Have You Ever Thought about Soul Keeping?

Rainbow in Field“Call this world if you please ‘The vale of soul-making.’” John Keats

“The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.” Dallas Willard

Yesterday, Zondervan published what I believe will become a spiritual classic: John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping. When I read Pulling Back the Shades a few weeks ago, it was like dutifully getting a series of Hep B vaccinations, but meditating my way through Soul Keeping felt like savoring a box of Harry and David’s succulent pears! Also, in trying to summarize what I learned, it feels like at best I might only be able to describe the taste, but what I really wish for you is to enjoy it for yourself! I can get a free copy for the first person who asks, but after that…I’m willing to share my copy with anybody else, or you can buy one on-line for as little as $13.25 or $5 Kindle.

So, what’s so exciting about Soul Keeping? It spotlights something we don’t often think about: our soul…”the life center of human beings”…that which “seeks harmony, connection, and integration.” Ortberg distinguishes it from “self,” which focuses inwardly. “Ironically, the more obsessed we are with ourselves, the more we neglect our souls,” because the soul exists before God and is made for relationship. The soul is that deepest part of ourselves that we cannot entirely fathom; its health sustains us during our most terrible struggles, but if our soul is sick, even sunny days can seem bleak. Ortberg walks us through understanding what our souls are, what they need for health, what damages our souls, and how to find help and healing for our souls. He points out that we alone are responsible for the condition of our souls. “The stream is your soul. For it to flow freely, the keeper of the stream must clear it of anything that becomes more important than God.” And, we are the keeper of our souls! As Ortberg later points out: “We  all commit idolatry every day. It is the sin of the soul meeting its needs with anything that distances it from God.” Soul Keeping shines a bright light into the issues of our hearts and souls!

A few of my favorite take-aways (and there were many…I keep mulling things over and remembering more) include:

*Renewing my attempt to practice the presence of God (à la Brother Lawrence), because “The soul thrives not through our accomplishments but through simply being with God.”   “How many moments of my life today can I fill with conscious awareness of and surrender to God’s presence?” “God wants to make every moment of my life glorious with his presence.”

*Resting my soul in God. “The soul was made to rest in God the way a tree rests in soil.” “The test of a sustaining spiritual practice is: Does it fill you with grace for life?” Abraham Heschel: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul…Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, in the seventh day we try to dominate the self…”

*Remembering the “Cycle of Grace” (1. acceptance in Christ, 2. resting in sustaining grace, 3. finding significance in being a sign pointing others to God, and 4. achievement as a fruitful vine, abiding in Christ). “The opposite of the Cycle of Grace is what might be called the Cycle of Works. In this, I simply go backwards against the tide of grace. I begin by trying to achieve impressive accomplishment through my own strength for my own ego. I hope that by doing this I might feel significant. I hope that this sense of significance will sustain me through all the difficulties and stresses of life. And ultimately I hope that the end result will be a life that is somehow acceptable to somebody. The cycle of works will destroy my soul. It is the hard yoke. It is the heavy burden.”

*Responding to life by keeping centered on God (as Ortberg explains after trying to ride a mechanical bull at a fair): “It might not be all that easy, but the key is you have to stay centered, and the only way to do that is to sit loose. People try to clamp on too tight. Don’t do that. You have to be flexible. If you think you can be in control of the ride you’ll never make it. You have to follow the bull. You have to keep moving. Shift your center of gravity as the bull moves.”

Well, time’s up and word count is too high, but Soul Keeping is an A+ book in my mind, and I believe it will have an enduring, positive impact on my life. Let me know if you’d like a copy!


Time and Eternity: Arriving Before Departure

DSC_1193Yesterday we flew home from South Korea to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids On our way to South Korea, our flight path took us from Michigan to Dallas, Dallas and then from Dallas across America from south to North, Canadian Rockies over Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies,Alaska across Alaska Bering Straits all the way up to the Bering Straits! Arctic OceanI even caught glimpses of the Arctic Sea! Northen Coast of Russia We crossed to the northern coast of Siberia,Siberia and then from there, we flew all the way down the eastern coast of RussiaChina 1into China, China Seaacross the Yellow Sea (carefully skirting around North Korea),Michael and Alan at Incheon and into Seoul, South Korea, where Mike was waiting for us…over 12,000 miles. Russia It was an incredible trip, and I could hardly take my eyes off the glories of the earth passing beneath my eyes as we traveled! I kept thinking about something Abraham Lincoln said some 150 years ago: “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” I wish Lincoln could have flown in a jet plane! Then I believe he would also have said, as I “look down upon the earth” from the stratosphere, I cannot conceive of how anyone can say there is no God.” Me too!South KoreaOn the return flight yesterday, our plane left Seoul’s Incheon Airport at 4:50 pm, traveled for nearly 13 hours at speeds exceeding 600mph at times,  and arrived the same day at 3:05 pm in Dallas, Texas…1 hour and 45 minutes before we left. Blue Bonnets TexasHow do you like that for time travel?? :) (These are blue bonnets, which I’ve heard about forever but never seen blooming in Texas before!)

