Sunday, April 30, 2006

Trust the Path

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the father except through me. John 14:6

As I walked the trails Saturday, I kicked myself for not having brought a compass. For the sake of later descriptions (like those in the last two posts), I wanted to be able to identify the direction a river was flowing or the side of the park where I found a certain landmark. Part of this excursion was preparation for one of my mission trips this summer, where I'll be doing reconnaissance work producing maps and recording the locations of restaurants, places to stay, and where a certain people group lives.

I talked to Katy on the phone before I ventured into Ben Burton's woods, and she told me to be careful and to avoid getting lost. With an area of only 32 acres inside the park and city all around, getting lost didn't even strike me as a possibility. Without a compass, I had no idea what cardinal direction I was traveling at any point in time, but I never worried about where I was. At Birchmore, I had seen the map of the trail, and I trusted the path to get me back to civilization unharmed.

I realized that my faith is kind of like walking in an unfamiliar territory with no compass, with only a marked path and a surface knowledge of the roadblocks and landmarks to come. But as Christians, we're on the right path--Jesus. Even though we've never walked this road before and we can't always see what's ahead, we must trust that this Path will lead us back to where we came from: a world without a curse where we can experience full unity with the Father and one another.

A Walk in the Parks II

Nature is the theater where God displays his best works of directing and producing. This rock where I sit is my recliner where I sit back and enjoy the show, and the embankment behind me forms a semicircular amphitheater to capture the surround sound of birds cawing and chirping and the steady river speaking somewhere between a whisper and a roar.

A 1.2-mile hike with five pounds on my back isn't exactly what I would call a workout, especially after taking so many breaks to write down things like the quotation above. So I decided I'd up the ante a little bit and venture across town to Birchmore Nature Trail, a 2.25-mile path situated in a forest within Memorial Park next to Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail.

I pulled up beside a family taking their two small children to see the animals at Bear Hollow, a free zoo where Katy and I frequently enjoy observing more than 12 species of native Georgia wildlife. Looking at the children, I couldn't help but think about how much I'm going to love taking my future kids to places like that.

A little bit downhill from Bear Hollow's I stopped to check out the map posted at the entrance to the trail. An elderly couple who had just finished walking it came up and began making smalltalk with me. They were sweet people, the kind that you can tell are content with the lives they've led.

"You know you're supposed to let someone know where you are when you're hiking," the gentleman said.

"Well, y'all know where I am now, so I don't have anything to worry about," I replied, smiling. We all laughed as I took off at a brisk walk down the mulch-covered path. The entire trail had taken them about an hour. Judging by my normal pace and the easy, soft path, I figured I could do it in at least half the time if I didn't stop.

But again, I made stops to write down some thoughts and comparisons. The forest was much more picturesque than Ben Burton's. I stood over canyon carved by a small stream that ran about 30 feet below the bottom of the bridge and admired the old trees that looked almost mythic, like something out of Lord of the Rings.

But Ben Burton had the river and much more wildlife. An occasional cardinal or chipmunk would make an appearance on the Birchmore Trail, but either because of the denser forest or the proximity to busy city streets, I saw very few animals there.

Both of the trails are low on the difficulty scale, but I think Birchmore was a bit more pampered, with nice signs to point you in the right direction, and wood chips softening the ground beneath your feet.

After the bridge I found a few more interesting landmarks on Birchmore's trail. The path curved around a huge stone wall, built by Birchmore himself. Then it meandered past a hole used to be a swimming pool and is now filled with concrete and overgrown weeds. Walking past the wall, I thought about how cool the name "Birchmore" is. You couldn't pick a better name for a nature-lover. It fits his interests as good as names like "Sir-Mix-A-Lot" or "Funkmaster Flex" fit the DJ's and musical artists who take them. And his was a coincidence.

The trail intersected a road I'd already crossed once, and it wasn't too long before I reached the exit. Back at the car, I called my friends who by now were wondering where I was. I invited them to meet me at Hodgson's Pharmacy for a generous 50-cent scoop of ice cream. Hiking was over, and I needed to replenish my calorie supply before playing basketball later.

A Walk in the Parks

Life's not always easy, but Saturday afternoon was a walk in the parks.

