Knotting and a history of spiritual formation

Yes, I think I do see it that way although I’ve never described my thoughts on it before…

I have enjoyed aspects of knotting since I was a boy in scouts.

I’ve used and appreciated their utility in camping, search & rescue and their long nautical history.

In trying to teach on a Christlike Worldview and Christian formation in university workshops, especially in highly kinesthetic cultures, I made a list of Knot Principles of Development (pun intended) that let me emphasize that like knots some Truth is absolute. You can trust your life with it, and some truths are contextual and are helpful in changing situations, just as some knots and hitches are adjustable. They can be used to quickly tighten a support cable or loosen it, perhaps to keep drying wet canvas from ripping out a grommet. Most knots are weaker than the rope they are tied with and so become the point of failure (yes, there is more to that), but there are some knots that are stronger than the rope itself and it’s those knots you want to use when life-safety is at stake. Some strong knots are permanent, they intentionally can’t be untied once used; some strong knots can still be easily untied but are more bulky. 

Throughout the quarter-long course, every student is given an arm-span length of cord and they would learn the knot or two that underscored each development principle. They would  also learn to use a knot system or family of knots together (a permanent hitch to secure one rope end, a strong, but untieable loop knot as a fulcrum and an adjustable knot, together to make a hitch known worldwide that every teenager needs to know to secure luggage, a surfboard or a giant load of logs on a vehicle. Something that lives can depend on. Much evil in the world comes from people believing something can be trusted when it can’t; but also when they feel imprisoned by believing something that’s simply a lie: fatalism-nothing can change, ethnocentrism-we do everything the best, xenophobia-outsiders mean us harm, divine capriciousness-God authors Good and Evil and is unknowable, or greed-more stuff will make me happy.

We also let each student learn to make rope, to take coir (coconut) fiber and roll it on their leg into thread, braid the treads into cord and then twist the cords into rope, much to the delight of their parents and local elders who have often all but given up that young people would still value this. After decades, though I’ve increasingly appreciated the simple symmetry, the ordered complexity and the mathematical beauty of different knots and their use over millennia of human history. I have a wall of knots on my lanai not as a collection, but more as sculpture.

The knots are important, the principles are important, modeling a process of learning together is important, having eyes to see God’s beauty in simple daily life around us is important, but you asked about meditation.

Throughout scripture, over 50 times, the Bible talks about rope, knots and tying and untying them.
Sure, there are many references to practical acts of tying up animals, tents, people, baggage and treasure, but 

In Psalms, God says He ties knots and in Exodus, God actually teaches a knotting class. in Ecclesiastes He comments on the quality of a good rope and in Hosea talks of cords of kindness and ropes of love. In Numbers He commands the people of Israel to tie decorative knots of meaning on their cloths. In John, Jesus clearly tied knots and in two places the Bible praises the admirable character of the one who can loosen a difficult knot. 

Deuteronomy and Proverbs call for scripture as well as the commands of our fathers and the teachings of our mothers to be as it were tied closely to our heart, our mind and hands; and in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Acts, knots were used as a form of prophesy. If this is surprising, I hope it encourages you to dig out these passages and perhaps reflect on how even the lowly knot can reflect God’s nature and character.

But regarding knotting as a discipline of meditation, yes, I guess I find the slow, hours-long, repetitive focus required to knot some projects, often quiets my thoughts from the swirling competing ideas of the day, and let’s me, on occasion, hear God’s wisdom for the situation, but if not, to feel His comforting presence with me none the less. There are many wonderful meditative ways for focusing on God and His nature and character, but this is one that I love.

I understand the Celtic peoples have long appreciated knots and especially the Trickle or Triskelion even before the arrival of Christianity and I have always thought it might well be an example of the occasional fingerprint God seems to delight to hide to later show us He has always been in our midst.

