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Beauty Born Out of Adversity

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.

Four Words in Every Great Book

book by darkmatter via flickr

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.

Trees and the Soul

tree by wtl photos via Flickr 

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.

The Knife and the Bandage

scalpel surgeon knife boilIt happens all the time.  A patient comes in hurting.  It started as just a little soreness, but it grew and grew, with more and more pus building up.  Now it has become a constant pain, hidden under the surface, bothering them 24/7.  It starts interfering with their life, and soon they find that they can’t do what they need to do or other things they would enjoy without misery.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, the pain will bring them to their knees.

Often, they want a medicine that will just dull the pain, or they are convinced that there’s a pill that can clear up all the pus.  But I always have to tell them that it has to be lanced, that the pus has to escape from the body.  It’s painful, but it’s necessary.  There is no other way but the knife. 

But I also warn them that once the wound has been opened and drained, they can’t keep digging around in it, or it will never fully heal.  They have to bandage it, and when they’re tempted to scratch, they need to just look down at the bandage and remind themselves that the pus is gone.

That’s just what has to be done with boils.  But that’s also a picture of what has to be done with wounds of the soul.  All of us get them— it might be something that happened decades ago or just last week, but it has slowly grown and become more and more painful.  The pressure of the poison of hurt forces its way into every part of life.  It starts interfering with our jobs, our relationships, our joys. Sometimes it brings us to our knees in pain.

The cure is not a pill, but plunging the knife in, opening up the wound, and letting the pus out.  It’s painful, very painful, and not easy. Sometimes it takes a flood of tears in the arms of a friend, sometimes it takes the agonized strokes of a pen in a journal, and sometimes it takes pouring your heart out to God in the wee hours of the morning.  Often it needs to be all three.  Ignore the wound, keep the pain bottled up, just take a pill to dull it, and it will only get worse.  If you aren’t honest with yourself and honest with God and let the pus out, your soul will never heal from the hurt.

But the flip side is just as important: once the pus has drained out, you can’t keep digging at the wound.  It’s time to let go and move on.  Put a bandage on your soul and say, “Yes, that’s where I let out the pain of that hurt.  That’s done.  I don’t need to return there again. God is healing me. I can go on.”

Enlarging My Soul

This morning I was reading Timmy Brister‘s blog and came across this John Piper quote:

The soul… expands to encompass the magnitude of its treasure. The human soul was made to see and savor the supremacy of Christ. Nothing else is big enough to enlarge the soul as God intended…our lives are intellectually and emotionally disconnected from infinite, soul-staggering grandeur for which we were made. Inside and outside the church western culture is drowning in a sea of triviality, pettiness, banality, and silliness. Television is trivial. Radio is trivial. Conversation is trivial. Education is trivial. Christian books are trivial. Worship styles are trivial. It is inevitable that the human heart, which was made to be staggered with the supremacy of Christ, but instead is drowning in a sea of banal entertainment…The deepest cure is to be intellectually and emotionally staggered by the infinite, everlasting, unchanging supremacy of Christ in all things. This is what it means to know him. Christ has purchased this gift for us at the cost of his life.  

I’m not sure whether I had ever thought about the concept of enlarging my soul.  It reminds me of the story of the Grinch whose heart grew “three sizes that day.”  It is sobering to meditate on this truth: that what we think, do, say, and expose ourselves to has a direct effect on our souls, namely, our capacity to love and delight in Christ.  But then I thought:  how do I enlarge my soul?  So much of standard Christianity is either trivial or “practical” or entertaining or emotional, and I sensed I could learn or be entertained or even emotionally moved without truly having my soul enlarged. 

What, then, truly enlarges the soul?  I got a glimpse of an answer this morning while listening to this hymn:

Before the Throne of God Above

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea
A great High Priest whose name is love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Behold Him there! The risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless, Righteousness
The Great unchangeable I AM
The King of Glory and of Grace
One with Himself I cannot die
My soul is purchased by His blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ my Savior and my God
With Christ my Savior and my God

As I listened and sang and prayed these words to God, I felt it.  My soul centered on Christ, His work and His love for me.  This is what it means to enlarge my soul.

From Rebelling to Embracing

God leads all of His children on journeys from rebelling to embracing. We start our lives in rebellion—against God, against His knowledge, His will, His love. (Romans 1:25, Romans 5:10, and many others). Through God’s grace, we progress to acknowledging, then accepting, then embracing God. When we embrace God through the miracle of regeneration and see Christ’s sacrifice and atonement, we are Christians, children of God. There is a further sense, a further step, however. As we journey as children of God, we continually encounter people, situations, trials, areas of God’s will that, in our humanness, we will rebel against at first. Growth and peace comes from God’s grace remolding us to accept, then embrace these difficult situations as God’s best(Romans 8:28).

I remember a story from Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography The Hiding Place where she describes being in a German camp, grumbling and despondent over the unbelievably filthy conditions of the bunkhouse where she was. Later, she discovered that the bunkhouse was so bad that even the guards did not want to go around it, thus freeing her to freely share the Bible and Christ there. What on a human level was an abomination was on God’s level His most loving provision.

What is in your life today that you need to ask God to bring you from rebelling to embracing?

Web Watch: Reflections Ministries

Welcome to the second weekly feature that is debuting this week, “Web Watch Wednesdays”.  Each Wednesday we will tour a website that I have found helpful in my spiritual growth.  I’ll try to single out for particular attention some high quality sites that may not be as well known as some of the “big dogs” out there.

First up is the site for Reflections Ministries.  Their purpose is to encourage, teach, and equip people to know Christ, follow Him, become progressively conformed to His image, and reproduce His life in others.  Reflections is headed up by Ken Boa, who I met at a conference years ago and was so impressed that I have kept up with his teaching and ministry ever since.  He has a Th.M., Ph.D, and even a D.Phil. from Oxford, so he can hold his own intellectually with anyone, but his heart is for people to know Christ deeper and follow Him.

There are several excellent teaching letters on the site; I have read Ken’s for years. One series he did on What it Takes to Finish Well is especially powerful.

There are also dozens of audio and pdf files available for free download on a broad variety of topics.

Finally, you can email or rss subscribe to a daily growth scripture meditation/devotion, and a bookstore to purchase resources. 

 

Have a great but perhaps under-known web site for spiritual growth?  Email it to me at john@lightalongthejourney.com and I may highlight it next week.