A Neighborhood Tea Party: Goodwill, Gratitude, and Good-bye

For decades, Evelyn Bence has encouraged and advised me in my publishing pursuits. I’m happy to introduce her as my first guest blogger, with this delightful essay. Her hospitality to North African neighbors reminds me of Lilias in a bygone era.

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A Neighborhood Tea Party: Goodwill, Gratitude, and Good-bye

by Evelyn Bence

I no longer owned a teapot. I hadn’t hosted a tea party since preschool, when I’d coaxed my family to a doll-dish setting. So I had no business impulsively inviting three female generations of a neighbor family for tea, a few days before the homesick grandmother returned to Morocco for good. I’d previously been drawn in to a new-baby celebration in their living room. On the stoop, we’d mutually begged eggs and sugar. I’d lent them small appliances. They’d passed along some charity’s non-halal turkey. Grandma—speaking no English—slipped me an occasional dinner platter and once a festive Moroccan dress in a cellophane bag. But in two years they’d never stepped across my sill. So maybe it was my “business” to tend, as a modest extension of goodwill, gratitude, and good-bye.

Hearing my intent, a former neighbor, Angi, invited herself into the mix. Sure. Please bring a teapot. And I included an adolescent Latina—I’ll call her Nina—who frequently comes by my home to “make a recipe.” My budget was tight. I incorporated ingredients from my pantry. Nina and I baked banana bread. We made mint candies—powdered sugar kneaded into cream cheese. Oatmeal bars. I pureed a cold pear soup and earmarked dried fruits. To occupy the youngest guests, I printed some coloring pages.

I was ready but not. Wrap a farewell gift-scarf or present it informally? Sit in the living room or at the table? Lay out place settings or point guests to a stack of plates and napkins?

On the appointed afternoon, I boiled water. Angi made black tea as I would but three times stronger. The ample pot steeped as I welcomed my neighbors. I don’t think they knew my name, but it seemed too late to introduce myself. I mangled theirs, having tried the sounds-like or rhymes-with memory device. Thank you, thank you: I wasn’t expecting their homemade contributions, a chick-pea pudding and warm fried bread. Nor a tag-along teen boy whose name sounds like Abraham.

At the table, they swept up the humblest fare. “What’s this? I like it.” White-bread rounds, cream cheese, cucumber slices. Classic Victorian. We talked about food and families and schools. I touched on manners. “Nina, take one for yourself, then pass the platter.” Grandma unwrapped her gift. Her daughter-in-law, Rhymes with Henna, translated: “When she wears it, she’ll remember you.” I pinched my bright Moroccan dress. Me too.

After a while I suggested that Nina find the crayon basket. The children, even the high schooler, followed her and gathered around the coffee table—a glass-covered type-case, its cubicles containing marbles and dominoes. Moody museum art prints, vintage dress hats, and hundreds of shelved books covered the surrounding walls.

We women kept drinking tea—mine unsweet; theirs, well, they emptied and I refilled the sugar bowl. Tuning out the background classical music, I tried to track two conversations. When I overheard Almost Abraham say, “This apartment is cool,” I offered to adjust the air conditioner. Rhymes with Henna translated: “He means ‘it’s nice.’” When he said he liked the music, I explained, “It’s a radio station you could find at your house.” Eventually the children went outdoors. The women lingered after the young mother went home and returned with a pot of Moroccan tea—sweet green leaves with garden mint. A final round, theirs for me.

The tea party broke up quickly; I had to get Nina home on time. The toddlers rushed in to retrieve their colored pages. Grandma tucked her new scarf and the floral gift wrap into its narrow box. I plated a few sweets for take-home to husbands. We hugged and said thank you, thank you. Half an hour later Grandma at my door handed me more warm bread encased in aluminum foil. In the next three days, Almost Abraham knocked four times—did I hear him call me Miss Evelyn?— asking for Band Aids for blisters and quarters for laundry.

Arthur Wing Pinero, famed British actor of a previous generation, purportedly said, “Where there’s tea there’s hope.” For goodwill and good memories to linger across oceans and generations and stoops.

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books). Her personal essays include publication in Washingtonian, Washington Post, Books & Culture, CT, and US Catholic. She is also an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts.

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“Tell ’em about the Dream!”

