Monthly Archives

September 2018

BASS LAKE – The progress of a painting

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I’m sometimes asked about how I develop my paintings. Here is an example, my new painting of Bass Lake, near Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

We’ve had a number of retreats near here and on a fall afternoon, when all the trees were blazing. I took a walk around the lake with a friend. As I saw the fog creeping down the hill around Moses Cone Manor. I was captivated.

So here’s the painting based on some photos. I took – the first an earlier version. Then a  second version underway. And finally the third completed this week. At least I think it’s finished! I guess as an artist I must sauy that I think it’s finished!

In any case, I hope you enjoy seeing this. It was a joy for me to do the painting.


P.S.: I am often asked how long it takes to do a painting. In this case about fourteen hours over a number of weeks. I guess it must be like that for the way the Lord develops his “image” in us. It doesn’t happen overnight. So he must be very patient until we are finished! I’m glad he doesn’t give up.

Learning How to Pay Attention

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An insightful article on paying attention.

What if we all learned to pay attention – and especially as preachers – Do I understand others and not just for ourselves or for a sermon.

from Patton Dodd: 

A couple months ago, some colleagues and I had dinner with four sets of parents we had never met before. One was an unmarried African American couple raising a boy and a girl. Another was a married mixed-race couple with an eleven-year-old boy. Then there were two single moms, both Latina. These were people we’d never meet through the normal course of our daily lives—each of them lives in or near a public housing complex in San Antonio called Cassiano Homes, which is in one of the poorest zip codes in town. Think aging government housing and dilapidated single-family homes; big, fading murals on the side of old buildings; a historic Catholic church here, a Pentecostal storefront church there. Plenty of tiny taquerias.

There is a lot of cultural beauty and certainly a lot of human dignity in neighbourhoods like this, but in the parlance of sociology, they are often called “distressed communities.” And indeed, there is distress here. Kids born in these communities are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college; they are more likely to become parents in their teenage years. I could list a host of other predicted outcomes, the most salient of which may be that they can expect to live twenty years fewer than kids born in more affluent parts of town, according to a recent study conducted by our county.

The most important lesson I learned that night was not about how not having recorders changed the dynamic in the room; I learned that it changed the dynamic inside of me.

San Antonio’s poverty is notorious. Nationally, 12.7 percent of Americans live in poverty, but in San Antonio the number is 18.5 percent. And of course, the geography of poverty is more local than citywide—it’s not pervasive so much as it is concentrated within certain parts of town. In my suburban neighbourhood, only around 3 percent of the residents live in poverty. As for the neighbourhood around Cassiano Homes? Over 40 percent. That’s how you get to a citywide 18.5 percent poverty level—by having a lot of entrenched, generational, zip-code-based poverty.

Last year, my colleagues and I created a non-profit newsroom whose sole editorial focus was inequity in San Antonio—the gaps in opportunity, health, education, and so on from one zip code to another. Every week, we published stories about the gaps in transportation, or schools, and even faith communities. We did a lot of fact-finding and pushed out a lot of statistics and shared a lot of accounts of the challenges people face and emergent solutions that attend to the crisis of inequity.

We ceased newsroom operations a few months ago, and we’re now mixing things up a bit for a different approach to this work. Our intent is to have a tighter focus, not just on the issues, but on people’s lives—the human stakes of the inequity drama as it plays out in people’s day-to-day existence.

I did this work mostly with career journalists. My main colleague is a woman with nearly two decades of experience in network television news. I have over a decade of experience writing and editing multi-faith religion news and commentary for a range of regional and national publications. I mention these backgrounds only in order to say: While we know how to make media, we are finding that very little in our professional experience actually prepared us for the task of really listening to and striving to understand people’s stories.

There is something inherently transactional about the act of journalism. In order to do your job, you have to get something from people—you have to get their story. They give you a story; you give them exposure, public attention. That’s kind of the deal, and it’s not necessarily something to be cynical about. Good journalists treat this transaction with care, honouring the source and the facts, and doing their best to present things authentically.

