Friday, November 27, 2015

Just beautiful

A continuing series inspired by sights in Kauai, which we visited early this fall on a trip gifted us.
“It’s just beautiful,” I told my husband as we paused by an orchid plant blooming outside the headquarters for the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. On that hot, humid Kauai morning, it beckoned more than a glance with its pure, delicate color and structure.  Later I learned that there are about 20,000 varieties of orchids, of which I’d seen barely a dozen in my life.

Beautiful.  I wonder if, at times, we overuse that word.  A movie star or pageant contestant may be called “beautiful.”  The same for a radiant bride. To some, a spiffed-up classic car can take that adjective. Or a restored mansion, an intricate quilt, Persian rug, or even a smile after the braces come off.  (That last comment comes from a mom who had two kids in orthodontia!)

But a hymn learned in childhood takes me to my favorite use of “beautiful,” the word prominent in the fourth verse:
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son!
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy and crown!

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus shines purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight, And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, Than all the angels heaven can boast.

Beautiful Savior! Lord of all nations! Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration Now and forevermore be Thine!

 The hymn’s origins are sketchy.  Some date it to the 12th century, saying German Crusaders and their children sang it during the long, weary trek to the Holy Land. Another connects it to a band of persecuted believers, followers of reformer John Hus, who settled in what now Poland during the Reformation era.  It was finally written down and published in the mid 1850s. Nobody knows for sure who later translated it into English.

Its anonymity means more focus on God, not the human messenger, for its memorably-composed message of basking in God’s gifts of beauty, and letting praise replace complaint. 

Beautiful Savior! Sometimes when I walk alone, I go with that “woeful heart” mentioned in the hymn’s second verse.  The things of this life—the troubled people and situations I care about-- weigh me down.  Then God brings my attention to something that’s a part of His creative magnificence, and the truth that, “Jesus is fairer, Jesus shines purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”

Friday, November 20, 2015

Let the sea resound!

A series inspired by sights in Kauai.
Beautiful and restless, mysterious and marvelous, the ocean never fails to fascinate. One of many in Kauai, this is “Anini Beach” on Kauai’s east coast. Each beach has its personality—some better for surfboards, body-surfing, swimming, or snorkeling. A few are tame enough for children. At this point in my life, I’m as likely to learn to surfboard as I am to drop out of a plane with a parachute. But I can sit on a beach and gaze a long time at waves breaking, thinking of the God who created this world with its massive bodies of water.

At times I recall hymns that mention oceans, like “Wide, Wide as the Ocean,” which I learned in Sunday school. Its author was C. Austin Miles (1868-1946), who gave up a career as a pharmacist to write hymns and help publish them. Some twenty may be still recognized by hymn-lovers, including “Dwelling in Beulah Land, “I Have a Friend,” “A New Name in Glory,” “Win Them One by One,” and the well-known “In the Garden” (it begins, “I come to the Garden Alone”).  “Wide, wide as the Ocean” begins:
Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the Heaven above;
Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Savior’s love.
I, though so unworthy, still am a child of His care;
For His Word teaches me that His love reaches me everywhere.

Another well-known song referencing the ocean is “The Love of God,” by Frederick Lehman. He was a pastor in the Midwest, but financial problems led him to southern California where he worked in a citrus packing plant. One day in 1917, a song formed in his mind as he worked. During breaks, he sat on a wood crate and wrote down words. That evening at an old piano, he came up with a tune to the two verses he’d written. But hymns of his era always had three verses. Before long, he thought of lines he’d heard in a recent sermon. As he’d heard the story, they were found on the wall of an insane asylum by an unknown inmate. But it’s now known that a Jewish poet in Germany penned them in the 11th century. Thus, the “borrowed” words that conclude Lehman’s hymn:
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade.
To write the love of God above, would drain the oceans dry,
Not could the scroll contain the whole tho stretched from sky to sky.
And we can’t improve on psalms:
Let the sea resound, and everything in it. (Psalm 96:11, 98:7)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Garlands of grace

A series inspired by sights of Kauai.
Abundant in Hawaii, the fragrant plumeria blossom is popular for picking and stringing into floral garlands called leis. Here on the mainland, I’ve noticed some graduates wearing leis at commencement exercises. On celebration days in Hawaii, statues of historical figures are often draped several deep with leis. I remember being given a lei many years ago. As it was lowered onto my shoulders, I felt very honored.

Best known in Hawaiian and Samoan culture, leis share with other cultures, even from ancient times, the idea of a garland signifying honor and celebration.  Two verses in Proverbs are worth considering:
Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9, NIV)

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom, though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you.  She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor. (Proverbs 4:7-9, NIV)

These verses presume that a parent’s advice and life example are worthy of emulating, and walking in their footsteps will bring honor and moral beauty to a young person. When parents are unable to fulfill their spiritual training role (because of distance, their own failures, or death), God can use other parent-figures to do that. I was reminded of that truth in recent weeks when two older friends died.  Lorna, a pastor’s wife, was 76, her abilities eroded her last few years by dementia. But beginning with my young adult years, she lived out before me the character worthy of God’s garland. At her funeral, many mentioned her steadfast, accepting love, and her wisdom.