Serving our community

Amy Sherman

Sociologist and researcher, Amy Sherman has said that Christians tend to have three models for interacting with society: fortification, accommodation, and domination. To put that another way: We hunker down amongst ourselves, water down our witness, or beat down our opponents. For many reasons, those aren’t New Testament models.” 

In short the withdrawal-compromise-argumentative/condemning approach to sharing the gospel will not work.

Phillip Yancey suggests:

We need to create pioneer settlements that show the world a different, grace-based way of living…A few generations ago, Billy Graham would fill the largest stadium in any city, stand up, and say “the Bible says,” and have the audience nod along. Today, belief in the Bible can’t be taken for granted, so appeals to the Bible won’t have the same power. The new paradigm, in this culture, is that you reach out with acts of mercy that touch people’s hearts, and hopefully they want to know why.

The gospel “demonstrated” leads to the gospel “proclaimed.” 

Imagine if we organized ourselves in our neighborhood, city and world as people existing for the sake of outsiders…The more we act like Jesus, not beating people down but showing a better way to live, the more outsiders will look back and say, “Those Christians are different.”

Today I worry that we are losing the meaning of the word: Evangelical or even Christian, as the primary models of these words seen in popular media, are not reflecting this. 

Book Review: WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Sky Jethani

WITH looks at many of the ways we tend to relate to God, highlighting a number of approaches that often ignore the core of our historic biblical faith.

Sky Jethani suggests the approach or posture to live and walk with God for His own sake, rather than for the advantages we can secure or as a strategy for coping with the fear and unpredictability of life.

Skye describes four common postures in our relationship with God:

  1. Life From God: where people want God’s blessings and gifts without real interest in God himself. The self is the center to which God is ready to be summoned as a cosmic butler to provide comfort, blessing, and validation.
  2. Life Over God: where people seek to discern proven principles and formulas for how God works. These principles and formulas can then be mastered to produce maximum benefit.
  3. Life For God: where people are concerned with how best to serve God. God is often thought—implicitly or explicitly—to require heroic acts of self-sacrifice and service in order to achieve significance and approval.
  4. Life Under God: where people conceive of God in simple cause and effect terms. Obedience = blessing; disobedience = punishment. Proper moral behavior is thought to fundamentally be the key to properly understanding and relating to God.

And yet in each of these four described postures, the desire for God himself is substituted for some lesser thing. Whether mission, blessing, principles, or morality—none of which are harmful or destructive in and of themselves—unless they take the place of God as the actual object of our desire. Each of the four approaches represents an attempt to figure out how God works, what God wants, and how best to respond, but according to Jethani, each response is rooted in the fear of an unpredictable and unmanageable world that we cannot control.

Jethani suggests we move beyond our need for control, beyond our tendencies to be dominated by our fear and uncertainty, to a place where we can confidently live with God, secure in our identity as beloved children, freed from the need to perform, and the desire for the material benefits God can provide. Jethani helpfully summarizes his argument:

The Life With God posture is predicated on the view that relationship is at the core of the cosmos: God the Father with God the Son with God the Holy Spirit. And so we should not be surprised to discover that when God desired to restore his broken relationship with people, he sent his Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (Life Under God), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (Life Over God). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (Life From God), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (Life For God). Instead, God himself came to be with us—to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning. Jesus entered into our dark existence to share our broken world and to illuminate a different way forward. His coming was a sudden and glorious catastrophe of good.

Here are some great recent mini video illustrations of these principles:

The Treasure: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Jerks: Life from or Life For God vs Life With God
The Mountain

Thoughts on Creativity

We’re encouraged to not count our days… but to make our days count!

Among God’s most precious gifts to us is the creative capacity He’s placed in each person. The fifth word of Genesis reveals God as Creator. We learn later (in Genesis 1:27) that as creator, he has embedded His imago dei (the Image of God–His nature & character) into each one of us. The result is that every individual, in deeply personal ways, is offered a reflection of the precious, God-breathed creativity that ignited and fills all of creation. Creativity is deeply embedded in each person, resulting in endless variation and possibility. To create and to be creative lies at the heart of human flourishing. 