But when you’re listening to someone tell their story in order to turn that story into, well, a story for publication or production, it changes how you listen. You’re receiving what they give you as the raw material for something you’re creating for your audience. You’re thinking about how to make their story your story that you’ll sell. That changes the way you hear them. It changes the kind of attention you pay them, because your attention is partial: it’s on them, but it’s also on your story goals, your next steps. I confess with shame that I’ve been in interviews where I’ve jotted down a headline idea next to my notes. These days especially, you’re always, always asking yourself: “What will make people click? What will pierce the glut?”

When my colleagues and I planned that dinner with those four sets of parents from Cassiano Homes, we did something none of us had ever done before. We left our cameras and our audio recorders at the office. We didn’t capture anything, in fact, other than jotting a few notes down. We did this because we wanted to try to create a fairly intimate context—we wanted to put them at ease.

I hoped not having recorders would change the dynamic in the room. I hoped it would make these people more open, more willing to talk about their lives. And so it did. Just a few bites into our carnitas, the conversation was free-flowing. The parents talked about how local government helps them—mostly it doesn’t. They talked about how local churches pitch in—mostly they don’t either, not in any sustained way. They weren’t grumbling though—they gave negatives only in response to questions I asked, but mostly they were interested in talking about how their community functions and sticks together in spite of the challenges. Of course, some of those challenges seem insurmountable, and they talked about that too.

But it did more than improve the quality of conversation. It improved the quality of our hearing. The most important lesson I learned that night was not about how not having recorders changed the dynamic in the room; I learned that it changed the dynamic inside of me. Because I wasn’t thinking ahead to the story, those parents had my full attention. I was honed in. And I realized: This is different from how I usually pay attention in these conversations.

Afterward, one of the parents came up to me and reached out his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “For what?” I asked. He said, “No one ever asks for my story.”

My colleagues and I do have media to make. And that means we need to let some recorders run, and to have some cameras float around. But we’re rethinking how to do that. We’re rethinking our process. How do we make this other, more attentive approach a fixed part of our process from now on—just showing up to listen, to pay close attention, to sit with the stories for a while without immediately deciding how to present them to an audience? For now, we’re planning more recorder-free dinners. We’ll circle back to people whose stories need to be shared, but only after we’ve fully listened to their stories without a thought of how to make it our own.

Out of the Hurricane

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As Hurricane Florence hurtles our way, I’ve been reminded of how Hurricane Hugo hit us here in Charlotte many years ago.

It did tremendous damage. We lost 25 trees in our yard, but thankfully our house was not damaged. We were without power for several days and much of the city for two weeks.

Interestingly, we had a strategic planning session planned for that same day for our recently launched Leighton Ford Ministries. Friends and counselors had come from some distance to be part of the planning. Of course we had to cancel the session, and those who had come headed home as soon as they could.,

But it seemed God had another planning session in mind! A week later, I went by myself for a day at the lake north of Charlotte. It was a time to think and pray about the future.

During that day at the lake I seemed to sense God saying, “If you want to make a difference in the world, it will happen not through multiplying programs, but by investing in people.”

That day, I wrote down a list of men and women I had come to know, with outstanding potential and hearts committed to the Lord. They became my list of Guys and Gals to Watch. They also became the core of my very first mentoring group, our point group which continues to this day!

So out of the storm came God’s quiet whisper. I wonder what we will hear this time?

It’s a reminder not only to pray for protection, but to listen again for that “still, small voice” of the Lord.

My Next Book Coming Out!

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I have just received the good word that InterVarsity Press, publishers of several of my books, will publish my new book sometime in the middle of next year.  Following is a reflection on the writing!



Early on a July morning I was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of an old mountain house in the hills of Virginia, coffee in hand.

It is a perfectly clear July morning, and a place of calm and quiet.

Across the old road a few cattle are grazing. Otherwise there was no sign of life, not even a car passing.

It is a contented moment. And I have a sense of completeness.

And with good reason. I am at the very end of my book The Voice of Our Calling, and my publisher InterVarsity Press is set to publish next year! So this is a moment of completion.

And Windy Ridge is a fitting place to be.

