The Story Behind The Story

A local photography club in which I participate assigned a project. We were to create a still life image. I love stories, so I started gathering the props to tell a story of a traveling musician who missed his family while on the road. The props had a modern feel. For example, I was going to use a ukulele and a photo of my wife and kids from several years ago.

I decided to ask my kids to help gather some props and they eagerly jumped to the task. My son came out of his room with a battered violin he found at his grandparents’ house. The thing looked incredible! My daughter emerged from her room with a pocket watch and what looked like an engagement ring. And we found some old black and white photos of my kids’ grandma when she was young. 

Suddenly the story took on a new twist with the introduction of these awesome props. We started building a scene about a man who chose fame and wealth through his music over the young woman he loved. He had bought her an engagement ring, but never proposed because the dream of fame and wealth was far more enticing. Now years later, he carries the ring and photos of her on his musical travels.

The story is laced with regret, melancholy and a desperate hope that he can return to her. But we know the odds of their reunion of love are slim.

I love the story we created. Storytelling with one image is what makes photography so rich. But even more, I love the story behind the story. In this case, the collaboration with my kids was a fun and memorable time. And the images are as much theirs as they are mine.

It makes me think that there might be a Story behind that story…

Thoughts On Suffering

I’m on vacation. After ending work on Thursday, I went to my favorite coffee shop and then took my coffee to my favorite park for a stroll. I love to end my day with this routine. It allows me to pray, reflect and unwind. 

It was then that I was hit by the full realization that I was starting several days of vacation. I actually got a little emotional. I hadn’t realized how taxing work had been on me. I am so thankful that even though I have a very stressful job, it allows me to take breaks so I can step away for several days. 

As I was praying, I started thinking about those who are undergoing intense struggle and suffering with no opportunity to step away. I know friends and colleagues, not to mention people that fill our news feeds, who are suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually with no relief in sight. I don’t know how they can endure such long-term and life-crushing pain. 

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child and face an unfathomable well of grief. Or to lose one’s entire savings and confront the daily panic, despair and regret. Or to hear the doctor’s diagnosis and know one’s life is forever altered.

Scripture verses, advice, and platitudes don’t help in most of these situations. The pain is too deep and unending.

But on behalf of those who are suffering in any way, I pray, “Lord, have mercy” and know our God — our loving, kind and compassionate king and shepherd — hears and is present.

Relaunching Images From The Journey

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a photoblog in 2009-2010 that was an offshoot of this blog. 

The primary reason I entered photography was to stop and discover the innate beauty of God’s world — to explore the “extra” in the ordinary. The photoblog was a place where I could reflect on some of these images.

Ten years later, my life is full. And in its fullness, I’ve neglected the habit of pausing, observing, and reflecting. It’s time to make a change. As part of this change, I’m restarting the photoblog.

St Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My hope is the photoblog will become that place again in my life.

So why use a photoblog and not just use social media? I currently post a lot of photos on both my professional and personal Instagram accounts. But social media is designed for self-promotion and images stream quickly by in one’s feeds. 

A photoblog seems to be a more conducive platform to slow down and reflect. And while this might seem sappy and overly romanticized, I like to see my blog posts, both here and in the photoblog, as similar to messages in a bottle in the vast ocean of the internet. I don’t know if anyone will ever see my posts. But perhaps a serendipitous Google search may bring someone here at just the right time in their life’s journey. 

So I’m relaunch the photoblog. If you’re interested, you can find it at imagesfromthejourney.com. I’ve also created a link in the “My Photography” page of this blog.

Life’s Transactions

Ten years ago, I tried my hand at a photoblog. I took up photography as a hobby because it helped me to stop and see the world in a way that my busy life normally prevented. The photoblog was a small place on the internet to post the images I created along with short reflections.

Not having any photographic technique, my entry-level camera was set to automatic. But taking a great photo wasn’t the goal. The goal was to pause and glimpse a glimmer of beauty that I would normally miss. And in the process, I hoped I was becoming a slightly better person for it. I can’t remember why I ended the photoblog, but it lasted about a year. 

