The Parable of the Broken Tree

There are four trees in my front yard. Two I planted myself.

About four years ago, the week my oldest daughter was born, we only had the two small trees the front yard came with. It stormed while my wife and our newborn were still in the hospital, and the wind snapped one of the trees in half. All that was left was a narrow, forked stump.

I was out the next day to break down the fallen half. My neighbor walked over. He said he had a chain at his place he could hook to the stump. Using his truck, he could pull it out of the ground for me. (This is what you do with tree stumps, I think.)

I told him "Nah."
"You think it will grow again?" he asked.

Now I know for a fact I know less about vegetation than this man. This man wears over-alls all the time and mows his yard twice a week and grows beautiful vines and bushes and flowers and ripe vegetables all over his landscape.
I said, "I don't know."

Four years later, that broken, leafless tree that once poked nastily out of the ground like a wooden snake's tongue is still in my yard. It is not the prettiest or the fullest of the four trees.
But it is the tallest.


Making Sabbath Real

I've shared a bit from the excellent Dallas Willard essay "The Key to the Keys of the Kingdom" before, but now I'd like to share a bit more. In this excerpt, Willard highlights three practices dear to Shizuka Blog and its likeminded blog-brethren -- solitude, silence, and fasting. (The emphases are my own.)
Three practices or spiritual disciplines are especially helpful in making Sabbath real in the midst of our life: Solitude, Silence, and Fasting. These are three of the central disciplines of abstinence long practiced by the followers of Jesus to help them find and keep solid footing in the kingdom that cannot be moved--in the midst of a busy and productive life, or even a life of trial, conflict and frustration.

For most of us, Sabbath will not become possible without extensive, regular practice of solitude. That is, we must practice time alone, out of contact with others, in a comfortable setting outdoors or indoors, doing no work. We must not take our work with us, even in the form of bible study, prayer or sermon preparation, for then we will not be alone. An afternoon walking by a stream or on the beach, in the mountains, or sitting in a comfortable room or yard, is a good way to start. This should become a weekly practice. Then perhaps a day, or a day and a night, in a retreat center where we can be alone. Then perhaps a weekend or a week, as wisdom dictates.
This will be pretty scary for most of us. But we must not try to get God to "do something" to fill up our time. That will only throw us back into work. The command is: "Do no work." Just make space. Attend to what is around you. Learn that you don't have to do to be. Accept the grace of doing nothing. Stay with it until you stop jerking and squirming.

Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on you shoulders after all. You will find yourself and God will find you in new ways. Joy and peace will begin to bubble up within you and arrive from things and events around you. Praise and prayer will come to you and from within you. The soul anchor established in solitude will remain solid when you return to your ordinary life with others.

Silence also brings Sabbath to you. Silence means quietness, freedom from sounds except natural ones like breathing, bird songs and wind and water moving. It also means not talking. Silence completes solitude, for without it you cannot be alone. You remain subject to the pulls and pushes of a world that exhaust you and keep you in bondage, distracting you from God and your own soul. Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. It is like the wind of eternity blowing in your face. Not for nothing does the Psalmist say: "Be still and know that I am God." God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.

When we stop talking we abandon ourselves to reality and to God. We position ourselves to attend rather than to adjust things with our words. We stop our shaping and negotiating, or "spinning." How much of our energy goes into that! We let things stand. We trust God with what others shall think. Of course there is a time to talk, as there is a time to be with others. But we are not safe and rich in talk and companionship unless our souls are strong in solitude and silence. If we have heard the good news and have come to trust our Savior, He will meet with us through extensive solitude and silence to stabilize his love, joy and peace in us. His character will increasingly become ours--easily, thoroughly. You rarely find any person who has made great progress in the spiritual life that did not have much time in solitude and silence.

Good stuff. But I dare say, if my own experience is any fair indicator, too much solitude can be just as detrimental to one's spiritual health as too little.


More Kid Stuff

Last night, Becky and Macy went to a Rockfish concert. (I am told Rockfish is sort of a Christian co-ed Wiggles, but I always thought it was a good seafood restaurant in Northwest Houston.) So Gracie had Dada all to herself. I got her a Happy Meal and let her stay up a little later than normal.
My absolute favorite moment of the night was when I was sitting in my chair reading my book and Grace found a brush and decided to brush my hair for me. I just sat there reading, letting Grace brush while she said "Pitty Dada, pitty Dada." That's bliss.

This morning Macy and I had a conversation about a toy. She needed me to explain something to her about how it worked.
Then she said, "I think so, too, Daddy," followed with much conviction by, "If you think so, I think so."

That is a rich -- rich and scary -- thought!


Making Requests Known

Yesterday as I was sitting at the computer, Macy walked into the room, holding her booklet, and said, "Time to learn my catechism now, Daddy."

I think one important way in which we may experience the kingdom of God as little children is not to wait on God to "teach us a lesson," but to come to Him daily, open and eager, saying "Lord, please teach me something today."


