Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’


We had a brief cleansing of snow from the lake this morning.  The snow slowly and steadily covered the mid-winter darkness that seems to overwhelm me at times.  This morning reminded me of the verse in Isaiah that states, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”  What a glorious promise on a cold mid-winter morning!


Vincent van Gogh,1889, Half Figure of an Angel (after Rembrandt).

The fourth week of advent is over and has seemingly retreated into our collective forgetfulness.  The Christmas music has ended, the wrapping paper is gone, most of the lights have been turned off. What are we left with?


The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Christmas is really the celebration of a spectacular event where Heaven invaded a quiet, remote village to a rather poor couple in a barn/cave housing animals.

NG 2396

The Nativity, William Bell Scott, 1872.

The coming of the Christ, born in a rural area and visited by shepherds smelling of animals, is so very unlike the glitter, lights, wrapping papers, food, shopping and presents that we in the United States have come to associate with the celebration of the season.


John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.

Can you remember what you received for Christmas? Do you remember what you were given last year?  Did it fulfill you?


Nativity, Marc Chagall, 1950.

So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his splendour (the splendour as of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth. And it was about him that John stood up and testified, exclaiming: “Here is the one I was speaking about when I said that although he would come after me he would always be in front of me; for he existed before I was born!” Indeed, every one of us has shared in his riches—there is a grace in our lives because of his grace. For while the Law was given by Moses, love and truth came through Jesus Christ. It is true that no one has ever seen God at any time. Yet the divine and only Son, who lives in the closest intimacy with the Father, has made him known. -Book of John, Phillips Translation


Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst.

It’s amazing how God has used the tiny, simple and common things to proclaim himself.  As I enter a new year, a year closer to the second coming of Christ, I pray that I can focus on what God has placed in my path:  the tiny, simple and common things used to proclaim him.  How many missed him the first time he came?  How many missed him this year?  How many times have I missed him?

The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Abraham Bloemaert, c. 1600

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Abraham Bloemaert, 1600.

I cannot image what it must have been like to sit outside in the dark with little to no fire on a cold night watching and defending a herd of sheep all night.


Annunciation to the Shepherds, Abraham Hondius, 1663.

What must it have been like to witness the sudden appearance of the angel Gabriel amidst that dark and lonely landscape?


Thomas Cole, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1833–34.

How would I react to the message given to me by an angel?  …Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Book of Luke, Chapter 2 (NLT).


The Annunciation of the Shepherds, 2000, Edward Knippers.

I can understand the reaction of the shepherds: fear; it seems to be a recurring reaction to an encounter with an angel’s sudden appearance.


Seeing Shepherds, 2011, Daniel Bonnell.

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”  I cannot image what it must have been like to witness this sight the shepherds experienced.  I believe the artist Daniel Bonnell has done a wonderful job visualizing the scene.

Shepherds Abiding in the Fields, by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

Shepherds Abiding in the Fields, by Carl Heinrich Bloch.

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” I find it amazing that the shepherds were able to gather themselves together and follow the direction of the angel.  I guess they became the first pilgrims and the first missionaries seeking to understand what they had been told by a otherworldly messenger.


Govert Teunisz Flinck, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds, 1639.

I hope that I would have the faith and persistence to follow what a heavenly messenger summoned me to do.  I know that I would have the fear part down with an encounter like this.  But in reflection, I realize that I daily experience Christ through His word, His followers and His creation.  He sends many encounters my way, but am I alert and watchful enough to be aware and take notice, or do I ignore or live in fear?  I pray that I can be more alert, watchful and willing to follow and obey what God places in front of me daily;  whether it’s Christmas, a dark Judean field or somewhere in the midst of Ohio, I hope to be found faithful.

by Pete Tegeler

The theologian Christoph Blumhardt said every Christian is called to be converted two times.  Blumhardt believed that we are first converted to Christianity, from the world to God, but must be converted again, back to the world.

