Building Frames

hanging framesI’m really proud of my daughter. Her senior thesis exhibition of her photography is on display this week at the Biola Art Gallery, and she has done an excellent job! (Not that I’m a biased dad or anything.) She has captured so much of the rawness and pain of our family’s adoption journey through her photos and her art.


A month or so ago, as she planned out her exhibit, my daughter asked if I could help her build some huge frames for a few of the images that are in the exhibit. Since I enjoy custom woodworking projects, especially when it’s being made for someone I love, I agreed to build the frames. We worked together on them for one weekend, then I finished them up in the following weekends and helped her install them in the gallery prior to her show. It was a lot of work, but I was really pleased with how they turned out.

As I watched people contemplate my daughter’s artwork on the opening night of the exhibition, the thought struck me that those frames I built are a pretty good metaphor of the life and ministry God has called me to. With the exception of a couple people who knew that I had built the frames, nobody commented on the frames at all. In fact, I would venture to say that hardly anyone even noticed the frames. And that’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

The whole point of picture frames is to frame the pictures within them. So a good frame doesn’t call attention to itself but to the artwork that is displayed between its four corners. That is why the only time a frame is noticed is when there is a defect in it or it is not hung properly. But when the frame is well-made and rightly hung, it directs all the viewer’s attention to the artwork.

God has called me to be a frame builder. Not primarily to construct giant frames out of wood, but to create space for individuals or small groups to enjoy God and grow in Him. If I do my job well, then what people notice and make much of is the beauty and goodness of God. Occasionally, someone might notice and appreciate the structure that has been created and how that structure facilitates deepening relationship with God, but for the most part, the structure remains unseen in the background.

If building frames is the good work that God has prepared in advance for me as His workmanship to carry out (see Ephesians 2:10), then I can work at it with all my heart, trusting that the very One whose beauty is being displayed by my “frames” is the One who sees and rewards all my unseen labor to create that space for others.


The Essence of Prayer

Jesus’ disciple Peter is known for both his raw honesty and his impetuous action. Both of those characteristics are on display in the account of Peter’s brief stroll across the waves to get to Jesus (in Matthew 14:22-33). The disciples are making a middle of the night voyage across the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus is alone praying to His Father after an intense time of ministry and a painful experience of loss. In the wee hours of the morning, before it is light, Jesus comes to the disciples as they are straining at the oars to make headway against the wind.

Multiple factors contribute to the freaked-out response of the disciples when Jesus materializes out of the darkness, walking on the water. One, they had no idea He was coming–there was no text message with an ETA to let them know He was on the way. Two, it was still pitch dark, before the sun had risen. Three, they must have been exhausted by that point, and imaginations can do weird things when people are overly tired. And fourth, humans walking on top of water was certainly not an everyday occurrence that these disciples would have experienced.

So when they see a shadowy figure coming toward them over the waves, the disciples cry out with terror, thinking it is a ghost. Jesus speaks to them to calm their fears, though it’s interesting that He doesn’t say “It’s Jesus” but simply “It is I,” trusting that the disciples will in fact know His voice and be comforted. This is where Peter’s true colors come out–he spontaneously throws out this crazy test to verify that this shadowy figure is in fact Jesus: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Where did he come up with that?!!) And Jesus, perhaps with a wry smile that Peter couldn’t see in the darkness, says “Come.”

For all his bluster and blunders, Peter does one thing really well–He obeys. He doesn’t sit there and calculate the risks and possibilities, He simply obeys and steps out of the boat. And for a few seconds, he too is walking on top of the waves! But then with a splash of cold water across the face, reality sinks in, and obedient, impetuous Peter is going down. In that moment of sinking realization, Peter utters what I think is the essence of prayer: “Lord, save me!”

Lord, save me. Three simple words. But this is the essence of prayer. Prayer calls out to the Lord. It is an act of humility and dependence on God–it is a recognition that we cannot save ourselves, that in fact we need Someone outside of ourselves to do what we cannot bring about. Prayer pleads “Save!” We are asking for deliverance, for rescue, for salvation, in one way or another. And prayer expresses what is needed for me. It is not merely theoretical or theological, but personal.

Certainly there is a place for rehearsing the truth of the Gospel in our prayers, but when Peter finds himself starting to sink in the waves and I find myself sinking in despair, “Lord, save me!” is just as appropriate a prayer (and in a simpler way is actually rehearsing the Gospel as well). Certainly there is a time to express fully our adoration of God, to confess our sin, to give Him thanks, and to bring our supplications to Him (as the A.C.T.S. acronym reminds us), but when the winds of fear are blowing and the waves of sorrow are crashing, “Lord, save me!” should be constantly on our lips and in our hearts.

Jesus responded immediately to Peter’s simple prayer–He reached out His hand and took hold of Peter. And Jesus will respond to our cries as well when we utter this simple prayer “Lord, save me!”

