Friday, April 9, 2010

Exposure Value

Yesterday I was in a digital photography class to learn how to use my new digital camera. It's my first single reflex lens camera, so I'm discovering how to use ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings to change the type of shot I get. ISO (known as film speed in film cameras) determines how sensitive the camera's sensors are to light. Shutter speed determines how long the shutter stays open during an exposure. Aperture is how wide the front of your lens opens (like an iris) when you take a picture. Together, these variables determine how much light is captured by the camera during an exposure, and that's called the exposure value.

You need a certain exposure value in order for a picture to be properly lit, but there are lots of ways to get that film exposure. You could use many different combinations of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings to get the right amount of light for your pictures. Different combinations can radically change the type of picture you get. Do you want a wide depth of field or a shallow one? Do you want to show motion or freeze motion? Are you shooting with a tripod or by hand? So many choices, so many options. The beautiful thing is that photography is an art, and there is no one "right" choice. It's all a matter of the photographer's vision and what tools (lighting, tripod, flash, etc.) he or she has to work with.

Sometimes I think that faith is a lot like a good exposure value. The photographer is trying to achieve a well-lit picture, and we Christians are trying to achieve a close and loving relationship with God. Like the photographer, we have many different ways to get to that goal, and no one way is "right". These days, most Christian denominations have stopped short of claiming that they alone are doing Christianity the "right" way, and I think that's a positive development. After all, there are many gifts but the same Spirit, many individuals with unique personalities, but the same Christ. We all express our faith in different ways, just as two photographers may take completely different pictures of the same subject based on their artistic visions. None of us is perfect, and we all have limitations to overcome in our faith. Like a photographer caught without a flash or a tripod, sometimes we have to improvise. Some would call that wrong, but I think it's more wrong to not take the figurative picture at all.

The truth is that most of the religious choices we quibble over aren't spelled out in the Bible. I think God left many of the practical details of Christianity open so that all kinds of different people can practice in their own way. The Bible does not dictate how often we should take communion (or precisely with whom), whether we should sing and dance in church, or how long a worship service should last. We weren't explicitly told whether and how to ask other people to pray for us and whether it's OK to ask dead people (the saints) to pray for us too. We weren't told how to structure our hierarchy or the technical procedure for making decisions as a group. Jesus didn't tell us what to wear to church or teach us specific rituals for showing God respect.

Instead, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." That's the exposure value we're going for, but how we compose the shot is entirely up to each one of us.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

Yesterday afternoon I took a tour of a stretch of prairie owned by the college where I work. It was an interesting trip. The objective of the trip was to see some little flowers that are the first prairie flowers to bloom in the spring. They had fuzzy little leaves that helped protect them from the morning frosts. According to our guide, these little flowers are only around for a few weeks. I had never seen anything quite like them before. I saw a cactus—I didn't know there was a cactus native to Minnesota—and some other rare plants.We also saw some big holes where a badger had tried to dig some ground squirrels out of their dens. Then we found some pellets under a tree where owls and hawks like to perch, and the guide showed us the ground vole bones inside. I learned about how a glacier passed through the area and why the prairie where we stood was hilly while the surrounding farmland was flat. I noticed how big the sky really was and reveled in the beauty of the big, puffy clouds.

I'm not really a science girl. I don't spend much time thinking about this kind of thing. But being there on that prairie, —seeing those tiny plants, looking at the evidence of unseen animals, noticing the differences in the soil over only a few acres—it really hit home how many tiny details there are in the natural world around me. Most of the time I don't even notice this miraculous complexity.

What really amazes me is that God does notice everything. God understands all the tiny minutiae I generally overlook. In fact, He invented the entire system. I can't even comprehend that. God knows everything there is to know about prairie violets, cumulus clouds, ground voles, and you and me. God takes note of everything, even the things we think are trivial or periphery, and he also knows and remembers everything about us. Jesus told his disciples, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Luke 12:6–7)

The fact that God could create and manage such a wonderful creation makes me feel a lot more secure about the fact that He's watching out for me. If God understands nature, surely He also understands the workings of my complex heart. If he counts sparrows and numbers the hairs on my head, surely He will take good care of my soul. My God love all creatures great and small. That means it's pretty special that my fellow brothers and sisters and I are at the top of His very long list.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mother Teresa's Daily Prayer

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Thy fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with Thy spirit and love. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Thine. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus. Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others.
—Mother Teresa of Calcutta

My choir is singing an adaptation of this prayer in our concert on Sunday. I had never heard it before, although I'm sure it must be famous. I was struck by the simple beauty of the words. What an unselfish wish—to desire nothing more than to be totally subsumed by the Spirit of God. Yet, Mother Teresa was wise enough to realize that by letting herself be filled with the presence of Jesus, she was in fact becoming the truest version of herself. Like Mother Teresa, I was created to be like Jesus, so when I let him fill me up, I am closest to what I was meant to be. By denying the peripheral parts of myself—my transitory needs, desires, and emotional baggage—I draw closer to my own true core. I want others to be able to see God in me because I was created in His image in the first place.

