Your Monday encouragement

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Peering into eternity


Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.

— Isaiah 40:26 (NLT)

There’s a reason photos like the one above, from Zion National Park in Utah, take your breath away. Even when not technically perfect — and my shot here certainly isn’t — star photos deliver a God’s-eye perspective that’s become all too rare.

If you live or work in a place with low light pollution (or skyglow, if that sounds less political), your view of the night sky looks very different than it does for most Americans or Europeans. The American Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West still have some dark-sky areas, but most people can see only a tiny fraction of the stars our ancestors saw. Check out this light pollution map to see how your area of the world rates.

If you find yourself someplace with bright stars — most of Africa and portions of Asia come to mind — you have an opportunity for photos that will wow your audience. Starscape photography takes practice and patience, but the results feel almost magical because the camera “sees” stars that the human eye cannot. It seems like you’re looking into eternity. In a way, you are.

Star photos from a cellphone won’t look like much, but if you have a DSLR camera, a tripod and a lens that stops down to f2.8 or wider, you’re in business. You’ll also need a flashlight to see what you’re doing and, ideally, a remote shutter release button that you can hold open manually.

The best time to shoot star photos is on a clear night during a new moon. The stars shine brighter because there’s no competing moonlight. Set up in the darkest place you can find that has a clear view of the night sky, along with a terrestrial landmark to give the photos a sense of place. But choose carefully, because any bright lights will overpower the photo.

Mount the camera to the tripod. Set the lens on manual focus, because autofocus won’t work in pitch dark. Turn off any destabilization features.

Start with these settings: ISO 1600, f2.8, 25 seconds. Use the “B,” or bulb, option for the shutter speed. Some cameras will meter correctly; others you just hold the shutter open remotely and count the seconds. With exposures longer than 25 seconds, the stars start to look like dashes instead of dots because the Earth is rotating. That’s why f2.8 is necessary; it lets in enough light for a short-enough exposure.

Then, just experiment with slightly smaller exposure times, higher ISO, even lower f-stop if your lens allows. By the way, this doesn’t require an insanely priced lens (though the results definitely do improve). I shot the above photo with an old Canon 50mm f1.8 lens that cost me $50 a few years ago and still can had for under $125.

My Zion photo was shot with a Canon EOS 7D at ISO 1600, f2.8 and 22 seconds, about 11 p.m. The Watchman mountain looked like only a black shadow to my eye, but the long exposure allowed the camera to catch the just-rising half-moonlight, barely there, and orange because the moon was still catching sunset light.

In other words, I either got lucky or God gave me a gift. It’s all in how you look at it.

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Your Monday encouragement

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Raising questions and starting conversations


In the days leading up to Memorial Day, PBS reran The Vietnam War, the riveting 17-hour documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
Last year, Burns was asked about his team’s reporting process in deeply telling the story of a war that ravaged one country and divided another. He replied that their work succeeds not when it provides answers, but when it raises important questions and starts a needed conversation.
That’s what good journalism does — whether from the city council, Wall Street or the White House. From the football field to the battlefield to the mission field. It’s not propaganda, designed to posit a particular point of view. It’s not marketing, crafted with the obligatory call to action. 
Both the business and ministry worlds have embraced the “story” trend in recent years … but often without fully understanding the concept. Everyone agrees that stories are powerful, but not very many leaders truly trust that power, defaulting back to marketing and propaganda. After all, raising important questions and starting a needed conversation don’t yield immediate return on investment, and that’s what keeps the doors open. Right? We can’t just put an unvarnished story out there and hope that people will respond. Can we?
In ministry, I think we can and must. Certainly there’s a place for comprehensive marketing campaigns. But in a culture where we are exposed, on average, to more than 5,000 brand messages every day, one more call to action (or 10 more) isn’t likely to inspire too many people, or even be noticed. If well-reported stories from the mission field truly carry power, then why not invest in the journalism necessary to find and deliver those stories? Why not trust the Holy Spirit to delivery an infinitely more effective call to action than any of us could ever devise?
A ministry leader once told me that if he had the funds, he’d hire a grant writer before hiring a journalist. While I understand the expediency behind that sentiment, and I hear it echoed everywhere from local churches to international ministries, it’s short-sighted. Journalistic stories — I’m talking about writing, photography, audio and video — provide the verifiable truth behind every marketing effort and funding request. 
What’s more, stories help a ministry assess its true impact by shedding light on what’s really happening, versus what we hope is happening. Just as Burns and Novick’s Vietnam film did, stories about ministry impact raise important questions and start needed conversations — both inside and outside that ministry.
Can a journalist who works for a particular ministry really provide that kind of unfiltered look? Depends. It requires trust — trust that the journalists are providing an accurate picture, trust that the ministry and its audience can handle it and trust that God is indeed glorified by truth, wherever a story has to focus to find it. In an ideal world, detached journalists would be doing that kind of reporting. Given market realities, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, it’s disappearing.
But what if it could happen? What if churches, missions and ministries supported, PBS style, a broad-ranging agency that did report on the work of God with no strings attached? Whose only aim is to “Publish his glorious deeds among the nations” (Psalm 96:3)? Simply to glorify God, with all other motives secondary? What kind of value could that bring to the global Church in engaging people? How might it impact praying, giving, sending, partnering, going?
Are we as a Church ready to raise questions and start needed conversations? God help us if we aren’t.
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Your Monday encouragement

