt 16:25).

So that’s what I write about. And it’s from the vantage point of another life. The process is: hear from God, process that, start to walk in the new light you have, deal with the all-too-human bumps and setbacks that come from finding your bearings and stumbling forward, find your mind renewed through the experience.

Once you have been transformed by the renewing of your mind, “then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:1-2). (At the beginning, when you read or hear what his will is, you’re just getting started.) I can then write with confidence because of the changes wrought in me. Of course. Now it makes sense. It is his good, pleasing and perfect will. I see it now.

And I don’t feel I should write about anything that hasn’t progressed through all those stages. No one mistakes the blossoms on an apple tree for the fruit. It’s the almost ripe fruit–the coloring and firmness can seem superficially the same–that disappoints you when you bite into it. Then you know you haven’t tasted “his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

If you’re looking for life-giving words, you shouldn’t–and shouldn’t have to–settle for an inferior substitute. And the mechanism is clear: in dying we find life.

Second, the photo. I am from the Finger Lakes region of western New York. A satellite photo shows these 11 lakes are long and narrow, like rivers with the ends clipped and tied off, created by advancing glaciers carving the landscape. This topography means, east to west, a succession of hills and valleys that are a perfect backdrop for stunning fall foliage (assuming all other factors are right).

There was a time I used to smirk and roll my eyes in Oh, brother fashion at church signboards that announced this week’s sermon as “Lessons from Nature.” But if “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1), God has a world full of better-than-any-billboard canvases on which to post messages.

The brilliant yellow, gold, orange and scarlet leaves signal the end of a season–the end of a life, if you will. The riot of color, the blazing living tapestry draped across the hillsides are like the announcement, the retirement dinner, and the gold watch for millions of individual leaves.

That’s because they’re dying. What a glorious natural emblem of the way to new life.

Finally, why am I doing this? Maybe it’s easier first to eliminate what I don’t do. I don’t blog for tips, ask for donations, review products, look for advertisers or try to market anything through the blog.

That doesn’t mean I am opposed to any or all of these things. I just don’t do them. I don’t tweet unless I’m calling the dog. I dropped Facebook. I usually take a horrible selfie, and if I sometimes have trouble facing what I see in the mirror, it doesn’t seem fair to subject you to it.

But blogging is a versatile, far-reaching, inexpensive means of communication. It doesn’t take a genius to see why it exploded when the Internet became the world’s largest vanity press. Other interactive and social media likewise exploded because people want to be heard and seen. A lot.

As a medium for teaching, I think it has the same value as the in-person sermon or teaching. You can reach a lot of persons anonymously but effectively.

What I mean is that rather than an individual meeting (or, as is sometimes necessary, confrontation), preaching can deal with a person’s heart in secret, absent the additional complications of another’s needling and probing, the uncomfortable aspects of discussions and counseling that may become a pretext for ignoring what is said.

In the pew or on your couch reading this, you may be wrestling with the Spirit of God and no one around you will know. No personal embarrassment or the temptation to make excuses or tell white lies. When all is said and done, it’s between you and God, right?

There is, after all, a 3-sided dynamic going on: the speaker, the hearer and the Holy Spirit, who has the authority and role of convicting of “sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). If this third side isn’t present, you might as well go home and watch Seinfeld for all the good it will do.

But if you are convicted of something, you are in the same position as Cain: you have a problem with God, and you may be tempted to take it out on your brother, but that’s not going to erase your problem with God.

In any event, you’ll have to deal with it. Fig leaves have been tried and found ineffective. A blog post may be virtual, but the Spirit of God is real (ask the estates of Ananias or Sapphira).

But blogging has its limitations. When we talk about virtual it’s not just about a location or realm (cyberspace), but it retains its almost-but-not-quite-the-same quality.

On the one hand, that’s why social media is so successful, its superficiality. You can skate through virtual relationships without the shock of finding out the person who just decided to follow your social justice blog beats his wife and regularly cheats on her. What you see online—and it’s mostly about appearances—is what you get (with the exception of the 55-year-old sheriff’s deputy who poses as a 16-year-old girl in certain forums).

To give you just one hypothetical as an illustration, try to imagine a virtual marriage, which probably sounds like a contradiction in terms on its face. Some aspects of marriage immediately come to mind, or they should, because your imagination is triggered by something I write, and then you mine your memories to try to understand what it would look like. How would it work? Could it work?

But have you ever lightly brushed your fingers across the cheek of someone as a show of affection? Of course you have. It says something to someone, often accompanied by few or no words.

I can write that, and you can read what I wrote, in turn eliciting a fond memory of a time that happened to you. But there is no substitute for the actual sensation of fingertips on your beloved’s skin or the unspoken message that passes between you.

The virtual can never be truly personal. I can’t cross over into your real life. It’s an insuperable barrier and always will be.

But I can point you to someone who can. And that’s why I write.

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