At college, life can sometimes become stuffy and routine, filled with books and work but little spontaneity and adventure. The same can be said of any occupation, and I know it'll probably get worse when I'm out in "the real world," so I'm trying to start making a habit of staying out of emotional and spiritual ruts.

With gas prices so high, Katy and I were both too poor to afford making the three-hour haul from Athens to Columbus, or vice-versa. That left me with a weekend by myself, which gave me a few options. I could use this alone time to get ahead on schoolwork for finals week. Or I could finish some things I've been wanting to get done for a long time.

Given that I've always had a problem with procrastination, I figured I'd put off the first option in favor of the second one, which mostly entailed getting outside somewhere and doing some writing. I wanted to finish my narrative about a China trip I took more than a year ago, some of which I've written about on this blog.

So I woke up early, made some homemade donuts for breakfast, packed my water bottle and notebooks and textbooks (mostly just to put some weight on my back while hiking) and set off on an adventure.

Aside from the night scene downtown, Athens, Ga. seems like a great place to raise a family. There are parks galore, many of which offer an outdoor experience right in the middle of the city. Gas prices had killed my desire to venture much farther than the city limits, so places like the Appalachian Trail were out of the question. Plus, I didn't want hiking to take up the whole day. I wanted to get some ink down on paper before I had to get back to the grind Monday.

I already had a few parks in mind, but as I searched on the internet, one particularly caught my eye. It's called Ben Burton Park, and I had never even heard of it. The informational blib on a Web site said it had a 1.2 mile trail and a great view of the shoals of the Middle Oconee River. So I decided to check it out.

When I pulled up around noon, there were no other cars in the parking lot, and a gate blocked the road from the parking lot into the park. Luckily, I wasn't planning on taking my truck in.

My truck door slammed shut, scaring a beautiful bluejay into the woods. I walked across a bridge over a rocky stream into an open, grassy area. A gravel path ran on the right side, and I could see the river to my left. The path looked boring, so I decided to walk next to the river until I found the hiking trail.

Near the riverbank, cardinals darted from tree to tree like little red fireballs, and squirrels hopped aimlessly through the grass. Big turtles rested on the rocks protruding from the water. Their ovular shells were about 10-inches in diameter, like miniature green toilet bowl coverings with a head and legs. They would stick their heads out as far as they could as if to take in the most sun possible. Although I wasn't very close, they heard my approach and slowly plopped one by one into the safety of the water.

I found the hiking trail where the green strip ended, and I happily ventured out. Although I wouldn't consider myself to be an avid outdoorsman, being outside makes me come alive. Seeing the turtles and the flitting birds was therapeutic for my heart, whose voice had been muffled by the endless drone of professors and the monotony of making sandwiches at Blimpie.

Next to the river, the trail was just slim enough not to feel too much like a city park but wide enough for an easy hike. Except for the enormous homes built on the west side of the river, an occasional cell phone tower and the hum of cars that could only be heard faintly over the river's steady churn, you'd think you were miles outside of Athens.

I saw the trail split inland, but I stayed by the river as long as possible. I saw more sun-bathing turtles on the rocks, a blue heron doing some spearfishing with its long beak, and some mallards doing their best to imitate the heron. Soon I came upon an embankment constructed by piling large, flat rocks on top of each other. The corners were too defined for this to have occurred naturally, and when I explored a bit more I found crumbled concrete and tangled steel re-bar. The structure had served some kind of human purpose, but I couldn't figure out what.

Now it serves humans in a different way: by offering an elevated view of the river. I climbed up to take a look, but two lovebirds were already there, and I didn't want to interrupt. They must have been the people I'd heard tromp past me on the path as I sat gathering my thoughts.

I took the trail until I found the park's back boundary. Conveniently, a huge tree had fallen on the barbed-wire fence, giving me easy access to a low-lying creek that emptied into the river. As I walked the creek bed, deer and raccoon tracks were everywhere. The bank was moist, and I saw places where deer hooves had slipped trying to get out of the creek bed. The water was low, so I hopped from one sandbar to another without getting my feet wet. Doing so reminded me of the days when my brother Frank and I used to walk with our friends barefooted through Upatoi's Randall Creek, catching crawdads and fleeing angry water moccasins.

