The Carpenter

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Thousands of board feet of lumber lay jumbled together in lumberyard bins.  Straight, sweeping, clear, and knotty, their character is similar, yet vastly different.  Craftsmen from all backgrounds sift through the bins to select the proper stock for their masterpiece, evaluating ever so carefully each face and run.

The framer seeks a truckload of boards to support a structure behind the scenes, and is not too concerned with selecting perfect boards.  He knows that planning, shaping, and joining together with other boards will create something structurally sound and beautiful in its own way.

The finish carpenter takes much more time sorting through the bin, with the goal of finding boards as close to perfect as possible.  These boards will  create a marvel for all who pass by the finished product, staring in amazement at what has been created.  Boards that are less than perfect will end up in the scrap bin or the burn pile.

Here’s a piece of inside knowledge-there is no such thing as a perfect board.  It doesn’t matter if the highest quality tree seedling is planted in the best soil in a state of the art greenhouse-the tree won’t be perfect.  The lumber milled from the tree won’t be perfect.  Sure, the rings may be tighter, the knots may be smaller and at more desirable angles, and the board may be cut to the exact specification, but they still fall short of perfection.  Every time.  Bet the farm on it.  This all goes back to Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose sin over God’s perfect world and created a chasm between man and God, introducing toil to the lives of each created being and their respective environment (Genesis 3).

Friends, we have much in common with these lumberyard pieces.  None of us are perfect, no matter what we may look like on the outside.  Our knots—wounds that run DEEP, are there.  Even when hidden to the outside by new growth, the knots persist.  They can’t be undone.  Perhaps a wound from a situation still leaves us hurting to this day.  Perhaps we chose to lean a certain way to capture more of a light source as we were growing, just as a tree might, and we now aren’t quite as straight as when we started our growth.  The evidence is there when examined.  Look into your heart, and your own life, and tell me that the knots and scars aren’t there.  What?  No response?  Precisely the point.

Don’t lose heart, fellow imperfect board!  You see, there is this Carpenter, who has been waiting for us to surrender to His control.  He knows how knotty and deformed we are before he ever reaches into the bin, and chooses us anyhow.  No longer are we destined for the scrap bin or burn pile, the Carpenter sees the potential and begins to work us into His masterpiece.

This one is smooth and clear on the outside, it will work well for a face board.  This one is a bit crooked, but very strong—this will work great in a support wall for the Temple.  This one is perfect to span a great distance for a roof.  Each one of us possess qualities not shared with anyone else.

The Carpenter knows that there are no perfect boards laying in lumberyard bins here on Earth, but that doesn’t stop Him from choosing us.  His work to perfect our imperfections show His skill.  His talent.  His love.  He sees the end result, and crafts each board precisely as needed for His purpose.

Some of us need to be run through a planer to be smoothed, others need to be trimmed so that our ends are square. Some need to be braced and put under pressure to straighten and remove years of pressure from another side.  We know we’re dirty, broken, stained and scarred, but His love is stronger than our imperfections.

We’re all part of a structure whose beauty we can’t fathom, formed of imperfect boards joined together by the Master.  Rough, hand-hewn beams weathered from years of exposure, joined together with masterful mortise and tenon joints to support the load of the structure.  Beautiful boards finely finished to bring out the beauty within.  Gnarly stud boards holding up walls behind the scenes.  Everyone who surrenders is a part of this masterpiece.

This is bigger and you and me, or anything we could fix.  So why do we still labor in vain?  None of us are perfect, no matter our position in life.  No matter where we live, what we drive, or what we wear.  We’re all busted on the inside.  Let the planer smooth our imperfections, and be joined together with boards that look similar, and those who look different.  Surrender to the call.  The Carpenter is building a Masterpiece.  Won’t you come be a part of it?