The idea that I am most myself when I am filled with the Spirit of God may seem like a paradox. Still, even when I am filled with the Spirit, I am still entirely myself. I am distinct from my brothers and sisters in Christ, even when they too are filled with the Spirit. I remain unique, but I am no longer driven by my own personality traits—instead I am guided by the will of God. God's power and love is channeled through my singular being, and at my best I would be filled with the Spirit of God and yet fully myself simultaneously, just as Jesus was God and man simultaneously. 

I wish I understood how to be what Mother Teresa describes in her prayer, but I don't. I don't know how to be so much like God that people will look at me and stop seeing my flawed human form. After all, I am not the agent who can make this happen. That's why Mother Teresa had to pray—she knew that God was the one who would have to take the action to fill her with His spirit. She even needed God's help to be open to receiving His Spirit when He chose to bestow it. I am the same. I can no more call the Holy Spirit to me than I can summon rain. And yet, when the Spirit comes, I want to be ready. I want to make the most of it so that I can be a radiance to the rest of the world. I can't imagine being anything more beautiful than that.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Eternal King

I love Easter. Christ is risen, and with him our own hopes for the future. Still, for me Easter is about more than celebrating the fact that I have been given salvation and an eternity in heaven. What I gain is wonderful, but I'm also excited about what Jesus has gained. The good guy won, and that's worth celebrating all on its own. Jesus was the classic underdog—son of a carpenter, honest in spite of criticism, opposed by powerful enemies who fought dirty. But even when Jesus' enemies had him crucified in a travesty of justice, they still couldn't keep him down. Three days later he rose from the grave. There's no denying that Jesus would be a hero even if he wasn't my own personal hero.

During this Easter season, I'm happy for myself, but I'm also happy for Jesus. Everything turned out brilliantly for him in the end, and of all the people who ever lived, he most deserves a happy ending. Like Mary Magdalene, I am happy that Jesus is alive because I love him, not just because his victory is also mine. I would be lucky if Jesus loved me only half as much as I loved him, to say nothing of the reality of his all-encompassing grace. It's a privilege to love him simply because he is so good and so worthy of my love.

My Eternal King
My God, I love thee;
Not because I hope for heav'n thereby,
Nor yet because who love thee not must die eternally.
Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me upon the cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails and spear and manifold disgrace.
Why, then why, O blessed Jesus Christ, should I not love thee well?
Not for the hope of winning heaven, or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E'en so I love thee, and will love, and in thy praise will sing;
Solely because thou art my God, and my Eternal King.
(anonymous 17th-century poem, translated from Latin by Edward Caswall)

Monday, April 5, 2010

No Appointment Necessary

College is very different from the "real world" we live in as adults. One of the things I liked best about college was having access to so many friends. It was considered acceptable to drop by a friend's room unannounced any time you had a reasonable expectation that they would be there and awake. I didn't have to call first or make an appointment. I could just show up, and that wasn't considered an invasion of my friend's space or privacy.

In the "real world" there aren't many people whom I can visit without calling first. In fact, until someone specifically invites me to his or her home, I can't visit at all. In college I could simply look my friends up on the directory and stop by their rooms, and that was OK. Not so in adulthood. There are stricter personal boundaries that must be observed. For the most part, I may interact with others only in mutually agreed upon times and places.

I understand the need for privacy. I really do. At the same time, I hate the walls that we build around ourselves to keep others at a distance. I like the spontaneous connections that remind me that other people are thinking about me. Once a friend of mine turned up unexpectedly while I was hosting a dinner for someone else. I had to turn my friend away because I was busy, but I'm not sorry he stopped by. In fact, I hope he does it again, because I'm certainly not going to be busy every time he shows up. I wish I could have more interactions with the people I love, even if they are fleeting. I wish I could stop by and say hello even if I can't stay. I wish that sort of thing wasn't so awkward.

This weekend I decided to give spontaneity a try. I am friends with two young couples who live very close to me, and both of them have invited me into their homes before. I found myself with a surplus of cupcakes, so I decided it would be OK to stop by their homes unannounced to offer them cupcakes. This experiment turned out marvelously. The first set of friends I visited were in the midst of cooking dinner, and they were quite happy to see me. We had a nice chat, and they told me I was welcome to stop by any time, especially when I had cupcakes to share. My friends at the second house had just taken a pizza out of the oven, and they invited me to stay for dinner. We called up my husband and asked him to join us, and they even called the friends I had visited first, and we all watched a movie together. Two spontaneous visits and some cupcakes turned into a very pleasant evening for six people, and it restored my faith in my ability to defy the rigid boundaries that society so often observes.

I know that I can't do this sort of thing with just anyone. I'm still going to limit these little visits to good friends who have invited me into their homes before. Although I may wish I could turn up anywhere with happiness to share, I know I have to work within basic social norms so that I don't make people uncomfortable. I want to have contact with others without alarming them, so I have to take it slow. Still, I am so lucky to have friends like the ones I visited on Saturday night. These are people who are OK with me stopping by unannounced, people who were willing to share their time (and even their pizza) with me. Friendships like those are one of my greatest goals in life, so sometimes a little thing like an evening with friends can make all the difference.
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