When asked to describe what I appreciate about my job as a high school math teacher, I rarely fail to mention that I hate change. I’m only partially joking, and I really don’t envy those whose careers twist and turn toward goals that are constantly jumping from one place to another. But this year in particular, I’m being forced to consider that while there is a true consistency in my objectives in teaching, change is still an overwhelming presence. The very thing that fends off any trace of monotony carries with it the greatest challenge, even sadness. The students come, and the students go.
In the fall, I don’t balk at the dozens of new faces, each with an associated name that I do not know. The struggle to form new relationships from square one is part of the predictability of teaching, and it is tinged with opportunity and hope. No, this time of year I’m faced with saying goodbye. It’s true that I do that every year as well. It shouldn’t catch me off guard. I even told my wife the other night that I should be well trained in letting go by the time my four-year-old daughter has completed her secondary education. Of course, the idea came to mind because I’m currently feeling a bit deficient in my ability to let go. Can you blame me? In the last couple days, young people who have walked into my room two hundred times in the last two years, waved and walked out the door for the last time.
Because it’s true that I’ve never approached the end of a school year with such mixed emotions (typically it’s practically impossible to compete with my joy in reaching a time of vacation, family, and personal pursuits), I wanted to share some of the things that allowed the 2013 THMS graduates to make such a strong impression on me. This list couldn’t possibly exhaust the attributes of this collection of young people, and surely, my attachment has grown primarily through individual connections with students in the time I’ve known them. Still, I perceive some value in this exercise.
The first, maybe the most impressive quality of this group of “high school kids” is their friendship. In my mind, I can run through at least a dozen pairs or sets of friends that I would call highly valuable, and that is just amongst the students that I’ve had in classes. These are the kind of friendships that are worth holding onto while life takes so many of us in different directions, and I don’t think Facebook will be good enough. The phone calls and even cross country visits that might be necessary to sustain these friendships will be time and energy well spent. I get to see friends practicing patience, sacrifice, finding joy in the joy of others, forgiveness, and so much more. In spite of the fact that they don’t have college or work friends to compare them with, these students seem to recognize that high school friends offer an opportunity to know and be known at a tangibly deeper level.
Then it’s as if friendship spills over into friendliness. It’s difficult for me to imagine another class where it was easier to join midway through their trek toward graduation. I might overhear someone say, “It seems so weird to think that you weren’t here two years ago. I can hardly believe it.” I only wish it were more perfectly true, but there really are very few perceived boundaries over which these kids aren’t willing to reach to enjoy another persons company.
The third thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the seniors I had in my classes this year is their contagious optimism. Fortunately for them, I think it is anything but a hopeless optimism. Many of them are already learning how hard work mixes with their natural gifts and abilities to produce incredible results. The others, seem to be poised on the edge of that discovery, but maybe that’s my hopeless optimism showing through. Each individual doesn’t only recognize the potential in herself or himself; they recognize and promote the potential in each other by devotion of time and effort in each other’s learning. They are already learning to be teachers at heart, even if that won’t be their professional path.
I don’t have the time I need to continue this list. There’s plenty I could say about the courage of certain individuals in the face of physical pain and the courage of other individuals in the face of emotional pain. When it comes down to what has meant the most to me personally, I would have to say that I’ve felt more appreciated by this group than any previous graduating class. There is very little that is more rewarding for a high school teacher than to feel that your students have understood your intentions and valued your efforts. Lip service can’t accomplish that; it has to be demonstrated through actions.
No, these young adults are not perfect. Just read what they’re posting on Twitter. Yes, my view of the class of 2013 is tinted by calculus colored glasses, which means that I believe I have been exposed primarily to the most easily appreciated segment of the population. But I don’t think that makes what I’ve written any less true. If you are a young person making the transition to adulthood, I hope that this essay assures you that people are paying attention to who you are and that we notice when you choose to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. If you find that your teenage years are a distant memory, I hope that reading this will encourage you to invest yourself in the children who are a part of your life. They will notice your actions as well.
If you are one of the members of the TMHS class of 2013 that I have been honored to know, may God bless you. That has been my prayer for several months, and I won’t stop hoping for it in the years to come. I hope that you will always remember that you have so much to gain by offering your very best to the world and by meeting the needs of your friends and all the others around you. Congratulations on your graduation!
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:2-5 (NIV)
If I think of the place in the photo as “holy ground”, it is not because I want to use the term in a vague or flippant manner. In the passage from Exodus, what made the location holy? I believe God called the area near the burning bush holy because He had chosen for Moses to encounter Him there. I’m grateful for the knowledge that God, The Source of All Joy, has promised never to leave me, but I am so easily distracted. My awareness of his proximity is often severely lacking.
Standing at the edge of the Herbert River with the magenta flames of dwarf fireweed blossoms scattered at my feet, I’m beckoned to take a closer look at the world around me. In view of the terminus of a mighty river of ice, I get the sensation that I am not alone. From the roar of the nearby waterfalls, God is calling my name. How awesome that He would meet with me! He has chosen places such as these to draw us out of ourselves to where we can see, hear, and feel His wondrous power, beauty, and concern for people like us.
What if we took every step on holy ground?
The other day I read that “joy” and “trust” are inseparable. I don’t know if I could wholeheartedly endorse that notion. It seems possible to me to experience joy in a moment, but I might be persuaded that “lasting joy” and “trust” are indeed inseparable. We’re not always basking in the warm light, and if joy is to be more than here one minute and gone the next, a certain level of trust must be involved.