I believe for us to be intentional in our actions and conversant in an understanding and theology of the Image of God today is as important (and perhaps as risky) as proclaiming the theology of Salvation by Faith was in the days of the reformation. Both are still just as true today, but no longer will the authorities and the organized church come after you for the latter.

Collaborating as Community

Creative engagement is rooted in community… actually knowing and loving our neighbors.

Collaboration consistently ranks among the most rewarding and significant of human activities.
 People join together, searching for that which is beautiful and inspiring. Consider the activities throughout the world that involve singing and playing music together, painting murals together, feasts and eating together, festivals, celebrations, but also our work together to address shared problems and needs.

Over the decades I’ve I cherished the opportunity to work on collaborations to build community parks, hiking trails, playgrounds, treehouses, climbing walls and community food gardens; or where communities faced natural hazards or grinding poverty and high child mortality, to collaborate on building water tanks and developing clean water systems, micro-enterprise start-ups, improved food security; to train health workers and establish community-based Health Centers and Community Emergency Response Teams. These activities were simply an outgrowth of our conviction that God has good intentions for all, today. They are part-and-parcel of His good news!

Working in community builds wisdom and unity, as our unified (but not uniform)creative voices offer evidence of our shared convictions and hope.

And I pray everyday that I would be looking for God’s fingerprints in the lives and world around me, that as Jesus said, “I want to only do what God is doing.” God’s on the move and at work at every level of society and creation. He delights to hide things. We’re to delight in seeking them out… in learning new things and perspectives, in recognizing, fanning it into flame and trying to reflect the Image of God–His beauty, His nature and character.

Reflections on the Family


The Family is the most
essential human community


1. The Family is a Covenant Relationship:
the family is God’s greatest institution for sanctification.

• We are all born narcissistic, (preoccupied with self). A focus outward must be learned.

• You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.

• The family is forever. Friends come and go.

• The fact that there are more single adults in society today than in recorded history has profound implications for society.

• The family is the first (and often only) place we experience unconditional love, where we know we belong, where we first see that love is not a limited pie, where no one needs be left out.

2. The Family is an Inheritance across the generations:

Our families all pass some positive legacies to us down through the generations, but both blessings and curses can naturally extend down through a family’s generations.  Our society is forgetting the blessings of the extended family.

3. The Family is the primary place where an individual’s calling is expressed, championed and supported.

4. The Family holds the primary God-given responsibility (and authority) for raising and training of children.

Families can delegate some or all of this authority for educating children, but they remain responsible. When families abdicate their primary responsibility for their children in abusive ways, other sphere’s of society, particularly government, may then exercise their secondary responsibility for children.

5. The Family is the most essential human community:

The nuclear family reflects God’s triune nature as the essential model of community (authority without domination). It is the universal model for all other extended communities and organizations.

Allan Robbins
June 2003

Stepping into Silence – Our family’s focus this fall on Japan

Our family has  been reading a profound historical novel
from Japan: Silence, by Shūsaku Endō.

Endo's book: Silence has led to many family discussions this fall.

At the Wheaton College parent orientation Benjamin  and I attended in August  the entire freshman class was reading Silence as part of Wheaton’s new Christ-at-the-Core curriculum and they encouraged parents to read it as well. He and I were also able to attend the “Stepping into Silence” exhibit about the book at their Billy Graham Center. benexhibit

These are real 400 year old fumi-e from the Wheaton Silence exhibit, worn smooth by the many forced to trample on them






Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence centers on a young 17th century Jesuit priest who’s sent to Japan to investigate whether or not his mentor has committed apostasy. What Rodrigues, the young Jesuit, learns is the truth of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) who are undergoing 40 years of intense persecution. To root them out, officials take anyone suspected of being a believer out in front of their village where they are forced to trample on a fumi-e (a bronze image of Christ) as a way of not only renouncing their faith but shaming them so that others will not believe. Those who refuse are imprisoned or killed by anazuri (hanging upside down in a toilet pit and being slowly bled to death).     

