Don’t Erase

Three years ago, I took up a new spiritual practice — drawing my prayers. A recovering perfectionist, I quickly noticed the need for one fixed rule in using the colored pencils: Don’t erase! Somehow, banishing the eraser switched my attention from the product to the process of prayer.

Before long, poems spilled out to accompany my drawings. I had discovered so much freedom in not “fixing” my drawings that I declared once again: Don’t erase! Somehow, writing in pen instead of pencil allowed the words to flow unimpeded, without the usual fits and starts of self-analysis and self-criticism.

Quite unexpectedly, in providing spiritual direction, the power of this principle grew even clearer. Sometimes, directees would hesitate to remember and recount their sad tales of illness, abuse, suffering, addiction, or sin. At first, I would also hesitate to proceed down the painful paths of desolation with them but would opt instead for the cheerful encouragement of their consolations. Yet, in “erasing” or avoiding the darkness, we were missing the treasures hidden there.

Our entire life stories have shaped us, both the darkness and the light. God is always present with us, weaving together the dark and light threads of our experiences to form the tapestry of our lives and our selves. In an important sense, we are our memories—all of them. Erasing, suppressing or ignoring the ugly or painful memories diminishes us.

The Bible does not erase the misfortunes, weaknesses, and sins of God’s people. How could we possibly know God and ourselves as well without recalling the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, David’s adultery, or the Babylonian exile? Jesus did not ignore or gloss over the Samaritan woman’s sad situation nor the sin of the woman caught in adultery. He met them as they were. The mistakes of Peter, the other disciples, and the early church are openly recounted in Scripture, not wiped squeaky clean.

Does this mean we must disclose all our sins and sadnesses to each other? We need not go to the opposite extreme of erasing by dwelling on our misfortunes. We need not recount all the details of our abuse. We need not endlessly spiral in self-pity and regret. Instead of erasing, we can accept and act. Instead of erasing, we can remember and forgive. Instead of erasing painful memories, we can look for the presence of God with us always.

God does all the erasing we need. In Christ, God erases our guilt and our punishment. In the generous love of God, we find the safety and freedom to let go of perfectionism. In the unchanging love of the Creator, we remember God intentionally made us human and fallible. In the power of the Spirit, every inborn personality trait, every past event, and every present situation is “worked” for our good.

So, don’t erase. Don’t re-write your past or your present. Let God love you as you are and watch what happens.

Principles of Design 7: Harmony and Unity

This is the final installment in a series on the Principles of Design used in Creation. God the Designer and Creator invites us to use these principles in our lives also. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies.

The seventh and eighth design principles are Harmony and Unity. Harmony in art involves combining similar design elements—related or comparable colors, textures or shapes—for a pleasing, satisfying effect. The opposite of harmony is dissonance, which can be quite jarring. Musicians make harmony by adding tones above or below the melody to support or enhance the melody. Adding different harmonies to a melody line can change the tone or mood of the entire piece.

Unity in art occurs when every element in the design supports a single idea or message. Unity is not uniformity, not identical sameness. Instead, unity involves combining different elements so that they work together visually to create a single whole. All the other design principles—dominance, balance, contrast, gradation, repetition, variation and harmony—may be used to work toward a single unified goal or whole. For example, in the photo below, taken after a hurricane, the photographer uses repetition and variation (the wood scraps), dominance (the young boy’s central position), and contrast (pointed, straight, chaotic, lines of broken wood contrasting with the dark, rounded, smiling young boy) to convey a message of hope in the aftermath of disaster.

Starting with the Garden of Eden, we see harmony and unity throughout God’s Creation. Humans were to name and care for the plants and animals, which in turn provided food, meaningful work, and companionship for them. Creation was a harmonious, unified, well-balanced whole, an expression of the nature of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, as evil and sin such as self-centeredness and greed entered the world, harmony and unity decreased. No longer did all living things work together to glorify God. Chaos, fighting, jealousy, and murder ensued.