Isaiah 43:18-19, ESV.  “Remember not the former things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

 

Intentional Winter Ramblings

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“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.”  Aldo Leopold penned these words decades ago reflecting on the crackling fire that warmed his shins on a cold winters day at his Sand County, Wisconsin, farm.  Each time I lay a split of oak upon the andirons, this account comes to mind.  What does this mean for us in a modern world of mobile applications, heaters of every kind, and too many mindless tasks that consume our lives?  Our ancestors didn’t have a choice–a life of leisure was typically short, unproductive, and unfulfilling.

We fill our lives today with all the things we think we should do as “Americans”, and even as “good Christians”.  But what are our intentions?  To live the American dream?  To die with the most toys and highest net worth?  What about working intentionally at every task we undertake to accomplish the calling we have been given?  I believe the Word is clear that we are not to be slothful (Colossians 3:23, Proverbs 20:4, Proverbs 24:30-34, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 are a few verses that come to mind). We can’t, however, rely on our own strength and wisdom (Proverbs 3:5, Matthew 6:25), as they will always be insufficient to meet our needs.

Each time my saw penetrates an oak log, I think forward to the heat it will provide the following winter.  The thought that my work will soon pay off spurs me on through the task, and my heart smiles once the process has come full circle again.  Spiritual obedience also leads to joy, as God uses our obedience to accomplish the results He has already ordained.  Trust Him.  Work hard.  Live in Sabbath rest knowing that the results belong to Him.  Minister to my wife, children and those He has entrusted to my influence, and be intentional about these things.

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.  Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.  How long will you lie there, O sluggard?  When will you arise from your sleep?  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”  Proverbs 6:6-11.

The oak continues to burn upon the andirons, as the labor of prior months now warms us on a cold February day.  The sleet and ice lay stacked up outside, and more is on the way.  I’m betting the ant is headed back to the wood pile.

Cravings of Fellowship

It’s been a bit since I’ve posted, but this morning finds me with something on my mind that I feel needs to be shared.  My last post was about my daughter, Willow, who turned two last week.  Her imagination and personality continue to grow exponentially, but some things remain the same.

This past weekend, we had a party to celebrate her birthday….Which resulted in a house full of family, laughter, and great memories in the making.  Yesterday morning, the occupancy of the house was once again reduced to the three of us.  I took the day off, and we spent time hanging out together and catching our breath from the busy weekend.

I hear you already asking where this is going….So here we go.  Last night, we decided to have a family movie night.  Willow joined us on the couch as we dimmed the lights and got the popcorn out of the microwave.  She sat in between us, and we placed the bowl of popcorn in her lap.  She clutched the lip of the bowl with one hand, and began to move popcorn from the bowl to her mouth with the other.  She sat still, enjoying fellowship with her parents and a treat for her taste buds.  I don’t know that I have seen her sit that still for that period of time in many moons.

Why did she sit there?  Fellowship.  Hanging out with her parents and just enjoying their company.  Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Romans 8 describes those who belong to Christ as sons and daughters of God, and co-heirs with Christ.  We were created for fellowship with our Heavenly Father, but when is the last time we crawled up in His lap just to sit with Him for a while?

Let’s get rid of the chaos and busy lives for a few minutes…or hours…or days….And enjoy fellowship with our Father.  Be still my soul……

A Few Words on Exposure

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Yes, that’s a professional digital SLR camera in the hands of a 10 month old girl. A question regarding my sanity likely comes to mind, which we may address in a later post-but for now, let’s remain objective. When I think about exposure, I’m generally thinking about light. How can I tell the story using the tools I have available to me? Things like light ratio, aperture, shutter speed, etc. immediately fill my mind, and begin to interact in an often chaotic manner. But the type of exposure I write about today is different-and MUCH more important.

Back to the original question. Why in the world would anyone give their young daughter a $2500 camera body to play with for a few minutes? The answer is here…

What does this look like to you???
What does this look like to you???

So why does she look like she is having so much fun? BECAUSE SHE IS!!!! My money says that she is happy to be interacting with objects that she sees her daddy use on a regular basis. Can she make a correct exposure using daddy’s camera? Probably not just yet. But the purpose here is her exposure. Exposure to different aspects of life, art, and culture. She can touch the camera body, study it, play with the dials, and mash the buttons. We were created with five senses-why not stimulate each of them on a regular basis?

