playing guitar

If you want to get better at something you have to practice. This is not news, and shouldn’t be a hard sell. But the parallels between my musical life and spiritual life hit me hard as I was spending time with the Lord this morning.

I learned to play guitar when I was in college. Surrounded by guitar playing friends and challenged to play praise songs, my skills grew. Then I played regularly for our church for a while and was even better. That was twenty years ago, when I reached a plateau, or even a gradual descent. Today, my fingers are terribly rusty. Every once in a while, my team asks me to play guitar in a prayer meeting. I’m always happy to, but my fingers don’t obey like they should. The basics are there, but the finer details are confused.

Contrast this with the staggering progress my sons have playing violin and flute. They both are exceptional musicians, taking classes and practicing as often as they can. It’s not uncommon for us to tell them they need to do their homework before they practice so time doesn’t get out of hand – they enjoy practicing that much. They love finding time for extended practice, and when we go on a biking trip or skiing trip it’s agonizing for them to be away from their instruments for so long. They play their instruments fluently, naturally, amazingly.

Here is what struck me, my spiritual life is more like me playing the guitar than Silas playing violin or Efrem playing flute. I’ve heard you can play a large percentage of songs using just three chords. The gospel message is profoundly simple yet profound in impact. It goes a long way, but it’s just the beginning of the journey. I feel like my spiritual progress has plateaued and too often I fall back on the same three chords. I am not a spiritual virtuoso. I am convinced that if I want to see God’s perspective, to pray in his will, and overflow with his love, I need to regularly have time with him. Like doing scales or playing through a song, I need to read his word and meditate on it, turn even more often to him in prayer, and long for extended periods with God. If I’m as faithful as my boys are practicing their instruments, the results will be fluent and natural instead of rusty and awkward.

Slow down a moment and ask yourself how you’re doing in practicing the presence of God? Maybe we can all take a step toward being more virtuoso in our walks with him.

Old stone house in Rennes, about to be torn down

I snapped this photo while I still could. A noble stone and brick house in Rennes peered sadly over the barrier being constructed. A sign indicated what would become of the lot it stood on for generations. In Rennes, beautiful homes like these are being sacrificed for the sake of apartments that look like cement cereal boxes. It makes me sad. The history and character of the city is being lost. That beautiful building could have been renovated into a multiple family dwelling. Just days later, all that was left was a hole in the ground. If it were up to me, that house would have been stewarded differently.

We have present day needs, sometimes terribly urgent. But our lives are like a breath rushing through the majestic forest of history. How we steward what is entrusted to us is a test. I just finished reading the book The Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel (no I haven’t seen the film yet). Their work to rescue and preserve artwork from Cathedrals to paintings to sculptures during the second world war was incredibly noble. History and culture are preserved and transmitted through such works! And I recently heard on the news that a Jihadi had been prosecuted for destroying mausoleums in Timbuktu, Mali. Can the 9 years he was sentenced in any way make up for the damage he was responsible for? Impossible. Of course, the human toll in these global conflicts is even more heartbreaking. The violence suffered in Syria and Africa are beyond our comprehension, and I would argue much more important.

Stewardship reaches broadly across our lives. I spent years remodeling our apartment, trying to be a good steward of our home. I dutifully wash our 15-year-old car in spite of the rust lining the wheel wells. We do our best to provide good meals to our growing boys. But how are we stewarding our finances? Our time? Our relationships? It’s easy to see how the stewardship of physical things can endure beyond our lifetime: the tree we plant or house we build or work of art we paint can live on. But I think how we steward things that are unseen has an even greater eternal impact. Every person – soul – we interact with is eternal. The mechanic working on my car is far more important than my car. What influence am I having on those around me? I think our conscience and emotions can be our eyes into this unseen world. When I feel embarrassed and ashamed because I lost my temper, I wasn’t being a good steward of relationships. When I have an opportunity to share the gospel and my whole being bubbles with joy, I was being a good steward. It’s good to stop and ask – why am I feeling this way? It might be related to stewardship.

“We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18.

“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:20,21

Silas with and after braces

Anticipation can be a blessing. It allows us to be mentally prepared. The more we anticipate, the higher the value of what we’re anticipating. Seeing a loved one after a long absence or getting that diploma is the consummation of what’s envisioned, hoped for. Silas wore his braces for just a year, far less than back in the day! He was greatly anticipating having them removed, to chew freely – especially gum – and have a smile unencumbered by metal. I’m happy for Silas and his new smile.

