There has been much written about the scourge of Photoshop, the program that enhances nearly every photo we see in magazines and on the net. Every blemish, every wart gone. No fat from that Christmas candy. Every muscle perfectly toned from hours of disciplined exercise, oh, sorry, every muscle perfectly toned from a few clicks of a mouse.
With the right computer program, you can even generate a completely artificial computer perfection. The face at right is constructed from the best features of 22 different beauty pageant contestants. She’s not just beautiful, she is actually more beautiful than any real human face is physically capable of being.
The danger of Photoshop is obvious: we see this unrealistic unattainable beauty, and then we start comparing it to the real people in our lives. Not suprisingly, the real people always come up short. No one can live up to the dazzling standard of perfection that Photoshop gives us.
But the danger extends beyond photographs: we are also exposed to “Photoshopped” lives as well. We watch movie romances where the men and women respond perfectly to each other, or if there is any conflict it is perfectly orchestrated to work itself out within an hour of screen time. At the end, the leading man or leading woman says and does everything just right, and everyone smiles and sighs, “Why isn’t my life like that?” If not romance, we see the team win the big game, the family work out all their differences, the girl get her big break. We subconsciously question why we can’t have a perfect life since we see ones lived out before our eyes on a screen or in the pages of a book.
But there’s one book that isn’t Photoshopped at all, and I’m very thankful for it. It’s the Bible. All of its people are real, with real joys, real struggles, real failures, real hope. We see where a truly good king can become so lost and entangled he commits murder. We see where the strongest man in the world cannot control himself, becomes a blind slave, and yet finally sees the light in the end. We see how a man who truly loved Jesus denied him, but later died for him.
The Bible shows us that people, all people, are human. That there is selfishness pettiness & foolishness in us all. And that God’s love & grace extend to us all, and can work miracles.
Most of all, we see that there was one man who did not need to be Photoshopped, who the Bible could present in every detail of his life to be human, and yet beyond human in his perfect love & strength & wisdom. We can gaze on the perfect image of Christ, and realize with hope & joy that through God’s grace He is transforming us too into His likeness.
I was at an ice rink last week, watching people of all shapes & sizes strap on skates & push out onto the ice.
Amongst the chaotic mass of wobbling legs & flailing arms there emerged two young girls. They were like two serene swans gliding among squawking ducks on a pond. Both of them flew across the ice like they were born with skates on, but their skating styles could not have been more different.
The first, who could have not been more than eight, possessed extraordinary skill. She was performing jumps & camels with such precision & beauty that I was astounded. However, as I watched her for half an hour, I realized her movements were more than just precise. It became obvious that she was going through a predetermined sequence of moves. She was doing her daily practice drills, even while she was on vacation. She was indeed beautiful, a beauty born out of hundreds of hours of intense work & dedication.
There was another young girl that was beautiful in an entirely different way on the ice. She darted & glided, turning on a dime, chasing & teasing her brother. She was untouchable: flying across the ice wherever her heart led, with an effortless fluidity that showed that her skates & her soul were fully one. She was born to skate, & the beauty of her gift was a joy to behold.
So I pondered, gazing at two kinds of beauty, one borne out of determination & focus, the other a natural expression of a gift. These two girls were a microcosm of the two kinds of beauty present within all of us. We all have “left brain” beauty, beauty that comes to fruition after long hours of study or practice or just patient determination. All of us also have “right brain” beauty, that which is simply an extension of our innate nature, heart, soul, & body.
But we don’t need to artificially separate these two. They can work as one. The skater with natural gifts can grow & develop them even more with instruction & practice. The focused, determined skater will be even more beautiful on the ice when she lets her heart flow free.
So it is with you and me. Whether it is skating or writing or cooking or working or loving, we can be both art & skill, both work & play, both spontaneous & planned. It is when we embrace both sides of ourselves & live fully in them that we will show the world all the beauty that we have to offer.