Let’s take this a step further. How many of us are constantly exposing ourselves to new ideas, thoughts, people and places? I don’t necessarily mean traveling the world, but what about exploring the areas around us? The art gallery across town. The little ghost town 20 minutes from our house. The woods at the local park or wildlife refuge–you get the idea. So often we dig ruts for ourselves by exposing our senses to the same things each and every day. There are no external stimuli to cause us to think, look or appreciate anything outside of our normal routine. I can’t think of anything positive to arise out of this deprivation.

I think of my young daughter again. My wife and I want to expose her to as much as we possibly can (within reason!), and give her the opportunity to discover and develop the passions God has given her. We obviously don’t have all the answers, and haven’t been able to communicate through conversation with her just yet-but it can’t hurt to start exposing her now! She had her first visit to a local art gallery several weeks back (The River Gallery in West Monroe, http://rivergalleryartists.com/) and loved to look at all of the art on display. Who knows, her art may one day hang on the wall of a similar place? She loves to bang on my keyboard, and keeps nearly perfect time with her egg shaker-maybe one day she will make music to share with the world?

My wife loves to paint, and produces some great work. Perhaps our daughter would like to paint too? We picked up a set of finger paints one afternoon and decided to let her give it a try. Sitting on a cardboard-covered carport, we squeezed paint onto a canvas for her and let her go to town.

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Fingers, knees and elbows all worked well to produce her first masterpiece. Who needs fancy tools?

DSC_6766wAnd what good would a painting session be if it didn’t end up all over her face and mouth (non-toxic paint of course!)? Cleanup was a snap-throw the cardboard out, put the paint up, and put her in the bathtub! Done!

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Will she remember this painting session? Probably not. But she has been exposed to something new. Something different. A temporary space where rules don’t exist-and the only limits are self-defined! I believe the look on her face in the snapshot above says it all.

So what are we to do? We have each been given passions deep inside of us-have we searched for, pursued, and developed them? If we haven’t, what are we waiting for? Most of us don’t like change (even in small amounts), but there may be a life-altering experience just waiting for us to embrace…..If we will only take a step of faith and try something new. So get out there and experience something new-what do you have to lose?

 

The Power to Inspire

A thick fogs welcomes a cool summer morning on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, Arkansas.
A thick fogs welcomes a cool summer morning on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, Arkansas.

Do you remember the first time you cast a line into your favorite fishing hole?  You know-the one that fills your mind as you watch the autumn leaves receive their glory through the window in your office.  What about that spot on the end of your favorite trail?  The spot that few have discovered and even fewer risk the necessary time and energy to reach.  That place.

Do you remember these initial experiences?  Something draws us back here over and over again.  But what could it be that draws us? It is the experience we have in this place that is likely unattainable in any other environment.  Our distractions are removed, and our entire effort is focused on that next cast, or the next revelation we receive as we listen to our spirits commune with our heavenly Father.

Ok, Jason, this sounds great-but what does it have to do with me?  The reality is that it has everything to do with you.  And me.  And every one of our fellow human beings.  The demands of our daily lives slowly rob us of our creative potential and eventually drain our spirits.  We spend hour after hour trying to be all that we can be-only to fall short over and over again.  These inspirational experiences refill our tanks and bridge the chasms that separate us from who were created to be.

Many of us seem to make time for others-which we must-but we often neglect ourselves in the process.  I have a tendency to neglect these necessary “recharges” on an all-too-regular basis.  Then I find myself there once again-a creative slump.  I struggle to find something to write about or something to photograph.  Or I’m so burned out that I can’t be the husband that my wonderful wife needs, or the father that my beautiful daughter needs to lead her.  Woe to me for neglecting this vital part of my existence!!!!

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Water cascades through a rocky channel near the Little Red River.

What do I have to lose by disconnecting for a few hours, or even a few days? Might I neglect a few emails that could be returned?  Or some task on a list that really doesn’t amount to anything in the big picture? Perhaps I’m worried that I might discover my true self and unlock the fullness of my potential-the very thing I was created for?  Who am I really shortchanging here?