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Above the fog, a glimpse of glory

In August 2016, my wife and I found ourselves in one of our favorite places on earth, Montana’s Glacier National Park. The mountains always awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of awe at the beauty, the grandeur — and the surprise — in God’s creation.

Glacier sunrises are not to be missed, so we always plan accordingly. On this morning, we left our cabin at 5:30 a.m. and drove west on Going to the Sun Road, the spectacular highway that bisects the park. From what seemed to be a clear predawn at the cabin, we imagined a spectacular sunrise from Logan Pass, the road’s pinnacle 18 miles and 2,000 vertical feet ahead. A mile or two from the top, we noticed there wasn’t the usual predawn light. Then we realized why. The entire pass was fogged in. We drove the final mile able to see only about 50 feet in front of the car.

The empty parking lot and Swiss chalet-styled visitors center at Logan Pass were barely visible. The only sound was a cold, wet wind swirling around us that didn’t seem to be moving the clouds one bit. Far below us, the sun was rising. Up here, dim-gray light revealed … nothing.

But as the fog swirled and our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, we started noticing things that would have been slower to reveal themselves in the midday sun. A mountain goat sauntered across the parking lot. Near a stand of pine trees, a barely-visible bighorn ram munched grass.

Then a warmer wind rose from the east, the St. Mary Valley. The clouds — still obscuring the pass — started to move in a singular direction, rolling across the pass and before taking a near-vertical drop into the McDonald Creek Valley to the west.

As the fog sunk, the sun’s horizontal rays caught just the top of Clements Mountain. Suddenly the towering peak, invisible just seconds ago, was bathed in golden light.

And then just as suddenly, it was gone again. All we could see was fog.

We hung out for a while longer as the mesmerizing scene repeated: thick fog moved along by the wind, fleeting glimpses of mountaintops, then back to murky nothingness.

By 8 a.m., the clouds had dissipated completely. Beneath an endless blue sky, the flow of traffic swelled. In the next couple of hours, the parking lot would fill. The area would teem with tourists who had no clue about the show they’d missed up here at dawn.

To me, fog-bound moments speak of hope – and of God’s faithfulness. We had been here before and we knew what was behind those clouds, whether or not we could see it at that moment. When the golden peaks would briefly come into view, the moment was transcendent, like an ever-so-brief glimpse of heaven beyond the usual fog.

Lauren captured one of those moments in a photo that now hangs in our living room. Little did we know at the time that we were approaching a season of thick fog, where every next step has to be taken in faith. Sometimes the fog clears momentarily … and then it comes right back.

But a wind is blowing. We’ve received enough glimpses above the fog to know we’re headed in a Godward direction. Whether we can see it or not, his glory is close at hand.

And that is enough.

Implications for storytellers

  • Remain in the murkiness long enough for your eyes to adjust. You will see things that others miss.
  • Observe prayerfully. Help others see God in places and situations where he isn’t readily evident.
  • Let those ever-so-brief glimpses of glory awaken your sense of wonder. Let them serve as reminders that God is close and active, even when our view is obscured.
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The power of story

If you want someone to know the truth, tell them. If you want someone to love the truth, tell them a story.

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