Throughout human history as recorded in Scripture, God’s sole message has been one of redeeming, transforming, never-ending, pursuing, faithful, covenant love. This single unified theme, “for God so loved the world,” has been served by all God made and makes and all God did, does, and will do. God also desires harmony and unity for humanity, in particular for his people. The Hebrew word “shalom,” most often translated “peace,” as in “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), means harmony, wholeness or completeness. Jesus brought peace and gave His peace to us (Jn 14:27). He wanted his followers to “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16)and to “be brought to complete unity” (Jn 17:23).

Only God creates harmony and unity in our lives. However, Scripture tells us how we can cooperate with God in this. He must be the melody, the single, unchanging message, theme, or goal of our lives. We harmonize with Him and with each other by loving Him and each other. We must “bear with each other and forgive one another” and “over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:13-14). We must be willing to humbly submit to one another, to “associate with people of low position” (Rom 12:16), and to be and abide in God while allowing Christ to live in us (Jn 17:21-23).

Unity does not mean uniformity, which is illustrated by the metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ, with many different parts but only one Head, with “varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, varieties of service but the same Lord” (1 Cor 12:4-5). We each have a part to play as we join God in loving the world, but the masterpiece God is creating with us is greater than the sum of its parts. By keeping our eyes focused on God, our ears trained on God, and our hearts turned toward God we stay in harmony with Him and each other, and our lives serve God’s purpose for His Creation.

Reflect and journal on the following questions as we complete this series on Principles of Design: How can your life harmonize more with God’s purposes for the church and for the world? What do you need to live more in unity with God? With the church? How can you bring the parts of your life together to serve the single theme or purpose God has for you?Prin

Principles of Design 6: Variation and Repetition

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series on the principles of design used in Creation. God the Designer and Creator invites us to use these principles in our lives also. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies.

In the last few weeks, we talked about the following design principles: Dominance, Balance, Contrast, and Gradation. This week we will discuss Alternation (or, more broadly, Repetition) and Variation. Repetition is used in art to produce a sense of stability and unity. Variation is used to increase interest and to create movement.

In the visual arts, music, and literature, repetition of color, shape, melody, or idea serves to prevent chaos and to establish a mood or a recurring theme. Common visual repetitions in art include spirals, plaids, mosaics, and waves. Repetitions in music are found in refrains or choruses, and a popular musical composition technique is to use a recurring theme with variations. However, as we see in the checkered design below, too much repetition can result in boredom or stagnation.

Variation adds interest and surprise and can also serve to move the viewer’s eye in a certain direction. However, as we see in the next photo, too much variation can be overwhelming and confusing.

In contrast, as shown in the following design and photograph, the best compositions contain both repetition and variation.

                    

God used both repetition and variation extensively in Creation. In a crowd of people, we see repetition of form; almost all possess two eyes, two hands, two feet, one head, one nose. Yet, even the human body exhibits a lot of variation, which makes each of us (even identical twins) unique. Every single snowflake shows repetition, growing from water vapor crystallizing around a small dust particle into a six-sided structure. Yet snowflakes also show almost infinite variation and are never exactly alike.

On one hand, we have come to expect and depend upon repetition, manifested as rhythms and patterns in nature, like seasons and day/night cycles. Science is based on repetition and the understanding that “laws of nature” are reproducible. For example, every time we drop a shoe, gravity will pull it toward the center of the earth.

On the other hand, we also unconsciously recognize that variation is natural. Exact repetition is more often man-made than God-made. For example, in a filled football stadium, the uniformity of the seats exhibits factory-produced repetition while the variation among stadium seat occupants (tall, short, white, black, blonde, brunette, Eagles jersey, Steelers hat) seems more “natural.” Looking at this photo, we instinctively know that the railroad tracks, with their unchanging repetition, are man-made, but the trees in their great and beautiful variety are God-made.