Lorraine, at prayer in 2013 (then in her mid-nineties)
The other friend, Lorraine, died at 97, full of years and loved by her huge family and many friends. I met her when she came from Michigan to Washington state to visit her daughter, who lives in my town and is a close friend.  I am blessed by how her godly character lives on through that daughter. A few years ago while visiting her aging mother in Michigan, my friend quietly took a photo of her mother at prayer. Eyes closed, hand raised, her mother was absorbed in her extended daily prayer time on behalf of family and friends around the world. My friend keeps that photo by her kitchen sink.  Oh, that all of us had such a visual reminder of faithfulness! 

One more thing about plumeria: their perfume, like the “fragrance of life” that should emanate from us as Christ-lovers:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Properly propped

(A continuing series based on photos taken in Kaua’i, the Hawaiian islands.)
If you’ve never seen a hala tree before, you might think somebody didn’t plant it deep enough to cover up the roots. But it is what it is, distinguished by a main trunk and numerous “brace trunks” or “prop roots” that help anchor it to the ground, offering the tree greater stability in storms. Top-heavy palm trees aren’t so fortunate when winds bombast the island, but the stout anchor systems of the hala trees works in their favor.

What a wonderful illustration they provide of Paul’s concern for the Christians of Colossae:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7, boldface emphasis added)

“Rooted” refers to our beginnings as Christians at conversion. Jesus is like the soil from which we draw our spiritual nourishment.  The deeper the root—or, in the case of the hala tree, the more connections with Him-- the more we will grow.

In His parable of the sower (Matthew 13), Jesus told of a plant that grew quickly but then withered when the sun came out because the roots were shallow. It surely couldn’t have been a mature hala tree!

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul echoed his concern for deep spiritual roots:
I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. (Ephesians 3:17b-18, emphasis added)

Taken together, these verses tell the way to a solid, growing faith—like “prop roots” of the hala tree:

1. Authentically rooted in Jesus (that’s the main root).

 2. Built up with faith-strengthening teaching.

3. Practicing the grace of thankfulness.

4. Receiving and giving out Christ’s love.

5. Going even deeper in discovering the love of Jesus.

The result is what Paul described at the end of that chapter, words so awesome and hopeful that they need to have a “Hallelujah Chorus” sung behind as they are read:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen! (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fan club

(A continuing series based on photos taken in Kaua'i.)
“Being a fan”—it takes many forms in my state, especially during football season where it seems that everywhere you turn, there’s something about Seattle’s franchise team, the Seahawks. Oh, the merchandising and extremes of fans at games or game-watching venues, wearing gaudy blue-and-green gear, body paint, and dyed hair. And don’t forget to hoist that 12th man flag—the 12th being the extra combined “player” in the stands cheering on the eleven on the field bashing into each other.
I saw different kinds of “fans” in Kaua'i—ones with roots and extravagant split leafs that took me back to the uses of fans in ancient hot cultures. Think “throne room” and you’ll probably envision a servant on either side of the monarch, gently waving palm branches to keep the air circulating. No electricity needed—just cut a likely candidate from the royal gardens and put it in a slave’s hand.

People of ancient times also associated palm branches with goodness and victory. Palm branches have been found on coins and important buildings. King Solomon had palm branches carved into the temple’s walls and doors (1 Kings 6:29). But the Bible’s most significant mention of palm branches came at the end of Jesus’ earthly life.  John 12:12-19 describes Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem after three years of teaching and miracles, including the most recent and sensational miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead (chapter 11).

People were understandably ecstatic. Anyone who could heal the desperately sick, feed thousands with minimal resources, and taught against nit-picking religious rules—well, He had their vote even though, as subjects of foreign rulers, elections weren’t even possible  But their hopes for a change brought out a parade with all the festive and royal accouterments, like palm branches.

Thus we have “Palm Sunday,” knowing full well that the same adoring mob would, within days, demand His death.  In many churches, the hymn that day is “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” which we sing without knowing the story of suffering behind this ancient song.

Its author, Theodulph, was a native of either Italy or Spain who was brought to France by Charlemagne about 781.  A few years later he became Bishop of Orleans, and became known for trying to reform the clergy. Then came an epic royal family mix-up and false accusations against Theodulph, who was banned on Easter Sunday, 818 A.D., to solitary confinement in a monastery southwest of Paris.

