Asking Questions

The mathematician Georg Cantor wrote in his 1867 doctoral thesis, “In mathematics the art of asking questions is more valuable than solving problems.” Not just in mathematics!  Asking questions about God is essential for our spiritual growth.  Of course we must decide about the foundational ideas of sound doctrine along the way; but as far as our steadily growing in faith is concerned, it is healthy to keep restocking our mind’s shelf with new sets of unanswered questions.  After all, “Faith is the substance …of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).  So to be growing in it is to have unanswered questions.  

I expect that the hunt will continue in heaven.  Just because we will be there does not mean we will have shrunk the incomprehensible complexity of God to fit into our new minds, thus diminishing God to something other than he is — the incomprehensible God — by definition.  Galileo wrote, “There are such profound secrets and such lofty conceptions that the night labors and the researches of hundreds and yet hundreds of the keenest minds, in investigations extending over thousands of years would not penetrate them, and the delight of the searching and finding endures forever.”  

I discovered these wonderful quotes by Canton and Galileo in an article about infinity on https://wng.org by Matthew Connally, Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University in New York (https://wng.org/roundups/materialism-101-what-is-infinity-1628946910).

Stephen Williams

Bozo

Bozo was blind.  Our Peekapoo lost sight in one eye as a result of a close encounter with a car and the other eye a year or two later in an altercation with another.  We continued to let Bozo out for the obvious reasons and he always returned to our door as he did before the blindness.  I do not remember him ever bumping into things.  He seemed to sniff his way along with apparent perfection.  He needed no white red tipped cane.  He did what he needed to do following his nose.  We did have to hunt him down on one snowy day and I found him stuck in a small drift at the long end of the block beyond his normal range.  The snow covered all his invisible marks on ridged tree trunks, rain gutter spouts, and red fire hydrants.  He was way off course!  

I too find myself needing invisible markers to keep from getting mired down by the obstacles that interfere with my being contented with myself.  I need markers to help me confront the lies that come disguised as right and fluffy white but do not represent reality.  These markers are in the Bible and are a fountain of truth about how God treasures me and is ruthless in his pursuit to counter all my weaknesses with his love and cover my faults with charity (see Brennen Manning’s, Ruthless Trust, HarperCollins, © 2000 for a wonderful elaboration).  Jesus is packed for the long and hard journey and leads an ardent search until he finds me — no matter how far into thickets, deep pits, and gullies where I have traveled off course (Luke 15:4; Psalm 23:4,6; John 10:11).    

I used to be dependent on underlinings and notes on narrow margins of thin pages of india paper with fraying edges; but now it is not required that the long traveled paths are forged by fingers under good light and reading glasses slid onto the end of my nose, but I run over the invisible paths by remembering where the markers are.  This has been out of common need and repetitive experience with weaknesses rather than spiritual finesse.  These markers remind me that I can be as kind to myself as God is.  I can be as forgiving of my faults as God is.  I can be as accepting of me in spite of my weaknesses as God is.  I can give myself the needed break that God does.

My faltering steps and stammering tongue does not hamper or hinder God’s extravagant love (Exodus 4:10; Isaiah 32:4).  He continues to stretch out his open arms and reaches beyond any reasonable human effort (Hosea 11:9; 1 Corinthians 2:5).  God chooses to be forgetfully blind in His forgiving and lovingly kind in His rescue because I am his child (Jeremiah 31:34).  He raises me up and covers my head with a crown instead of crushing me (Psalm 103:3-5).  His extreme measure was to endure the crushing punishment for my reckless meanderings (Isaiah 53:5).

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his faithful love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust” (Psalm 103:11-14).

© Stephen Williams

When the Sun Does Rise

The dawn wakes me with the sounds of a cooing dove calling out a gospel of love and the bobwhite responds by sounding its name as if to place it first on the list of the ones needing to hear.  A choir of sopranos from a winged ensemble sing a chorus with the words, “I am next in that line.  I need to hear it!”.  The sky is painted translucent heavenly crystal white through which I observe the newly plowed field with small planted crop in long straight lines forecasting the bountiful harvest.  It will come soon enough.  Framed by a moist green lawn specked with little clover blooms, a yellowed back black bee is hovering over lavender in the flower bed.  It’s path is crossed by the blur of a hummingbird suckling with delight.  A spectacular canvas of beauty encircles me.  The blanket of fog with a lite mist of new spring water kisses my face bringing comfort on a chilled morning.  A pleasant breeze threatens the prospect of seeing the sun; but no sun is needed in the presence of the Lord (Revelation 21:23).  Against elegant creation’s sketch, His glory rises to overshadow so that when the sun does rise, it doesn’t matter. 

