Thursday, August 14, 2014

Soft Eyes and Fractured Vision

When I was a girl, I trained for equestrian eventing. This is comprised of a dressage test, a cross-country jumping course, and a stadium jumping course. The training hours were long and intense, as my horse and I learned to move and act as one entity. More important, though, than contact with my legs or my seat or my hands was the contact that I made with my eyes. My horse, of course (of course!), had his eyes on either side of his head, which limited his field of vision so that there was a blind spot in the three to four feet directly in front of him – which is something you don’t want to contemplate too closely when you’re cantering toward a three-foot jump! I had no problem seeing what was directly in my path, but it was not enough simply to focus on what was in front of me. “Soft eyes! Soft eyes!” my trainer would yell from the arena railing, meaning that I was concentrating too hard on what was straight ahead. “Soft eyes” was a reminder that I needed to pull back the focus and see in the panorama. If you are too narrowed in on what is immediately before you when riding, you do not see what your horse sees, and he knows it. His knowing it makes him nervous and less likely to trust you. And trust is the key to a successful horse-rider relationship. His sight is fractured, and he needs yours to be whole.

I remembered this when I recently read a book that changed my life. It is called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I had never thought of my brain before in terms of the right-left hemisphere divide, but the author of the book, Iain McGilchrist, makes a compelling case for what this divide means, why it matters, and how a tilt culturally and intellectually toward what he sees as the usurpation of the left hemisphere into the realm of responsibilities that ought to be given to the right has diminished and impoverished us. It is not a religious book; but, I wholeheartedly agree with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that “if Christianity should happen to be true – then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” The book is a masterpiece of scientific and philosophic scholarship, and its scope is too wide for my purpose here; however,  I want to share the central idea that Mr. McGilchrist posits, and how it has made for me a bit more translucent that glass through which we now see so darkly.

The primary idea is found in the relationship of the hemispheres. Both halves can receive information. The right brain, though, receives information in a holistic, contextual way rife with empathy, implicit meaning, and a sense of seeing things “as they are.” The left brain receives information in a more abstract or impersonal way, being analytic and reading explicit meanings. The left brain wants to classify and categorize and tends to take an outside, invariant view of information. Mr. McGilchrist contends that the human brain was originally designed to be right-hemisphere dominant. Ideally, our right brains would receive information, send it over to the left brain to organize, which would send it back to the right brain to internalize and act upon it. The title of his book, though, refers to a story Nietzsche told about a wise and loving master whose extensive realm was run to ruin and collapse when an ambitious and clever emissary, entrusted to rule on the master’s behalf with the same fairness, honesty, and kindness, wrested the power unto himself and brought tyranny instead. In such a way, McGilchrist sees the left hemisphere, made to serve the right, now in ascension over it.

All the left brain can offer without the right is a fragmented, impersonal vision of the world. And does that not ring true in our world today? Where people have 400 Facebook friends, but no one with whom to share a cup of coffee? Where families are ripped apart because the individuals rebelled against the whole? Where we run in circles, splintering our time between projects that never seem to reach completion? The right brain, with its emphasis on looking outward, seeing the Other, is our key to comprehending something very important about God and our relationship with Him. Without its point of view, we see in the shards of a mirror, reflecting only ourselves; with our right brains, God gives us a window.

We fall into a trap whenever we try to “explain God” on the left hemisphere’s terms. Isn’t that Satan’s original ploy? He fractures and makes incomplete our perceptions of the Most High. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Then, he narrows our focus, encouraging us to “judge” God in human terms. And even today: How can you believe in a God that would let a child die? How can you believe in a God that would let an earthquake swallow up a town? How can you believe in a God that would . . .?  The Bible may not make sense when taken in pieces. But, the Story was never meant to be told in fragments. It is a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts. It is gestalt. Just as you cannot begin to understand the sacrifice of Jesus without an understanding of the  helplessness of your own sinful state, you cannot really get a grasp on the utter depravity of the human will until you hold it up to the light of the holiness of Christ.   