 

God’s actions in human history also exhibit both repetition and variation. He repeatedly tried to communicate and draw sinful humanity back into faithful and loving communion with Himself. Yet He did this in a variety of ways—through the Law, the prophets, and the poetry of psalms; through kings and kingdoms and through destruction and exile; and finally by His own Incarnation and the indwelling power of the Spirit. God is both unchanging in His character (repetitive) and unexpected (varying in His methods).

Ideally, our spiritual lives will contain both repetition and variation as well. Repetition is needed in spiritual practices—daily Scripture-reading and memorization, continuous prayer, regular meeting and serving together, and weekly keeping the Sabbath. Variation is also needed in spiritual practices as we explore different ways to pray (e.g., confession, listening, intercession, meditating on the Word, examen, prayer-walking, journaling, kneeling, tongues) and to worship (e.g., songs, hymns, spiritual songs, dance, silent surrender, painting, walking outside in awe of God’s Creation). Crafting a rule of life, which is a daily framework or plan in which to incorporate such spiritual practices, integrates both repetition and variation.

In our lives, repetition can wreak havoc through obsessive-compulsive tendencies; through rigidness and an unwillingness to change; through profiling and judging others’ motivations; and by acting on instinct instead of thoughtful consideration and creativity. Likewise, variation can wreak havoc when we wander without boundaries, map or anchor and when we live without regular self-examination and prayer.

In what ways is God inviting you to more regularity, repetition and rhythm in your life? In what ways is God inviting you to explore, experiment and transform? Consider and pray with these questions. Next week, we will complete this series with an exploration of Harmony and Unity. In the meantime, also consider the following questions: Where in your life do you experience disharmony, discord or dissonance? What does unity with God and others look like for you? What does Scripture teach us about harmony and unity?

Principles of Design 5: Contrast and Gradation

This is the fifth article in an ongoing series on the principles of design. God, our Designer, used these principles in Creation and invites us to use them in our lives. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies.
In the last two months, we talked about the first two design principles—Dominance and Balance. This month we will be discussing the design principles of Contrast and Gradation. Contrast refers to differences, making something stand out or grab attention. Gradation is about blending, movement, and gradual change. The Creation, the Bible, and our Christian lives are full of both contrast and gradation.

The design principle of Contrast emphasizes distinction and differences. In art, contrast can be applied to color (e.g, yellow with blue), intensity (light with dark), size (big with small), or shape (triangle with circle). Contrast gives designs energy and interest.

In Scripture, contrast is used for emphasis, particularly in the wisdom literature such as Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up conflict but love covers over all wrongs” and Psalm 1:6: “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Jesus makes use of contrast in the story of the “lost” son, who was “found.” We are struck by the marked change in the prodigal son’s attitude and moved by the contrast between the responses of the father and of the elder brother.

God also used contrast in His Creation. Instead of leaving the whole world gray, he separated the dark from the light. He made deserts and oceans, the Arctic and the Equator, winter and summer. Our appreciation for each is increased by experiencing its opposite. We also live life more fully when we have tasted the sting of death.

Yet much of the beauty of Creation is in its gradations, not its contrasts. Gradation is often used with color, from red to orange to yellow, or from the dark blue of ocean depths to the brilliant turquoise of the shallows. But gradation but may also affect shape or orientation, like a tadpole undergoing metamorphosis or a flower gradually drooping down in the midsummer heat.

So, how is God inviting us to pay attention to the design principles of Contrast and Gradation in our own lives as believers? Colossians 3:9-10 gives us a hint—“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” On the one hand, we are new creations—born again, new wineskins filled with new wine, children of God, no longer children of the devil (1 Jn 3:10). Our orientation has completely shifted, from seeking the things of this world to seeking first the Kingdom of God. The contrast between the deadness of worldly pursuits such as wealth and honor and the new life we find in the upside-down Kingdom of God is stark.