Stephen Williams

Fishing Bird

Just as I looked up, she flew in from the South with her back to me and landed a good twenty-five feet from the sunny side of the pond.  With her wings open and wide spread she gracefully set down in such a way as to show off her plume of sky blue colors offering only the slightest contrast to the early summer cerulean ceiling which fashioned a heavenly roof dotted with modest fluffy white clouds here and there.  The great blue heron paced herself for fishing.  She was earnest but carefully composed in her approach.  

With long strides, she marched over to the nearest beach which is covered in brush and weeping willows and stood there in a full stand as if to survey the possibilities.  Then she marched back out toward the spot where she landed as if to bid me a premature farewell.  But she returned.  And moved around the far side where a year or two ago, I observed one of her friends — perhaps it was her and now she has returned.  I watched her then stand in that very spot, catch her dinner, and raise her neck tall.  I watched the form of a fish descend her gullet.  That was a good day.

The water appeared to be still, but there was a rippling around the naked limb of a small tree I cut down just before leaves browned and the air began to chill last year.  She reversed course again, back up the bank.  She took more time than I would have, but she has more to fear lest she herself become prey to some other creature lurking in the brush.  Perhaps she was watching me and contemplating the level of threat I might pose.  If so, she was badly mistaken and much too cautious, for I offered only curios observation.  Eventually she made her way through the tall spring grass down the bank and she swam over behind the rippling water where she quietly waited until after the bullfrog became fearless with slow croaking base vibrating tones.  She continued on her path around to the cypress knees where she was out of sight to carry out her trade.  

I returned to my reading until she rose up and flew to the dense coverage where she first hesitated.  Momentarily she lifted off again and flew back across to a perch hight on a cypress limb.  She did not delay there for a minute.  Off she went to the North leaving for better prospects.  The entire event lasted a full hour and a quarter.  A most satisfying movie-length entertainment but more fulfilling than a happy ending.  

I am reminded of Peter and his crew after a long night of watching empty nets.  Even expert fisherman come away empty sometimes.  In sunlight the white glittering linen cords scattered the cod; but Jesus told them to cast again.  Against all odds and after defeat had been sounded (Luke 5:2), the fish were willing and the harvest was miraculous (John 4:35-36).  Most impressive!  Jesus prophesying like Jeremiah or Ezekiel with a sign-act meant to reveal God’s inspiration.  Even more than prophets of old, Jesus knows where to find his treasure (Luke 5:7; Luke 19:10).  In record time and with persuasive power, He commands the disciple (Luke 5:5) to extract those who have been drawn to the holy and designated meeting space where He has already directed them to congregate.  That was a great day!

“For he and all those with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had taken…. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Jesus told Simon (because it was obviously miraculous to catch fish in white linen nets in the daytime).  ‘From now on you will be catching people.’ Then they brought the boats to land, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 59:11).

Stephen Williams

Rhythm

I was in a Christian band briefly.  On rare occasions I listen to the eight-inch reel-to-reel recordings of our practice sessions — usually alone because the grandkids quickly scatter after the novel fascination with the reel-to-reel recorder fades away.  Music no longer resides on a roll of thin tape.  It is even more like a ghost.  It comes on a chip imprinted on a board inside a small plastic box often transferred through the air instead of a wire.  

Of course, there is a rhythm in life and every aspect of it — work, church, friendships, spirituality.  Dad often said that accidents usually come in threes.  “Watch out!” he’d imply just after number two had inconvenienced him.  “Brace yourself!”  

The seasons reflect this rhythm and we codify our ups and downs as Spring or Winter.  I am living in the Fall-time season of my life.  But these cycles we go through, even with their indefinable borders and unpredictable durations, seem to have the ring of truth when we reflect upon the past.  

I taught myself a sequence of play in those days when we performed our music for youth groups and at Christian school assemblies.  It was awkward to do.  My arms did not want to move in the needed way.  They would get caught up with each other or the sticks would hit each other instead of the drum heads.  It involved playing sixteenth notes with one stroke per drum in sequence from snare drum to tom-tom to second tom-tom to floor tom-tom and back again to the snare — over and over through several musical measures.  I choreographed each movement of my hands and arms to keep them moving over and under each other.  Rhythm is natural, but some of the movements that create it require training and repetition through lots of practice.  In other words — work!  

The rhythms of life usually have more to do with discipline and work than coincidence.  If we brace for the next season, we may be unconsciously courting the next disaster and in our awkwardness setting ourselves up to trip over the next obstacle.  Better to keep practicing what we have come to have confidence in over the long term.  Accidents happen and skinned knees are going to occur; but that does not stop us from running and playing and working.  The rhythm is not about what happens to us as much as it is about the good habits we beat out in disciplined strokes like the kind that get a locomotive started moving and them constantly pulling and pushing forward down the track and up the mountain, over the valleys and into the horizon.  