Things that stand as roadblocks to our relationship with God usually have to do with traits that are typical of left-brain dominance. One thing our left brains cannot stand is any sort of paradox – the apparent co-existence of two irreconcilable ideas or entities. Fully God and fully man? A kingdom that always was and is to come? The wisdom of fools? Losing life to find it? If we ponder these truths too closely, we start to lose the beauty of them; we begin to believe that we must justify them in human terms.  If, though, we just let them wash over us, they make perfect sense. Mr. McGilchrist writes that, perhaps, the things that our left brains tell us are paradoxes, our right brains intrinsically understand.

As I walk into my nineteenth year of faith this autumn, I think of those days long ago, training with my beloved Thoroughbred. Today, I am not preparing for a blue ribbon in an event, but for a far more glorious prize.  I am trying to retrain my eyes again to be soft, to see more than I think I can see, to behold the whole picture and not just a narrow focus. I want to see the Story – from Genesis 1:1 all the way through Revelation 22:21 – as the narrative, not only of ancient peoples, but of my life. Now, though, it is my vision that is fractured; I need to trust Jesus, day by day, to make my sight whole.


Friday, July 25, 2014

A Poem for Pippa

When I posted a wee bit of doggerel that I wrote about our kitty, Katiesocks, a few months ago, my dad sent me an e-mail saying, "You'd better post something about her sister, Pippa, now.  You know how cats are." He's right, of course.  Sibling rivalry kicks into overdrive when fostered in the breasts of tabbies.  Today, while I was roaming about the house, cleaning and doing laundry, little Pippa was following close behind me and taking advantage of any pause in my endeavors to find a flat, elevated surface onto which she could leap for loves. That is what inspired this little bit of rhyming, which I offer to all the cat lovers out there:

For Pippa
I have a soft, grey shadow
Not of my shape or size.
But one who has a stripey tail,
Four paws and two bright eyes.
And on those paws she follows
Where'er my steps may lead --
Up the stairs and down again --
For we are both agreed
That she will be my sentinel
And guard me from behind;
And I will be the best two-legged
Friend she'll ever find.
Katiesocks (left) and Pippa
Of course I had to include a picture of both! You know how cats are!

Friday, July 18, 2014

5 Reasons I Switched from Google to Bing

5. Google is a company out of California, the most stupid, morally reprehensible state in the union. Bing is out of Washington -- beautiful, beloved, often-misguided-but-never-malevolent Washington.

4. Google encourages their employees to bring their dogs to work. That is gross.

3. Bing's trivia encoded photos are intriguing and educational. Today, for example, you can learn about the Puss Moth. How about that?

2. Google's doodles are obnoxious -- especially the endless World Cup series.  That was the final straw.

1. Wouldn't you rather Bing than Google? It just sounds more genteel and sophisticated -- sort of British: "Let's Bing a bit, and then we'll stop for tea." -- where as 'google' sounds like something two teens are doing in the backseat.

Let's make a better world! Let's Bing!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Everyday Miracles