After awhile, I started getting into settled territory. I saw apartment complexes through the trees on my right. Then I turned and looked left, where the remnants of a tree stand and the brick wall of a house made me realize that my trespassing had gone a little too far. I hopped down into the creekbed once again, climbing out at a place within the park boundary and next to the trail. I realized that the trail was circling back toward the entrance of the park. I took a short detour, traversing a powerline and trespassing on a cul-de-sac. Then I headed back to the entrance of the trail.

I wasn't quite ready to leave, so I decided I'd go back to the tower and sit for awhile. Maybe the lovebirds would be gone. They were, so I sat down to write down all that I'd been thinking about. A butterfly clothed in iridescent oranges and blues followed me up and kept me company. He seemed to be showing off his spring wings like the hummingbirds on Coiba. Rejoicing in his transformation, he'd flutter for a second to catch my attention, then perch on the rock in front of me as if to say, "Look how awesome these wings are!"

God had blessed me through Ben Burton Park, and Saturday was only half over...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

What's so Good about this Friday?

A group of friends and I like to ponder the mysteries of God and his word. Thursday night we stayed up until 4 a.m. debating the age-old issue of predestination versus free will. Although we never make any headway into resolving the issue (and this friendly discussion emerges frequently), it does raise other questions about the character of God.

For instance, what do we really mean when we call God good?

As I thought about it, I didn't even realize that during our discussion hands of the clock had well surpassed midnight. It was now Good Friday, the day that Christians are supposed to celebrate the crucifixion of Christ. We celebrate because we know the end of the story, that Jesus rose again from the dead and won the victory over sin and death.

But to the disciples before the Resurrection and to those who don't know the way God works in the present day, the fact that God killed his own Son looks like anything but good. In fact, it looks completely morbid. An all-powerful God choosing to accomplish redemption by such a bloody method seems completely illogical. All that suffering and pain, the strips of flesh ripped by the scourge, the nails and spear piercing Jesus's body, the crown of thorns that served both to blaspheme and to physically harm the King of the Jews. Was it really necessary?

We live in a culture that crowns convenience and makes the concept of "good" synonymous with the fulfillment of our desires. We live in a self-sufficient culture that is laden with pride. We all feel like we can do it on our own, and we like to let others know that as much as possible.

But anyone who walks with God on the way of the Cross can tell you that God is not always interested in fulfilling our every want. And he's certainly opposed to those who feel like they don't need him. That's why he uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and he brings about victory in situations where a defeat looks certain. He allows persecution to befall his children to develop the character of Christ in us, to show us that things like winning the lottery or experiencing healing aren't the absolute definition of good. Good is what happens when God's purposes are fulfilled, and even events that seem bad on the surface must be viewed within the full context of God's redemptive work.

This Friday is good because Jesus was obedient to the will of the Father. The death of Christ is pointless without the resurrection, and this Friday is good because Jesus had faith enough to put his deposit down for the event we'll celebrate Sunday. This Friday is good because, however bleak the situation looked on the surface, the full picture shows that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

Dr. Evil's Geology

I probably shouldn't be admitting this on a blog with mostly Christian-oriented content, but for the sake of authenticity, here goes: I have been a fan of the Austin Powers movies ever since they came out. I know, I know. They're pretty bad, but at least I've gotten progressively less fond of them as I've matured through middle and high school into the upstanding college student that I am today. For those of you walking the path of purity, this post will basically tell you the best parts so that you won't have to watch.

Anyway, my favorite character in the trilogy is Dr. Evil, the bald-headed mastermind with a pale, scarred face and very little common sense. In each of the movies, Dr. Evil goes into some kind of exile to escape capture. In the first movie, he was cryogenically frozen. In one, he utilizes a time machine. In another, he's forced to float around in space. Each time he returns to earth to mount another assault against the forces of good in the world, he's been gone so long that he's disoriented about how the world works.

He particularly has problems dealing with the way the value of currency changes over time. Typically, he makes a call to an organization parodying the U.N. tells them he will destroy something (namely, the world) if they do not meet his demands, which usually come in the form of U.S. dollars. Because he fails to take inflation into account, he'll ask for a sum so low that it's laughable to the officials he's threatening. For instance, after being unfrozen in the 1990s, he asked for a mere $1 million because he was thinking in terms of '60s money.