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      “‘You do not test the resources of God till you try the impossible.’ * 

 Let us give ourselves up to believe for this new thing on the earth.  Let us dare to test God’s resources on it.  Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.”  The Glory of the Impossible.

It was August 28, 1963.  The March on Washington.  Dr. Martin Luther King was exhausted by a series of setbacks, imprisonments and disappointments.  The demands for the preparation of this unprecedented event were all-consuming.  His speech was not a priority.  In fact, an aide later reported that Dr. King rested much of that day while his followers prepared his speech.  It was a soul-weary Martin who walked those several miles to the Lincoln Memorial, then stood to read the prepared text.

Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel music at that time, had sung just prior to Dr. King’s speech.  She must have sensed that something was missing.  Recalling a theme that she heard King use earlier, she began to shout, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream.”

Film records the very moment when Dr. King left his prepared notes to improvise the next section of his speech:  “. . .   And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . . ”  Liberated by the vision and energized by the crowd, he was empowered to deliver the impassioned speech that goes down in history as one of America’s great moments – and greatest speeches, “I Have a Dream.”

Lilias, likewise, had a dream.  Almost a half a century earlier, she records in her diary the unprecedented advances of the past year:  increase in houses and lands as well as staff dedicated to bringing the message of Christ to the face of North Africa.  The rapid growth spurred requisite corporate advances in a Home Council (London) and a Field Committee (Algiers) along with an annual 2-day rally before the launch of various programs in stations and posts in an effort to connect workers spread out along the coast and deeper into the desert.

She writes “Before us all dawned, I think a new horizon – of the glory of the task to which God has called us – a glory in its every hardness & in the sense that we are working for the future & its coming day.” (23 October 1911) She concludes with these words from Rudyard Kipling:  “We were dreamers dreaming greatly.”  She rightly could have added his following lines:  “We yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down,” as she led her fearless Band ever forward in their vision to reach the land with the light and life and love of Jesus.

Dreamers dreaming greatly.  Children are great dreamers.  They spend much of their lives in a dream world – dreaming with complete abandonment about the future.  “What will I be when I grow up?” is a question that fuels their imagination and their play.  They dress up  accordingly trying out hats, so to speak, of the vocation of the moment – fireman, policeman, mommy, princess, lawyer, teacher, nurse, writer, athlete, gymnast,  musician, astronaut – with the liberty to toss off each hat according to whim.

Dreams shape goals as children grow into young adults.  Castles-in-the-air come down to earth in the form of concrete plans – education, life-partner, vocation, location – and countless questions related to achieving life ambitions.  Dreams raise deeper questions:  “Who am I?”  What are my gifts?”  “What is the best path to achieve my goals?”

Dreams continue to play an important role as we move forward in life.  They open possibilities beyond the limits of our here and now.  Dreams move us out of our comfort zones.  They fuel us to move forward, to make plans, to take risks, to make efforts that take us to places far beyond the ordinary course of our day-to-day living.  Dreams have the potential to change the very course of our lives and potentially the lives of others.

Dreamers dreaming greatly.  Martin Luther King and Lilias Trotter dreamed great dreams.  Dr. King’s dream inspired a movement toward racial rights and freedom that challenged and changed the course of a nation.  Lilias’s dreams led a small Band of individuals to plant the seeds for a church in Algeria that is being realized a century later.

What about us?  Do we continue to dream?  Do we dream big?  Are our dreams big enough?   God created us for something  much bigger than ourselves – bigger than our survival, or safety, or success.  He intended us to be a part of His greater purposes for humankind:  now and for eternity.  C. S. Lewis wrote “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither.”

It couldn’t be clearer:  All the good things God has given us were never meant for our own good alone but to equip us for His Purpose of our lives.  It is achieved as we live out a life of love in service to Him – through Him – to others.  We are meant for something greater than the maintenance of systems:  our bodies, our homes, our cars, our vacations, or even our beloved families – as important as they are for basic physical and emotional survival and satisfaction.

The challenge is to bring our dreams into alignment with God’s purpose for our lives.  Surely God will reveal those purposes through people and process.  Most likely it will involve our natural inclinations, talents and temperaments.  It will require a faithful walk with Him as we fulfill the simple tasks and responsibilities that comprise our day-to-day walk.  But most of all it demands a whole-hearted desire to make ourselves available for whatever God calls us to do.  Obedience in the small things.  Dreams for the big things.