There was so much I wanted to write about as the summer begins to take its hold, and I find it far less enjoyable to sit in front of a computer screen for any length of time.  But, this subject was too unformed in my mind; that subject was too in need of better research; those subjects needed me to actually finish the books  I was reading before I could broach them.  Plus, you know, life in all its glory comes crashing in from all sides like the relentless waves – leaving my life a breathless, wild, holy mess! So, what to write, what to write as the rains begin to fall less often and a middle-aged, web-footed Pacific Northwesterner’s fancy turns to thoughts of sun?  Why, I shall write about seeds.
Gardening, like playing guitar or writing blog posts and NaNo novels, is one of those things where my desire far outweighs my talent, but that I cheerfully pursue, nonetheless.  When I see a grand and bountiful garden, something leaps inside my heart.  Perhaps it is the echo of a memory of the Garden of my forefather and mother that brings that sudden stab of joy. To see that immense goodness filling a well-planned and ordered space is to wish to create my own; and so I try year after year.  Some years go better than others, but every garden I’ve ever planted starts in my mind as a stray piece of Eden and ends up a bit of a disappointment. I guess when you set your sights so high, you’re looking for a letdown.   
This year, I am gamely trying again.  I convinced my long-suffering husband (who points out every spring that we live within walking distance of not one, but two major grocery store chains, both of whom are stocked year-round with every imaginable type of produce) that I needed an enclosed raised bed.  The enclosure will serve the dual purposes of insulating seedlings from our chilly spring days, and later keep out the neighborhood deer that feast off of the yearly buffet.  After we had set up the bed, which I will refer to as VegTrug, because that is its name, I stared into the mixture of garden soil and compost that reached, as we had been instructed, to within 2 – 4 cm of the top and felt a thrill of anticipation.  What scrumptious veggies would I harvest in a few months’ time from its fertile reaches? What ought I to plant?
So, it was seed shopping spree time at Lowe’s.  I came home with a veritable cornucopia of possibilities.  Beets, Swiss chard, eggplants, carrots, butternut squash . . . all danced before my eyes, fully grown, ripe for picking, delectably juicy and crunchy.  But right now they were tiny, numerous, blink-and-you-miss-them seeds.  Scratch that.  Right now they were tiny everyday miracles.  And, as I poked and scattered them into the rich soil of my VegTrug, I realized that I most wanted to write about these everyday miracles – the kinds that turn seeds into smorgasbords, acorns into oaks, farmers into poets, fighters into friends, and sinners into saints.
 L.M. Montgomery wrote a trilogy about a girl named Emily Byrd Starr.  In the first book, Emily of New Moon, eleven-year-old Emily experiences “the flash.” “It had always seemed to Emily that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty.  Between it and herself hung only thing curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly beauty. . . And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.” When I read those words as a teenager, I understood them without really knowing why I did.  I had always felt, too, that there was a kingdom of wonder just beyond my fingertips.  It surrounded me, called to me, led me gently to itself, though I could neither name it nor express it.  When I came to know Christ, it fell into place.  That “thin curtain” that separated me from the “very near world of wonderful beauty” was torn in two by my Savior, as surely has He rent the veil the terrible Friday so long ago. When I catch those glimpses of the “enchanting realm” nowadays, I know that I have just had the experience of placing one foot momentarily into eternity through His grace and love.  I live on those moments.
The thing about those moments, though, is how grounded they are in the everyday.  A seed is a wonderful miracle – something that, if contemplated long enough, would make any philosopher weak in the knees.  Yet, what could be more deceptively ordinary, more fundamental than a seed?  Reams of information are packed into the tiniest vessel that can lie dormant, inactive, and to all eyes dead, until it meets with sun, soil, and water – then, voila! You have beets!  What an amazing Creator to have thought of that!
An acorn, buried for winter to sustain a squirrel, lost and forgotten, lies under the snow.  The snow melts in spring and gives water to the acorn; it awakes and sends forth roots and stems.  Left alone, it will be an oak tree.  A rodent’s neglected snack may become his great-grand-progeny’s home.  The Father must laugh to see it happen again and again, just as He planned.
A man arises at dawn and labors his days away under sun and clouds and storm.  As he works the land, it gets into his blood; when it gets into his blood, it becomes a part of him; when it is a part of him, he needs to put it into words. We are people of the Word, that sustaining mark of God, whose ever-unfolding revelatory Word writes His redemption on our hearts. We put into words whatever we can, and give a tribute of silence to whatever we cannot.  So, the farmer becomes a poet, caught up in the grand song of life that awoke the stars and formed the mountains.
“Peace, peace,” was the cry, but there is no peace for the two sworn enemies. Their quarrel was commissioned by persons unknown to either.  They fight for God and country.  Yes, even for the same God.  And Christmas comes and falls upon them both, as quietly as the winter snow. “Peace, peace,” the angels sang near Bethlehem, “and goodwill to all men.” And one soldier picks up the old tune and begins to sing.  The other hears and joins in.  Their languages are different; their songs are the same.  They lay down their arms – and, if it is only for a night, at least it is one night where the memory of a Baby’s birth turned fighters into friends.