Grownup Blankies

I think my mom still has my tattered old blankie (or what remains of it) from when I was a little boy–that silky softness that I snuggled with every night as a child, which somehow brought a measure of comfort and peace to my timid heart in the midst of the bad dreams and wild imaginations and lonely longings of childhood. Looking at those ragged strips of cloth now as an adult, it’s hard to believe that I once found such comfort in it, yet I know I did because blankies only reach that treasured status by being loved for a long time (like the Velveteen Rabbit in one of my favorite picture books).

I don’t sleep with that blankie anymore, but maybe it would be better if I did. My grownup heart still looks for comfort–not so much because of bad dreams or imaginary lions walking through the front door, but because of the ache of unfulfilled longings and the weariness of life that is often overwhelming. If only those burdens and sorrows could be relieved by simply stroking a soft blankie on my cheek!

Unfortunately, growing up doesn’t only bring different (and often heavier) fears and struggles, but growing up also brings the pursuit of less innocent comforts than blankies. Our hearts are idol factories, and we run after a whole assembly-line of solutions that promise comfort but cannot truly deliver it.

God’s word to the prophet Jeremiah (2:13) is just as relevant now as it was for the people to whom it was spoken:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Our God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Christians have been given the Spirit of God, who is the Helper and Comforter (John 14:16). Yet rather than turning to God for comfort in our places of pain and need, we try to arrange for our own comfort (or in Jeremiah’s words, we dig our own broken cisterns): we demand intimacy from marriage or family, we hungrily look for likes on our social media posts, we shop for the latest fashion or device, we pursue greater influence and purpose through our work, and we even seek to prove our godliness by serving in ministry or mission.

None of these “comforts” are inherently sinful, yet when they are sought in place of God, that is where sin enters in. So this is not a rant against marital intimacy or social media or shopping, but it is a call to not turn to those things for comfort rather than turning to God. In this season of Lent, may we who belong to Christ look to Him alone for the comfort we desperately long for, and may we repent of the grownup blankies with which we have been snuggling.

[Jessica Snell writes a similar call–to repent from “that comforting sin you turn to time and again”–in Biola’s Lent Project. Check it out…]

Beautifying Love

God’s love for those He has adopted into His family is so far greater than the love that we as humans have for one another. We look for beauty to love–God makes the ones He loves beautiful. 

Sally Lloyd-Jones, in The Jesus Storybook Bible, speaks of this beautifying love of God in His choosing of Jacob’s unlovely (and unloved) wife Leah to be part of the lineage of the Christ:

“…when he saw that Leah was not loved and that no one wanted her, God chose her–to love her specially, to give her a very important job. One day, God was going to rescue the whole world–through Leah’s family…. You see, when God looked at Leah, he saw a princess. And sure enough, that’s exactly what she became. One of Leah’s children’s children’s children would be a prince–the Prince of Heaven–God’s Son. This Prince would love God’s people. They wouldn’t need to be beautiful for him to love them. He would love them with all of his heart. And they would be beautiful because he loved them. Like Leah.”

A blog post by Garry Williams elaborates on God’s beautifying love:

“By contrast [with human love], God loves us when we are unlovely to him. He finds us languishing in the filth of our sin and chooses to cleanse and make us holy. Samuel Crossman expresses this idea beautifully in his hymn: Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be. Christ is a husband who makes the church beautiful when he weds her, not a husband who wants to wed her because she is beautiful.”

In the same post, Williams also quotes C.S. Lewis, who writes in The Four Loves: “The Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely.”

So when you, or I, feel lost in the ugliness of our sin and shame, or when our longings for love from those around us are unfulfilled, may we find hope in knowing that the One who created us also loves us with a love that makes us beautiful. And may we aspire (with His help!) to love those around us in the same way that we are loved by God–not because of their beauty but to make them beautiful.

Escaping from the Giant Despair

At one point in John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful get captured by the Giant Despair, who beats them mercilessly and throws them into his dungeon. There they languish in great pain and sorrow for several days, until–as they labor long in prayer–Christian suddenly remembers that he has a key hidden away that will open the doors of the dungeon and set them free. The forgotten key that he is reminded of is called Promise. Sure enough, when Christian tries the key of Promise, it works! And he and Hopeful escape from the clutches of Giant Despair in order to continue their journey to the Celestial City.

Bunyan’s footnote to this part of his story says this: “Precious Promise! The promises of God, in Christ, are the very life of faith. Oh! how oft do we neglect God’s great and precious promises in Christ Jesus, while doubts and despair keep us prisoners!”

Languishing in a dungeon in a stupor of suffering is an apt metaphor of what despair can do in any person’s life. Yet for the Christian, there is a key to escape this dungeon, but it is a key that is easily forgotten when despair looms like a giant. The promises of God do not disappear when despair takes us captive, but they must be remembered and acted upon if they are to truly be a key of escape.