Let us never stop dreaming.  Dreaming greatly.  Lilias dreamed to the end of her life.  She dreamed of a future without her presence.  Only months before her death, she records in her diary, 26 March 1928, her vision of  a zaouria (fraternity house) where colporteurs (book sellers), “. . . European  & native, could be trained side by side – that might be in its turn the forerunner of the real zaouria of our dreams, down south where it would be a home!”  The plan for that southland zaouria was already drawn up and lodged in a mantlepiece drawer along with three hundred francs for its first sundried bricks!

Dreamers dreaming greatly!  Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.” 

*F. B. Meyer

 

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The Glory of the Ordinary

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Such a day of small things, still, but on God’s terms, and that is enough.   1 January 1902

The last day of January and only now am I penning my new year thoughts.  I love a new year, ripe with new opportunity and fresh starts.  Yet I have long abandoned new year resolutions, knowing I might as well copy/paste the same from years – decades  – past.  Nothing changes much.  Still want to lose 20 pounds, exercise daily and achieve balance in my schizophrenic life of action/reflection.  Still have closets to clean, files (no, piles!) to sort and a mountain of written work to attend.

Clearly I’m already hopelessly behind on January.  Where did the month go, this supposed new start to a brand new year?!  Keeping Christmas decorations up through Epiphany got January off to a late start.  Tasks, events, visits, visitors dot the calendar filling up the days.  Still I’m determined not to allow January to slip past me without taking stock of the year past and, in light of that, consider the year to come.

So . . . no more “resolutions,” rather a time to reflect on:  “What’s next?”  “What do I want this year to look like?”  “What have I learned from last year?”  “How can I correct the imbalances in my life style?”  And a time to lay my soul bare before God asking, “What do You want for me this year?  What do You want from me?”

The lead quote from Lilias is one I have reflected on many times but this time for a different reason.  I note this journal entry was made the first day of the year – 1902 – adding to it the weight of a new start. The previous year had been a difficult year for Lilias and her team.  Hightened political unrest resulted in severely curtailed itineration in places where people had received the Gospel gladly.  Even so she saw some rays of light as she entered the new year with the opening of a mission station in the nearby village of Blida and the recruitment of some French-speaking workers who could reach places from which the English workers had been restricted.  She rejoiced in the possibilities of the year to come while acknowledging the challenges past and present.  The backward/forward assessment of life and ministry was standard annual procedure for Lilias and from these reflections invariably evolved a “theme” for the year to follow.

As I reflect on the past year I identify high points that mark the calendar:  family visits and our annual beach vacation, wonderful opportunities to introduce the legacy of Lilias to a broader audience, happy moments with friends, some serendipitous getaways for Dave and me.  There were challenging times as well.  Low points.  Yet, in reality, most of the days of my year were ordinary days – just as are most of the days of the liturgical year.  And I can assume the same for this new year.  The high points are to be savored; the low points to be survived.  The true challenge – perhaps the goal for this year – is to live out the practices and duties of the ordinary days with grace, beauty, and joy.

Christianity Today published their pick of the top 100 books for 2018.  At the top of the list was, Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison Warren.  I loved the title before I read the book.  I loved the book!  Warren’s thesis supported my reality and framed the evolving focus for my new year:  “In overlooked moments and routines, we can become aware of God’s presence in surprising ways.”  She goes on to explore, chapter by chapter, how we can embrace the “sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred.”  Beginning with “waking” and ending with “sleeping” each chapter begins with the simple daily functions of the particular then explores the deeper significance and potential splendor of these homely, yes, ordinary functions and routines.

A commencement address at the University of Texas, by Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven, “Change your World by Making Your Bed,” went viral with its down to earth practical perspective.  “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” he said. “It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another, and another.  And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”  Simplistic as it may sound, coming from the Commander of the Special Forces that organized the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, adds considerable heft to his insight:  the significance of performing well the little duties in ones daily routine – in war or peace!

Fact is, most of what we do in a given day is ordinary. Our days are comprised of countless “little things” yet it is the seemingly trivial functions and duties that create the context for the extra-ordinary.  Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th century  literary figure, wrote:  “It must be remembered that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passed in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures.”