However, even though Christ now lives in us (Gal 2:20), we are still “being renewed,” still changing. Gradation is found as “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). Though we are indeed brand new creations, the sign of our continued life in Christ is that we are unceasingly being transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds (Rom 12:2).

Take some time this week to consider the following questions: Where do you see the clear signs of God’s presence in your life, in your attitudes and your actions? Notice the contrasts between who you are in Christ and who you would be without Christ. Next, pay attention to the gradations, the transformation God is working in your heart and mind. How have you changed over the years as the Holy Spirit has led and you have sought God’s will and way in you?

Next week, we will move on to the design principles of Variation and Alternation. Begin to explore questions such as the following: How much variation does your life with God hold? And what kind of rhythm or flow do you incorporate into your prayer and spiritual practices?

Principles of Design 4: Balance

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series on the principles of design. God, our Designer, used these principles in Creation and invites us to use them in our lives. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies.

Last week, we talked about the first design principle—Dominance. We asked questions such as, “How dominant is God in my own life?” This month we will be discussing the second design principle—Balance. We will be asking questions such as, “How do I maintain spiritual balance in my life?”

The word “balance” can mean many things. According to dictionaries, “balance” keeps things upright, steady, in proper or equal amounts, at equilibrium. In design, balance keeps a piece of artwork stable and comfortable because all parts are working together in some type of well-proportioned whole. We humans find symmetry and balance to be attractive and safe. When a piece of art is visually off balance, tension may result.

In Creation, God used the design principle of balance in many ways. Our bodies were designed to be balanced—symmetrical (with our left and right sides almost mirror images of each other), upright (not falling), at equilibrium (at peace). And as scientists interviewed in the godnewevidence series state, human life “is balanced on a razor’s edge” in terms of the laws of physics (such as gravity and resonance).

We also see God using balance elsewhere in Creation. For example, He balances diversity and uniformity in the universe. We humans are genetically uniform in so many ways that we are all one species. Yet we are each unique, different from each other, presumably because God values variability also. In Genesis, we see more balances—night and day, land and water, plant and animal, work and rest, male and female.

Yet we also see the tension, the imbalance in the world God allows or places in the world to keep things moving. If we did not lean forward to cause imbalance, we would never start walking. Some imbalance and some dominance are good. For example, good and evil are not in balance. God is good and has overcome the power of evil. Light has overcome darkness. At the cross, God’s mercy and wrath meet, and mercy triumphs over judgment.

What do we as Jesus-followers need to keep in balance? We need to hold equally that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. When we overemphasize Christ’s divinity, we forget that as a human, God fully suffered for us and showed us how to respond to all situations on this earth. And having been in human flesh, Christ now enters our suffering, intercedes for us, and compassionately understands us. When we overemphasize the humanity of Jesus, we forget that as God He is sovereign, victorious, and worthy of whole-hearted worship and obedience.

As believers, we also need to keep in balance love and truth, submission and authority, heart and head, faith and reason, care for self and care for others, being and doing, the good of the individual vs. the good of the whole group, and past and future (on the fulcrum of the present). What else is God inviting you to keep in balance?

As Christians, we also need to be willing to remain in tension and on the move, always growing and changing. In art, perfect symmetry and balance can be dull and uninteresting. Look at the first painting below. Then look at the second painting. Which one is more interesting to you? Do you find your eyes moving around the entire painting more as you look at the second as compared to the first?

               

In our own frail human lives, perfect symmetry and balance is impossible. And this is good. We want God to be dominant instead of “balancing” our love for God with our love for ourselves. Also, feeling off-balance, which happens when we suffer or when we experience the unexpected, keeps us moving, growing, and leaning into (depending on) God. Though it makes us uncomfortable, recognizing the inequalities in the world also moves us to action. God has always drawn our reluctant attention to the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan so that we will join Him in compassionate care for them.

Until next week, pray with the following questions: How does God want to increase your emotional, spiritual, or physical balance? How does God want you to be off-balance, in tension or on the move? And begin to consider our next principles of design—Contrast and Gradation.

