“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” – Psalm 51:17
I’m well aware that the deep insides of a glacier have an almost unbelievable capacity to bend and flow, but the brittle exterior of a glacier is riddled with cracks, fissures, and enormous crevasses. Even as I approached the glacier from the middle of the lake, I was already contemplating its broken appearance. This passage from Psalms didn’t spring to mind. Instead, I was thinking of the line from the song that says, “Heartache, broken pieces, ruined lives are why you died on Calvary.” If you’re familiar with hymns, I’d be surprised if the tune doesn’t come to mind, and you’ll find yourself wanting to finish the rest of that phrase. It turns out that glaciers are at their most photogenic (awesomely beautiful) when they’re broken. When a surface remains intact for a length of time, it weathers. An opaque white barrier replaces the translucent deep blue. It is only because of the continual movement and subsequent breaking into pieces that the hidden qualities of the ice become exposed.
Following the patterns of our human nature, we would just as soon stay in one piece. We want to be like a block of ice separated from its glacier source – to stay in one place and put on an outer barrier. My most consistent thought when I hear about people doing something new is how glad I am that it’s not me. Neither am I excited about opportunities to let my guard down. On the inside we’re insecure, and if we’re being honest, it’s worse than that. On the inside we’re weak.
Fortunately, where we see inability, God sees opportunity. It turns out that the best we have to offer comes from what we simply can’t do on our own, and the more obvious our own limitations are, the more glory God will receive for Himself. God values the offering of a broken spirit because that is something he can use. A stagnant and solid block of ice is of practically no use at all and will eventually just melt away. Surrendering to God is like remaining a part of the active glacier where ice, despite the inevitability of fractures, continues to perform its erosive duty and reveal its inner beauty.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:33-34
Looking into the new year, we can all come up with a lot of plans, goals, and dreams. Mixed in with those seemingly positive contemplations, we each also have our share of fears, but Jesus reminds us that the future is not ours to know. Neither our good or bad projections onto the future have any bearing on what happens to us, but we are able, with God’s help, to control our response.
This photo presents a landscape that is foreign to most viewers in an atmosphere that disguises many of its features. There is always “unknown” in the anticipation of dawn, but I feel an increase in that quality in this scene (as I did in the moment it was recorded). Still, light is what lays in store for this frozen and barren landscape, the same sunlight that illuminates all places on Earth.
Think about what we know is coming in 2012. God’s loving goodness to us is as sure as the sunrise. In the midst of what we don’t know, we are promised that God will establish His kingdom and that he will give us His righteousness. None of us need anxiously ask the question, “Will God help me grow to be more like Him this year?” or “Can God use me to make an spiritual impact on those around me?” It’s a done deal! What a relief when we realize that what is most important is guaranteed.
“Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” – Psalm 46:10
The words of this verse, especially in the half that I’ll focus on, are very well known. Yet, how often are we able to follow this instruction in the midst of the world in which we live. The surrounding verses give examples of how God was going to give the people of Israel a good reason to “be still”, but I’m fairly comfortable letting these words extend beyond their original context. Is there really ever a time when we don’t have a good reason to be still before God, the maker of heaven and earth?
We aren’t still because we have responsibilities, desires, needs, and no time. It makes perfect sense to us that we should keep going and going, but the more you look at this verse, the more you realize this is not a suggestion from God, it’s a command. God knows that what we need is not more time, it’s more of Him. God provides peace through his promise of salvation.
At this time of year that tends to become so frantic, we need to know that God’s command to be still and know Him is for our own good. We can’t live without it.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” – Isaiah 9:2
I remember when I read through the book of Isaiah last year as part of my daily devotional in a “one year” Bible. I knew that the book contained some of the most famous old-testament prophecies about the life of Jesus, but I was not prepared for the context in which they are presented. Isaiah seems to be focused on a specific agenda, and then all of a sudden, a crystal clear reference to Jesus, the Messiah, is made. I believe it required having your heart led by the Holy Spirit in order to read with a sense of awe, instead of coming away scratching your head.
During this past week, as part of Advent, I’ve been reading verses from the ninth chapter of Isaiah. The words of the second verse reminded me of two different songs, the more well know of which is “O Come, O Come, Emanuel”. Themes of “darkness” and “light” always stand out to a photographer, especially one closing in on the darkest days of winter. The way that Jesus transforms hearts and is the very basis of our spiritual existence can be illustrated beautifully when he is called “the Light of the world”.
Arriving on location for morning photography usually means being surrounded by a cool light that practically borders on melancholy. The sensation is further enhanced when the weather is equally chilly. It’s not that the night isn’t beautiful, but there’s something absolutely indescribable about watching the first light of day take hold of a landscape. This simple composition is utterly dependent on the transitioning light for its success, which is not that different from the way Jesus brings us to life when he rises in our hearts.