You see, without inspiration, we grow stale.  The same ideas and experiences drive us to repeat the same actions over and over again, with the same results.   When we refuse to be inspired, we choose to stay in that same rut that we can’t seem to pull out of.  But when we allow ourselves to be inspired, our chains are broken and we are free to create again.

My vantage point on the Little Red River as I disconnect from the chaos.
My vantage point on the Little Red River as I disconnect from the chaos.

The horn at the dam sounds in the distance.  They are about to release enough water through the turbines to completely transform this lazy mountain river I’ve temporarily occupied.  I’d better move my chair.

Western Cottonmouth

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A Western Cottonmouth basks in a road in southeast Arkansas.

Here in south Arkansas we are blessed with an abundance of public land to explore and recreate on.  Some of these areas, such as Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, contain large areas of bottomland hardwood forest that stay wet most of the time. This provides excellent habitat for herpetofauna (snakes and amphibians), who can be seen and heard throughout most of the year in these areas.

One of the most commonly observed (and misunderstood) snakes in this area is the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous leucostoma).  These snakes are indeed venomous, but like most wild animals, prefer to be left alone to carry out their daily duties.  Reports of cottonmouth chasing humans to kill them abound, and most folks kill cottonmouth upon sighting.  Many times non-venomous water snakes are mistaken for cottonmouth, and killed in the name of human protection.  Just yesterday I saw a young specimen attempting to cross a road who fled when I attempted to lie prone and photograph him.  Vicious indeed!!

Most folks associate this snake with water-and rightfully so.  They thrive in areas of slow-moving water, and are often encountered while boating or fishing, leading to this association.  While this is generally accurate, they are also regularly observed in upland areas that border their more common aquatic habitats.  I spend a good bit of time traveling gravel roads while working, and often encounter specimens basking in roads or attempting to cross them.

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A cottonmouth creeps through an upland pine forest.

Oddly enough, they are becoming one of my favorite snakes to study and photograph.  Loathed by many, I find them to be fascinating to observe (as with many other things in nature!), and generally experience a bit of a mutual respect when I encounter them.  If they allow, I photograph them for a few minutes, then let them get on their way.  I only wish they enjoyed their encounter with me as much I enjoy each encounter with them….

Texas Ratsnake

“Hold on!”, I exclaimed to my wife on a warm spring afternoon during a trip to our local wildlife refuge.  I didn’t have to look at her to realize she wasn’t quite as enthused as I when I brought our SUV to a fairly abrupt stop on the side of the gravel road.  “What?”, asked my wife as I put the vehicle in park.  I was oblivious to her question-not even stopping to realize that she had asked me something.  I grabbed my camera and flung open the door in one motion, and began the approach to what had caught my eye seconds ago.

There it was.  A beautiful Texas Ratsnake (Pantheropis obsoletus, formerly Black Ratsnake, Elaphe obsoleta) who lacked only a few feet from safely completing his journey across the gravel road.  He stopped to see what was checking him out, and I immediately positioned myself in the road to document this specimen.  Image

He posed for me for several minutes-stone still at the edge of the road ditch.  I’m not quite sure as to the logic behind their “kinked” posture when approached, but it must work in their defense.  Most specimens I find along forest edges exhibit this same behavior.  The light was partially diffused through some afternoon clouds, and couldn’t have been much better.  After a minute or two of photographing him in profile, I decided to make an image of his head from another angle.  He still hadn’t moved, as if I had ordered him to remain where he was.

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A close-up of the top of his head. The scale pattern can be a useful tool in distinguishing between some species of snakes.

After a few seconds of photographing him here, I decided it was time to head on back to the vehicle and head towards the house.  I decided to give him a hand completing his journey, but his defensive posture immediately informed me that he didn’t need or want my help!  It wasn’t my intent to agitate him, but I decided to take advantage of his behavior and make a couple of images for the sake of documentation.  I returned to my original prone position, and began to photograph him once again.  He cooperated, and presented me with the opportunity to make multiple images, which I readily took advantage of.  After several minutes, I decided to let him get on his way, and rejoin my family in our vehicle.