Alone with his thoughts and his faith, he meditated on the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and wrote this hymn of 78 verses (39 couplets). Three four-line couplets are in most hymnals today, including this verse:
The company of angels are praising Thee on high,
And mortal men and all things created make reply.
The people of the Hebrews with palms before Thee went,
Our praise and prayer and anthems before Thee we present.
But there’s more to look forward to.  Revelation’s sneak peek at heaven includes believers completing the Palm Sunday adoration:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  (Revelation 7:9)

Friday, October 23, 2015


Part of a series based on photos taken in Kaua'i

We have a family friend named “Sylvester,” so when we spotted a St. Sylvester’s Church on the northeast shore of Kaua’i, I made sure I took a picture to show him.  The name “Sylvester” means “from the wood,” and it identified four popes of early Catholic church history. They held the posts long ago: in 314-335, 999-1003, two months in 1045, and 1105-111. One was connected with a healing that church leaders deemed miraculous, so later gained “St.” in front of his name.
The Bible gives a different criteria for the word “saint.” In writing up “creeds” (statements of Christian belief), early church leaders spoke of the “communion of saints,” referring to any set apart for their belief in Christ. Old Testament writers used three similar Hebrew words for “saints,” all suggesting “set-apart-ness.” They included:
Chasid (19x): kind, pious, as in Psalm 31:23: “O Love the LORD, all ye his saints.”
Qadosh (11x), qaddish (6x), and qodesh (1x): set apart, separate, holy, as in “Fear the LORD, ye his saints” (Psalm 34:9).

The New Testament’s Greek word for “saint,” hagios, is used sixty-two times and frequently means “set apart, separate, holy.”  The apostle Paul addressed his letters to “the saints” of such-and-such location.

One “saints” passage I find especially meaningful comes from Paul’s prayer for the Colossians. It concludes: …giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:12).  We’re not outsiders having to work our ways into God’s favor or into some “respect” list. Out of His generous love, He has conferred the title and responsibility of “saint,” set-apart one.

We bear the name of a God who wants us to bear His image to the world, imperfect as we are. There’s a story sometimes told about Alexander the Great—whether it’s true or not, scholars aren’t sure—that underscores behaving to honor the one you represent. As one version goes, a young, errant soldier (in various versions he’s AWOL, sleeping on duty, or has stolen a horse) was brought to Alexander for discipline. Something softened the great commander’s heart until he asked the lad his name. “Alexander, sir,” the young man said. The great conqueror’s demeanor hardened and he shouted, “Change your name or charge your conduct!” 

Interestingly, “saint” is an anagram of “stain.” Like the soldier, we may stain our testimony with failures. But First John 1:9 gives hope in failure: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sending the light

Second of a series based on photos taken in Kaua’i, the Hawaiian islands.
A postcard perfect sight, a classic lighthouse grips a cliff above the Pacific Ocean near the north shore town of Kilauea. It’s a few miles east of the island’s famed, steep and dangerous NaPali coastline, where huge cliffs plunge right to the sea. Only the brave and fit venture to hike the trail that links the ends-of-the-road on the north and west sides of Kuai’i. Tourists who can afford it take the helicopter tours along the picturesque, wild coast.

The lighthouse reminded me of Jesus’ proclamation in John 8:12:
I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
It also brought to mind three well-known hymns and Gospel-songs about our spiritual Lighthouse.

 “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” by prolific Gospel musician Philip Bliss, was inspired by a sermon he heard evangelist D.L.Moody preach in 1871. Moody told a story of a ship approaching the harbor on a dark, stormy night.  The captain saw a light from a lighthouse. But no lower lights, which would mark the way into a harbor, were lit.  The pilot missed the channel into the harbor, and the boat wrecked on the rocks with much loss of life.  Moody appealed to his audience, “Brothers, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse! Let us keep the lower lights burning!” In other words, keep showing the way to the unsaved.  A stanza of Bliss’s hymn concludes:
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor struggling, sinking sailor you may rescue, you may save!

 “Send the Light” came from the pen of Charles Gabriel, whose output included seven thousand hymns. While leading music at a San Francisco church, he was asked to compose a missionary hymn for Easter Sunday. A visiting missionary representative was in the congregation for its debut performance in 1890, and liked it so much he carried it back to the East. Many still know the hymn whose chorus goes:
Send the light, the blessed Gospel light,
Let it shine from shore to shore....forever more.

 “The Lighthouse,” a Southern Gospel-style song, was composed by Ronnie Hinson in 1970 in a most unlikely place: the men’s restroom of a church where he and his siblings were practicing for a concert.  They needed a new song for their concert, and thought Ronnie was kidding when he said he was going to the restroom for some inspiration.  He came back with the words he’d written on a length of toilet paper. The siblings added accompaniment, and the song became a hit. Here’s a strange twist: he had never seen a lighthouse before until later, when he biked thirty miles to Santa Cruz, Calif., and saw the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. For him, it reinforced the hand of God in this memorable song about salvation.
Burn the lower lights...send the light...Jesus as the lighthouse: what soul-touching music has risen from the tasks of a beacon tower on a rugged shore