Just this week he passed the last exam to be accepted into the professional track at the Rennes Conservatory. It’s another long anticipated event. After passing the music theory tests, he had to perform two songs for the final test, a Lalo and a Bach. He practiced for months and months. We purchased a damper/mute for his violin, a heavy rubber apparatus to slide onto the bridge, so he can practice without disturbing our neighbors. He woke up every morning at 6a.m. and practiced. When the day arrived, he performed beautifully. In three more years he could receive a diploma as a professional musician… yet another thing to anticipate.

What is inspiring watching Silas is that he’s working toward specific goals, and we share in his dreams. It makes me think about what I’m anticipating. It makes me want to pull out of survival mode long enough to dream. I would love to improve my skills on the bass guitar or photography or videos. I would love to see what I can do to make my relationship with May ever better. I would love to have a clearer vision of what Dan in the image of Christ looks like and work diligently toward it. Maybe you feel like me, tired instead of passionate, overwhelmed instead of driven.

The author of Hebrews tells us “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There is a good amount of anticipation in this verse. So, it’s something I’m wrestling with – what am I anticipating? What things not yet seen am I hoping for? What about you?

Dan's old and new passports

 

Today I received my new passport. It's beautiful. Every page is a work of art, clean and untouched. My old passport from ten years ago had run out of pages. As I turn through them a flood of memories and experiences are held in a simple stamp or visa sticker. There are ornate visas for Germany, France, Russia, and Burkina Faso. The visa for Burkina is good until 2018, and I wonder if they'll transfer it to my new one. Entry and exit stamps litter page after page: many from France, and others from Hungary, Switzerland, England, Italy, Guernsey, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, and South Korea.

A passport represents identity. I am so much more than a name and number and issue date and a plain photo with wavy blue lines over it. A passport reflects what you do. I have done much more than slide my passport across a counter to immigration officers in various countries. The spiritual analogy is beautiful here. How much does anyone know about us, or we even know ourselves? Jesus is the discerner of hearts, knowing our deepest thoughts, desires and motivations. God sees what we do, even when we think we're alone. This is all scary and wonderful. He knows us, the real us, the depths of us, to the most intimate detail, and he loves us. When someone says their citizenship is in heaven, what could be more true? The US government knows my name, age, social security number, height, color of eyes and hair - I have to admit, I broke down and put grey this time. They know enough to issue me a passport. God knows us, sees our thoughts, weights our hearts, measures our faith, and gives us a new identity in Christ. To the church in Pergamum Jesus says that he will to the one who is victorious a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

Ever wonder what your name really is? 

11cm long brown slug in my back yard

 

My brother Jason lives in Pueblo Colorado. It's a far cry from Rennes, France. Rennes is cool and rainy, green everywhere you look. Pueblo is hot and dry, a desert. We two brothers live very different lives.

Looking out our sliding window I saw something exceptional. It was crawling, stretching, oozing its way across our yard. We have slugs, dark brown, you know, the color of something else you really watch your step for. And this one was big, huge, gigantic. Silas and I rushed out with a camera and measuring tape. Check out the crazy long 11cm slug, almost four and a half inches! That's the excitement that happens around our house.

Only a few days later I see an email from my brother. It tells a different story. Attached was a picture of something he found in his yard - a rattlesnake. Wearing only his Birkenstocks and some shorts when he spotted it he grabbed a sand shovel, ignoring his wife's pleas to at least put on some boots. The snake would be a serious danger to his cats or dogs and he didn't want it to slip away from view. I imagine Jason looking like a gladiator, slowly approaching his prey.  "You really only get one shot at it," he told me. I'm really frightened of snakes and wouldn't want to mess up that one shot! Catching it off guard, its frightening presence in his yard was terminated.

His story makes the slug in my yard seem a little less exciting.

Doesn't it?

Rattlesnake my brother killed in his yard

A good friend from college, who roomed with me for a time, is now sharing Jesus' light in East Asia. We had a rare chance to meet in Red Lodge a few years back, catching up while our kids poked around on the playground. At one point he laughed and shared a funny thought which crosses his mind when he thinks of me. Apparently there is a Chinese proverb that says - you can put silk on a goat, but it's still a goat! Whenever he imagined me speaking French, this saying came to mind.

French is such a beautiful language. Its flow, tone, musicality... And that's a stark contrast to his vision of me. I get his point, Montana practicality and down-to-earthness was infused in me. I'm no frills, plain old Dan. I think of the person he knew seventeen years ago, cruising in a blue half-ton Chevy with country music seeping from the windows, that guy never imagined he would one day live overseas. Yeah, a goat, sure. Put something silk on a goat, teach him to speak French, for example, and he's still a goat.

Well, I have to thank my friend for that beautiful picture that I can't get out of my head. I know my French is far from silky smooth. For those of you who would like to see it for yourself, I was filmed presenting questions2vie.com, the French everystudent.com website. You can see and hear for yourself what a goat wearing silk looks like!