And he has a very distinctive way of presenting his demands. After he demands the money, he raises his pinkie finger and places it next to his puckered lips while sinister music plays in the background. Then someone on his staff will inform him that his request is too low, and he'll repeat the process, changing $1 million to...

"$100 biilllion dollarss." (The sinister music repeats and the pinkie returns to the puckered lips.)

As I sat in my Geology class the other day, my teacher kept talking about how old the earth was. Although he was speaking a completely different language, I was able to decipher some of things he was saying, like:

"This shield (large slab of continental crust) is 2.5 billion years old." And:

"The oldest matter we have consists of zircons that are about 4 billion years old."

I'm not a math major, but I think a billion equals like, a thousand millions or something. And four of those put together? That's like 4,000 millions of years that these rocks have supposedly been around (or at least their zircons, whatever the heck those are).

As I listened to the teacher talk about the age of the earth in such astronomical magnitudes, I began to chuckle to myself. I couldn't stop imagining Dr. Evil standing up in the class in place of my instructor, talking about how the zircons are...

"Four biillionn years old."

It's not that I'm against science or think that humans are so significant that the earth can't possibly be that old if we weren't around to see it age. It's just that the numbers used to describe the ages of things begin to get ridiculous after awhile. According to scientists (anthropologists included here) modern-type humans began appearing 30,000-40,000 years ago. (That's an estimate based on what I learned in a class a few years ago.) If this is the case, our existence is less than a blink of an eye in geologic time.

Now, of course I believe the biblical account to be accurate, but it's hard to reconcile with what the university tries to feed you. Call me ignorant, but it seems arrogant to think that we, as a race of creatures that has been walking the earth for a span of time proportionate to a the width of a hair compared to the Grand Canyon, can know anything about the state of anything from four billion years ago.

When I think about the science of things archaic, more questions arise than answers. Whether they believe in the Big Bang Theory or choose to avoid the question altogether, scientists have still failed to answer where the original matter came from. Last time I checked, something coming from nothing had still not been experimentally proven.

Thank God that we can have simple faith, and although we don't understand it all, we can be "sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). Until God gives me the capacity to understand it all, I'm going to continue boasting in my certainty: the death and resurrection of Christ.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What do I want?

This is a poem I wrote not too long ago during a tough time. I ran across it the other day while looking through some boxes. It's a pretty interesting and accurate assessment of my heart and what I want out of my life. It's a little long, but I think it's worth the reading time. Judge for yourself:

What do I want?
less valleys, more steady ascent
To welcome the unexpected
to go where I am sent

To live the life I'm led to lead
Though the outcome isn't clear
To follow in obedience
to do away with fear

To go abroad, across the seas
for adventures yet untold
The heart within me begs me "Please!"
when age wants me to fold

To be a faithful steward
of the life that I've been given
Not hoarding wealth just for myself
but storing it in heaven

To know joy and peace and love
Just as well as I know sin
To find repentance, to be renewed
not to turn back again

To live for something greater
something bigger than myself
To know my script line by line
to play the role so well

To make glad music in my heart
as well as with my mouth
To praise from a joyful soul
a well that won't run out

To be desperate and broken
just to be made whole and new
To starve myself from the world
to have grace as my food

To deny myself the supposed right
to anger or to hate
For being Christ is better
than a woeful, sulking state

To love in such a way
as to teeter on the beam
where mercy and intolerance
sit on opposite extremes

Never to condemn a man
but always to refine
To judge the works of others
in the same way I judge mine

To seize the day and bind it up,
handing it to Christ
To give up what I thought were reins
so he can run my life

To inspire those around me
with the strength that dwells within
Not for fame or glory
but to bring them close to Him

To somehow share in suffering
To learn how to obey
To live is Christ; to die is gain:

Saturday, April 08, 2006

New Song

If you haven't checked it out yet, the link on the right that says "play and download my music" takes you to my purevolume site where you can, guess what, play and download my music. I just uploaded a new version of one of my songs called "How great is your love." If you listen to it and would like to comment about how good or terrible it is, do so either on that site or under this post. I'd love to hear the feedback.

