Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sanctified (Slowly)

It happened again today. I found myself at work, convicted. Apparently, the Holy Spirit means business, and He's going to sanctify me, whether my flesh is interested or not. (That's good, given my flesh's stated disinterest in the things of God.)

I sat at my desk, having more and more enjoyable work than I've had in a long time, and I thought to myself, "I hate this." I was furious. I didn't care for the direction the assignment was going, my brain wasn't working well, I had a headache, and I was mad. Not someone asked me to do something immoral mad, or even someone asked me to do something stupid mad. Just mad.

Just like yesterday, the Holy Spirit gave me a moment's pause, and let the thoughts running through my head echo around for a few seconds. The ridiculousness soon dawned on me. I've been hungry for more and more substantive work for weeks, as my friends and wife can attest. Here I had it. More code changes and additions in a single day than in the previous six months combined. Real programming work, with some actual problem solving to do. Nothing terribly exciting; the problem in question isn't even a problem so much as an opportunity to make things better for the future. Nevertheless, it is far better than data analysis or some of the other ways I have recently had to fill my time.

Yet I was complaining. Never mind Scriptural prohibitions on complaints; never mind the immense blessing it is to have a good, stable job (especially in a down economy); never mind that this job was from the beginning an answer to prayer. It wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be today: so I grumbled in my head.

None of this escaped my lips, of course. I am far too skilled a sinner to let others know about my depravity, at least where I can hide it. For that matter, I hide my sin from myself as much as I can. The longer I can pretend my anger is deserved, my pride warranted, my jealousy justified, the longer I can go without really submitting to God. Today, again, God showed the depths of his grace by showing me my ingratitude and self-absorption.

Paul meant business when he wrote about dealing with sin. He exhorted the early believers to put sinful tendencies to death, and to recognize that their old, carnal ways were dead. They were now alive in Christ; how could they keep on sinning? Today, I think we take sin lightly. We psychologize it into oblivion, rationalize it into nonexistence, and above all trivialize it into meaninglessness. Sin is but the hobbyhorse of an older, less enlightened age; we understand that all our foibles are but the products of wounds done us at some earlier stage.

I am not discounting psychology, and I have seen how I often lash out at others in precisely the areas where I have been hurt the deepest. But the reality is, most of our sin is just sin. No excuses, no justifications, and no way out. It is sin, and we have to put it to death. We must do so in full reliance on the power of God, not trusting to our own devices. We must call out for help, rememering that God who has saved us is the one who will finish the work he has started. He will complete our sanctification and glorify us with him. Our hope is secure.

So, to all of us, the call is press in and get to work. Kill sin—or it will kill you. By the grace of God, we will all of us look more like Him tomorrow (and no doubt he will show us then how much remains to do).

Monday, June 28, 2010

An Evil Heart

I saw again today the evil that lurks in every heart—I saw it in my own. One little thought, but it quickly made the point. I looked at a coworker (one I’ve never seen before, never met) and thought, “Wow, somebody’s hair got stuck in the wrong decade.” And then the thought echoed in the silence of my mind. How cruel is that? How vile and despicable is it to so swiftly scorn someone on the basis of their hairstyle?

Praise God who does not leave us in our sin.

When I thought that cruel, despicable thought earlier, he graciously let it echo in my mind for several seconds. What an ugly thought. Self-congratulatory, other-belittling, and simply sinful. It was disgusting. I was ashamed.

It strikes me now, though, how very typical that mental exchange was. We look at others and see ourselves better than them. I do it all the time, in small ways and big. I count myself a better writer, programmer, composer, thinker, person. It is, as I realized this morning, disgusting. I am not a better person. Even in areas where I may be more talented or more skilled, two salient questions remain: what does that matter, and who made it so? To which I must answer: it matters not a whit, especially as a person’s worth is concerned; and God made it so, not I.

Such comparisons are always sinful. The only aim I can have in comparing myself to another person is to puff up my own pride. The only possible results are always bad: I will either count myself better and pride myself in it, or count myself worse and forget that my worth and value are found in Christ alone.

Nor was God done exposing the evil of my heart.