Time is a funny thing, isn’t it? How can we fly halfway around the world and still arrive at our destination an hour before we leave? I guess because time—though a convenient and universally used measuring system—is arbitrary. To us, 24 hours is a big deal, but not to God! “For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that passes by, like a few hours of the night” (Psalm 90:4, HCSB). God is the great Creator: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Psalm 90:2). What a mighty and glorious God is ours, who “inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15). There is no such thing as time travel for Him. He transcends time!


Reflected Glory

IMG_3858Our bedroom wall is really lavender, but the other morning it looked like this. IMG_3854“What is that?” I wondered. Whirling around, I saw this in my window on theIMG_3851opposite side of the room. It almost looked like the tree outside was on fire, IMG_3856but I realized it was (of course) a reflection of the sun coming in IMG_3862 through the French doors on yet another wall of our room. IMG_3861Here the sun is bouncing off my lens, making it look like two suns peeking out! IMG_3897Or how about this shot? The duet of red and yellow figures below the sun  are curious and provocative, but they make me understand why some people believe IMG_3897 they’ve seen aliens. I mean, really. If you just saw the two of them, would you ever say, “Oh, I know what that it is! It’s a reflection of the sun, of course!” IMG_3902So, you probably know where I’m going with this! 023 Orange Red Sunset copyThe Bible teaches us that God is so glorious that we as humans can’t actually look directly at his full glory. Like the sun, He is blinding in his brilliance. 022 Sunrise over Europe copy However, God sent Jesus, “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person” ( Hebrews 1:3), down from his glory to the earthIMG_3899 in the form of a man so we could see him, learn from him, and understand thatIMG_3857 truly He is the light of the world. Jesus taught us, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). IMG_3859As believers, we are to let God’s light shine out from us so that, even though “we have this treasure in earthen vessels,” God’s glory is reflected and others become curious…drawn to the light. If we walk in the light, our lives will be marked by love, joy, peace,patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility and self-control… IMG_3897not bizarre behavior that makes people think we’re aliens (like hatred, wrath, or malice), and not through lives that are personally junked up with a tangle of IMG_3903immorality, materialism, selfishness, gluttony, pride or anything else that clouds God’s glory and makes the entire world look muddy, grey and sunless. 013 3 Guys copyDuring these dark days, may we walk in the light!

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Rise Up, My Love (81): The Perfumes of our King

Song of Solomon 3:6 “perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant…” As the processional draws near, the bride begins to smell the sweet fragrance of the smoke and realizes that it has the savor of perfume: myrrh and frankincense, complemented by wonderfully exotic aromas.

Myrrh is a resinous gum produced from a south Arabian tree, used from antiquity as a perfume throughout the Middle East. In its liquid form it was often carried in small bottles (like nard), and used much as perfumes are used today. But, it could also be used in its solid form and carried in a small sachet against the body.  In its solid state, it was sometimes mixed with fat and shaped into cones, which could be placed on the heads of guests at feasts.  As the fat melted with the body heat, the aroma of myrrh would fill the room.* Its most important use in the Old Testament was as the major ingredient in the holy anointing oil used in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:23-25).

Similarly, frankincense is an amber resin with a dusty, white surface that exudes from the bark of the Boswellia shrub found in India and southwestern Arabia.  It was noted for its strong, bright flame, was an important ingredient in holy incense, and was constantly used in the temple as an emblem of prayer and praise**.

In the New Testament, both myrrh and frankincense were gifts presented to our Lord at his birth (Matthew 2:11), and myrrh mixed with aloes was also presented to our Lord in His death as part of the embalming process (John 19:39-40). Myrrh speaks of the suffering and death of our Lord; frankincense speaks of his resurrected life and praise.

To be perfumed with something is to be anointed with it, so that it is absorbed into the person and exuded naturally from the body.  Every perfume smells slightly different on each person, because the perfume reacts differently to each person’s unique skin oils and chemistry. To be perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, as our Lord was, is to enter into his experience of death and life…to take his life into our own and allow his Spirit to produce in us a unique fragrance based on the application of his being to our lives.