About five years ago, I began to take photography more seriously. I bought a better camera, set it to manual and began learning ISO, aperture, shutter speed and the nuances of lighting and post-processing. In that process, I still searched for beauty. But the goal of my photography subtly shifted from pausing and pondering to creating a better image. As my technique developed, I began posting on various social media platforms not with the purpose of reflection, but of exposure. I’m still finding beauty, but I’ve almost stopped reflecting. I’m pausing to find the subject for an image and process it to emphasize its appeal, but I’ve ceased ruminating on the subtly of its attraction.

Now looking back over the last several years, I feel I’ve lost something in order to gain something. 

These kind of transactions occur throughout our lives. We make certain decisions and start a journey rarely knowing its true trajectory. With a healthy dose of hindsight that only time provides, we realize the true cost of those transactions.

We are finite beings, so money, energy, passion and resources invested into certain areas of our lives often means other areas won’t receive the same kind of attention. Most of the time, we weigh our options and choose what seems best in the moment. Sometimes that can be a good thing. But other times, not so much.

Fortunately, if caught soon enough, some of these transactions can be refinanced. Resources can be redirected to nurture an area that has lain fallow so that over time new growth may emerge.

There’s a word for this process of refinancing our life’s transactions — repentance. Try to hear that word without any of its religious connotations. When Jesus used the word, it did not have any religious meaning. It meant “think about it.” Think about what you’re doing in your life and the repercussions of your actions. And in that process, consider that there might actually be a better way. And once you’ve weighed the options, choose the better way. That’s repentance. That’s refinancing those costly life transactions.

We often think of applying repentance to much larger things. But sometimes repentance needs to be applied to some of the “smaller” areas of life. For example, not spending regular time in quiet reflection can exact a huge cost over months and years, shaping us into a certain kind of person.

But whether it’s a large or small area of our life, God’s Spirit invites us to “think about it” and to empower us in the process of refinancing our life transactions. And through it, we experience the vast richness of God’s power and presence.

The Core Of The Good News

Occasionally, I like to simplify everything back to its core. I especially like to do this with the idea of The Gospel, which we are to live and communicate.

The Greek word for “Gospel” means good news. When a new Roman emperor was installed during ancient times, messengers were sent into the outlying territories proclaiming the gospel of that emperor. It was the good news that Rome had a new emperor and because of it, Rome’s citizens would experience peace, prosperity and salvation.

The four New Testament Gospels, in narrative form, are doing the same thing about Jesus. They are bearing witness that Jesus is Israel’s long-awaited, representative king. As such Jesus has fulfilled the covenant that God made with Abraham and his family to be God’s blessing to the nations, he has launched God’s future new creation concurrent with this creation, and he is installed as the world’s true Lord. That is the good news of Jesus! Jesus is the true King and Lord!

The implications of that gospel for every person who loyally embraces Jesus’ kingship and follows him is freedom from all of the destructive powers in our lives and the restoration of our human vocation (and here I’m blatantly stealing from Bishop Todd Hunter) “to be God’s cooperative friends who are learning from him how to live constant creative goodness for the sake of others in the power of God’s Spirit.”

With Jesus as our true King, we lack nothing and thus can learn from him how to build strong, unshakable lives like his, able to risk everything for the sake of God and neighbor. 

This is reality of Jesus’ kingship. And it is the ultimate Good News!

To Be Continued…

DSC02335As I read and reread the last couple of chapters of Revelation, I’m struck by the idea that this is not the end of God’s Story. I think we’ve been formed by our culture to read Revelation 22 as though it ends with an assumed “And they lived happily ever after.”

As the book climaxes, all of God’s plans come to fruition. Evil is vanquished, humanity and creation are restored, and God dwells with his people. The New Creation launched by Jesus in his resurrection completely arrives on earth. The dimensions of heaven and earth are finally merged. God’s people will have their resurrected bodies, animated and energized by God’s Spirit. And they will be fully formed into the likeness of Christ.

But that’s not the end of God’s Story. Rather, Revelation 22 seems to indicate that the next phase of God’s Story is ready to begin. There’s an interesting description in Revelation 22:

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life. It was sparkling like crystal, and flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either bank of the river was growing the tree of life. It produces twelve kinds of fruit, bearing this fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In symbolic language, St John describes the core of life on God’s renewed earth —the Tree of Life, fed by the Water of Life. And the leaves of this Tree are for the healing and therapy of the nations. It sounds like there’s still work to be done in God’s New Creation. This is different from the popular vision of living among the clouds, reunited with loved ones, in complete bliss.