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” – Psalm 100:4-5
Early last week, I received a text from a friend saying that her visit with cancer specialists in Seattle was complete. We weren’t expecting a perfect report, but each day that goes by without her cancer advancing in a life threatening way is really a miracle. I was thankful she was able to avoid another surgery that might have prevented her from seeing family over the Thanksgiving weekend.
God doesn’t just deserve our gratitude when there’s nothing wrong or when there is amazing news. These verses tell us to bring Him thanksgiving and praise, not because life is good, but because He is good. The closer we get to God, the easier it is to see the way he is working all things in our life, including trials, for our ultimate benefit. Even cancer, though clearly a result of the world’s separation from God, He uses to radically alter the way we value other people and our relationships with them.
This photo of Nugget Falls, which tumbles into the Mendenhall Lake, was made on Thanksgiving Day a few years ago. It was one of the few times it’s been easy for me to remember a greater “vision” in the midst of the creative process. Nugget falls has a remarkable ability to continue flowing, at least on some small level, through even the coldest times of year. In that way, it represents to me the way our thankfulness should be poured out to God. It also reflects his faithful goodness to us.
“Elisha said to him, “Tell her, ‘You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?’”
She replied, “I have a home among my own people.”" – 2 Kings 4:13
Usually when we think of proclamations of contentment, Paul or David come to mind, but here we have an equally poignant lesson in the words of the woman from Shunem. Her response to Elisha question about how he can show his gratitude to her is, at first, difficult to understand. What does “I have a home among my own people” even mean? I believe (though I am no scholar) that she is identifying one of her most treasured blessings instead of giving a vague reference to having everything she desires. The woman would probably have been untruthful had she claimed the latter, and she had determined that having more desires met doesn’t have much impact satisfaction.
One surprising thing is that this Shunammite woman was not in a position where it would have been particularly easy to come to such a wise conclusion. The Bible refers to her at the opening of the story as “well-to-do”, and we know that she and her husband had the capacity to provide living quarters for Elisha’s occasional visits. My assumption is that she must have been accustomed to having many of her wishes fulfilled, which is normally a recipe for seeking happiness in comforts and possessions. Yet, the woman appears to have found the greatest joy in her acts of service.
What makes the Shunammite woman’s contentment even more surprising is what she did not have. It is clear from multiple other stories in the Bible that lacking children was something that could cause severe emotional duress. Her omission of her desire for a son was most definitely not out of forgetfulness. The response she gave to Elisha’s promise that she would have a child makes it clear that her childlessness weighed very heavily on her.
Still, she could say with all honesty, “I have a home among my own people.” I think she meant that she had all the means necessary to live her life in the place where she felt she belonged. If we define the place where we belong as the middle of God’s will instead of a physical location, God promises that we will always have what we need to live where we belong.
I know I don’t have any easy time following the Shunammite woman’s example. We live in a culture defined by consumption, and we are constantly being told that we will be happy only when we have what we want. On the other hand, I can easily relate to her gratitude for the place she was able to call home. My house is not big or fancy, but it is filled with my family. Juneau is not the most exciting or convenient place to live, but I’m surrounded by nature and geology that inspire me.
I will try to be more than content. I will try to live a life defined by gratitude.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure hear, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Don not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” – Psalm 51:1-12
These verses are like a self portrait of a contrite heart. Even if all they did was provide an example of true repentance, God knows they would be incredibly valuable to each and every one of us. Instead, Psalm 51 goes a step further. As David has shared his assurance of God’s deliverance in many other psalms, here he shares his confidence in God’s forgiveness.
In my time making photographs on the morning after this year’s first snow, I knew I had an opportunity to seek visual representations of the way God covers the sinfulness of our hearts with his grace. The transformation of a landscape under freshly fallen snow is as clear a message of redemption as nature is capable of sharing with us.
“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” – Jeremiah 32:17
Some people simply can’t fathom it (they don’t want to because of what they think it would mean for them personally), but if you believe that the opening verses of the Bible are true, have you stopped to really consider how profound it is that God spoke this world into existence. From the electrons to the stars, God created and continues to sustain all the world as we know it…and yet, we struggle to believe that he will be able to take care of us.
After searching all week for something to share in this “Visual Verses” series, I ended up watching a show by Chip Ingram that was about dreaming God-sized dreams for His glory. The verse from Jeremiah reminds us what God is able to do – really that He is able to do anything! When we consider whether we can afford to trust God as we begin to let ourselves become passionately invested in our God-honoring dreams, His creation is a reminder that He knows how to follow through on a project…BIG TIME!