To be perfumed with myrrh and frankincense is to experience Christ as Paul desired to experience him: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death: If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

To be perfumed with myrrh and frankincense is to allow Christ’s death and life to be lived out afresh in each of us. It is to absorb him into our lives and live out his life in unique fragrance again. Under the trials of life, our person should develop the fragrance of crushed myrrh. The bruising and breaking we experience should produce the myrrh of meekness, gentleness, and longsuffering. In the sunshine of his love, our lives should bear the succulent fruits of love, joy, and peace. Such fruits should return to him for his enjoyment as we meditate on him, distilling lavish praises from our lips which flow freely heavenward like incense rising.

“…with all powders of the merchant.”  …with every possible complementary perfume known to man!  The merchant brought exotic perfumes from the farthest reaches of the globe.  King Solomon was the richest man on earth, and he doubtless gathered the finest ointments from throughout the known world.  Nothing was lacking in him!

Similarly, our Lord was endowed with every grace and inward beauty and comes to us with nothing lacking.  He is perfumed with “all powders of the merchant,” with every complementary fragrance that exists.  His person is perfect, and his endowment to us is complete.  There is nothing that he does not possess, and there is no grace that he will withhold from us.

See the king coming to you, like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense and every spiritual blessing, calling you to rise up and sit together with him in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3;2:6)!

*Carr, G. Lloyd. The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1984, p. 85.

**Patterson, Paige.  Song of Solomon. Chicago:  Moody, 1986, p. 63. Kyoto Cherry Blossoms. Sun  (Cherry blossoms from our visit in Kyoto, Japan last week. Rise up, my love!!) Easter Morning(Because it’s Easter Morning: “He is risen!” from Camp Casey Chapel, S. Korea)

The Armstrong Archives (81): Christmas’ Greatest Gift? Grandparents Visiting!

December 16, 1979  Alan is going to buy legos with your gift on the way home. He wouldn’t let me out of the house because I’ve been feeling crumby…but today I’m starting to make a comeback. Sunday sounds just fine. We’ll expect you for dinner (unless you want it otherwise). The kids and I made divinity fudge today…it’s FLAT but it still tastes good!

[Enclosed was an article entitled I Remember Poppa, by Joseph Vicenzo, probably from the Readers’ Digest. The article told about Joseph’s experience of loving to visit his grandfather’s leather shop and special trips to an Italian pastry shop on Sunday afternoons. The message was—the “magic” in a relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is really the extravagance of love and enjoyment, and it won’t “spoil” the children! 1979 Opening Christmas PresentsFriday, December 28, 1979 Happy New Year! Haven’t got any new news but we were just so appreciative of your coming for Christmas that I had to write. You’re my favorite “company,” and it just made a world of difference to have your cheery influence! We got very depressed after you left, so I got busy and took down all the Christmas decorations, put the house back in order, and began preparing for the New Year, which made me so busy and tired that I stopped feeling lonesome. Alan was really sad for a couple f days, but he has perked up today and is enjoying a good game of tennis ball “ice hockey” with the boys. Even Michael enjoys playing now and has made two goals!1979 ChristmasI absolutely love my new Bissell broom. It really works beautifully, and I use it constantly to clean up after meals, sweep pine needles, etc. It is super convenient and works just fine on bare floors. Would you like one? The dust doesn’t blow around like it does with a broom. Also, the LEGOs are such a hit—as we all knew. Aaron has made two airplanes, a wrecker truck, loader, and race cars—FANCY ones from the pictures. Even his old ma has been astounded with his ability to reproduce what he sees these days. Michael wants Grandpa back. I’ll try to persuade the new baby to come during Dad’s break so he can help wash dishes…!?! Thanks for everything.