So the question I have is, “What will the human vocation as God’s image-bearers and kingdom of priests look like in the New Creation?” What will life and work be like for a worldwide community of people with resurrected, Spirit-empowered physical bodies, who are formed into genuine competent love for the good of the world?

Scripture implies there will be some level of continuity between this creation and the New Creation. If so, what will the various elements of human life and community look like — politics, education, technology, economics, travel, art, communication, research, and more.

I realize this is absolute assumption on my part. And I’m not trying to speculate about some “sci-fi” utopia. Rather, I want to envision what human life and community might actually look like when it’s fully formed into competent Christlike love and completely empowered to express it. Because that is what Jesus modeled during his ministry. He competently loved the people and expressed it powerfully to heal them, teach them, feed them and lead them. What will that look like in God’s New Creation when all of God’s people are able to love like that?

St Paul implies this very thing in 1Corinthians 15. After providing a detailed instruction about the physical resurrection, he ends with the following encouragement:

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Because there is a future physical resurrection when God’s New Creation is fulfilled, keep doing the Lord’s work of competent Christlike love in this present creation. That work will not be worthless. In fact, that work forms the building blocks that God will incorporate into his New Creation. We live God’s future now in anticipation of that future.

God’s Story doesn’t end just because the book ends.

Perhaps we need our imaginations sparked with the ramifications of God’s greatness and goodness filling the earth and our lives, not only now, but also into his eternal future.

Perhaps every Bible should end with “To be continued…”

Lacking Nothing

Since reading Dallas Willard’s posthumous book, Life Without Lack, my imagination has been reinfused with a vision of the with-God life. So in an attempt to keep that vision always before me, I’ve made praying Psalm 23 a daily spiritual discipline.

As I pray this psalm, I’ve realized its words are filled with tremendous meaning in light of Christ’s life and teaching. So I thought I would share how I understand Psalm 23 as I use it as a prayer.

The Lord is my Shepherd. He is my King and my caretaker. Because he is the good shepherd, I live in a good world created and ruled by a good God who gives every good and perfect gift. Therefore, I lack nothing. Because God lacks nothing and because he’s abundantly generous, I lack nothing. I know that as I make his kingship and covenantal justice my first priority, everything else I need will be provided. So I can be fully loyal, faithful and abandoned to his kingship.

The Lord is training me to be satisfied and sustained in him alone. I no longer need to be fed or nourished by anything other than him. He is the Bread of Life and the Living Water. I no longer need to hunger or thirst for anything. Like a sheep that is already full and content, I can lay down in green pastures rather than roaming around eating. This is the secret of being content in any and every situation. My soul, which has been fragmented by the frantic and frenzied pursuit of meaning and satisfaction, is being healed. He is restoring my soul, binding and restoring the shattered fragments into his power and life. 

Living constantly in him and lacking nothing, God shows me how to take up my human vocation as his image-bearer and royal priest. He guides me into a cooperative friendship with him so that I can participate in his righteousness, that is, his covenantal justice in the world. I am now a partner in his reconciling, renewing, and redeeming work in this world. And I do this in his behalf and in his name. I represent him, learning from him how be like him in order to embody, demonstrate and announce his restorative good news.

And I can engage in this redemptive vocation without fearing any evil. When this vocation takes me to the brink of death, destruction, or loss, I will fear no evil. God is with me. He protects me. Nothing can separate me from him and his love. In this constant Reality, I am comforted by God, knowing he works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. 

The vocation of covenantal justice takes me into places where the world hurts and groans. Because God is generously abundant and gives me all things, he plants my life in the places of pain, even where people might seek my ruin. And yet, I do not need to fear my enemies. I am safe in the care of a good King and Shepherd with his life and power sustaining, nourishing and providing all I need in every moment. Therefore, instead of fearing my enemies, I can bless them. I can invite them to enjoy God’s abundant anointing and blessings in my life without fear of lack or loss. The abundant with-God life allows me to give to everyone — strangers, enemies, friends, family, and loved ones.

Therefore God‘s presence and character exudes from my life everywhere I go and everything I do. His goodness and love are the exhaust of this mighty engine of restoration and blessing. And each moment of my life today and into the infinite future is spent in God’s intimate presence where heaven and earth are merged and restored into his New Creation.