For a very long time I have prided myself on seeing people beyond their surfaces, seeing who people really are. That sentence alone should give me pause; too often it has not. Whatever we pride ourselves in is folly. We have nothing from ourselves; there are no self-made men. Every one of us was born into circumstances outside of our control, given breaks (hard or easy) outside of our control, given a personality outside of our control, and given talents (or a lack thereof) outside of our control. My wife, talented woman that she is, did not somehow conjure for herself the ability to write; the talent she has carefully honed were given to her.

Yet pride in my talents or abilities is not the worst of its siblings. More dangerous by far is pride in our moral standing. Humility, as Ben Franklin quipped and others have often echoed, the hardest of all virtues: whoever thinks he has it almost certainly does not.1 When I begin to pride myself on seeing others truly, on not failing to miss the deeper aspects of people’s character and personality, I am running a very dangerous course indeed. I run the course of religious people the world over—Christian and non-Christian—who put their trust in their own moral competence rather than in Jesus and his finished work. I become a legalist,a Judaizer, a fool.

Again: praise God who does not leave us in our sin.

I, who pride myself in judging others well, at seeing deeply, at looking beyond the surface—I scorned a woman for her hairstyle. How very misplaced my pride is. I do not judge as I ought. I do not see as I ought. I do not look at others as I ought. These grounds I thought I had for boasting prove instead to be in fact a cause for shame. The light of grace shows up my moral excellence for what it is: failure and ineptitude.

More than that: even if I were as righteous as I thought, I would have no cause to boast. I have no holiness to call my own. God works in us to sanctify, God delivers us from sin’s consuming power, God overcomes our resistance to his grace, God provides the strength to follow him, God accomplishes our salvation.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:12-13

1 When I was much younger, I once ponderously responded to my youth pastor’s question, “Who is the humblest person you know?” by saying, “You know… honestly, I think I am.” The irony was lost on me; I don’t know how anyone in the room managed to keep a straight face.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Smile Power and a Shirtless Biker Dude

Two observations from my day:

There is a woman I work with, probably in her mid to late fifties, who is easily the loveliest woman her age I have seen. It's because she smiles so much. Every time you talk to her, no matter how hard her day or week or month is going, she smiles. She faithfully asks how you are doing, and wants to know the answer. She will sympathize if something is wrong, laugh with you at something funny, and rejoice with you when things go well. She radiates joy, and it has left a decades-long imprint on her face. I have no doubt she will still be beautiful when she is 80.

Most of us struggle to hold that joy for a few hours, much less days or weeks or months. This woman, I know from conversation, finds her joy in Christ and in living well. It shows. I find myself both humbled and encouraged by her example. Would we were all so joyful! The more we find our hope, our satisfaction, and our happiness in God, the more we will reflect that same glorious spirit. Perhaps in three more decades, I will have learned to smile that much as well.

Motorcyclists, on the whole, comprise about the same spectrum of intelligence and aptitude for safe driving as other drivers—although perhaps with an emphasis on both extremes. The best motorcyclists are some of the most careful, conscientious drivers on the road. They signal assiduously, move predictably, and give plenty of space. By contrast, the worst motorcyclists are dangerous, unpredictable, and generally a picture of stupidity. And they never wear helmets. In driving 45 miles a day, I have of course seen plenty of motorcyclists.

Today, however, the stupidity topped the charts. A man rode his cruiser down the road, wearing nothing but his shorts, a pair of sandals, and his sunglasses. (His overly large gut made the picture even less attractive than you could imagine.) I imagine the feeling is fairly exhilarating. Of course, the feelings caused by an accident would be far more powerful than that brief thrill. Would we were none of us so foolish—but I think, in many ways, we often are, flirting with sin as we do, baring our chest to out of misplaced pride in our own strength.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I find more and more that I care deeply bout accomplishing meaningful objectives each day. I regularly find myself frustrated at work when my tasks seem unimportant or wasteful. I especially struggle when I have little to do. I am made to work.

Over the last 9 months, I have discovered that I love web design. I enjoy putting together attractive web sites, and I enjoy the challenge of making them work properly however one is viewing them. (Admittedly, my tangles with Internet Explorer have been less than pleasant.) At first I was designing Pillar, then redesigning this blog, then helping redesign Jaimie’s blog, then redesigning Pillar, then helping Stephen Carradini tweak the design for Gospelized, and finally doing the customizations for 52 Verses. Now that I have no such projects in view ahead of me, I feel a bit adrift.