Help Me Die

Lord of essential life, help me to die.
To will to die is one with highest life,
The mightiest act that to will's hand doth lie --
Born of God's essence, and of man's hard strife:
God, give me strength my evil self to kill,
And die into the heaven of thy pure will.
Then shall this body's death be very tolerable.

-- from the March Twenty-sixth stanza of George MacDonald's Diary of an Old Soul


Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it's all right to wonder?
Did you know that it's all right to wonder?
There are all kinds of wonderful things.

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it's all right to marvel?
Did you know that it's all right to marvel?
There are all kinds of marvelous things.

-- from a song by Fred Rogers

If I were a painter, I do not know which I'd paint
The calling of the ancient stars or the assembling of the saints
There's so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see
But everywhere I go, I'm looking.

-- "America" by Rich Mullins


Slow Down. Stop. Think.

Dan Edelen's excellent piece "The Humble Warrior" is in part a reaction to the Shoot First, Ask Questions Later (if Ever) element of the Christian blogosphere. It made me start thinking about how humility almost always entails reacting and responding to people and circumstances thoughtfully. The very nature of this medium, the blog, is built on instant publishing and near-instant response, and when one is reactionary, knee-jerk, offensive, or defensive, the medium can only exacerbate one's need to retort or retaliate.

In another post, Dan recommends praying for someone we consider an enemy before we write them up on our blog. Prayer brings perspective. So does just pausing.

I have mentioned that I'd like Shizuka Blog to be a slowly flashing yellow light on your travels through the blogosphere, like the one that marks the opening pan of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Here, as there, it's a sign to slow down, that we're about to stop and be calm, be thoughtful, be restful. It's amazing what insights hit you when you're too busy doing nothing to fire your flamethrower at someone.


An Oldfangled Idea for a Book

People have told me now and then that I should really write a non-fiction book. I really do want to. But while I have lots of interesting and helpful things to say ;-), I lack the credentials. In fact, if I had the right credentials, I could probably publish my non-fiction book even if I had nothing interesting or helpful to say. Judging by the selection at my local Christian bookstore, anyway.

I do hope that should my fiction writing ever afford me the liberty of writing non-fiction, I will be able to say old things in fresh ways. I think the Church really needs a heapin’ helpin’ of Old Things. I’ve got nothing against Rick Warren, but I don’t want the Church to catch the cultural waves of the minute. I want it to seek the deep waters of yesteryear. I’ve got nothing against Brian MacLaren, but I don’t think we need new kinds of Christians. The old kinds work just fine.

My mentor-pastor Mike Ayers and I have been working on a book project off and on. We are not in a hurry. It is a labor of love and will reflect the growth we have undergone and are undergoing. It’s a church book, but there’s no rush because we don’t plan on writing one that is about the church of the day. We’d have to keep starting over every year if we were to do that. No, instead we are thinking and mulling and growing and working and talking and researching and writing, so that one day it will be ready when we are ready. It was C.S. Lewis who said “The more up to date a book is, the sooner it will be outdated.” That’s sort of the opposite of what we want to write.
Last week I had a brilliant idea for a title and I e-mailed him to share my inspiration and Mike agreed it was perfect. Surely someone will steal it (if someone hasn’t used it already), but we’re liking The Gospel-Driven Church.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. And that’s got me thinking about what my first non-fiction book would be about. I’m thinking The Gospel-Driven Life. And I want it to be an antidote to all the Christianized self-help, pickyourselfupbyyourbootstraps gobbledygook. It will be hopelessly out of date and therefore extremely relevant. Especially for people like me. Normal people. That is to say, people not on or funding TBN.

The Gospel-Driven Life will not be about achieving victory. It will be about trusting Christ right in the middle of our messed-up-ness. So, you know, it will be honest.
It won’t be about discovering the champion in you because it will flat-out inform you right off the bat that there is no champion in you.
It won’t be about speaking positive words in order to create the prosperous reality you want to live in. You can read Harry Potter for that kind of stuff. Instead, it will be about faith and contentedness in being: a) poor, b) sick, c) almost dead, d) single, e) homely/ugly, f) married to an idiot or a nag, g) a freakin’ human being. It won't be about trusting Jesus to "fix" those things, but just to be present and working in and through them.

Are any of those books out there written for dudes who sit on couches and watch “The Simpsons” reruns after working on an assembly line all day? ’Cause they don’t seem like it.
A week or so ago I read David Hansen’s excellent little book Long Wandering Prayer and among all the wonderful things he wrote in this book was something that went like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “If you don’t want to read about prayer from someone who has watched thousands of hours of football on television, this book isn’t for you.” I loved that.
The larger point was about how God desires obedience, not necessarily sacrifice, and that giving up things you enjoy (that aren’t sins, obviously) to spend more time in prayer and Bible study won’t work. He’s not saying it’s wrong to do that, he’s just being realistic about the odds of its success. Instead, Hansen recommends giving up yard work or doing the dishes for time with God. Not altogether, but he’s saying you might as well cut back or sacrifice for the moment the things you don’t want to do anyway.