Honestly, I was considering something along those lines when I made this photograph a few weeks ago. I say “honestly” because if you knew the rarity with which I think and photograph at the same time, you would have a hard time believing I was engaged in such a deep reflection. Usually I’m very wholly engaged in “seeing” while I make images, seeing and translating what I see into a photograph. On this particular morning, though, I was waiting. The composition had already been determined through a compromise between the not entirely predictable lake ice and myself, and I was waiting for the light…to not quite come. That is, I wanted to record the very last moments before direct light hit my subject, showing the peak of reflected light.
Reflected light is a favorite of photographers, but that is most often because of the potential for light to pick up color from (really lose some wavelengths of light to) the object off of which it is reflecting. For this scene, the landscape all around me and the hill behind me were covered in snow. The slight warmth in the image is owing to the fact that some light from the blue end of the spectrum had been filtered out by the atmosphere. In the end, I felt like there was just enough warmth to get a nice separation from the dark blues in the deep cracks of the glacial ice.
While I was waiting, I was thinking about waiting, and I was savoring the building light. I was recognizing the fact that never once has the Earth failed to spin me out of the night and back toward the sun. There are things that can be counted on even when you can’t see them through the clouds. There is a spiritual side to that as well. Remember that I brought up a “lasting joy”, but how about a joy that is continuous and boundless. That kind of joy requires trust that is only warranted by God. In Philippians 4:4 (NLT), Paul writes, “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again – rejoice!” How often and for how long is this joy supposed to take place in our lives? Always. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find myself living with that kind of joy. The reason is not that God has ever been anything less that perfectly trustworthy and abundantly satisfying. Instead, I tend to place my trust elsewhere, primarily in my own ability.
How do we know that the kind of joy Paul was talking about is real? He demonstrated its existence in his life on numerous occasions. In one of my favorite stories of Paul’s life, we find him in prison, in the inner cell, with his feet fastened in stocks…and he and Silas are singing in the middle of the night! I don’t imagine Paul loved pain and discomfort any more than the rest of us, except that I do think he cherished the resulting opportunities for finding joy in anticipation. From where I’m sitting, every day brings opportunities for find joy in the light and joy in anticipation. All I need is to have my trust held firmly by the right Light Source.
The northern lights are undeniably one of our planet’s most glorious and awe inspiring natural phenomena. Acts of terror that result in the murder of innocent children are as vile and horrific as the northern lights are beautiful. Tonight, following the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I’m pondering both occurrences and a possible comparison. One thing that I can assure you I’m not doing is taking either event lightly, which ties to the primary point I would like to make.
Last night, I spent over an hour watching a video of a debate from 2011 between Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor John Lennox. During the debate, Dawkins stated multiple times that, to him, the idea of a God who was responsible for the origin of the laws of science and the entire universe also being a God who cared about the moral choices made by human beings was completely nonsensical. I believe that the word he used to describe morality was “trite”. Now, I’m fairly certain that “triteness” is relative in his eyes, as it would be for you or me. In other words, I don’t believe Professor Dawkins was insinuating that the way we treat other people is as insignificant as the color of the car we drive. After all, he was as polite as could be hoped while engaged in debate with someone attempting to undermine and discredit his worldview. No, I think what Professor Dawkins was really trying to say is that morality and speculation about how we “ought” to treat others is of far less significance than the pursuit of truth, or the pursuit of knowledge of the truth.
I think that assertion is much easier to make during a debate at Oxford University than in the aftermath of a tragic event. Some people can’t help it, and some people can’t manage it, but tonight I chose to allow myself to feel a little bit of the hurt associated with the marathon bombing, especially the hurt of the parents whose 8 year old son was killed. The human condition doesn’t feel “trite” at the moment. The choices of the bomber(s) were evil, and it matters. The behavior of those responding in the immediate aftermath of the attack was honorable and compassionate, and it matters. I think it matters even more in the light of stars in the night sky.
The stars above the northern lights in the above photograph provide the human mind with a visual representation of the already enormous and constantly expanding universe. Usually the scale of the universe makes us feel utterly miniscule as an individual, which is reasonable and even important, but we can take another lesson as well. The fact the that world doesn’t stop 50,000 ft overhead could provide a reason to give more, and not less, consideration to each choice we make. If we are as “alone” in the expanse of countless galaxies as we appear to be, and if our choices really are as they appear to be (not random chemical responses to random stimuli), then we might be making the only choices in the universe. I see that as a thought worth pondering.
In the end, I hope that the exquisite spectacle of the aurora, and all the natural world, and tragedy, and all of morality can be seen as signs pointing us toward truth that is beyond the scope even of the universe.
Suppose I awoke one morning to find that my old, heavily used, somewhat abused bicycle (the one I have ridden to work and back every day for the last five years) was gone, and in its place, there is a brand new bicycle. Of course I am thrilled, and I might immediately swing my leg over the seat and go for a test ride. By the time I get back to the garage, I have noticed that every single component I had been pining over for months has been incorporated into this bike, and it feels absolutely perfect between me and the road. The way this new bike appears to have been specially chosen by someone who knows me intimately, makes me laugh at how silly it was that my old bike was too small from the day I bought it. About that time, my wife walks out the door wearing a smile that betrays her immense satisfaction in seeing me appreciating her gift so thoroughly.
The story sounds great so far, but imagine that as my wife walks up to me I begin (still gazing intently at the bike) to extol the perceived virtues of each aspect of the bike. I’m clearly very pleased with the new bicycle, and so my wife is pleased. She is the only one standing with me, but for some reason, it still sort of seems as if I’m talking to myself while I praise the bike. She waits patiently, and I move on to fantasizing out loud about how enjoyable my Monday morning commute is going to be.