Ms. Warren lifts Johnson’s observation to an even higher level noting that it is in the ordinary practices of daily living – making the bed, brushing ones teeth, losing keys, eating left overs, fighting with a spouse, checking emails, sitting in traffic, calling a friend, drinking tea  – that we “experience God’s presence.”  It is in all the actions of the hours of the day that the profane can be transformed to the sacred – depending on the spirit in which they are attended.  Many are familiar with the “apron pocket prayers” of Brother Lawrence who, assigned dreaded (by him) kitchen duty, resolved to “do the little things for the love of God.”

Lilias sums her new year’s thoughts about “small things” with a Biblical perspective, casting them in the context of “God’s terms” adding “and that is enough.”  It is enough to be faithful in the little things assigned us in the course of an ordinary day – of which most years hold in plenty.  But what elevates those “small things” above the ordinary is that we approach them“on God’s terms.”

There will be highlights and low points in the new year.  That is a given.  I have not abandoned my goals, my lists.  I will drag out my stationary bike and write up my objectives for this year.  But my challenge – the “theme” – of this new year (the eleven months left of it) – is to intentionally embrace the ordinary of each new day . .  to lay my soul open before God to ascertain His terms . . .  to be obedient and faithful to what I know is my duty and to what He reveals . . .  and to be fully open to the surprise of God’s Presence in the ordinary – and the extraordinary!

Painting from Parables of the Christ-life 

 

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Just Enough Is Plenty

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I have been seeing so clearly lately how they (Arab believers) must be trained in every way possible to give, not just to receive – and it has come as the solution at last of the problem of ours, how to fulfill the command about not shutting up our compassion from them, without weakening their moral fibre – They must learn to give as well as we – that is the plain solution. Diary 1896

The house is greened for Christmas.  The tree trimmed (once again “the best tree ever”).  Christmas shopping tackled with packages purchased, wrapped and winging their way  to family members afar.   And now I face the week-before-Christmas with all the last minute preparations – the final Christmas cards to address . . .  gifts to wrap . . . goodies to bake . . .  Christmas carols sound throughout the house enveloping us in nostalgia for seasons-past and reminding us through message and melody of the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus.  God Incarnate.

I review what has been done and what stills need attention.  Even with  little creches placed strategically throughout the house, visual recreations of The Event we celebrate, my mind strays and my spirit strains with the annual Advent tension between not-enough and too-much.  There are surfaces begging for a candle or wreath.  There are people with whom I would like to spend time, savor the season – and the friendship. I have cut out all manner of recipes which I would like to attempt and toast the festivity.  Books to read. . . special events to attend. . . programs to watch from the comfort of the home . . .

Nowhere do I feel this tension more strongly than when it comes to gift giving.  Nothing seems too much to give the ones we love – the gifts at best only tokens of love.  Images from stores and media promise a smile on the faces of loved ones.  But . . .  what is reasonable?  What can we really afford?  And what is even good for the recipient?  For many of us that question moves from hypothetical to real in faces of children – our children or grandchildren; biological or surrogate  – aglow with anticipation.  We don’t want to disappoint.

Just Enough is Plenty.   The title of this book appealed to me even before I read the first page.  This Hanukkah tale brings us into young Malka’s home and family:  “They were poor, but not so poor.”  Not so poor that they couldn’t share what they had with relatives or even the stranger who knocked on the door.  And as Malka saw their diminishing supply stretched to the very limit, her whispered query –  “Is there enough?” – was always answered:  “Just enough.”  Even as supply ran low, Malka comforted herself: “Mama can always make plenty out of just enough.”  It is a holiday tale and as such has a happy ending with a visit from the prophet Elijah whose presence, as with the widow and son, blessed them with abundance after they shared their last morsel.

Just enough is plenty.  I remember the year that we had just moved into a new home one thousand miles away from all that was familiar – and one month away from my father’s first pay check.  We were warned that this would be a “different kind of Christmas,” that we would enjoy our new home and being together as a family.  An abstract blessing for a homesick ten-year-old girl and her thirteen-year-old brother!  Then, a surprise gift arrived in the mail and with it “an adventure!”  We were each given a twenty-dollar bill (a huge sum to us at that time) and told that we were going to the city for the afternoon during which time we would spend our money on three gifts – one for each family member.