Principles of Design 3: Dominance

This is the third post in an ongoing series on the principles of design that God, our Designer and Creator used and invites us to use in designing and “creating” our lives. Whether intentional or not, we are always creating—memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking and feeling, and legacies. We discussed previously how God made us to receive, return, and share the overflowing love within the Trinity. Also, as His image-bearers and His redeemed sons and daughters in Christ, we glorify God by shining the Family resemblance.

So, how do we bear God’s image and reflect the Family resemblance when creating, using His principles of design? To answer this question, let us start where the Bible starts, with “In the beginning was the Word…” (Jn 1:1) and “Seek first the Kingdom of God…” (Mt 6:33). Both illustrate the design principle of Dominance. John 1 continues, “…without him nothing was made that has been made.” God dominates, meaning He is first (before and pre-eminent) in all of Creation. All Creation points to God. And as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6, if we make God dominant in our lives, “…all these things will be added onto you.” When God is given full dominance in our lives, our worries fade; we have all we need.

What exactly is this design principle of Dominance? Before a brush is ever dipped in paint, the artist must have an idea, objective, or message to convey. Usually, this message is carried by the dominant feature in the artwork. Dominance is about the focal point, what is first seen, where the eyes and attention are most drawn. The dominant feature is the doorway to the entire work.

What dominates and draws you in?

Dominance implies pre-eminence, authority, sway, influence and control. In art, dominance is emphasis or visual weight, which is often dependent upon contrast. The dominant feature may be larger and darker. Or, it may be unique in shape, color or texture. A dominant feature may also be set apart by surrounding emptiness or whitespace. If nothing is dominant in a piece of art, the viewer may become confused about what is being conveyed; or bored by monotony; or overwhelmed by lots of different elements “yelling” for attention at once.

Too much…

What dominates in your life? Consider the main message you want your life to communicate. What is your focal point or emphasis? What catches and keeps your attention in life? To what dominant feature would a viewer of your life be drawn first? Or, are so many different interests and activities competing for attention that nothing dominates?

Yahweh commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Our triune God is always to be dominant. God Himself is our focal point, the meaning, goal and message of our lives. As Christians, our lives draw attention to God and are the doorway for others to find God. As in the parable of the pearl of great price, we give all we have to live in His Kingdom and dwell in His House. Our entire identity is as God’s children and as living, moving, growing members of the Body of Christ.

God models this concept of dominance. God’s long-suffering love dominates redemption history. Since the beginning, He has loved us. And He seeks always our good, even at the expense of His Son. Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son to illustrate God’s intent, loving focus on us. God’s covenant promises and plans for bringing us back into relationship with Himself and each other dominate Scripture. And Jesus showed how to live fully focused on the Father—“The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Jn 5:19).

From the life and teaching of Christ, we learn that the key to giving God dominance in our lives is keeping our eyes on Him and doing what He does. We give God “visual weight” by giving Him all that we have and are—love, time, and attention. We create “whitespace” around Him by clearing out His competition—money and possessions, addictions and attachments, relationships, and worldly honor and security.

May we emphasize God more and more and let Him dominate our lives more and more. May we turn to God again and again and give Him more attention and more control. Ask God to empower you and lead you in giving Him dominance. Begin to pray and journal with the design principle of Balance, which we will discuss next.

Principles of Design 2: Why Create Humanity?

Last week, we started a discussion of what it means to join God as artists and creators. We are always creating, whether or not we mean to be. At the very least, we are creating memories, impressions, relationships, patterns of thinking/feeling/acting; and we are creating legacies.

We began by addressing why God made the world. Not out of lack or need, but out of completeness and overflow, the Trinity made the world in keeping with Their own nature—beautiful, good, orderly. Why, then, did God make us, God’s image-bearers? Take time now to consider how to answer this age-old question.