Love, Us

A+M w KidsI prepared this a few weeks ago, but happily I am posting it while visiting Michael and Grace’s family for Easter! Now I can speak from the grandparents’ side: It is a great joy and blessing to be able to visit your kids and help out! Alan is also washing lots of dishes…just like my dad used to do. All the action wears us right out, but I think it’s super encouraging to see new life blooming. There is something deeply hopeful about the energy, affection, and resilience of little ones! Grandchildren are “the bomb!”  :) At the Sheridan in Kobe, Japan


A Blast from the Past

A cousin my age forwarded these pictures. I am sorry I don’t know the source, but they brought back so many happy memories, and I thought they might for you too (if you were born back in the 50′s or so…) For those of you who are younger, the question posed was: Do you know what these pictures are all about?-8How I loved the fresh smell of curtains and sheets drying on the clothesline! I used to enjoy trying to help my mom hang out the clothes every Monday (the laundry day for all respectable house wives back in the 1950′s). -15Used by my brother in his cap gun to scare the dickens out of…well, me for one! -9What’s the relationship between tin foil and that thing on the right?? My mom won our first TV on a talk show in Chicago in 1954 when I was four. Really hot stuff in our little neighborhood of Purdue University instructors and their families! Of course, the reception was often terrible because TV was new for the middle class, but if you wrapped the antennae in tin foil and pointed it just right, it helped clear up the reception…at least a little. -3My very favorite TV show…totally melted my heart! How I wished for a dog of my own!! Lassie ran for 19 seasons—one of the longest running series ever! -13One of the favorite games from the 50′s. I got revenge on my brother (accidentally) for his previous terrorist tactics with his cap gun, because the constant noise of dropping and scooping up the jacks grated on his nerves while he was trying to study. (He was 7 years my senior.) -5Of course, noise was always an issue in a household with five lively kids. Everybody wanted their turn playing their music on the old phonograph! -7     As girls, we all used to roll our hair in curlers and dry them with one of these. -18  I still have a couple of these indestructible ice cube makers. They actually work! -4        Looks just like my typing class. In 1964, “computer classes” didn’t exist! -14I got my first job in 1965 working at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s. Although it was a staple of American life for almost 100 years, it went defunct in 1997. Today’s counterpart might be something like Walmart. -6Is it possible that young people don’t recognize this? It’s a roll of film for an old-style camera, although digital cameras have totally taken over the market in the past 15 years with their better resolution, storage, and processing options. -12Because my dad was a college professor, we lived in cities and had to buy our milk from the stores by 1955. However, Alan enjoyed milk delivery until 1970, and it was a daily joy for me the summer I lived in Scotland (1972). I still think the best milk is unhomogenized with an inch or two of cream on top!-17Know the relationship between a pen and this thingamabob? Audio cassette tapes were used for recording until the early 1980′s. I used to tape record stories for my kids so they could listen to them again and again. Unfortunately, toddlers liked to go on covert search and destroy missions, pulling the tapes out of the cassettes. The tip of a pen was the perfect instrument for rewinding the tape unless it had become hopelessly stretched, crinkled, and broken (which was all too common). :( -16This last prize, a “ride-for-one-penny-horse,” might look like an antique to you unless you live in GR and shop at Meijer, where—I am delighted to say—you can still ride a rocking horse for just one shiny penny! My kids grew up riding “Sandy,” and there are always kids clamoring to ride “Sandy” even in 2014!

Times change and life changes. Some of the changes I love (like the advancements in technology), and some I grieve (like the loss of daily delivery of fresh creamery milk). The older I get, the more I appreciate some of the old classics that never seem to change: great books, great natural wonders, and even great deals (like a penny ride for tots). Got a minute to share a blast from your past, either an old classic or a favorite change?

“I am the LORD, I change not” (Malachi 3:6).

South Korea Cherry Blossom Festival

IMG_5278It’s spring time in South Korea, IMG_4375and Seoul is bursting into bloom! National Gallery Building WalkOne of the most beautiful walks is by the National Gallery Building in downtownFlower RainSeoul, which is lined with 1,400 cherry trees and is raining flowers now. :) MountainsideHowever, the mountainsides are also full of cherry blossoms, Soyuson Mt. 1and there are opportunities for nature walks in ever so many places!Alan and me with Grace and kidsAlan and I have been visiting with Michael’s family, IMG_5302and when I get back home, I’m sure I’ll do a series on our adventures, Mike and Judahbut if you don’t hear much from me for a little while, Soyuson Mt. 2just know it’s because I’m lost in wonder at God’s springtime beauty…Sharing Popsciclesand—of course—sharing lots of good times with our kids, Girls with Octopuslearning about the culture (this is from a shopping trip), Ice Cream Conesand trying new treats. Pizza Party(Alan says I travel with my camera, but he travels with his fork. :) )Magnolias At any rate, no matter where I go, I’m inspired by what an awesome world Seoul TowerGod’s created! I love the creativity of man, Judah. Cotton candybut only God knows how to create a man! IMG_5263Man can make beautiful palaces and gardens, Cross. Cherry FestivalBut only God can make beautiful hearts and souls!

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11).