I was on vacation last week with my family, tent camping beside the Greenbrier Trail in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Saturday morning I woke up early, grabbed my bike, and started riding. Twenty one miles later, I was none worse for the wear, and I pondered how my simple experience of an early morning ride was a reflection of a life well lived. I scribbled down some short thoughts on my Iphone, and they seemed to ring true. Here are some of the thoughts & scenes from that morning ride:
Before we had even arrived in Pocahontas County, I had set a goal of ”I want to bike to Marlinton.” I wasn’t sure how realistic a goal it was, but I went ahead and set it anyway. If I had not set the goal, I wouldn’t have biked 21 miles.
Every self-help book will tell you the importance of setting clear goals, but I still don’t follow this advice often enough. We achieve so much more in life when we have a definite, measurable goal than when we simply have a vague idea. Always, always, always, have at least one doable goal that you can make progress on every day. (My goal for today? FINISH WRITING THIS POST!)
Seize Every Moment
We’ve all heard the famous phrase, “seize the day,” but it is just as important to seize the moment. Every moment of our life is meant to be fully lived: there are no trivial days, there are no trivial moments. As I biked along, each moment brought something new if I was willing to look for it— a new flower, a new sound, a new vista. I was surprised & delighted over & over again as I traveled the miles with an open eye and open heart.
Right now, this very moment, you are alive in a wondrous world. Live expectantly. Seize every moment.
Take the Long View
Although we must seize every moment, we also need to take the long view. There were times along the trail where I would stop & look back from where I came and look forward to where I was going. I enriched my travels by keeping my present in the perspective of my past and my future.
So it is with life: the joys and the struggles of today are best understood in the context of our entire life. The simple joy of sharing a meal with friends is enriched by remembering the entire history of the relationship in the context of the now, while many an argument and frustration would be lessened by stepping back and seeing the big picture. Add wisdom and depth to your life today by taking the long view.
Pay the Price
One of the most basic lessons we learn in life is that there is always a price to pay. In order to enjoy the beauty of the river, I had to pay the price of getting out of bed, of renting a bicycle, of expending energy, of spending a few days sore. That was the price of admission to what I experienced. I knew the price, and I was willing to pay it.
There is no free lunch. Anything we achieve or experience comes with a price. That is not a bad thing; that is simply how God designed the universe. The important thing to remember is not if there is a price to pay, but what the price is, and our willingness to pay it to achieve what we want in life.
Look for Beauty
As I biked, I started looking for wildflowers pictures to snap with my iPhone. I thought I might be able to get a dozen if I was lucky. But the more I looked, the more I saw, and by the end of the day I had found over three dozen different species scattered along the trail.
The moral? Don’t pass by beauty. There is so much beauty everywhere if you are willing to look for it, and the more you look, the more you will see. It’s so easy to just live our busy lives without stopping to experience beauty (as this post I wrote in 2007 pointed out.) Look for the everyday beauty in your life today.
Don’t Let Opportunities Pass You By
Although I took pictures of dozens of wildflowers as I biked, there were two flowers that really stood out to me:
The two that I didn’t get.
There was an orange one, and later a red one. With both of them, I thought, “Gee, I’ve taken a lot of pictures already, that’s a beautiful flower, but I don’t want to fall behind schedule, I’ll have a chance to take a picture on the way back or find another one.”
Yes, you guessed it: I didn’t find another one of either species, and try as I might, I couldn’t spot them again on the way back.
Life is like that too. There are so many opportunities, big ones and small ones, that we put off, casually assuming there will be another chance later. Sometimes we get another chance, but often we don’t. Don’t let opportunities pass you by.
Take the Road Less Traveled
That early morning bike ride was taking the road less traveled– literally. I saw a grand total of one other person on the path the entire ride into Marlinton. There were plenty of people catching some more Zzzz’s or watching television that morning, but I took the road less traveled by, and that made all the difference.
What do you look back in your life and particularly cherish? I would wager that quite a few of your most cherished decisions and experiences fall into the category of the road less traveled. Keep that in mind as you plot your course today.