In the past year, I have written a grand total of one piece of music, and that one not very long (though good, I think). Yesterday, I began work on a piece of clarinet and something—either piano or cello, depending on what the clarinetist can find in short order. It is refreshing; I somehow manage to forget how thoroughly entwined my soul and music are.

Yesterday, Jaimie began drawing in her sketch book—something she often used to do, but has but once or twice since we have been dating. She lost herself, apparently, in the strokes of her pencil. I know the feeling; it is how I feel when I wrote poetry, or let notes spill across (electronic) pages, or tweak a website’s design to perfection.

We are artists, all of us. Every one of us bears the imprint of our creator. I drive to work early enough to see the sunrise at one state or another—a glorious painting beyond the ability of my words to capture, no matter how I try. Our hearts are stirred by stories, moved by songs, stunned by the sweep of a cathedral. They leap at the sight of the Grand Canyon, ache to dance and shout and somehow take all the world in from the top of the Rockies, and crash in rhythm with the waves at ocean’s edge.

Not every man can be a painter, but all of us live to make something new. Every mechanic and every engineer, every plumber and yes, every person flipping burgers, is still making. Quibble if you will at their worth; admit, perhaps, that modernity so often fails to understand the point of beauty—but never deny that every man is a maker at heart. We each of us have a glimpse of God to offer to the world. Not, as so many have claimed, because we are all God, but because we were made to be like him: little mirrors that each one show a part of who he is.

I was made to make. So I sit and write posts and poetry. I spend hours on blog headers and pour my soul into new compositions. I work hard at work because I was made to make things well. Even when the things created are but lines of code that accomplish some end, I made them well. Praise God.

Monday, June 21, 2010

How Facebook is Losing Me

I was an early adopter. I joined The Facebook, as it was then called, shortly after I got to OU, around a year after the popular networking site launched. I enjoyed it, a lot. In the last several months, though, I’ve noticed a pretty striking change: when I want to connect with others socially online, Facebook may still be my default, but it’s no longer fun.

When I joined Facebook, it was limited to college students, and served exactly one purpose: connecting with other college students. Slowly but surely, Facebook has transformed from that simple concept to a behemoth that now hosts more social profiles than any other single site in the world. “Friend” is now a verb as surely as “Google” is. There has been a lot of good along the way; I have never been one of the naysayers who joined yet another “Million Strong Against Facebook Update X” groups. To be frank, I always found the hysteria a bit silly.

Today, I finally understood why Facebook has stopped being fun, though, and I understand a little more what those people were always on about (even if the changes did not, ultimately, drive away the masses or bring about the predicted end of the [social networking] world). Facebook changed its premise.

Somewhere over the last three or four years, Facebook stopping being primarily a place to talk to other people and started being a place to share content. There is nothing inherently wrong with that shift, but it explains a lot, I think. For example, if you look at the history of my wall conversations, they’ve dropped radically over the course of the last two years. There are a few other factors influencing that (getting married and joining the “real world” being prime movers here), but I don’t think it a coincidence that those two years have also been the years in which Facebook has expanded or introduced a wide array of ways to share information. (I have noticed the same trend on other friends’ walls in the same period of time.)

Pictures, videos, blog posts (in the form of “notes”) and an endless list of applications now dominate the scene on Facebook. I find myself far more likely to “like” someone’s insightful note or even a comment on someone’s wall than I am to comment myself, much less just drop a note on someone’s wall. Most of the conversations I have are not social but centered on ideas or media. This is a fairly radical change from the Facebook I joined. I used to have huge conversations back and forth with people via our walls; messages were second-level conversations for things that could only be said in private. Now, if I want to actually let people know anything important, I immediately jump to a message—the wall is so cluttered with other things that it’s useless.

Though it is only today that this broader picture came into focus, it has been increasingly clear for quite some time. I recently chose to start using Facebook primarily as a place of sharing media—not least because its utility for social connections was dropping so much. It is now essentially a bigger, bulkier, less-pleasant version of Twitter for me: a source of not-so-brief snippets of people’s lives, mingled with a flood of reports about games, quizzes, and media. The deluge obscures the very people I want to connect with.