For Rodrigues, his illusion of the glory of martyrdom is stripped away as he witnesses this and learns that Ferreira, his mentor, and other priests, were told to either renounce their faith or continue to watch as believers in their congregations were tortured to death before them. The novel wrestles with doubt, shame, betrayal, and traumas’ effects on faith. 

This was one of those great books that makes you ask, “Would I do that? Would I renounce my faith in Christ to end the torture and suffering of others?”  …questions that stay with me and make me look at my own heart…to face the darkness of my own doubts. 

Passion by Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, currently Director of Fuller Seminary’s Brehm Center

The Stepping into Silence exhibit included a number of wonderful paintings inspired by Endo’s book by the renowned artist Makoto Fujimura (Silence & Beauty). So often still, we hear that “to doubt is to sin” yet Fufimua highlights how, Endo’s Silence exposes the flaw in this line of thinking. “It does not express faith in God but instead faith in clarity and our lust for certainty.”  “Faith can be rational, but only after a deeper  journey toward mystery and transcendence.” Most of us do not like to sit with our doubts. When faced with multiple horrible choices, we want clarity.  

Sacrificial grace by Fujimura
Sacrificial grace by Fujimura

In the 16th century Christianity had grown to over 100,000 believers in the Urakami District of Nagasaki Japan when it was banned and believers were hunted and persecuted. The survivors of the persecution secretly maintained their beliefs for 250 years before the ban was lifted in the 19th century. The church then had grown to over 15,000, when on Sunday August 9, 1945 the second atomic bomb at the end of WWII, detonated 550 yards above their church killing 10,000 of the parishioners. Some things are hard to understand.

Last week 11 Syrian missionaries who work in conjunction with ChristianAid Mission, were killed by crucifixion or beheading, in front of their team leader near Alepo. Well over 300,000 Iraqi and Syrian Christians have been killed in the past three years. Andrew White, the last Anglican Vicar in Iraq, told the BBC recently that Christianity is about to disappear in Iraq and Syria. But as the Kakure Kirishitan, the hidden Christians, of Nagasaki have shown, though God may at times seem silent, he is present with us.

Our nation faces choices this fall I fear we will be held accountable for, both individually and as a nation. Are we afraid of wandering in the wilderness? Is my faith in God or is it but faith in certainty. God promises to be with us even in the silence of our doubts, and (spoiler alert) ultimately, He is not silent. 

Unless otherwise noted, all images are by Allan Robbins

Meditations on Measurement

re: Community Assessment & Spiritual Mapping

microscopeThe Bible never assumes that our faculties are limited to our supposed “five senses.”

The Bible assumes that we are able to discern the essential nature of God from creation, and are therefore “without excuse.”

We all have God-given faculties to see the invisible world. We all have a built in microscope. Some of us don’t know its there. Some of us don’t know how to use it and many of us don’t know how to use it to consistently discern the reality of the spiritual dimension around us. (I may fall in this category.)

There is a big difference between rational and rationalism… between empirical and empiricalism. One says that reality can be substantially understood or measured, the later says that IF it cannot be understood or measured, THEN it doesn’t exist.

To be “tangible” means that it can be felt.

So if I can consistently feel or sense the spiritual realm, then it is tangible and no less empirical than anything else.  It was a rational, measurable (empirical) process that led Heisenburg to conclude that the Universe was not ultimately measurable.

Even with a real microscope, I cannot train a student to find a TB bacillus every time on a given pathology slide. Sometimes even the lab expert misses what they should have found. And it will always be this way, yet that doesn’t make microscopic lab work somehow “mystical”, only somewhat uncertain.

This week I want the Lord to help me use this faculty more consistently.

Allan Robbins 
© March 1999