One of God’s “big time” productions that I’ve had the blessing to witness in person is the Chugach Range that stretches east from Anchorage along the Gulf of Alaska. I have a profound attraction to big mountains, so this view up the Matanuska Glacier made quite an impression on me. It felt like I was looking into another world almost or through a portal to the Himalayas.
I could sense that standing amongst the mountains that make up the backdrop for this image would provide a perspective of scale unlike anything I’ve experienced. It remains something that I know about but have not experienced, just like those who haven’t stepped out, in faith, to the work for which God has called them. You can know a great deal about God, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I want to stand in the middle of the Mountains. I want to experience God’s love, grace, and power.
“The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.” – Job 38:14
The book of Job has long been a favorite of mine, especially the part in the closing chapters where God questions Job. Today’s verse comes from one of those passages where God is establishing his sovereignty and forcing Job to measure himself against the wisdom and power of God.
My understanding is that the comments about the clay and the garment are meant to illustrate how the whole world bears the impression of its maker. Each admirable quality of the Earth and the life it carries is truly a result of that same quality within God’s nature. He creates the gentleness in the mist out of his own gentleness. At the same time, the sturdy rock walls contain only a fraction of God’s unchanging permanence. The perseverance of trees perched high on an inhospitable slope is a reminder of His perfect faithfulness. “The [whole] earth takes shape like clay under a seal…”
The accompanying photo was made during my one visit to Tracy Arm, and it came to mind as I pondered how best to illustrate the verse this week. High ISO and some leveling were necessary to compensate for the fact that the image was recorded from a moving boat, but the quality of the file did not suffer much due to the advances in modern DSLR sensors. Whether or not we’re experiencing remote and dramatic wildernesses, God’s creation surrounds us and reminds us of who He is…and will be.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Philippians 4:8
I found this verse while scanning the context of the passage in last Sunday’s sermon, and it has stuck with me all week. Almost immediately, I knew I wanted to share it here, so I’ve been reading the verse daily and trying to put it into practice. Since we all have struggles in trying keep our thoughts from being corrupted by the desires of this world, there is great value in strategies to keep on track that come directly from God’s word.
One thing I’ve noticed about the time I spend photographing God’s creation is that I never have to battle the inclination toward thoughts that are impure, unkind, or destructive in nature. It simply isn’t there when I am focused on seeing the beauty in the world. I believe that is precisely the point this verse is making. When we meditate on what is good, we protect ourselves from the temptations that often begin in our mind.
Now, if I only acted on this truth when there was a camera in my hand, I would be missing out on most of life’s opportunities. This past week, I’ve taken time almost every day, to study one of Juneau’s most lovely fall color displays from my classroom window. The cottonwoods that line the far bank of the Mendenhall River are quite a ways off, but I honestly don’t know if there is a better vantage from which to appreciate them than where I stand in the school. Taking even a few seconds to study the variation in density of remaining leaves or the yellow-orange colors has saved me countless times in a place where maintaining positive, God centered, thoughts is a considerable challenge.
The accompanying photo is from my ever growing “Craftsmanship” series. It is a horizontal stitch of three or four vertically oriented images made with a moderate telephoto focal length. The wall of ice visible in the completed panoramic represents a section that was roughly 8-10 feet high and 16-20 feet long. An image like this doesn’t necessarily grab your attention like a wide-angle photograph featuring fleeting and colorful light. Instead, it provides something to study. It gives me something “pure” and “lovely” to ponder for a long time, and I hope it does the same for you.
A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on Google+ that I’m titling Visual Verses. Not believing it was the right time to make it public there, the posts are going out to a very limited audience. I imagine that people who visit this journal know what to expect in terms of content, so even though many of the images will be repetitions of those previously shared, I decided to post the series here as well. The first installment follows…
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” – Romans 12:3
This verse was part of the r12 study that Breea and I have been doing on Sundays (actually Della has been there too). The point made in the material is that we should be so comfortable, even grateful, for the way God has made us that we feel free to think very little about ourselves at all. When we’re busy trying to cover up who we are underneath with a flashy exterior, it becomes practically impossible for us to reflect Christ in our lives.
As I stood on the edge of the turbulent Herbert River, I marveled at these two perfectly calm pools in the adjacent granite. Unlike the river, they were wonderfully transparent, showing fascinating patterns of rippled silt on their bottoms. At the same time, and from the right perspective, they provided a most accurate reflection of the softly colored sky.
I pray that you are letting God show you that who you really are is precisely who He made you to be. When you accept that, then you will be able to begin showing the world who he really is.