For the Christian, these strokes are the same drum beats we have performed for so so long.  And they have proven themselves time and time again.  Read the Bible regularly.  Pray to God in conversations that cover praise, gratitude, and petition.  Talk among Christians in fellowship.  Let friendships flourish from testimony about the work of God in your life.  Show you care by taking action.  Invite people to Jesus and the church.  Serve in ways that help people want to come to church.  Encourage one another.  

“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you” (2 Peter 1:10–12 NASB).

Stephen Williams

Here at Home

Sometimes an indefinable longing enters the house my mind calls home.  The sense of void enters like an intruder opening the door we hardly ever use and have forgotten to lock after the grandchildren have left it unfastened.  The impulse sneaks in unwanted like a random thought or an unfounded panic.  The desire does not seem to have an origin.  The uncomfortable need flies in like the stray geese that flirt with landing on the small pond out back and on the rare occasion actually choose to thump down with a splash.  I hear them often, but I’m never quite prepared for them to grace me with their company.  

Drawn and haggard with want, I pursue this longing.  I thirst like the deer crave for water brooks. It is a kind of unsettling in my gut leaving behind a restless famine.  I let it take hold of me.  I leave out to go hunting down this desire.  Like a stranded islander desperate for the meal that will transform his last day into a new day, I stalk the illusive prey.  I strive for the sound of the sizzling meat over the campfire.  My nostrils flare.  I long for the nourishment it translates into wellbeing.  I thirst for the peace it provides – the kind that the Hebrews visualized and tried to capture with the word shalom – that flawless wholeness that includes body, mind, and spirit congealed into a kind of integrity that keeps the soul running forever like a well-oiled machine.  I strive for that emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual flourishing that eradicates every particle of dust that adulterates my soul.  I want the sense of emptiness to dissipate like smoke dissolving into a soft breeze.   

But then, and again, I find that God has been trying to get me to seize the treasure I’ve been seeking since the search began.  It is already in my heart.  It is His healing voice.  Like the prodigal returning to his home, Jesus has been waiting for me (Luke 15).  At the end of my journey, I find I am in possession of what I have to have.  God has been right where I began.  The hunt is over.  All along, His wise Word was right here at home.  

“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”  (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

Stephen Williams

Spiritual Orientation

My attention was drawn to a hairy little spider about the size of a black bean.  It effortlessly moved into my field of vision as it slipped out from under the deck rail onto the inside edge of the two by four.  Then it crossed over onto the top and back to the side where it clung on like it was a rock climber on the side of a cliff.  It crossed back underneath where it rested on the surface of the underside of the rail.  It was under it but on it.  It was weightless.  It experienced no inhibition.  It moved freely from one orientation to the other.  

The Bible refers to a spider in Solomon’s palace (Proverbs 30:28 KJV).  It would have eluded the guards and easily entered without detection.  Except for this day.  When Solomon was still and focused enough to notice (Psalm 46:10).  Then the spider entered his meditation.  Uninvited but welcome.  The palace became his study and his meditation became Scripture.  Solomon moved as effortlessly as the spider on my deck from a worldly orientation to a heavenly perspective.  He left gravity behind and everything else that would pull him away and he crossed over into the spirit.  He transitioned from the underside and shed his camouflage.  He slid out of any blind spot that hid God from his vision.  He came into the rays of light.  God could see him on either surface, but Solomon moved into God’s presence so he could see the heavens that declare the mystery of dwelling in the Spirit.  

“Those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5b).

Stephen Williams

Feedback

The walls were marsh green – the kind of shade that would not draw attention to itself unless one had nothing else to glare at.  The hurdle seemed to me to span upward to an unreachable height.  A little window with a narrow shelf extending back into the small room to cover the cinder block wall was cluttered with bottles – probably chemicals for cleaning.  If I could just jump that high!  

This little washroom at the back of my first-grade classroom was where I waited for feedback to be distributed for behaviors that I was sure were perfectly innocent.  Mrs. Irene, my teacher, seemed to bide her time before carrying out the punishment.  The confining wait was apparently worse than the discipline since I cannot remember the outcome.  But the nightmarish chastisement of an unreachable window cut into a marsh green fortification, frustrated me to the extent that the image is deeply engraved into the raw nerves of my brain.  

Corrective evaluations are necessary for our development, but mercy colors every sincere act of positive feedback when that is what is needed.  Years ago, I read in a book on paranoia that the ailment is accentuated by the lack of the feedback that would extinguish the unfounded fears.  To have anxiety is to wrestle with the lack of good information.  When fear rises up into the shoulders bringing tension to the muscles in the neck and the cause of it is not real – just imagined – then accurate feedback is a warm salve that penetrates beneath the thin skin.  It brings relief.  The assurance reveals the absence of a threat.  To hold it back is an act of negligence.  