Enjoy the Ride
I set out to reach a goal: bike to the town of Marlinton. There were two ways of reaching the goal: I could enjoy the ride, the sights & sounds, the feel of wind on my face, the anticipation of what was around the next bend. Or I could have dreaded feeling sore, frustrated over my lack of progress, thinking about how I could have stayed in bed, focused on how slow I was going, or a dozen other negative thoughts.
Guess what? I would have still ended up in Marlinton either way. Both ways reached the same goal, but would have been dramatically different experiences.
The lesson? We all will end up at the end of the trail someday. We all will die, no matter what we do or don’t do. The only difference will be, will you have enjoyed your ride?
Not Everything Helpful Must Be Profound
As I sat down beside a railroad bridge to record my thoughts, a voice said, “Take the long view? Set Goals? That’s not very profound! That’s been said a million times! That’s not worth writing about!” And I wondered whether I should write about my ride at all.
But then I thought, sometimes I chase after these huge profound incredible mountaintop insights or experiences, when often I just need to look for the little things that do make a difference. Sometimes I think that if I can’t write something or say something or do something that is radically mind-blowing, than what’s the use of doing anything at all.
I think that’s true for all of us. Just because we can’t do something earth-shattering, just because we can’t heal all a person’s wounds, just because we can’t be profound we end up saying or doing nothing at all. Sometimes that person in need doesn’t need the profound, they just need a simple word or act of kindness or encouragement. Be that (not profound) but helpful person to a friend today.
Make Memories, Savor Them, & Share Them
Finally, this little creative exercise reminded me of the importance of making memories. We all need to reflect on our lives, to remember what is really important, to write down what God is teaching us, to take pictures of beautiful things, to make time for the people who we love.
Not only do we need to make a memory, but we need to savor those memories, to linger & fully experience the joy, to come back to them again & again & be grateful.
Lastly, we need to share our memories. Share the wonderful gifts of God’s grace in your lives with others, and you multiply both your happiness and theirs. Purpose to make a memory this week, savor it, and share it and watch your life grow.
There’s something very right about this world.
And there’s something terribly wrong.
We all sense it, every day. Laughter and tears, joy & sorrow, peace & war, birth & death.
Something within us is frustrated, every day. Whether we voice it or not, we feel it:
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
We’re right, of course. The world wasn’t supposed to be this way, it wasn’t supposed to be both beautiful and broken.
“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31
“The sufferings of this present time…the creation itself…bondage to corruption.” Romans 8:18-21
The Bible simply & powerfully tells us how things started. God created. God created everything, and at the end, he concluded that it was very good. Butterfly wing and mountain range, flower stem and ocean deep, every single detail of an entire planet down to the atomic level painstakingly handcrafted by an infinite being. Perfect in every way.
But as we know, the creation did not stay that way. The perfection was broken, shattered into a billion pieces when man turned his back on God. That act brought incalculable disharmony, suffering, and death into every facet of reality. Shattered like a broken vase, the world we now live in is schizoid. There is still beauty & joy everywhere, but there is also sadness & death.
So, how do we live in such a world both beautiful & broken? First, we must enjoy the beauty as a blessing. God could have removed all traces of His beauty after the Fall, but He chose not to. He continues to bless us every day with the beauty of the world and the simple joys of living. There is abundant beauty in this life if we are willing to see it. God meant for us to take joy from this life, as long as we see it as a reflection of His love towards us.
Second, we must bear the brokenness of this world through God’s grace. Life can be hard, very hard, in this fallen world. But God has not left us alone; He has given a Comforter to His children in the Spirit, Who lives to communicate God’s love & grace to all of us in our time of need. He is always there to soothe every wound this broken world inflicts upon us.
Third, we must look forward to the restoration of all things. This world will not always be broken. One day it will be restored again to glorious perfection, and every tear will be wiped away, and death & sadness will be no more. Until that final day, we can now set ourselves to being faithful to bring God’s love into this world today, bringing beauty and healing brokenness.
That is what we can do, each day. Rejoice in God’s beauty, seek God in the brokenness, and work toward the restoration until the day we will all be home.