If laziness wasn’t a sin, I’d title a chapter in my book “Good News for Lazybones.” Why do all of these books out there seem like they were written for Type-A personalities? Not everybody has an inner Tony Robbins just waiting for Joel Osteen to tell him to “choose blessings.”
Sure, that works from time to time.

But that’s the key, see? Works. What to do. These are things you do to achieve victory/blessing/prosperity/happiness. Pray this prayer for 30 days and God will finally get so sick of it he’ll give in.
Some of these books are just Pelagianism translated into Christian motivational speak. They are a stylish repackaging of the prosperity gospel for mainstream evangelical audiences.
Like God is some Thing to appease or trick or cajole. There’s something to be said for battering the threshold of heaven with our prayers. And then there’s treating God like a candy machine that’s always jamming.

The Bible doesn't call for speaking victory over your obstacles and negative thoughts. It calls for repentance from sin. (I'm not even sure those words are in the vocabularies of some of the folks I'm talking about, and at least one of them has gone on record saying he doesn't like to talk about them. Which is why one of his supporters in a blog forum said we talk about the cross too much!)

So no Jabez for me. No Braveheart or Maximus or Neo or Obi Wan.
I’m lookin’ at Job. And not because he was a Super-Happy Triumphant Prosperous Victory Ninja.
Because the dude just sat there. He just sat there and trusted.
His friends were all bugging him and pushing him and telling him what to do. No doubt one of them handed him a copy of Your Best Life Now. And what did Job say? (Man, this guy rocked. And he didn’t do anything! Just sat there all ash-headed and what-not.) He said, “Shall I accept good from God and not trouble?” (My paraphrase.)

So, yeah, The Gospel-Driven Life will be for the rest of us. It will be for the neurotic and the pathological, for the broken and the wounded, for the irritated and the unmotivated, for the guilty and the ashamed, for the proud and the self-deprecating, for the doormats and the martyrs, for the worried and the ignorant, for the poor, the middle-class, the rich, and P. Diddy.

You know, because the Bible says the good news is for sinners. And that’s me. I don’t know who these other books are for, but they’re not for people like me. And the churches they are spawning and feeding and being spawned and fed from are not for people like me either.
The Gospel-Driven Life will be for people who are broken and/or imperfect, including those who don’t know it yet, as well as for those whose kids aren’t perfectly behaved at the supermarket. A book about God’s presence and love in the midst of doubt, wandering, suffering, losing, worrying, not measuring up, sinning, and grocery store tantrums would be Good News, wouldn’t it?

So I’ll write that someday.

But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. -- Job 36.15

(The image is a watercolor by Turkish-Canadian artist Atanur Dogan.)


The Dust of Your Rabbi: A Pig-Pen Discipleship

[F]irst-century Jews had a blessing that beautifully expresses the commitment of a disciple to stay in the presence of the one he followed: "May you always be covered by the dust of your rabbi." That is, "May you follow him so closely that the dust his feet kicks up is what cakes your clothing and lines your face."
-- John Ortberg, God is Closer Than You Think

I love that saying, and I love the image it provokes. Staying so close to the one you're following that at the end of the day, you're covered in the dust he's kicked up.
It reminds me of the Peanuts character, Pig-Pen. Remember him? The cute little guy who walked around in a constantly churning cloud of dust? Applying that image to the ancient Jewish blessing, I would hope my life of discipleship to Jesus makes me a spiritual Pig-Pen, awash and a'mess in the orbit of the Lord's dusty trail.

But I know I'm not. In those terms, I'm relatively clean. Sometimes I'm following Jesus from a respectable distance. I can see the dust he's kicking up on the horizon, keeping it in eyesight but following it cautiously, maybe like the Israelites followed the cloud of YHWH in the desert.
Other times, I'm so far behind, I can't see it at all. I might as well be lost. I come to a fork in the road, and I can't follow Jesus because I don't know which direction he went. My mind plays tricks on me; I can see wisps of smoke in the distance, clouds of dusts sent up faintly over the landscape's splintered line by other travellers, others who are not the Rabbi but might be mistaken for him since I'm so far away.
Getting far away and make one desperate to follow anything that looks like it might be the right thing.

My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside.
-- Job 23.11

I wish.

But it stands to reason that if I'm right up next to Jesus' back, I'll get a glimpse of God's backside glory. If I'm sticking close, I can match his pace, see what he's looking at, smell the sweat on his arms -- like a nosy son up under his busy dad's feet, precocious and curious and imitative.

". . . Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?" declares the LORD.
-- Jeremiah 30.21c

I want to be so close as to get dirty in the stir Jesus is making. I want to be filthy with his presence.