So a promise of God that I am rehearsing and holding on to today is that my heavenly Father sees what I do, and He will reward me (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). In fact, God Himself is called the “God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). And not only does God see, but He also vindicates (Isaiah 54:17):

No weapon that is formed against you will prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord.

A recent newsletter from John Eldredge expresses well why these promises of God seeing and vindicating are so significant to me.

You probably have a number of stories you would love to have told rightly–to have your actions explained and defended by Jesus. I know I do. 

All those decisions your family misinterpreted, and the accusations you bore, the many ways you paid for it. The thousands of unseen choices to overlook a cutting remark, a failure, to be kind to that friend who failed you again. The things that you wish you had personally done better, but at the time no one knew what you were laboring under–the warfare, the depression, the chronic fatigue. The millions of ways you have been missed and terribly misunderstood. Your Defender will make it all perfectly clear; you will be vindicated.

My God sees. My God vindicates. My God will reward. These are great and precious promises that have the power to release me–and you!–from the dungeon of despair. How do we know? Not only are these clearly written in Scripture, but they are fulfilled in Christ. Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection and intercession all proclaim that God sees our deepest need and has made a way for that need to be met. Hold on to that key of Promise!


A Daily Prayer…in Song

Songs are powerful. As my friend Ian put it, songs “sneak into your subconscious and lie in wait in the trenches of your memory.” In our happiest moments, and our darkest hours, music ministers to our hearts like nothing else can.

And so I was delighted when another friend (Thanks Terry!) introduced me to a song called A Christian’s Daily Prayer. A beautiful prayer of trust put to music–I’ve already memorized more of this prayer (without trying!) than any of the prayers I have written out and prayed repeatedly. What a blessing!

The lyrics express a morning, midday and evening prayer of need and trust in the powerful presence of our sovereign God:

As morning dawns and day awakes, 
To You I bring my need 
O gracious God, my source of strength, 
In You I live and breathe 
Each hour is Yours by wisdom planned, 
Each deed empowered by sovereign hands 
Renew my spirit, help me stand; 
Be glorified today 

As day unfolds, I seek Your will 
In all of life’s demands  
And though the tempter tries me still, 
I cling to Your commands 
Let every effort of my life 
Display the matchless worth of Christ 
Make me a living sacrifice; 
Be glorified today 

As sun gives way to darkest night 
Your Spirit still is here 
And though my strength fades like the light 
New mercies will appear 
I rest in You; abide with me 
Until our trials and suffering 
Give way to final victory 
Be glorified, today

I rest in You; abide with me 
Until our trials and suffering 
Give way to final victory 
Be glorified, today; be glorified, I pray*

I especially appreciate the final verse. Evening and night are often when the darkness of despair drains me of rest and hope, so I need the reminder that new mercies appear in my weakest moments. Even more so, I need to hear the despair-defying declaration that the trials I am experiencing will one day give way to Christ’s final victory, when all things are finally and fully made new!

God, be glorified today, as the words of this prayerful song echo in my mind and heart.


*Music and Words by Matt Merker, Jordan Kauflin, and Dave Fournier
© 2017 Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI)/Sovereign Grace Worship (ASCAP)

The Cost of Productivity

I’m a fan of productivity. Certainly God has not called us to live lazy, unproductive lives. Rather, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, emphasis added).

But as with any good thing, productivity out of balance with relationship or rest can become detrimental to what God says matters most–love of God and neighbor. Sadly, Christian culture can be just as wrapped up in the drive to do more (and do faster, and do better, etc.) as the culture around us, and there is a serious cost to that preoccupation with productivity.

So these words of J.I. Packer–who has walked with God for many years–should be considered carefully:

“For the Christian, the outward journey takes the form of learning to relate positively and purposefully to the world and other people–that is, to all God’s creatures–for God the Creator’s sake, and the inward journey takes the form of gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God the Father and with Jesus the Son, through the mighty agency of the Holy Spirit.

“Now in the hustling, bustling West today, life has become radically unbalanced, with education, business interests, the media, the knowledge explosion, and our go-getting community ethos all uniting to send folk off on the outward journey as fast as they can go and with that to distract them from ever bothering about its inward counterpart. In Western Christianity the story is the same, so that most of us without realizing it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily in this respect to the world around us. Like the Pharisees, who were also great activists (see Matt. 23:15!), we are found to be harsh and legalistic, living busy, complacent lives of conforming to convention and caring much more, as it seems, for programs than for people. When we accuse businessmen of selling their souls to their firms and sacrificing their integrity on the altars of their organizations, it is the pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps there are no truths about the Spirit that Christian people more urgently need to learn today than those that relate to the inner life of fellowship with God, that life which I call the inward journey.”     [J.I. Packer, Keep In Step with the Spirit, pg 68-69]

Toward that much-needed end of “gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God,” I have found regular days of solitude retreat to be tremendously helpful. For those who are a part of the church that I serve (as well as for those who live in the Southern California area), I lead several half-day retreats during the year–you can find information about them (or register to attend) on my church website.