It was at another Virginia spot, Bell’s Ridge, a couple of hours north, that I literally “got off the fence” and started to write this book.

I was at a writers retreat at the Bellfry, a retreat house built by friends. After lunch one day, I strolled into the woods and sat on an old wooden fence. Suddenly the fence began to shake – and so did the ground around. It felt like an earthquake – and it was!  An earthquake centered eighty miles away was shaking the state. I quickly dismounted!

For several years I had been pondering about writing this book, and always got stuck or diverted. So it seemed that God was shaking me a bit, saying “Time to get off the fence and start writing.” I did!

Now, several years later, I sit in the quiet of Windy Ridge with this sense of completeness.

The words of one of my favorite poems – May Sarton’s Now I Become Myself – come to me as I muse.

Sarton wrote of the years in which she had run madly, wearing other people’s faces, with a sense of the shortness of life. At last she came to a time when everything seemed to fuse together – her work and loves, her times, her face – all becoming part of a poem, made and rooted in love.

Remembering her words, I also recalled Paul’s writing that we are God’s “workmanship” – literally, his poiema, his poetry – prepared beforehand to be “our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10).

As Charles William wrote, God is a poet, and the “lines of our lives” are the lines of his poetry.

It has been years since Sarton’s words first spoke to my own condition. I repeat them to myself with a sense of gratefulness.

For me they signal more than a sense of personal fulfillment. I add to them the other words of Paul, that we are “complete in Christ “ – receiving the gift of God’s fullness in him.

I think back to the years past – the times of being a storyteller (of His story), a friend (to His people), an artist (of His beauty) – and sense how they have fused together.

In these autumn years I discovered an affinity with the ancient Celts who had such a distinctive way of loving God and following Christ, through beauty and ballads, birds and other creatures, song and dance, water and hills.  All of God’s gracious gifts were fused, pictured in the distinctive Celtic cords, where many strands were woven into one.

As I have written this I have also realized how the many voices I have heard have been gathered into One. The Voice of the Shepherd, who calls me by name.




My Journal Jottings

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Two years ago I came across buried under a pile of books in my office, George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. a collection of his daily prayer/poems. George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and minister. He was well known as a pioneer in fantasy literature for children, like The Princess and the Goblin, andPhantastes.

C.S. Lewis, so I have heard, thought he was perhaps the most inspired writer since the Apostle Paul!

Less known perhaps was this collection of his daily prayer poems. The language is quaint, but I have found his prayers to be so totally honest, without cant or pretence. He opens his heart to God almost without reserve, never hiding his moods in the seasons of the year or of life.

I have no recollection of how this book came to me. But for many months I have read one of his prayers each morning, often finding they speak so directly to my own heart and state of faith or failing.

You can find a copy on Amazon. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think you may find as I do rich food and provocation for your own soul.

Three Postures of Prayer

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Brother Lawrence described how he considered himself “before God, whom I behold as my king.” (The Practice of the Presence of God, Second Letter, pp38-39)

As Subject

the Posture: kneeling, prostrate

“I consider myself as the most wretched of men, full of sores and corruption, and who has committed all sorts of crimes against his King. Touched with a sensible regret, I confess to Him all my wickedness, I ask his forgiveness, I abandon myself in His hands that He may do what He pleases with me. The King, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me, embrace me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as His favorite…”

Kneeling or prostrate we pray: “As your Subject, redeem me – and converse with me as friend.”

As Son

the Posture: embracing, leaning, expressing need (Ignatius, the “prayer of embrace”)

“My most useful method is this simple attention, and such a general passionate regard for God, to whom I find myself often attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at the mother’s breast; so that, if I dare use the expression, I should choose to call this state the bosom of God, for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there.”

Embracing, leaning we pray: “As your Son, embrace and nurture me.”

As Stone

the Posture: sitting, desiring change and transformation

“As for my set hours of prayer, they are only a continuation of the same exercise. Sometimes I consider myself there as a stone; presenting myself thus before God, I desire Him to form His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself.”

Sitting, we pray: “As your Stone, form me into Your image.”