My ramblings are interrupted by a car pulling into the driveway. A good friend of mine exits the car and approaches my wife and me. Now suppose I gesture emphatically toward the bike as if to say, “Can you believe this?” My friend laughs, and predictably, the corners of my wife’s mouth turn back up into a grin. I hop back onto the bike and pedal it around in front of my friend while I list to him all the ways in which is surpasses my old bike. When I come to a stop, he asks if the bike was a present from my wife. This will be pretty hard to believe for some, but I reply that I don’t care how the bike got into my garage. “The important thing,” I tell him, “Is that’s it’s here now and I really love it.”
Not being easily deterred, my friend repeats his assertion that my wife is surely responsible for the presence of the new bicycle since there is no other way it could have arrived inside my garage without my knowledge. Instead of giving in and acknowledging this reality, I change my tactics slightly. I relate that I expect I’ll see my next bank statement reflects the purchase of bicycle. I remain thoroughly convinced that my thankfulness for the bike is simply a mindset by which I retain the most satisfaction in life. My friend, who knows the secret truth that my wife has actually sold a prized possession to raise the funds necessary to purchase the bike, begins to feel incredibly comfortable, and my wife is fighting back tears.
If you’re at all like me, the point where you developed a strong distaste for the situation unfolding in the story has probably already come and gone. The scenario borders on completely unimaginable, but it represents a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our culture. Through everything from blogs to documentaries to casual conversation, we’re encouraged to practice gratitude. We’re not just supposed to be grateful for birthday presents or being invited out to dinner. Instead, teachers and friends and online personalities would have you be thankful for every breath, every moment of life.
Of course it’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to be simultaneously grateful and jealous. It’s unusual even to find gratitude mixed with sorrow (although I believe those two “emotions” are far from mutually exclusive). No wonder we’re prodded toward gratitude as a mindset; it improves our quality of life and makes us much more tolerable companions. I’m ready to agree that thankfulness is good in an of itself, but my complaint lies in what is missed when an expression of gratitude loses all value the moment it falls from our lips. What if we’re not gratitude’s highest end?
I hope that most of you are able to follow me as I make my assertion about the greater value of gratitude through a mathematical analogy. I title this post “Gratitude Vector” because I wanted to draw a distinction between things that have a direction and things that do not. When it comes to the movement of an object (especially through two or three-dimensional space), a function for speed with respect to time is quite valuable. On the other hand, all I gain through knowing how fast an object is moving will leave me grasping at straws if I know nothing of where the object is going. Consider the possibility that gratitude, like speed, might be losing considerable meaning when it is severed from direction. Unlike speed, a velocity vector seamlessly combines information about the rate of change in position with the direction of change in position. In fact, it turns out that given a velocity vector as a function of time, it is possible to determine even positions, acceleration, and more.
It’s fair to ask what further benefit is involved with directing gratitude toward the true source of whatever pleasure is being experience, and to answer that question, I’ll return to the story with which I opened this post. There’s no question that I was pleased at having the new bike, but there are two options that could be identified as the source. If I claim the bike as the source of the pleasure, then there can be no practical purpose in directing my gratitude. It makes no difference to the bike. Meanwhile, if I will accept my wife as the “true source” of the pleasure, something very interesting happens. Because my wife is a rational being, acting deliberately, I am finally able to notice that the bike is not the greatest or most valuable gift I have received. The greater gift is love! And it’s not merely the idea of love. My wife has demonstrated, through the gift of the new bicycle, that she has chosen to bind her joy together with mine, that she finds more reward in sacrifice for the sake of my happiness than in reaching her own desires at my expense. When I won’t direct my gratitude toward its true source, I miss the whole point!
To finally bring this home, let’s walk through a pretty straightforward progression (to encourage thought and not as some form of “proof”). Gratitude is a response to receiving something we have not earned. When we get something we haven’t earned it’s called a gift. A gift has a giver. When we direct our gratitude to the giver, it opens our eyes to the greater gift of love. In other words, a gratitude vector (directed thankfulness) unlocks the whole wonderful story. Don’t forget, though, that directing thankfulness to the incorrect source, especially an irrational source, provides no such advantage. The point is that if life is a gift, if each moment is a gift, if the capacity to appreciate beauty is a gift; it’s reasonable to assume that those gifts have an incredibly potent source. Our common understanding of what it means to be thankful leads us to consider God. If we will consider Him, in the light of the gifts for which we are already willing to express thanksgiving, we just might find love beyond our ability to comprehend. A good attitude is nice, but a self-willed positive outlook is worthless compared to the reality altering truth that God loves us! I just hope that the up-side gives you a reason to reconsider something you may have glossed over in the past or a reason to reaffirm something you may have been taking for granted.
At this point, it still sounds almost as if our individual happiness (through our awareness of love) is the primary purpose of gratitude, but let’s turn one more corner. In the opening story, who stands to have the greatest satisfaction as a result of my grateful receipt of the new bike? You might think that it would be me, but one of the most famous and popular sayings of Jesus (even among people who don’t accept his claim to be the Son of God) is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I take this to mean that when we bring closure to the process of God giving and us receiving life’s great gifts by expressing to Him our heartfelt gratitude, we actually increase the joy of our Creator. Directed gratitude, in this special case, is the very reason for our existence.
“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:15 (NIV)
There’s something about light. It is energy, and it is warmth. In a very literal way, light is life here on Earth. While one can hardly believe it’s possible, light is even much more than that. Light caries a undeniable spiritual significance. It could simultaneously be an illustration and a manifestation of divine glory.
The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. – John 1:4 (NLT)
Think about the way a flowering plant soaks in the light of the sun. It turns that light into delicate forms and vibrant colors, but never are those colors more glorious than when reflecting and filtering the light to which they owe their very existence. I would live like a flower, growing out of the spiritual light that has a single source. My actions and my life need serve no other purpose but to reflect the light.