There is no “burning bush moment” in any of these examples.  (I have always secretly wanted a burning bush to come and tell me what to do.  I say that, though a real encounter like the one on Mt. Horeb would surely leave me singed to the soul.  I do not think I could stand the holy fire like Moses did.) There is no sun standing still in the sky. There is no parting of the Red Sea. There is no water-into-wine, no bodily resurrections, no speaking new life into existence.  There is only the wonder of the everyday; the wonder that permeates everything our Lord touches. He touches us.  And when He does, the foremost so-called everyday miracle occurs: He turns sinners into saints. 
I pray that, even when I am aging and fading from this world and finding both feet straying ever further into eternity and ever more reluctant to return into time, I never forget that first miracle of my life.  Without that transformation, without that piercing, consuming  encounter with Christ almost twenty years ago, I would not even see the miracles all around me.  I feel so sorry for people who do not know the Lord and who might look at my VegTrug full of seeds and say, “Miracle?  What are you talking about?  That’s just science.”  Just science.  Sheesh.  As though all of science were not God’s giant treasure hunt to lead us to greater awe in His astoundingly creative glory! Or for those who cannot see that a farmer who recites poetry that is a paean to the One who first thought of the land that fills his soul is a more complete man than one who composes verse on nothing beyond his own belly-button lint.  Or for a man who might discount one moment of true peace in the midst of war, because war still rages on – not understanding that one moment of true peace is worth a year of a fool’s paradise. Not that I mean to be harsh to anyone. Until I knew Jesus, I might have said the same. Not now, though; not now.  One of the best gifts, of oh-so-many-wondrous gifts of belief, was when He opened my eyes to see that all that lives and breathes does so at His command and for His pleasure in a glorious harmony. There is not one mistake; there is not one forsaken. Then, by His grace, He brings us, sinners like you and me, into the dance.

If you are reading these words, I hope you have a beautiful summer, filled with times of refreshment and renewal.  Hey, I’m feeling generous: I’ll wish the same for you, even if you’re not reading these words!  In this world that truly is “a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty,” I pray that you are blessed by those everyday miracles of seeds and songs and salvation.

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Honor of My Irish Friend from Vermont

In honor of the Vermonster who is as Irish as a shamrock stuck into a Guinness that's being drunk by a leprechaun on the Hill of Slane, and is also a very proud Vermonter (hence her screen name), I have duly celebrated St. Patrick's Day by funneling a good chunk of money into her home state via two of my favorite companies: Vermont's King Arthur Flour and Vermont's Gardener's Supply Company. Behold:

Cloche-style Ceramic Baker:

VegTrug Elevated Patio Garden:
And oh-so-much-more!  Happy St. Patrick's Day to Vermonster and all!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Each in His Own Tongue

                L.M. Montgomery wrote many short stories set in the idyllic province of Prince Edward Island.  In one of them, Felix Moore, age twelve, is a gifted violinist being raised by his grandfather. This grandfather, Mr. Leonard, is a minister, deeply devoted to the son of his only daughter; however, he refuses to allow the boy to practice his gift, as it reminds him of the boy’s vagabond father, a fiddler of popular tunes who had stolen away the minister’s daughter and had broken her heart.  Mr. Leonard fondly hopes that his grandson will follow in his steps.  Felix laments to a sympathetic ear that, “Ministers are good things to be, but I’m afraid I can’t be a minister.”

                “Not a pulpit minster. There’s different kinds of ministers, and each must talk to men in his own tongue if he’s going to do ‘em any real good,” the friend replies.

                Ms. Montgomery wrote, “Mr. Leonard thought rightly that the highest work to which any man could be called was a life of service to his fellows; but he made the mistake of supposing the field of service much narrower than it is.” In a terrible moment, the minister exacts a promise from his grandson that the boy will never again touch a violin. The very soul of the child is his music, but he makes the promise out of love and respect.

                Ah, but Naomi Clark is dying. Naomi Clark is “an awful, wicked woman” who has “lived a life of shame” and “mocked and flouted” every effort of the minister to reclaim her from “the way that takes hold on hell.” But, she is dying, and she wants the preacher.  Mr. Leonard does his duty.

                “Can you help me? . . . I was skeered I’d die before you got here – die and go to hell. . . . I can’t go to God for help. Oh, I’m skeered of hell, but I’m skeereder still of God. I’m sorry for living wicked. I was driven on by the fiends of hell . . . but I was always sorry.” The woman’s voice is desperate.  The minister offers to her that all she must do is repent and God will forgive her; He is, after all, a God of love. Naomi, though, will have none of those truths.  To her, God is “wrath and justice and punishment,” and though she fears the outer darkness, she cannot let in His light.