What an afternoon!  Set free in Marshall Field’s festive department store in Chicago, we were committed to making the most of purchasing what would be one of the three gifts received by each family member.  Hilarity reigned as we would run into sibling or parent making secret purchases.  Bargains were made as we pooled resources for a “perfect gift” for a parent.  Each gift, opened under the tree the following Christmas morning, came with the story of purchase.  This now is family legend told over and over again through the years.  Just enough is plenty.

Lilias, a century earlier, was concerned about the possible negative effect of their generosity to their Arab neighbors who gathered at their home for classes in reading and trade, and in the process often were recipients of necessities – food, clothing, even shelter.  Consistent with her certitude that giving strengthens the giver – indeed, was the antidote to greed – she was ever devising ways to make that possible:  providing sewing classes for the women to make “haiks” (an outer garment) for the poor of Central Africa; encouraging the men to take up an offering for the needy of Kabyle and then to deliver it in person – a most uncommon gesture between Arab and Kabyle at that time.  Even the children put a coin in the collection basket to send to Amy Carmichael’s orphans in India!

Elizabeth Elliot remembers the depression years when a “tramp” was almost a daily visitor at their door given the hardness of the time.  Her mother would walk over to the fireplace mantle and take from a jar some coins to give the needy person.  “I never knew that we were poor because we always had something to give away.”  Just enough is plenty.

Christmas is a time of giving.  And receiving.  I confess, I love both:  to consider another person and try to think what would please them and how to present it in a special way; to open a wrapped present, lift it from its tissue in the suspense of not knowing – then giving it a special place in my home and in my heart as a reminder of the giver.  The tradition of gift giving was initiated, I believe, by the example of the wise men who brought their gifts to the Baby Jesus.  And, perhaps, to commemorate the greatest gift ever given:  the Son of God in human form.  Come to walk among us. Emmanuel:  God with us.  Come with a purpose:  to lay down His Life, once and for all, for us , . .  in place of us . . .

But the challenge, as for any tradition, is to keep in sight the meaning behind the gesture.  So let us give gladly and receive gratefully.  Let us savor the music, the stories, the food, the relationships, the traditions – all potential pointers to the deeper meaning underlying the outward celebration.  (Just a glimpse of the simplicity of people and setting  God choose for the birth announcement and delivery of Jesus should say it all!)  And remember: Just enough is plenty!

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What’s in a Name?

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The thistles here are a commentary to me on that wonderful title of 1 Timothy 1:11 – “The Blissful God.”  It is as if now that not a flower is left on the barren ground, His gladness and His beauty must pour itself out on something still, so He takes the thistles and glorifies them.   29 September 1904

“What’s in a name?”  This question is raised in one of the most famous quotes of Shakespeare from the play Romeo and Juliet:  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Juliet, of course, is resisting the very thing that legislated against the star-crossed love of young Romeo and Juliet – a name! Their love is doomed from the start as members of two warring families, Montague and Capulet.  “Tis but thy name that is my enemy. . .”

What’s in a name?  Well, as it turns out, in life as in fiction, a great deal is in a name.  A name can divide families and countries.  A name can define, honor and extol a virtue or a person who embodies certain characteristics worthy of emulation.

This week I received a notification of yet another baby to join the list of girls named after Lilias Trotter.  Listing the newborn baby’s statistics – name, date, weight and length – the grateful parents added:  “Named after Lilias Trotter, a pioneering missionary to North Africa who has long been a personal heroine of Anna’s (mother), we pray that our Lilias will follow hard after her loving Father and bring blessing to those around her.”

Several organizations have, likewise, claimed the name of Lilias as the embodiment of certain ideals and purposes.  The new Fletcher Center at the international headquarters of Pioneers, a world-wide mission agency, has named their large conference room Trotter Center after Lilias Trotter who, through a “marriage” with Arab World Ministries, is now part of the history of this larger mission family,  How apt to name after her this  space allocated to preparation for new long and short-term missionaries, refreshment for workers on home assignment, training cross-cultural workers in church planting, security and language learning – to mention a few of its purposes all close to Lilias’s heart.