Earlier today, instead of spending another half hour extolling the virtues the SAT and the ACT, I engaged my “Advisory” students (most of them) in a simple, online adaptation of the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Then, because they caught sight of it on my computer screen, I let my Honors PreCalc students test themselves as well. It was interesting to see the way some people seemed to revel in having their personality described verbally. If the short description was deemed accurate enough, you could see a smile lighting up their face as it was being read.
I wonder what about this process of describing one’s personality is so rewarding for an individual, and I wonder if it has anything to do with our propensity to try and use words like professional, artist, author, or entrepreneur define ourselves and others. Ultimately, it might all boil down to a desire to be understood, to be known. Also, I suppose some titles have such a positive connotation that it’s difficult not to wish them upon ourselves.
In a roundabout fashion, I’ve gotten to the question that has been discussed at some length on other “photography blogs”…”Am I an artist?” I tend to come to different conclusions each time I ask this question of myself. It depends on what I’ve read lately, what I’ve photographed lately, and maybe even how my day of teaching has gone. Sometimes I think I don’t want to sell the creative work I’m doing short by calling it anything but art. Other times, I’m sure I haven’t put nearly enough thought or purpose into most of my photographs to consider myself an artist. In the end, there must be some kind of spectrum to which the term “artist” applies in varying degrees.
Based on the comments I’ve read, most others would use a period of reflection like the one I’ve gone through to fuel their drive to be more of the artist they have the potential to be. Who knows what time will bring, but I’m currently taking the opposite approach. An artist seeks to put herself or himself into their creative work. While I see having my personality and values evident in my photography as a natural byproduct of my process, I don’t want it to be my goal. The whole world is filled with beauty that is not a product of my interpretation, and many other qualities besides beauty are among its adornments. A gentleness in the forest that goes unperceived by me is no less real than it would be if I had the opportunity to photograph that quality. The calm of certain hours on the Inside Passage is just as evident when I see it through my eyes as when I see it through the lens, and it can go on happening without me.
There are moments when this world is all it was meant to be, a wonderful reflection of the glory of its Creator. As a human being, I just want to see as much of that as I can, and I want to see it as often as I can, and I wan to fully appreciate it. As a photographer, I want to help others see the same glorious qualities (beautiful, peaceful, powerful) even if they can’t fly half way around the world to see the Mendenhall Ice Caves for themselves. I don’t want to let myself get in the way of others seeing what’s really there. I’m not saying I want to pretend photography can be a literal and purely faithful translation of the landscape, but I don’t want to hijack the viewer’s opportunity to respond to the subject of the photograph in their own way.
I don’t mind being labeled. I like to feel known and understood just as much as the next person. But I’m confident that I’m known and valued by the one that matters most. I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a servant.
With big fat flakes floating down from the sky when I left the house, I dressed appropriately for a heavy snow. By the time I reached my chosen coastal location, I should have realized the wind and dipping temperatures would be the real nemesis to my photographic endeavors. I left my down jacket in the car, and was forced to expose my fingers to the biting cold on numerous occasions while I fumbled with knobs on my tilt/shift lens. Lenses that require precision manual focusing are difficult to employ effectively when your digits are numbed and you’re generally uncomfortable. Add some concern about freezing salt water spray, and I really only managed one composition where critical sharpness was reached in all the areas I intended. Praise God though; it was my final exposure that successfully told the story of this evening at the waters edge.
I passed glimpses of color as I drove to this location under infrequently broken clouds. I wanted to see more of that gentle or spectacular beauty, but I knew the alternative was far more likely. The scene I found was elegant in its own way, dark but not empty. It was cold but not entirely uninviting. The crashing waves were more persistent than frightening in their power, yet they hinted at the magnificent force that an ocean is capable of putting on display. And always the wind.
Beyond the scope of the camera and its lens, there was perhaps an even more remarkable occurrence. I was not at all alone while I worked to craft this image. There were a handful of sea birds, of what specific types I know not. There were numerous sea lions who often raised their heads high out of the water to get a good look at what I was doing on shore. They swam back and forth, and beyond them winter whales arched their backs amidst the waves. While I was clenching my fists inside my gloves and turning my back to the wind, these creatures were apparently perfectly suited to carry out their business along the wintery Alaska coast. I am struck by the fact that neither beauty nor living are relegated only to the moments of sunshine, to the places of tranquility. God equips us to live and love even in the bitter winds.
Sharing this photo was spurred partially by a comment I read earlier today about nature being the true artist. I feel obligated to modify the statement to reflect that God is actually the truest artist. My second reason for posting “Winter Ice Study” was that I came across a collection of images celebrating the beauty of ice in various forms, from all around the world. Can you believe they presented that collection on the National Geographic website without referencing this most incredible phenomenon? The truth is, I’m not surprised. In this culture flooded with imagery of seemingly everything under the sun, I have never seen another photograph of this icy occurrence. I’ve never even heard or read any explanation for all the intricate lines that stand out in addition to the apparent boundary lines between individual ice crystals. (If you know where I can find any information, I’m all ears!)
I’ll have to come back to my thoughts about the artistry of God in a different post. Needless to say, I consider myself continually blessed by the ability granted to humans to savor the transcendent splendor of their surroundings.
Update: I also just realized that this image (and another from the same location) were missing, until now, from the “Mendenhall Caves” gallery. To see this photo a little bit bigger, head there or click this link.
Do you ever shout for joy! I’ve been on some amazing summits when the light of the moment moved me in a way that demanded to be vocalized. Usually I can’t just let out a whoop of excitement unless there’s nobody else around. When surrounded by friends, I’m prone to a slightly more subdued, “This is AMAZING!” When my mind is in the space I wish it were in more often, I’ll yell, “Praise God!” and care not whether it rings as foolishness in anyone else’s ears.