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Note the defensive posture exhibited here after my attempt to help him finish crossing the road.

I thanked him as I walked back to my vehicle, silently hoping that this journey across the road wouldn’t be the last for him.  Sadly enough, many of us would have went out of our way to run him over with our vehicle.  I guess I get it-I was taught as a child that a snake must be killed immediately-but why?  Could it be that we don’t understand these important contributors in the ecosystems they inhabit?  He was simply out doing what the Lord made him to do-trying to make a living, if you will.  Hunting for the next rat, vole or mouse to cross his path and sustain him for another day, as he gave everything each day to perpetuate his species.  I must ask myself this question-am I doing what I was designed to do each and every day?  What if I could be more like this Ratsnake, and worship my Creator with my every move?

As I re-entered my SUV, my wife appeared glad to know that we were headed for home.  “What was it?”, she asked as I set my camera body back on the seat.  “Ratsnake”, I replied, and showed her a few of the images on the camera’s LCD screen.  She shuddered as I turned the camera off, and we headed back towards the house.

When nature gives you a flood

This spring has seemed unseasonably cool-of which I won’t complain.  Along with the cool weather, we have received what seems to be an abundance of rainfall this year.  Perhaps it is normal, but it seems atypical to me.  I’m confident that in a few months we’ll be begging for just a drop of rain to fill the rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes.

Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.
Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

The abundance of water during spring would typically be a good thing for my attempts to photograph herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles), but they haven’t been calling too much just yet.  So what’s a photographer to do?  Shoot what you have, of course!  The rain had forced the Ouachita River out of its banks, leading to road and boat ramp closures, and water in places it normally wouldn’t be found.

The river had risen more than I thought-and presented some interesting navigational challenges. I opted to head out with a friend in his boat instead of my trusty kayak, and immediately was glad I did.  Places that one could walk through with ease a week prior were several feet under water, which led to some interesting compositions.

The message I took home from this trip was to get out and go-even when the conditions aren’t optimal!  You may well witness something for the first and last time (likely), and in my case capture a unique image that might land you a spot in a publication or something even bigger!

This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!
This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!

When I was a young boy, my grandfather would carry me with him to the barber shop to get a haircut. His barber was a shaky-handed, well-aged gentleman who happened to be an excellent fisherman.  I would listen to his fishing stories in awe, always walking away with another potential adventure in my mind.  One day I decided to ask him a simple, but profound question-when was the best time to fish?  I sat eagerly awaiting a detailed, scientific explanation that I never received.  His response was simple.  “Son, the best time to go fishing is any time you can.”

I believe I’ll take that and run with it.

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Spring has sprung!

A film of pollen coats everything beneath the heavens, as the vegetative inhabitants of our world once again attempt to perpetuate their species.  Flowers erupt in an attempt to attract pollinators.  Leaves burst forth from buds on recently awakened branches and stems to produce food.  Winter’s dormancy has once again been evicted from the woods, as organisms young and old begin their annual rituals.

Spring rains fill ephemeral wetlands, and the amphibian world couldn’t be more enthralled that it is time to breed once again.  Spring peepers, treefrogs, chorus frogs and many more make their presence known as daylight fades each day.  Fish begin preparation for the annual spawn, and are hard at work each day preparing beds and attracting mates.

Spring is that blessed season each year when every creature gets a fresh chance to glorify their Creator.  Organisms that once appeared dead prove to be alive once again.  Ephesians 5:17 comes to mind, as we have been awakened through our new life through Christ.  Whether we are looking inside ourselves or at the natural world, this is a chance for all creatures to begin again.

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A Crimson Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia sp.) blooms in a longleaf pine forest in southern Alabama.

So take a minute as you travel through each day to behold the beauty in the simple things in life-a flower in a road ditch, an animal hard at work, or anything else that jumps out from nature.  Don’t miss the opportunity to witness this awakening.