When I first heard Blumhardt’s suggestion, I was reminded of the conversion experience where someone steps into relationship with God for the first time, and then comes clean from the world by throwing out “secular” music, cleaning up their language, and even sometimes finding a whole new group of friends, just so they can reorient themselves as a Christian. But if that’s turning to God, what does being converted back into the world entail?  What does that look like?  Some might say that it’s when you start to initiate friendships with people who aren’t Christians by relating a bit more.  Maybe you listen to secular music again.  Maybe even just a cuss or two every now-and-again or a drink or two, just to let everyone know you’re not one of those “uptight Christians.”

That just doesn’t ring true to me.  It strikes me as being too much of an escape from life as a Christian.  And I don’t think that’s what Blumhardt had in mind either. It has more to do with what our driving force is. When we first turn toward God in conversion it’s a beautiful example of love and of worship as we become fully oriented toward him.  Why shouldn’t we stay there?  Because that’s not where God is fully oriented.  Because God’s love is also oriented toward the world, so our love follows.  God’s love in us must be the driving force to the people around us.  It puts us back in the world.  The point isn’t if we listen to Mumford & Sons or not.  We must know that it’s God’s love in us that drives us, not to “secularism,” but to real people.

photography by Alec Casto

My friend illustrates this by referring to Pentecost; he says that we must be an upper room people that learn to go back downstairs.  I’m sure that the experience of the upper room wasn’t easy to leave, and yet the apostles did leave, to go back down the stairs, and engage with real people in a real world.  It was not safe for them.  It was not convenient.  I bet they wouldn’t have used the word “fun” to characterize their time downstairs.  I’m sure there were times when they felt they had no idea what they were doing.  Yet, they went to the places where Christianity is not the orientation to be Jesus there, and so must we.

So, perhaps we do have an example of what it looks like to be converted back to the world.  The Bible again shows us the way.  Being converted back into the world doesn’t entail a secularization of Christianity, it means we live a life of intention, as a missionary in whatever context we find ourselves in.  To our next-door-neighbors, our co-workers, our baristas, and our table-tennis instructors ( What? You don’t have one of those?).  By living as upstairs-Christians in a downstairs-world, we intentionally make ourselves available, relationally and spiritually, allowing God’s love to convert us once again.

Ways forward …

  1. Pray for the people in your life who have yet to experience that first conversion.  Then pray some more.
  2. Be a missionary in your own context. Intentionally spend time in places where there is no God-ward orientation.
  3. Do you have anxiety about going downstairs?  Self-consciousness?  Pray through those feelings.  Journal about why that may be.

photograph by Alec Casto

Learning from the Artists about People and Place

by W. David O. Taylor  9.10.12
Christianity Today

I am told that novelists approach their work from different starting points.  Some begin with a theme, like the fear of the unknown, as is often the case with science fiction writers. Others begin with families, as is nearly always the case with Pulitzer Prize–winning novelists. Some begin with a character or a historical time period, such as ancient Rome. Still others begin with a place: Casablanca; Port Royal, Kentucky; the Shire. I sometimes wonder if human beings behave like novelists, as it were, especially in their decision to move from one place to another. Some move to be nearer to family. Some move for a job. Some move for the excitement of a city’s culture. My friend Melody willingly left a community of dear friends in Austin in order to relocate herself to Seattle. She said she “fit better” there. The Northwest was her kind of place: cloudy, cool, mossy, saturated with grey and black wardrobes. I couldn’t understand her decision at first. Why leave all these people that know you and love you to move to a place where she would be an instant stranger?

Sometimes you leave your hometown in order to find your place elsewhere. Sometimes you leave your place of birth only to return years later and find that you belong there after all. Or more grandly, as Kathleen Norris puts it, “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” Here is where you belong. Here is where you will stay put. It is your place and it is our place together. Norris has her place: the Dakotas. Eugene Peterson has his too: Lakeside, Montana. It’s where his people come from, it’s where he intends to remain till he dies. Melody now has her place. Wendell Berry has his place, and Bilbo Baggins has his own too.