I learned a new term today that labels a concept I’ve grown fond of through many different circumstances. The idea is that you and I can simultaneously seek the greatest glorification of God and the greatest satisfaction in our lives, and the term is Christian Hedonism. The phrase sounds both oxymoronic and volatile, but after watching a full sermon by John Piper on the subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is actually profoundly biblical. The apostle Paul is a great defender of the idea that exalting Jesus Christ is the ultimate joy that makes all other perceived joys fade away. One of the first things that comes to my mind is the famous saying of Eric Liddell: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Sticking with the running theme, here are some of the lyrics of the song “Run”, by Josh Garrels:
I feel the pleasure of my Lord when I’m in stride
For the glory of the Lord is man who is completely alive
While it’s right to recognize God as the source of a beautiful sunrise and the provider of our physical bodies, that’s not entirely the point. Even though we should encourage each other to complete our satisfaction in wonderful circumstances by actively praising God, the Good News goes even deeper. We are able to rejoice in all things because of what Jesus did on the cross. As Paul points out in the book of Philippians, not even death can slow us down. He says in chapter one verse twenty-one, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I’m praying tonight that God will continue to develop my longing for Him. Ahead of time, I’m thanking Him for the grace He will have to cover me with when I fail to put Him at the very forefront of my life. There’s no doubt that I will fail, but I am convinced of the truth that I will never have more peace or happiness than when I’m lifting Jesus up as high as I can. I want to shout for joy through the way I live my life, to the glory of God the Father!
I love music, and hymns hold a special place in my heart. I think of many of my favorite hymns as being traditional, but I wasn’t born until the 80′s, so I can’t be too sure about that. The hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”, holds a special significance to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, nothing gets talked about more in the world of artistic photography than “vision”. Well…it may be surpassed by “composition”, but I try to ignore that. Secondly, “Be Thou My Vision” is one of my wife’s favorite songs of any genre. It is perhaps more meaningful that she should like the song because the memory of it doesn’t reach back into her childhood in the way it does for me. My satisfaction in hymns could be at least partially attributed to comfort in consistency or even a distaste for change. My wife fell in love with the song as an adult because of the words. She even told me, years ago, that she wanted to be assured of “Be Thou My Vision” being played at her funeral service.
My idea to “translate” the song from its original, dated English to a more modern vernacular is not really my own at all. Just a few days ago, I heard a portion of a song where the artist had done precisely that. Last night, though, I was struck with the desire to create my own version. Actually my real desire was to fall back asleep, but that was not working out in the least. I set to work, and while this may not be the finished product, it’s a satisfying draft that I would like to share. The words here could be a prayer for every morning.
You Be My Vision
You be my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Nothing else matters, except that You are
You’re my best thought, by day or by night,
Awake or while sleeping, You’re presence is light.
You be my wisdom; You are the true Word;
Let me be with You and you with me Lord;
You are my Father, and I am Your child;
You live in my heart; we are reconciled.
I don’t need money or man’s empty praise;
You’re my inheritance, now and always;
To you and you only does my heart belong;
God of all heaven, my treasure is strong.
God of all heaven, my victories won,
May I reach heaven’s joy, O bright Heaven’s Son!
Heart of my own heart, wherever you call;
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
It’s true that ending well caries much more significance in most endeavors, but there’s also something to be said for starting well. This year, I have many personal goals, but my main photographic goal is to make photographs at more times, on more days. I don’t necessarily want to take a greater total number of photos than I did in 2012, but photography is my primary creative pursuit. I just want to have less lengthy stretches of absence from it. I’m pleased to say that today I made new images, and it was a day I would have traditionally stayed in because of the weather and available light. My outing didn’t produce anything groundbreaking, but neither did I come away empty handed. In less than an hour, I made some connections and hurried home happy. I hope you too saw a pleasant beginning to the new year.
In Juneau, the first days of spring are often accompanied by “warmer” weather and perhaps even some sunshine. But in spite of that change, the regrowth of vegetation from winter’s dormancy is a long time in coming. When I travel over spring break, as I almost always do, I love to go somewhere I can witness new life. My great grandparent’s farm (to which I traveled this spring) has become primarily the memory of a farm, but it is a very fond memory. This scene from near the property seemed to be coming to life in the morning light. The combination of dawn and spring as metaphors for resurrection wasn’t on my mind when I made the image a week and a half ago, but it definitely came to my attention as I prepared the photo for presentation yesterday (Palm Sunday).
What exactly is an “abstract photograph”? The question has been answered by hundreds or more, and no doubt, many of those who have offered answers are more qualified to do so than I am. But I’m not as interested in defending my stance on what is and isn’t abstract photography as I am in looking into the consequences of calling any photography abstract. For those who place a great deal of importance on the photographs we make (especially if we’re called artists), it’s worth taking the time consider how word choice prepares our audience to view our photographs and how it can affect our own perceptions.
To my ears, the word “abstract” signifies an attempt to separate the resulting image from whatever objects were actually there before the lens at the time when an exposure was made. Then think about the goal of a nature photographer. Almost exclusively, our desire is to present some insight into the subject that is being photographed, whether sparking an intellectual understanding or an emotional response. If you accept something close to these definitions, it’s no wonder a nature photographer would feel that while an “abstract” photograph may please their clients, it can’t really bring the personal satisfaction they get by laying out a landscape as a clear and worthy subject.