I worked long and hard on this song and produced it on my own computer. It doesn't sound like professional quality, but I think I did okay given the fact that my microphone costs $7 and my software $35. [We won't get into how much I spent on guitars and the piano!] So, if you're tired of reading my writing, get a change of pace by checking out my musical side. I'll be getting back to my China narrative soon, so this will bide the time between Panama and China.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Taking Aim

Son, we can't shoot the Waodani. They're not ready for heaven; we are.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds...For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

-The Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 10:3-4, Eph. 6:12
This past weekend I finally saw The End of the Spear, a powerful movie based on the true story of the martyrdom of five missionaries to the Waodani (also seen Auca, Huaorani) Indians in Ecuador. Upon graduation from college, the five men and their families went to Ecuador, each intending to do mission work with the various Indian tribes there. Nate Saint, the main character in the movie, was a pilot who used his plane to fly supplies to missionaries in the surrounding area. By some movement of God, he and the four other men felt called to the Waodani, a notoriously violent Amazon tribe that feared encroachment by outsiders. Shell Oil Company had wanted to drill nearby for a long time, but the murderous Waodani had kept them at bay by spearing foreigners that came into the area.
Saint and the others, including Jim Elliot, found a settlement of Waodani and in 1956, set up camp at a river near the settlement. After some initially positive contact with people from the tribe, some of the Waodani men raided the camp and killed the five missionaries who had dedicated their lives to reaching the tribe with the gospel of Christ. Their sacrifice in itself is amazing, but what the wives of the martyrs did after their husbands died is just as inspiring.
Some of them went back and lived among the tribe that had taken the lives of their relatives. Over the years, with the help of a Waodani girl who had fled their violent lifestyle to be with foreigners, the women were able to establish themselves as part of the community. To me, one of the most powerful parts of the movie was when the native Waodani girl was explaining the gospel to family members she hadn't seen since she fled years earlier. She claimed to have a message from the Creator God, "Waengongi," who the Waodani thought no longer spoke to people. She said that Waengongi had a Son and that he didn't want them to kill anymore. "He was speared, but he didn't spear back, so that the people who speared him could live well."
As I watched, something struck me. Not only were these women able to put aside the fear of death and waltz right into the village of the people who killed their family members, but they were able to do it with compassion and a desire to rescue the Waodani from their spiritual failures as well as their physical decimation. These women understood that the spears that pierced their husbands' and brothers' flesh were not the weapons that killed them. This was a spiritual battle, fought over the precious souls of the Waodani. They were the hostages, not the antagonists.
As Jesus said, the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. The spears hurled through the air were the fiery darts of the evil one, shot to test the faith and resolve of the women who had dedicated their lives and sacrificed their families for the cause of Christ. What seemed like a monumental victory for the enemy became a one of his worst defeats of the 20th century. All because the women were able to put the crosshairs on the right foe.
Too many times, we as Christians put heavy burdens on the lost. We look down upon them because they engage in activities we shun. We expect them to meet the standards of a law that they haven't submitted themselves to, and when they miss the mark, we scoff and point our fingers as if to say, "HA! That's why we don't associate with you!"
But isn't something wrong here? Paul says that our battle isn't against flesh and blood. So why do we spend so much time opposing the homosexuals, the drug lords or those bent on taking down the Ten Commandments? Because we've forgotten that each of us has a dark past filled with everything but Jesus, we're unable to see that we have our artillery aimed at the P.O.W.'s and we're letting it fly every day. Instead of snatching people from the fire, we're embroiling them in it.
What do we call people who are outside of a relationship with Christ? Lost. Yet we act like we expect them to know the way. Just as we were at one time, they have been taken captive by an unseen, spiritual enemy. Christ has come to set them free, and we are the freedom fighters who will help release them.
In the movie, when Saint finally found a Waodani settlement someone tried to tell him to wait for government approval that could take up to 2 years. His response embodied the empathetic heart we should take to those who don't know Christ. Although not exactly, it went something like this:
"We don't have two years. In two years they'll have wiped themselves out. We have to set these people free now, before it's too late."