                The minister, in great anguish of spirit, falls to his knees to pray for this sin-sick soul. “O God, our Father!  Help this woman!  Speak to her in a tongue which she can understand.” Naomi falls back on her deathbed in a spasm.

                My daughter and I were biking to her Tae Kwon Do class the other night when we passed a demonstration at the main intersection in our neighborhood.  Some church’s adherents were at every corner with signs proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus and the need of repentance.  This is an unusual sight in the Northwest in general, and our neighborhood in particular; however, I always admire those who put their convictions on the line and subject themselves to ridicule, violence, and indifference.  I mentioned the sight to my friend, Shirley, while our daughters took their class together.  She whispered thoughtfully, “Do you think that sort of thing ever really works to bring someone to God?”

                “Well, I don’t think it would have worked for me.  But,” and I paused a moment to choose my words carefully, “If it works to save just one soul . . . if it is that little nudge of consideration that starts one person onto the path of reconciliation and redemption, then it must be worth it.”

                I was reflecting upon this shortly afterward when we read over the second chapter of Acts in our family Bible study.  The apostles began to speak in tongues – known languages of the many nations of pilgrims in Jerusalem.  The people, of course, marveled at this wondrous thing in those days before Rosetta Stone and asked, “How is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?” Acts tells us that the apostles spoke “the wonderful works of God” in a way that left the people amazed and perplexed.  Are we, too, not left amazed and perplexed when we first hear the truth of God spoken in a way that moves our hearts toward Him, filled with awe that He would speak to us in our own tongue?

                Ever since I became a Christian, in all my thousands of prayers lifted to the heavens, there has been one constant one: that God would use me in some way to help bring at least one sinner to His salvation.  Just one.  And, who knows?  Maybe He has.  In teaching Sunday School, my great hope is that when one of my little Kindergartners is someday at that crossroads between the narrow way and the wide one, he might just remember his Sunday School teacher who long ago showed him Jesus’ love in a real way, and that memory will help him choose to seek the Holy One.

                Some people have a natural gift for walking unbelievers through every step toward a belief that culminates in complete and true redemption; how I admire those people.  That was not how I was saved.  The final work of my salvation was done very privately through God’s Holy Word and a heart long-prepared. You see, when I look back upon my life, to those days when I walked in foolishness and pride, I remember those who planted the seeds of faith.  My soil was not yet ready to bring forth harvest; but, I had faithful sowers who showed me God’s love in real ways. Three, in particular, come to mind: Robin Stapleton, Carolyn Pon, and Juan Barba.  I write their names as a benediction; they put the goodness of His Word into my life when I was a feckless, shallow teen.  They spoke to me in my own tongue, though not one of them knew it at the time. I can hardly wait to tell them when we meet again in the Kingdom. 

                Back to Naomi: Felix appears at the door, worried about his grandfather’s long absence in the raging seaside storm. Naomi, in a last burst of consciousness, asks Felix to play her something on her old fiddle, needing music at her final moments, because “there was always something in it for me I never found anywhere else.” Felix looks at his grandfather, who nods an ashamed assent. So, Felix plays for the dying woman. The tune winds its way from mirthful innocence to rapturous love to agonized despair to indescribable evil. Then, the tune changes again to a tortured repentance and rests at last upon “infinite forgiveness and all-comprehending love.” And Naomi whispers, “I understand now . . . God is a God of love . . . He sent you here tonight, boy to tell it to me in a way I could feel it.” By daybreak, she is dead, but no longer lost, because she has heard God’s truth in her own tongue.           


Friday, January 17, 2014

A Poem About Katiesocks

A more faithful alarm than even my clock's
Is the daybreak ritual of my Katiesocks
Each morning at precisely six ante meridian
She leaps on my bed and starts up her kittyin'
Biscuit-kneading paws and whiskers that tickle
Put my half-conscious brain in a bit of a pickle
For her message is one that I both love and dread
For I've too much to do to be seductively led
By her rhythmic purring and the tilt of her head
That say so convincingly, "Just stay in bed.
Oh just stay, oh just stay, oh just stay in bed."

Katiesocks and Pippa, both of whom make getting out of bed
even harder than it already is!