So why would other nature photographers, with the same overarching goals, find the deepest fulfillment in isolating the lines, colors, textures, and shapes of their natural subjects? Are they functioning with some kind of artistic schizophrenia? Not exactly. Personally, I don’t perceive a single one of my photographs as “abstract”. Even at the times when I’ve wanted an image to suggest something entirely different than what was literally in front of the lens, I still don’t want the viewer to miss what is actually there…making the suggestion. Instead of trying to separate the colorful patterns of the ocean’s surface reflections by isolation, I isolate the reflections in order to focus attention on that specific subject. People are generally likely to overlook the very best of what our visual surroundings have to offer, and the tendency is only compounded when viewing an artificial representation of the world, like a photograph. While there may be splendid nuances nested inside the vibrant sunrise scenic, they are often difficult to engage with in the midst of everything else going on. Seeing the best the world has too offer requires study, and study requires intentionality.
This is precisely where the photographer comes in. A little intentionality of the part of the photographer (one who has trained him/herself in seeing through a great deal of practice) helps the viewer to make that first, sometimes most difficult step. For this reason, I choose to wholly replace the word “abstract” with the word “study” in all reference to my photography. It’s more than semantics because calling an image a “study” helps to reveal my intentions, and as much as I know we like for photographs to “stand on their own”, I can’t convince myself that clarifying artistic intentions is at all detrimental. If my thoughts make sense to you, feel free to join me in stepping out from the cloud of misguiding terminology. Who knows, maybe you’ll even feel less inhibited in creating a very valuable style of nature photography.
I might be in the minority of landscape photographer’s when I say that time alone in the natural world, unspoiled by human “progress”, it not a requirement to experience a full and meaningful life. I love getting away and building a personal connection with God’s world, but I don’t hold to the opinion that people who don’t do that are sad, deprived, and misguided. What do I think is essential to a life of joy? I think the true purpose we have is getting honestly and heavily involved in relationships. Of course, our relationship with God has an incomparable value, but that friendship just drives us deeper into others. As far as family relationships go, there are few so rewarding to witness than those between grandchild and grandparent. This is especially true when the grandchild is your own daughter, and the grandparent is your own mom or dad.
As I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, last Saturday’s trip onto the Mendenhall was phenomenal. It was incredibly visually stimulating, and one would suspect that I might have returned with a variety of extremely satisfying images. In actuality, it has been difficult to find a single scenic photo that suits my taste. There is little doubt that I have high standards for the photographs I’m willing to share, but in spite of that, there has never been any guarantee that the photos deemed to exemplify my ideal presentation of the landscape will make much of an impact with viewers. It can be quite discouraging to think that after the struggle to meet my own expectations, the product I have to offer may fall flat with its intended audience.
That is why it has been such a relief to me on the occasions in which I’ve turned my photography over to God. When I’m following His direction, I don’t have to worry about what viewers will take away from my photographs, and I don’t even have to worry so much what I will think about them. I trust God to accomplish his plan through me when I have surrendered myself to Him.
Aware of the company we were keeping, Corey and I made no attempt to hide our grievances against hiking to the end of West Glacier Trail with healthy piles of gear in our packs. We also reminisced about the days we used to run up and down the trail for high school cross-country practice, and perhaps those youthful experiences are precisely why the trip feels like such a slog all these years later. The trail was a complete mess after the morning’s rain, which was much heavier and more persistent than had been forecast. I, for one, was tempering my expectations with the help of continued scattered showers, despite the anticipation of fresh snow crowning all the surrounding peaks for the first time this year.
The views over the Mendenhall Glacier toward Mt. Bullard, Suicide Basin, Mt. Wrather, and the Mendenhall Towers opened up before us as we crested the last treacherous rocks on the side of Mt. McGinnis, slick with mosses and residual rainwater. This vista had been my destination on many winter hikes, and Corey recalled how, when he was a kid, the ice had been but a stone’s throw away. On the contrary, after our sweaty ascent, we would climb down…three hundred feet? It could be even more. The volume of melted glacial ice that has been swallowed, unnoticed, by the Pacific Ocean staggers the mind.
Even as we began out trek across the ice, the weather was refusing to show her hand (a sign of wondrous potential to any landscape photographer), but before we became too concerned with what the sky would bring, we located some ice features that warranted a high degree of enthusiasm on their own. Corey didn’t waste any time dropping into the icy playground, and I got right to work behind the lens. One thing led to another, including both downpours and sun-breaks, and I eventually stood over my bag, chilled to the bone, fingers numb, trying to swap the lenses on my camera as the light bathed alpine colors on the mountainsides.
The next few hours were a battle between a growing, nausea inducing, headache and the utterly sublime surroundings. I shifted gears to a more responsive style of photography, which is my preference in any case. We didn’t travel as great a distance as I had originally planned, and I climbed up off the ice while Corey was still doing some exploring. As I was waiting in a huddle, reaching out to trip the shutter every so often, the clouds turned their colors and then faded. In classic fashion for Corey and me, the hike back to the car was lit by my iPhone flashlight, our two headlamps with either completely or mostly dead batteries. Shrugging off our packs at the trail-head initiated some relief that would last until the soreness set in overnight.
The whole ordeal (which was actually a blessing) brings to mind the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin’s dad is engaging in his bike riding activities. He inevitably suffers some series of destructive misfortunes and comes home a tangle of cuts, bruises, and chain grease…hoping it’s not long before he gets a chance to do it again…or grumbling that he never will. I would be lying if I said there’s no chance of me passing on an opportunity or two, but it’s only a matter of time before I put my body back to work at bringing me to where the payoff places everything into perspective.
As Corey and I pedaled briskly over the Herbert River Trail (one of the best/easiest rides in town), the last light of day was gradually lifting up from the river, to the glacier, to the tops of the mountains, and finally into the clouds. In the end, we missed most of it, catching only glimpses through the trees. Fortunately that didn’t keep either of us from being awed by features of the landscape. The upper Herbert River, where it is withing view of the Herbert Glacier, is a familiar site to many Juneau residents, and yet each day, in each season, brings its own unique twist. I for one, will never have had my fill of it.