Some say God made us to serve Him. I doubt it. In Acts 17:25, we are reminded that God “is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” Though we are to serve obediently, God didn’t make us because He needed billions of slaves to till His Garden.

Some say God made us to love Him. Maybe. The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Lk 10:27). All of Scripture is the story of God’s patient, persistent pursuit to make us His beloved children, complete with a Family resemblance and an inheritance. Yet, even we as imperfect parents know not to “create” a child because we want to get love. God, the perfect Parent, wants us to love Him, but God did not make us in order to get love.

My soul is like a weaned child with its mother (Psalm 131).

God’s love was already complete in the Trinity. God was never lacking love. Our triune God’s very nature is love (1 Jn 4:8). Please be clear that in speaking of God as Love, I am not limiting “love” to a sweet, comforting sensation. Sometimes God’s love is fierce and powerful, unpredictable, like a refining fire, a whirlwind, an avalanche, or a flood. And sometimes God’s love is a refuge, a fortress, or a shield. God’s love is active, sometimes instructing, disciplining, and setting boundaries. God’s love also forgives, holds, comforts, and soothes. May we never make the mistake of believing we have captured the essence of God as Love by even beginning to comprehend it.

The love flowing in the Trinity overflowed into the creation of a new recipient of God’s love—Adam and Eve, you and me. God made us to be receivers of His abundant love and forgiveness. The more we receive God’s love, the more we give back to Him and to others.

Some say the “chief end” of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Yes, at last! This does not mean we were made just to worship God. Jesus said “even the rocks” would cry out if humans did not worship him (Lk 19:40). God does not need worshipers or admirers. God is not on a cosmic ego trip.

What, then, does it mean that we were made to glorify God? As image-bearers, we reflect our Maker, which brings God honor. In addition, we sons and daughters were “created for [God’s] glory” (Is 43:7). The word “glory” here means the manifestation of God, displaying in material form a spiritual Reality. The Trinity made us to share in and display Their goodness, holiness, creativity, beauty and love. As we receive God and His love through the Son, we are transformed and begin to shine with the Family resemblance, which in turn glorifies God.

So, why did God make us? To actively, continuously, daily receive and surrender to His love, which changes our hearts and lives in ways that display the reality, character and intent of God for all humanity and for all the world. In this way we glorify God and will enjoy Him forever.

How then can we shine the Family resemblance and glorify God as artists or creators? Think, pray, and journal about this. In particular, how might we integrate the eight principles of design—Dominance, Balance, Contrast, Gradation, Variation, Alternation, Harmony and Unity—into the lives we are creating with God? We will begin by discussing Dominance.

Principles of Design: Introduction

Our pastor recently preached on the “unrelenting power” of art. He reminded us that our Creator God has invited us as God’s image-bearers to be creators too. I discussed with painter Merrill Freed afterward how it felt as an artist to hear this invitation of God to join Him in creating. Later in the conversation, Merrill noted that he keeps in mind eight principles of design when painting—Dominance, Balance, Contrast, Gradation, Variation, Alternation, Harmony and Unity.

A stirring realization took hold as I considered this list. If God is the Designer, He is the source and perfect practitioner of these principles. And, if we are called and invited to join God in creating, these design principles are for each of us also. We may not all be artists with our hands, but with God’s sustaining and life-breathing power, we are designing and creating [in] our own lives here on earth.

Indeed, we are always creating. Whether we mean to or not, we are creating memories for ourselves and others. Whether we mean to or not, we are creating impressions. We are creating relationships. We are creating patterns of thinking and feeling and acting. We are creating some type of legacy.
How “artistic” are our creations? How much do our creations reflect our Creator? To answer these questions, we need to dig deeper still—What is God’s desire in Creation and in our creations? Over the next months, we will explore together both these questions and the ways God’s principles of design can be incorporated more fully into our lives.