One of the most widely photographed trees in the world was the Jeffrey Pine on the crest of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Its beauty was made famous by the legendary Ansel Adams in 1940, and was photographed & enjoyed by thousands until it died of drought in 1977.
Many say that its rugged beauty was the result of centuries of harsh winds, frigid winters, and dry summers, that its was a beauty born out of adversity. But I would argue differently. It was not adversity that produced the beauty of the tree— it was the response of the tree to adversity. Over the centuries, there may have been hundreds of seedlings sprout on that rocky crag, but only one survived, yes, not only survived but thrived and became a source of inspiration.
What was the difference? How did that tree respond to its adversity? And how can we respond to the adversities in our lives?
First, the tree found a secure footing and stayed rooted. This tree dug itself into the great stone mountain, so much larger & stronger than itself. As long as it stayed rooted in the rock, it was immovable, no matter how fiercely the wind blew.
Jesus said that we could be the same way. In the parable of the two builders in Matthew 7:24-27 He said that only the house built on the rock was able to withstand the storm. Just like the tree & just like the house, we can withstand the storms of life as long as our roots are firmly planted in the solid rock of Christ’s teachings.
Second, the tree kept growing despite the hardship. In the book Mindset psychologist Carol Dweck concludes that successful people share a “growth mindset,” a basic life outlook that says that life is about growth, no matter the challenges. As the old saying goes, life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those you hold well. That tiny seedling on Sentinel Dome hundreds of years ago did not hold “a good hand,” but it played its hand well. So can you, if you refuse to stagnate, if you continue to learn & change & fight & grow no matter what.
Third, the tree drew its life & strength from daily exposure to the sun. That tree could have decided, “This wind and snow is too much, I’ll build a wall all around me and a roof to keep out the cold.” If it had, it would have died, for trees need sunlight to survive. In the same way, we are sometimes tempted to wall ourselves off in our hardship, from others, even from God. But only by daily looking to Christ & abiding in His light can we draw the strength to live & grow & flourish in this all-too-often harsh world.
Do you want to have beauty born from the adversity in your life? Then remember to stay anchored and rooted in Christ, keep growing, & draw life & strength daily from Him.
In the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays Glenn Holland, a man who throughout his life dreams of someday creating his opus, his masterpiece work of music. However, the inconveniences and struggles of “ordinary” life as a high school music teacher, husband, and father always seem to be getting in the way of his creative work.
He learns a great lesson at the end of the movie: that the masterpiece that he was destined to create wasn’t contained on a musical score sheet at all, but within the lives of the students that he taught each day. They were his opus, the masterpiece that he was creating every day.
When we watch a movie like that, we say, “Of course! It is the everyday connections, the everday ordinary interactions that make up a worthwhile life.” But what we should be asking is, “Am I really living that truth today?”
Today, you are an artist. Whether you realize it or not, you are creating, painting, & sculpting today. You are creating something today with each smile (or scowl) at someone walking down the street. Every kind or harsh word, every touch, every minute spent with another human being will be an artistic creation in the life of that person.
Today, what kind of artist are you aspiring to be, what kind of masterpiece are you creating? Are you blindly splashing paint, or are you consciously crafting beauty? It doesn’t take long hours or years of training to create a work of beauty in the life of another— often all it takes is a heart of love and a few moments of your time.
Today, each moment you spend can be a work of beauty if you will just view it as such. You can create tremendous healing & joy & beauty in both your life & the lives of people you touch if you see yourself as that artist. Give of yourself and create a masterpiece of beauty in the life of another today.
I went hiking yesterday along a section of the Appalachian Trail that led to my favorite waterfall in Tennessee, Laurel Falls.
It was a perfect day to soak up beauty and wonder, from wildflowers—
to sheer rock faces—
From a gently bubbling stream—
to water thundering over a 55 foot precipice—
I hiked along, rejoicing in it all, and thanking God for the glory He displayed in its creation.