I’ve remarked to friends a couple of times in the last few weeks that I find it possible to appreciate the way Juneau’s wilderness almost always seems to be holding something back. Predominantly the result of foul weather (if there really is such a thing), the pieces are rarely aligned. Peak fall color or summer flowers, colorful light, time free of other obligations, and a break in the clouds all come and go on their own, very seldom showing up at your door together. What if it was easy? What if you could say, “On such and such day, I will go out and camp for a week,” without fearing the potential for the rains to come and wash away all your best laid plans? I think it would be too easy, and I think it would be just a little bit harder to picture spending the rest of my life here.
I should be asleep…but instead I was looking back through the summer’s images for a memory or a message. I came across this photo that I had already designated for monochrome presentation during an earlier editing process, and the dramatic variation in the tonalities of the sky struck me anew. There was something about the sky on that night that made me view it as a “landscape” full of infinite possibility and incredible complexity. The veiled mountains and dark water were only barely necessary to provide a base or frame of reference. Almost impossible to make out in this web version, a small gull is flying high in the distance…
…as if it were leaving this world for a place beyond. Yet, on that night, I didn’t have to travel to the heavens because a glimpse of Heaven was, instead, being brought down to me.
Five years and a couple months after I first gave it some thought, I’m finally about to embark into the world of stock photography. I’m excited, but there’s also a fair amount of trepidation involved. How big are the changes I’m going to have to make in order to meet the demands of the market, and how far am I willing to stretch, and how much time am I willing to pour into this effort? These are questions that I’ll have to try to find answers for at the same time I’m getting back into the classroom. Not the best timing on my part, but it was beginning to feel like a “now or never” sort of deal.
While it certainly hasn’t been all fluff and sunshine, my interactions with Alaska Stock have convinced me that I’m making this transition with a great partner. Best of all, I believe God is opening this door, and He has been confirming that through my correspondence with agency owner, Jeff Schultz. At the same time, I’ve felt the need to pray that God will keep me focused on Him in spite of the pressures associated with this new photographic pursuit.
I’ve been reading the twelfth chapter of Romans this week. It’s the one that begins with the line about making yourself a living sacrifice. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my pursuit of photography lately – lay it down at the feet of God. It’s not just about photography either, since I return to my “real job” tomorrow. As a teacher, it should be even easier to turn to God for direction each day. I spend so much of my time desperate for any evidence of success in helping students learn, and yet, I consistently go about doing things my own way. I think we’re all afraid of what will happen if we give up the control we think that we have.
Perhaps my experiment with artistic endeavors can be a springboard for offering other aspects of my life to God’s control. I’ve been truly blessed though the process of being more deliberate in trying to see what God wants me to see, even if their haven’t been any definitive “lightning strike” moments. The photographic results of my limited time investments have been a true blessing, with some of my most heavily viewed images being created in the last couple months. I don’t want to compartmentalize God’s grace, so my prayer tonight is that He would work through me in exciting ways in the workplace tomorrow and throughout the entire school-year.
During a recent study, I’ve been rereading my favorite novel, The Great Divorce. The book is a poignant study (written by renowned apologist, C. S. Lewis) of the choice between the acceptance or rejection of God. The general plot and setting are both fictional and fanciful, but the section that struck me as relevant here relates a conversation between two former artists (one who is experiencing the joy of knowing God and the other who…).
…The outlines of the Ghost looked vaguely familiar, but I soon realized that what I had seen on Earth was not the man himself but photographs of him in the papers. he had been a famous artist.
‘God’ said the Ghost, glancing round the landscape.
‘God what?’ asked the Spirit.
‘What do you mean, “God What”?’ asked the Ghost.
‘In our grammar God is a noun.’
‘Oh – I see. I only meant “By Gum” or something of the sort. I meant…well, all this. It’s…it’s…I should like to paint this.’
‘I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you.’
‘Look here; isn’t one going to be allowed to go on painting?’
‘Looking comes first.’
‘But I’ve had my look. I’ve seen just what I want to do. God! – I wish I’d thought of bringing my things with me!’
The Spirit shook his head, scattering light from his hair as he did so. ‘That sort of thing’s no good here,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?” said the Ghost.
‘When you painted on earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the message came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.’
‘Then there’s never going to be any point in painting here?’
‘I don’t say that. When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right, we all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.’
There was a little pause. ‘That will be delightful.’ said the Ghost presently in a rather dull voice.
‘Come, then,’ said the Spirit, offering it his arm.
‘How soon do you think I could begin painting?’ it asked.
The Spirit broke into laughter. ‘Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about?’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ asked the Ghost.
‘Why, if you are interested in the country only or the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.’
‘But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.’
‘No. You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’
‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the Ghost. ‘One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’
‘One does indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ind and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in pain, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’
‘I don’t think I’m much troubled in that way,’ said the Ghost stiffly.
‘That’s excellent,’ said the Spirit. ‘Not many of us had quite got over it when we first arrived. But if there is any of that inflammation left it will be cured when you come to the fountain.’
‘What fountain’s that?’
‘It is up there in the mountains,’ said the Spirit. ‘Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.’
‘That’ll be grand,’ said the Ghost without enthusiasm.
‘Well, come,’ said the Spirit: and for a few paces he supported the hobbling shadow forward to the East.
‘Of course,’ said the Ghost, as if speaking to itself, ‘there’ll always be interesting people to meet…’
‘Everyone will be interesting.’
‘Oh – ah – yes, to be sure. I was thinking of people in our own line. Shall I meet Claude? Or Cezanne? Or -.’