My uncle just yesterday sold the house that his parents bought in 1947. It’s been Uncle John’s place for 65 years. The house is perched a handful of yards west of Southern Methodist University’s campus in Dallas, Texas, 3028 McFarlin Road to be exact. It is the place my sisters and I have loved above all places in America. As children, after driving five days in our yellow Suburban through the pockmarked highways of Mexico, northward on our way from Guatemala, where my parents served as missionaries, to the redbrick front porch of my grandparents, we couldn’t wait to rummage through the cereal box cabinet and the Dallas Morning News TV guide so we could find when the cartoons came on. My grandparents’ home was our one stable place during our years as missionary kids.

photograph by Alec Casto

My confession? I feel misplaced in my current city.  While I know plenty of people who thoroughly love Durham, North Carolina, I fluctuate between total ambivalence and intense aversion to the city. It is a city that irritates me almost daily. After living here for three years, I have made my peace with the fact that Durham will be the first city in my life that I will be happy to leave.  Despite the fact that it hosts the annual American Dance Festival, that Burt’s Bees has set up its headquarters here, that Branford Marsalis chooses to call it home, and that Richard Florida placed it at the top of his list of creative class metros, I feel no love for Durham.

I genuinely wish it were otherwise. My wife and I struggle with mixed feelings. Are we being selfish? Are we not trying hard enough? Are we hopelessly, blindly infatuated with Texas, our home state? We do keep trying to connect with the city. It is the “City of Medicine” and the “Cameron Crazies,” after all! But we still sense that at some level we are misplaced here.

I know we are not alone in feeling misplaced. Joseph son of Jacob lived nearly his entire life misplaced from his father’s house. The prophet Daniel, like the people of Israel and all refugees ever since, was forcibly misplaced from his homeland. Migrant workers make a habit of living misplaced, though rarely to their liking. A divorced couple willingly flees to opposite coasts in order to escape the pain of hurtful relations. Some of us live in towns that feel strange to us, and it’s an easy temptation to resent this place where we do not belong. It’s easy to resent God for putting us here.

photograph by Alec Casto

But artists come along and perform an invaluable service. For those of us who feel a tenuous or adverse relationship to our places of residence, artists help us to see that, in fact, God is happily at work here, quietly making grace happen in unexpected ways, gently rebuking our stubborn refusal to see that salvation and sanctification are occurring in this place—this street, this humidity, this church, this grocery store, these people. As Peterson remarks in his book Subversive Spirituality, describing the effect of novelists on his work as a pastor:  Every time . . . a street is walked, noticing the details, observing the texture and color, insisting on the immediate particularity, the gospel is served, for space is cleared and location provided for yet another spin-off of the Incarnation, most of which came to its definitive form in small towns and on country roads.

This is what the installation artist Craig Goodworth, recently featured in the This Is Our City film “You Are Where You Live,” does in a warehouse in the city of Phoenix, Arizona. He takes misplaced things and places them in a sphere of meaning: Arizona corn grain from Casa Grande; leached water from the warehouse itself; Desert Durum wheat grains and the cornmeal from Arizona Grain; a donkey from Maricopa County; asphalt from nearby; steel rails from 20 yards outside the building. Put together, the materials tell a story about Phoenix.  It’s a place-based installation, Goodworth says, and it’s a way of telling Phoenicians: “Here is the stuff of your place, and it’s good stuff.” Inviting his audience to touch the materials, to be near them, to smell them and know them, is a way to help them love their city. It’s also a way, as Peterson reminds us, to protect us from gospel-killers—”grand abstractions and standoffish condescensions” that keep us in a negative stance towards our given place.

photograph by Alec Casto


In watching this short film, I find my discontented heart softened by lyrical images of blues and yellows and of people moving in and out of the lovely stuff that makes up a place as particular and as broken as my own. Artists like Goodworth offer us a great gift. Their gift is to help us see our place of residence as lovingly as God does. At the very least, the City team’s film stirs in me a renewed desire to not give up on Durham, North Carolina.

W. David O. Taylor, former arts pastor of Hope Church in Austin, Texas, is pursuing doctoral studies in theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School. The editor of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker), he and his wife. Phaedra, currently live in Durham.


photograph by Alec Casto