Actually, the most accessible source of feedback is much more available.  You have the resource within you to dispute the unknown possibility as just that – an unknown future.  You can tell yourself that it is not real.  It is unreal because it does not exist.  You can list the other possibilities — possibilities that will not inflict the fear.  If the worst possibility does come into existence, then convince yourself that you can choose at that time to fear it if necessary for your survival; but it is only a figment of the imagination until then.  There is nothing to fear now.  Like in the book I used to read to my children, it is an imaginary monster fancied to be hiding in the closet.  It has no power.  It cannot destroy you.  To hold this critical feedback back – to withhold it from myself – is an act of negligence.  It is self-destructive.  

Instead, talk yourself into understanding that there are many other possibilities on the horizon.  Be specific with yourself.  List them.  It will take a while to learn that you can succeed in this; but it will be sweet to your soul and healing to your bones (Proverbs 16:24).  It is hard to imagine that friends would withhold encouraging words and essential information; but it is unbelievable that I would withhold them from myself.  If the mind of the wise can instruct his mouth so that he will not say things best unsaid, then I can instruct my mind by disputing unfounded fears. 

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth. And adds persuasiveness to his lips. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:23-24 NASB

Stephen Williams

Little Fly

I am greeted by my little winged buzzing scavenger.  She never misses the chance to show her devotion.  I do not care for her persistence.  She is aways touching my skin to show she likes to be around me.  I confess, I do not return her love.  I brush her off; but she does not seem to mind.  Her dedication is undaunting.  She is relentless.  But in an odd kind of way, I’m glad that she has returned.  I still find her annoying.  I hate the thought of where she has been and what mischief has dirtied her feet; but if warm weather requires her presence then she is welcome.

When the warm ground vanishes Winter’s push to confine me indoors, she rides the wings of the southern wind to open the door to freedom.  When her great great grandmother’s great grand joined her clan and swarmed the enemies who enslaved God’s people, the result was freedom (Exodus 8:24).  If I have to endure her affection in order to lay in the sunshine, then welcome back little nuisance!  If God could purpose your ancestors, I can endure your plague!

When you lite on my shoulder, I will think to gift my praise to God because your presence meant freedom to worship (Exodus 8:20).  Your people praised you by remembering those days (Psalm 78).  So can I, when bothered by a fly.  Anything and everything reminds me to worship — even this pestering pest that tickles the hair on my hand!  “The LORD has prepared everything for his purpose” (Proverbs 16:4a).  One purpose must be, to remind me of Thee.  “Let the fields and everything in them celebrate” (Psalm 96:12a)”, even if there be flies among the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28).  And this little worrisome creature will parcel your words of wisdom as it dances from shoelace to face.  And I will resolve to hear them!

Stephen Williams

Humility on the Line

I saw humility stationed like a sentry guarding its treasure.  It wore no badge and displayed no royal banners.  It did not put on airs nor did it show any sign of feeling awkward.  It was an eagle perched on the white painted line of the highway and finishing its meal of roadkill.  No buzzard dare blunder there!  The white crown was clean, but the image seemed to be marred.  I can’t quite conscience the contradiction imposed on my imagination.  The national bird is not so proud as to humble itself out of necessity.  

It did not shy away into some secret hiding place when it heard my truck coming.  It waited until the last second to make sure it was out of the way.  Hunger erases shame.  Need numbs us to social delicacies.  The world is not inverted when nature buries its kin under the wings of natural forces.  It does not blush at the stateliest of birds intervening on dust to dust.  Every day the natural order of things brings the humble to glory and the glorious to humility.  If we do not self-determine humility, humility will come anyway, one way or the other.  

If choosing humility were so easy and natural as an eagle taking the place of a buzzard, the word could be removed from the dictionary.  It would be unnecessary – like no longer needing a word to distinguish china on the table from paper plates if these things didn’t identify wealth or status.  It would be like not needing a word to distinguish between formal wear or sweats if social occasions did not demand them.  All we would have would be plates of pavement and the feathers we were born to wear.  We would ease into humility on our daily walks and display it as effortlessly as smiles and frowns.  We would not be embarrassed by tears.  We would receive empathy as easily as praise and interruption as easily as an invitation.   We would trust our sense of need for provision outside ourselves and live every moment acknowledging our vulnerability to changing circumstances.  We would just know without ever questioning it, that God is as necessary for our every motion as He is for our survival. 

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:6-7 CSB).

Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:5-6 CSB).  

Stephen Williams