Let us begin with the foundational question, “What was God’s desire in Creation, particularly in making us humans?” If you have never asked yourself these questions, pause to consider and jot down all the answers you can. The array of answers Christians through the centuries have “jotted down” are many.

Why did God make the world? Before Creation, God was complete in the Trinity—three Persons in an eternal dance of mutual honor and love. Yet, God desired to make the world. Why?

God created the cosmos not from a sense of need or lack but from His own fullness and completeness. God created from His own nature, from Who God Is. After all, God is “I AM” (Ex 3:14). God is a Creator, a Maker, an Artist. A Creator creates—creates in keeping with His own being and character. God is beautiful, so He created beauty. God is good, so He created all things good. God is beyond human understanding, so He created a huge, intricate, complex, orderly cosmos beyond our comprehension.

Long before humans understood science, they knew that contemplating the natural world told them about God. God’s fingerprints are all over His creation. As Paul states in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…”

What can we learn about God from looking at His creation? Take time this month to look, really look, around you. Where do you see the fingerprints of God? The ongoing presence of God? How does God express Himself in nature, in humanity, in you? And start to think about next week’s question—What was God’s desire in creating humans, His image-bearers?

Living a Still Life

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).

This verse has become a banner, a justification, a reminder, a rich basis for silence and contemplation. But what do the words really mean? Dare we do exegesis and engage our heads with a verse that so often and so meaningfully has been appropriated by our hearts?

The first section of Psalm 46 is, quite literally, earth-shattering. Although this passage is still frightening in its imagery for us today, to the ancient Hebrews the thought of the earth giving way and mountains falling into the heart of the sea (v. 2) was an unimaginable terror. Not only was the sea representative of chaos, but the land once again disappearing into the waters represented un-creation, a reversal of the good order God created in the beginning (Gen 1:9-10).

Yet, even in the midst of quaking mountains and surging seas (v. 3), the psalmist boldly declares that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). This same message, that “God is our fortress” (vv. 7 and 11) bookends the psalm and holds it together at the center, often the focal or main point in Hebrew poetry. So, we can be sure that in some way, “being still” and “knowing that [YHWH] is God” are related to safety, security, shelter and sanctuary in the midst of danger and uncertainty.

So, does “being still” mean retreating into God as our protection? Is God alone our unshakable foundation in the midst of chaos, attack, and change? When it feels like our world is being destroyed or un-created, is God our safe haven and source of strength? Yes, and more…

Sheep with their shepherd

The “more” is found in several additional understandings. First, in the place of refuge and retreat referred to in Psalm 46, we are not alone, nor even alone with God. God is with us in the midst of His people. As verse 4 declares, “the holy place where the Most High dwells” is “the city of God.” One person alone in a fortress is not safe for long.

Secondly, the Hebrew word (rapa) translated “be still” in Psalm 46:10 is only once assigned this specific meaning. Elsewhere, the word is translated “let go,” “abandon,” “subside,” “disarm” and “refrain.” But the translation of rapa that fits best here is “go limp.” Not just are we to be still because our shaking and quaking ceases as we trust in God. Not just are we to desist from fortifying our defenses. Not just are we to stop preparing our weapons for the next foray out from our fortress to attack our enemies. No. Instead, we are to “go limp.”

Have you ever tried to go limp? It takes an incredible amount of careful, sustained concentration. And trust. The only time we as humans are naturally limp is when we are sound asleep or unconscious. How then, can we ever in full awareness go limp, as God instructs?

We can go limp in the way God desires only by “knowing” God. The Hebrew word (yada), translated “know” here, is common in the Old Testament. Additional translations include “lay with,” “have sex with,” “be aware,” “find out,” and “realize.” But the translation of yada that fits best in this text is “experience.” Only by experiencing God’s presence, goodness, love, power, faithfulness, attentiveness, and sufficiency can we go limp in the face of impending danger and looming destruction.

