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.


Conversational Ministry

What do you say when your two boys are squabbling for the third time in the past twenty minutes?

What will you say when a friend who is single shares with you about her loneliness and despair?

What advice will you give when your wife is overwhelmed with caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s?

How will you respond to your co-worker who just got divorced?

What comes out of our mouths in these situations–and a million more–is counseling. We are always counseling, though we rarely think of it in those terms. But in all of these situations, we are imparting information with the intent to help or encourage one another.

We tend to equate counseling with professional therapy, therefore unless we have a degree in psychology and an office with a couch, we don’t think we could actually counsel anyone. And yet we do so every day.

I’m currently enrolled in a training course that my church is hosting, called Gospel-Centered Counseling. The goal of the course is to equip us as Christians for this kind of everyday, conversational ministry to one another. This model of counseling can also be called Biblical counseling, since it seeks to apply the truth of God’s Word to the sins and sorrows of our lives and relationships.

So what sets Biblical counseling apart from other models? How is it distinct from other forms of Christian counseling? Here are a couple distinctives…

As I understand it, the two main distinctives of Biblical counseling are these: 1) it has as its foundation and starting point a Biblical understanding of people and of change, and 2) it is carried out in conversational ministry with one another as Christians. To the extent that professional Christian counseling starts with a humanistic psychological theory (which implies a humanistic anthropology) and then seeks to apply it through a Christian lens, to that extent it differs from Biblical counseling. And to the extent that Christian counseling is carried out only by a professional expert helping a needy client, to that extent also it differs from Biblical counseling.

According to CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), Biblical counseling is “a God-centered understanding of people and a Christ-centered understanding of how God redeems people.” In other words, seeing Christians as created by God, ruined by sin, saved by grace, and destined for eternity with God makes a huge difference in understanding our primary problem and our basic need. And seeing transformation into Christ’s likeness as a Spirit-empowered process that happens through the community of the local church, where every child of God is both needy and needed, levels the playing field—we all counsel one another and we all need others’ counsel.

Biblical counseling allows for the reality that some Christians are specially gifted by God and equipped with more extensive training in counseling, and that some may in fact pursue a ministry of counseling as their primary vocation. However, even those who take on that role in a manner similar to a professional therapist do so with a different mindset—they see the counselee as a fellow-struggler whose primary need is no different than their own, namely to grow in dependent relationship with Christ.

Granted, there are those who call what they do “Biblical counseling” but do it so poorly that it creates an inaccurate caricature of what Biblical counseling is meant to be (just as surely as there are those who call what they do “Christian counseling” but also do it poorly and give that honorable discipline a bad name). So it is vital that we consider carefully the definitions and distinctives of each particular branch of counseling in order to avoid caricatures and misrepresentations.

Will your directives to your sons, or your comfort to your friend, or your advice to your wife, or your response to your co-worker truly offer help and hope? Remember, you and I are always counseling–will we give an accurate diagnosis of their greatest problem, and will we point them to the only One who can bring lasting change?

[For more resources & information about Biblical counseling, I highly recommend the ministry of CCEF. Lighthouse Community Church also has some great resources.]

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…]


I like watching clouds–especially the interplay of sun and clouds around sunrise or sunset–but clouds are not as common a sight where I live in Southern California as where I grew up in Oregon. (I’m talking big, fluffy white clouds here, so smog doesn’t count.) Sometimes, if I’m watching the sun peek from behind the clouds and trace their edges with fiery gold, when I turn my attention back to what’s in front of me, my eyes are momentarily dazzled by the brightness and it takes a second or two for them to adjust.

I’ve been reflecting this week on an old chorus that we sang in our worship service on Sunday. And this chorus seems to be speaking of a similar “dazzling” effect that leaves our eyes blind to other things. This is what it says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, 
Look full in his wonderful face; 
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim 
In the light of his glory and grace.  

Turn your thoughts upon Jesus 
Think deep of His wonderful love 
And the thoughts of sin and of self and strife 
Will be lost in that rapture above.

This is a very different strategy than saying “Stop focusing on the things of this earth!” or “Don’t be so wrapped up in yourself!” Trying to directly quit focusing on something that our eyes and mind are drawn to is often impossible. But when our eyes are dazzled by something else or our mind is captured by a different thought, then those earthly, self-focused things are more likely to fade away.

Either way there is a turning that happens. Either I follow the inward-turning rut of my sinful autonomy from God, or I turn upward and outward toward God in trust and worship of Him. And which way I turn has much to do with my eyes and my thoughts–what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about.

The author of Hebrews says much the same thing as this chorus when he writes of “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and “consider[ing] Him” (Heb. 12:3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul says we are to “look, not at the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.” In other words, we turn our eyes, and our thoughts, upon Jesus, in order to not lose heart.

This is a mellow chorus, which may give the impression that turning our eyes and thoughts on Jesus is something to be done stoically and calmly. However, I believe that loud laments and intense emotions could also accompany this kind of turning toward God, because that is what a lament does–it voices my complaint and need to God (rather than to myself).

So turn…and let your eyes be dazzled by the beauty of your God! He is good. He is merciful. He is holy.

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!


Talking to Myself

What does Paul mean in Ephesians 5:19 when he writes of “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (NASB)? If that is one of the ways that Christians are to keep on walking under the influence of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), does it mean that we are to go around serenading each other with Great Is Thy Faithfulness or quoting Psalm 119 in every conversation? Regardless of how you might distinguish between psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, what in the world does it mean to speak to one another in this way?

The New American Standard version has a footnote on the words “one another,” which says “Or yourselves“. And when I looked it up, the Greek word is not the usual one that is translated “one another,” but is a different word that is translated in either singular or plural as “himself” or “oneself” or “yourselves” or “themselves” (among others). On the surface that doesn’t seem like a huge difference from “one another,” but as I thought about it, it could actually be very different.

The implied subject in that paragraph of Ephesians 5 is a plural “you.” Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, not just to an individual. So if he’s saying to a group of believers, “Speak to yourselves…” it could be understood in two different ways. It could be understood as speaking to one another (You speak to me and I speak to you). But it could also be understood as each of us speaking to ourselves (You speak to yourself and I speak to myself). And that would be a very different understanding.

Certainly we know from other Scriptures that we are to “encourage one another” (I Thes. 5:11) and “speak truth to one another” (Eph. 4:25), so speaking to one another in psalms and hymns could definitely be another way in which we show that kind of love to one another. But is it possible that Paul is also saying here that we need to speak those things to our own hearts?

Perhaps what this verse is telling us is that we are to do like the psalmist himself does–remind our own heart of what is true. Do I ever say to my own soul “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God…” (Ps. 42 & 43) or “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103 & 104) or “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…” (Ps. 62)? My heart needs those reminders, and maybe those are some of the very psalms that Paul had in mind that we are to speak to our hearts.

So rather than thinking of this verse as a call to sing all our conversations with one another–as if in a musical–maybe we need to see it as an invitation to speak to our own hearts the truths that we so easily forget. And because we forget so easily, the words of songs and psalms help those truths stick a little better. So in the words of Kari Jobe (in a “spiritual song” called Love Came Down):

If the storms of life they come
And the road ahead gets steep
I will lift these hands in faith
I will believe
I’ll remind myself
Of all that you’ve done
And the life I have
Because of your son
Love came down and rescued me
Love came down and set me free
I am yours
Lord I’m forever yours
Mountains high or valley low
I sing out and remind my soul
I am yours
I am forever yours