Am I going to leave Facebook? Probably not, at least anytime soon. Am I using it less and less as a means to connect to others? Absolutely, and I cannot see that trajectory changing anytime soon. Facebook is fine for what it is—but unfortunately, it is no longer what I enjoyed so much when I joined. It is a smorgasbord with everything anyone could ever want... except a simple place to connect with friends.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

52 Verses | a year of poems

As I've mentioned a few times recently, I've had a new project in the works. Unsurprisingly, it's another blog, which went live a few minutes ago.

52 Verses is an art experiment, and an opportunity to declutter Thoughts; A Flame a bit. I realize that this blog has not, historically, been very focused. Its content has ranged from the whimsical to the theological, from poetic reflections on good and evil to proasic descriptions of my life. I am in the process of slowly changing that—hopefully allowing my readers to pick and choose what they'll read from me. 52 Verses is a first step in that direction.

Just as importantly, however, at least for me, it is an opportunity to develop discipline and increase my skill in an art form I love: poetry. I have long enjoyed expressing my heart through lyrical turns of phrase, often to the detriment of my prose. I have also never really practiced poetry. Over the next year, I will. Every week by Friday at 7 pm, a new poem will be up. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly poetic, more than one will go up in a week, but the premise and the promise is one per week, for a year.

When the year is done, the project will end. (I'll have to find a new home for poetry at that point, but that's okay: part of the fun is putting a definite beginning and end to the project.)

I am very interested in constructive criticism, because part of the goal is becoming a better poet and a better writer. Take a look, and let me know what you think!

Borders, again

I sit here in Borders again, writing. Across the little seating rea is a father teaching his daughter to play chess. Scattered about are students. Next to me is the girl who was having a distracted conversation on her iPhone while browsing facebook on her MacBook Pro. The music streaming overhead is some sort of African vocal acoustic recording. I like the quietness of the space, and it is good to be out of the apartment.

I do not feel nearly so artistic this time, though. Perhaps it is simply a difference in mood, or the fact that I'm sleepier and more frustrated with m job than I was three weeks ago. Peraps It is the humidity. In any case, it will make accomplishing my goals for the evening a trifle more difficult. The Pillar post should flow fairly naturally—though I try to write well for Pillar, it's more didactic than artistic. The first step for a new project, on the other hand, may take a bit more discipline and focus. (I'll let you in on the secret as soon as it's ready. Probably tonight or tomorrow.)

In the meantime, I will enjoy my full-score recording of The Fellowship of the Ring, perhaps sip on another fortified Izze, and hopefully honor God with my words.

By the end of this week, I will be working on a new original piece for clarinet and some other instrument (probably either piano or cello). I will have spent at least two hours practicing piano. I will have spent as much time working out. I will have been on a date night with my wife. I will have done many things. The question I continue to ask myself is: will they have been things that are worthy of my time? Will I have succumbed to distraction, or overcome it and accomplished meaningful tasks? Will I have loved my wife well? Will I have considered the things of God more important than the things of this world?

It is easy to lose sight of what is important, with the many urgent demands for our attention that clamor throughout our days. Whether we will succumb or glumly persevere, or count it all joy and walk with grace—that is what defines our days as good or bad, far more than their content.

Tonight, I will try to make good on that.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tackling Paul's long sentences

A technique I find helpful when dealing with Paul's long sentences: break up the phrases in terms of conjunctions and prepositions. Once you do that, and especially if you're willing to use some spacing to further clarify, Paul's flow of thought becomes a lot clearer. That, in turn, lets us reason carefully through what he is saying, and apply it to our own lives more fruitfully.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us
                not because of works done by us in righteousness
                but according to his own mercy
        by the washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit
                whom he poured out richly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior
        so that (being justified by his grace) we might become heirs
                according to the hope of eternal life.
(Titus 3:4-7)

This helps us see why God saved us (not because... but according to...), how he saved us (by...) and a little about that process (whom...), and to what end (so that...). As a single block, that's hard to parse and follow, but with each clause broken up and its subclauses distinguished visually, it's much easier to understand. This is pretty much what I do whenever I find a tangled verse—whether it's in Paul's writings, or anywhere else. Perhaps it will help you a bit along the way as well.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sky (vi)

What would and will be dew
    hangs instead a curtain
    'tween me and near horizons
Red-gold flame of sun hangs
    occluded by a wrack
    of clouds 'round far horizons