But in the midst of that beauty, I was actually admiring and enjoying something even more, something that really blew me away:
My three not-so-kids anymore kids (along with two more friends). As I saw them climbing over ledges and up and down hills, laughing, talking, singing, I thought that even though God reveals Himself through the beauty and majesty of nature, He reveals Himself even more through His children. Isaiah 43:6-7 says,
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
They possess a glory far above even the fairest flower or most majestic waterfall, for each one has been created in the very image of God. God has made each one of them, each one a unique, precious, fantastic creation, for His glory and my joy.
For all my pics from the hike, click here.
I had just finished reading a really great book, Crazy Love (here is my review of it). It was one of those books that really blew me away, made me think, made me cry. I was thinking, “What was it about this book that was so great? What made it worth reading?”
Four words came to my mind, four words that summed up what I most appreciated about that book. And as I thought about it, I realized those four words were the standards that I wanted to use to judge any book. I decided that every great book is:
Beautiful: I want any book worth my time to be beautiful. If it isn’t revealing the beauty of God, His creation, His kingdom, why read it? I want to finish a book and be freshly blown away by how glorious God is. A book can be erudite, incisive, famous, or funny, but if it isn’t beautiful nothing else really matters.
True: There are plenty of feel-good books out there. The road that leads to destruction is wide and well-traveled. I generally don’t need books that I have to pick apart to find the truth amidst a sea of distortions and mistakes. I want books that are saturated with the pure milk of the Word, books that will point me along a path that’s true.
Hard: Not “hard” as in “hard” to understand, but hard as in hard to follow. I want a book to tell me to believe something and do something that my old self says “No way!” to. I want to be convicted and challenged. I want a book to make me squirm and force me in a corner. As the Harris brothers recently titled their book, I want a book to tell me to do hard things.
Transforming: In Crazy Love Francis Chan says that we have been conditioned to hear messages without responding, to feel that our job is done if we simply feel convicted. I want the message of a book to be explicitedly designed to change me. Although ultimately it is the Spirit of God who transforms a person, a book that doesn’t aim to catalyze and guide transformation isn’t worth my time.
Beautiful. True. Hard. Transforming. When I thought about it, those words describe the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Maybe they should describe the words of all His followers. All of us, whether we are writing a book or just conversing with a friend, should strive for our words to be seasoned with God’s grace contained in these four words. You may never write a book, but you can still speak words that are beautiful and true, hard but transforming into the lives of those you know.
I’ve always loved trees.
I loved climbing them as a boy, loved falling in huge leaf piles under the giant maple in my grandfather’s front yard, loved to look at them and draw them. As a man I love to walk among them, admire their beauty and photograph them. I’ve even planted a few along the way.
I guess I’ve long sensed that trees are good for the soul. But this evening I was reading Matthew 12:31-32—
Jesus put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
And I thought, “I know that Jesus is talking about the whole church, everybody, in this parable, but I wonder if it could apply to an individual person too?” I wondered…
And then another image floated in my mind, of a scene from the animated movie Joseph – King of Dreams. It’s not in the Biblical account, but the script writers envisioned that Joseph nurtured a seedling in his prison cell, and watched over the years as it grew into a beautiful tree. The scene, obviously done as a picture of Joseph’s life, had deeply touched me in the past, but I had never thought to consider why.
And then it hit me: the tree is Joseph’s soul. Although it took years in a prison cell, God was nurturing Joseph’s soul, healing and cleansing and strengthening it, until it was strong and beautiful and mature and capable of producing fruit.
And then it really hit me: it was my soul too. It’s what God is doing to me too. He is taking the mustard seed of the Kingdom, of His Spirit, implanted within me, and so carefully and lovingly nurturing it, being patient to allow it to grow strong and healthy and beautiful and fruitful.
All of a sudden, Psalm 1:3 took on a whole new meaning to me:
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
I was overwhelmed at God’s goodness in my life, and I pictured my soul as that strong, healthy, beautiful tree, that God for over 40 years has been daily nurturing, fed by the stream of the Holy Spirit. God is good.
How do you picture your soul? If you are a child of God, know that He is patiently nurturing you too into an eternal work of strength and beauty for Him.
This peaceful spot is in Bartholdi Park, one of two parks that are within sight of the United States Capital. More pictures can be found here.