‘Sooner or later – if they’re here.’
‘But don’t you know?’
‘Well, of course not. I’ve only been here a few years. All the chances are against my having run across them…there are a good many of us, you know.’
‘But surely in the case of the distinguished people, you’d hear?’
‘But they aren’t distinguished – no more than anyone else. Don’t you understand? The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.’
‘Do you mean there are no famous men?’
‘They are all famous. They are all known, remembered, recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgement.’
‘Oh, of course, in that sense…’ said the Ghost.
‘Don’t stop,’ said the Spirit, making to lead him still forward.
‘One must be content with one’s reputation among posterity, then,’ said the Ghost.
‘My friend,’ said the Spirit. “Don’t you know?’
‘That you and I are already completely forgotten on the Earth?’
‘Eh? What’s that?’ exclaimed the Ghost, disengaging its arm…
- C. S. Lewis from The Great Divorce
It becomes critical, in the life and endeavors of any person, to draw the distinction between “personal” and “property”. My interpretation of the world around me is very personal, and what could I possibly have more ownership of than a personal vision? The twist comes when I recognize to whom my “person” belongs. I am only a mirror designed to reflect certain facets of the Light, but…”the Light’s the thing.”
Of course, not every day is one for being immersed in photography, which is kind of what I felt I would need in order to take the first exposures in my new direction (see “A New Beginning”). Yesterday, I had in my mind that I would leave my family at home and explore some opportunities in Juneau’s large and blooming fireweed fields. I also had some specific concepts to work on that had come to mind during recent Bible studies, but the weather did not cooperate. It was too sunny.
The growing sunshine attracted Breea’s attention, and even though Della expressed her desire to sit on the couch all morning while I tried to drop some subtle hints about my plan, she was determined to have her family act like a family. To my credit, I did ACT like that was fine with me, but I was still harboring some disappointment. When we arrived at the wetlands, I took off on my own to attempt some compositions that proved impossible do to the great height of the flowers. Thought I forced the issue for a while, guilt eventually brought me back to Della’s side (even though Breea said I need not have felt any).
Della had already made herself at home – almost literally. She loves to pretend that natural places are her “home” and designate various spots as specific rooms. During the time I was following her around with the camera, she directed her mom to a space in the grass, which was the bathroom.
“That’s the one for boys, and that’s the one for girls. The toilets don’t have any flushers…they’re automatic.”
I started to feel embarrassed that I had hoped to avoid being a part of this outing, even though I later admitted my prior agenda to Breea. In the end, Della and I were as unwilling to leave the fireweed as we had been to been to leave the house. Reviewing the images after uploading, I could hardly believe I nearly missed this chance. Without the extra time that I’ve spent recently reading and praying about following God’s direction, I think I probably would have gone down the wrong path, following what I thought was best for me.
I don’t have much practice with “photo essays”, but the collection of images from Della’s adventure are pretty fun to view as a group. I hope you enjoy them.
It’s difficult for me to put into words the purpose I desire for my photography – the desire I believe God has put in me. There is an obvious connection between viewing the complex beauty of the natural world and gaining understanding or appreciation for its Creator, but I’m reaching for something more than that. Perhaps I want more because other photographers who produce brilliant artwork have proven that it’s likely, in the culture of our day, that a person with a perceptive eye may have their spirit stirred by the same landscape that stirs mine while rejecting the God that I know.
Putting into practice this kind of photography is far greater a challenge than simply being able to describe the goal. The presentation is a threshold that can only be crossed after the images have been made. I’m faced with the question of whether or not I’m even capable of such a product – photographs that work to illuminate God’s character or illustrate biblical redemption. I’m certainly not beyond questioning whether I’m reaching a bit too far or whether I’ve assumed myself ready for a task for which I am not yet equipped.
One way or another, I feel myself led toward something – some kind of change from the focus my photography has had in the past. Believing God has called us to be transformed in every facet of our lives, I want to be a different artist than I would be without the saving grace of Jesus. The differentness is not an end to itself, but rather a means by which to bring Him glory. To be meaningful, real, and hopefully noticeable; the change has got to be focused at the center of what an artist is all about.
Throughout the ranks of photographic artists (and probably other artists as well) you’ll hear the discussion of developing one’s personal vision. The idea is for the individual to express, ever more clearly, the perceptions that are unique to them as a result of their experiences, longings, and nature. The photographer is supposed to recognize and nurture his or her “own way of seeing” in the same way humankind has always tended to encourage being “true to yourself”. No doubt, my visual interpretation of the world (even my predisposition to nature photography as a genre) has been shaped and molded in a unique way by a variety of factors, and I assumed there was some good being done by my attempts to share with others the way I see what I see.
But what about the way I’m supposed to see? Using the word “supposed” probably elicits all types of red flags for artists who feel strongly that there is nothing more detrimental (even deadly) to creative acts than externally imposed restrictions. The reason I feel differently is that I have experienced the liberation that God’s guidance and even boundaries have brought into other areas of my life. I also know that God does not use a uniform mold to force me into some other person’s shape. Instead, He alone (as my Maker) knows that for which I was designed – recalibrating my focus from time to time in order to blur distractions, the chief of which is the misperception that my artwork should be primarily about me.
Truthfully, the reason I don’t know how God will direct my vision is that I haven’t been in the practice of asking. The combination of the way creative outlets are caught up in the concept of self-expression and my own tendency to look no further than myself for answers made this omission all too easy. As I now work to bring my purpose in line with God’s purpose, it may be that the most I can hope to share is a personal progression of knowing Him more – through as much narrative as photographic imagery. On the other hand, God may choose to work through me in ways I haven’t even the capacity to imagine.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” – Psalm 19:1