Most of us stiffen up when threatened. Often, the stiffening itself increases our injury since taut muscles tear more. Trees that don’t bend in the wind, break. So, God may be saying, “Relax into me. Rest among my people. Be silent in response to taunts and threats. Know me so well by experience that in the midst of danger you are surrendered and abandoned into my care.” Or, God may be saying, “As you trust me and are helpless in my arms, you will come to know me by experience.”

This verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” can be used to call us to silence, solitude, rest, and retreat. But it is so much more. This psalm is about surrender and trust in the middle of great danger, stress, and attack. God’s invitation in this verse is to be completely at rest, experiencing His fierce and tender care even as we are surrounded on all sides by unimaginable destruction. Instead of stiffening up, making a plan, gathering our weapons, or withdrawing alone, may we “go limp” together and experience God. He is more than enough.

Space Between Us

The 4C charge nurses crack me up. Like a pair of loud mother hens, they cluck and cackle, quick and loud, holding back nothing to care for their aging brood. Yelling back and forth to each other down the long hall, they are a high-decibel combo of sideline coach and obnoxious parent.

This wing of Cedar Haven, our county nursing home, is high-energy, fast-moving, full of suggestions. The desk stacked with waiting charts and the long shiny hallway of white heads in wheelchairs is a silent backdrop to these two full-throated, opinionated voices. They take turns throwing out orders like a pitching machine tossing sliders and fastballs.

A deep protective devotion to their residents holds these two young mothers here, enduring losing skirmishes with administration. Though both LPNs do battle for all their charges, they take special care of the crotchety old men, the crankier the better. Affectionate terms of endearment (“Hey there, Snookems!”) are applied even to the ones who routinely bellow expletives and pinch those who carelessly come too close.

Sometimes I wonder why I work. I clearly felt God’s call into medicine, and I love science and people. I love to understand the ways things work. The human body is truly a fascinating masterpiece. Yet, my thoughts scatter and dodge. I am forever reigning them in to give careful attention to the task. What should I do about this sodium level? Could his anti-depressant dose be dropped safely? Which drug is decreasing her white count? Might an autoimmune disease or splenic sequestration be contributing? Where is that lab result that should have been on the chart by now? What can I help and how can I keep from hurting? In the background, adding further distraction to an already buzzing brain, aides push residents to therapy, to whirlpools, to the toilet; chair and bed alarms sound; overhead announcements break in with the date, the weather, and words of wisdom for today.

Lately, too, I have been struggling with wondering what lasts. Of what eternal value is my daily struggle to prolong life and to lessen pain? I hear a familiar voice in my mind, “You know, pastors are the ones who really make a difference. The lives they affect are eternal. The pain they address actually bears fruit.”

I know my doctor’s wages help pay for college and weddings. I know the love I feel for the staff and residents shows up in my words, my laughter, the many times my hand somehow ends up on someone’s shoulder. I know too the incredible value of the Incarnation, of human flesh inhabited by God. But should I move on to a better way, a way of the spirit? Should I move on from caring for what is limited by time and matter to tending what lasts forever?
For days, I have been struggling with these thoughts. My prayer life has been full of these questions. But for now, I must concentrate. I smile and shake my head at these crazy, busy 4C nurses and purposefully head into a resident’s room.

Out of the blue, while I am still coming to a slowing stop at the side of one of these beloved old ladies, something happens. The resident sits turned to the side in her wheelchair in the middle of a four-bed room. Her head is down, bowed temporarily by fatigue and permanently by the dowager’s hump of osteoporotic bone. Looking at her, right before I reach for her, I strongly sense something between us.

A radiance fills the space between us. Just two feet in diameter, the opening feels infinitely broad. The space between us shimmers–not in my eyes with light, not on my skin with warmth. No sound. Just a vast yet intimate place. Holy ground. Holy ground shimmers between us. Timelessly.

I hesitate to enter. To move, to limit this moment. Yet the space draws me in and envelopes us both, skin to skin, spirit to spirit. Love made flesh once again.