The Lilias Trotter Center, in New York, claims Lilias as “our inspiration” writing. “Her art and writings demonstrate her commitment to the beauty and truth of God’s Word and God’s world.  Her lifestyle of a deep spirituality combined with theological acuity is the model we hope to emulate in all that we do and teach.”  (www.liliastrottercenter.org)

What’s in a name?  Lilias, in spite of her reluctance to make “official” their work, was forced by practicalities of growth, both in numbers and finances, to acknowledge the need for a more formal system of organization.  In 1907, almost 20 years after arriving in North Africa, they organized under the name Algiers Mission Band.

I doubt she would have dreamed that her name would outlast the mission’s title and become iconic a century later for what she represented to the parents of a newborn baby or the birthing of a world-wide program “enabling thoughtful Christian engagement with Muslims.”  (I am certain that she, who prayed for and trained young people for ministry, would be honored to have these training centers devoted to carrying on the work so dear to her heart!)

What’s in a name?  Why is it important?  In a naming of a child I suppose it can represent the hopes and dreams for this tiny bundle of potentiality.  Something – someone – to look up to. . .  an image, by definition or example, of certain qualities of character worth emulating.  So with an organization resonate with certain ideals.

Scripture would indicate that God saw the possibilities in a name:  in the very act of naming the first people on earth then assigning them the naming of all living creatures. He was active in re-naming individuals to indicate a mission or an advance, of sorts, in the purpose and/or direction of their lives.  Think how God changed Abram’s name, meaning “high father,” to Abraham, “father of a multitude.”  Then, again God interfered with the naming process after Abraham and Sarah laughed at the really laughable thought of Sarah bearing a child at the age of ninety.  God not only confronts Sarah’s denial of laughing but goes on to instruct them to name that child “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means, yes, laughter!  God appeared to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, blessing him and saying, “Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer.  From now on your name will be Israel.”  (Genesis 35:9-10)

Skip forward many generations to Jesus and His naming of people.  Take Peter:  When Jesus set eyes on him He said, “So you are Simon, the son of John” (John 1:42) and from that time on he called him Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, which is Greek for rock.  And a rock he did become but not before betraying that same Jesus and seeming to fall apart, very un-rock-like at the least provocation.   While it is not clear when or even why the Apostle Paul’s name was changed from Saul to Paul, this new name was certainly a clean break from his identity as persecutor to apostle – the name by which he will forever be remembered.

Names matter.  But probably no more than in the many names in Scripture given the God-head.  As many as seven-hundred – maybe more – have been identified.  Look at a few:  Comforter. . . Emmanuel . . .  Good Shepherd. . .  Jehovah. . .  Redeemer. . .  Savior. . . Rose of Sharon . . .  Bread of Life. . .  Truth. . .  Wonderful Counselor. . .  Morning Star. . . Light of the World. . .  Sun of Righteousness. . .  Teacher. . .  Truth . . .  Refuge. . .  Jesus. . .  Messiah. . .   Say them aloud.  Think deeply of the implications of each and every name.  Let them pour over your very being like fresh spring water.

All the names combined can not contain or express the fulness of the character nor the work of God.  Yet each name speaks directly to the needs and longings of the human heart – some at certain times more than others.  He is all the above and more – sufficient for all that we may encounter in life.

What’s in a name?  When isolated or lonely, “Emmanuel,” God With Us, speaks to the void within me.  The “Comforter” soothes my sadness.  He is my “Counselor” when in need of direction. . .  my “Refuge” when fearful. . .  my “Strong Tower” when weak or  vulnerable. . . .  my “Teacher” satisfying  longings after Truth. . .   He is “Jesus,” my friend who walks the pilgrim way alongside me having walked it Himself before me.  As for the alienation between myself and God, He is the The “Savior-Redeemer” now and for all Eternity.  He is all the above and more, sufficient for everything that I – that all humankind – might encounter in life.

Frederick Buechner, in Peculiar Treasure: A Biblical Who’s Who,  under “J” wrote about Jesus. He listed many of His great works on earth but concluded with the time He lay sleeping in the stern of the boat, pillow under His head, seemingly oblivious to the raging winds, waves washing into the boat, his anxious disciples waking Him.  “The way, when they woke Him, He opened His eyes to the howling storm and to all the other howling things that He must have known were in the cards for Him and that his nap had been a few moments of vacation from. ” Buechner goes on to say,  “Lamb of God, Rose of Sharon, Prince of Peace – none of the things people have found to call him has ever managed to say it quite right.  You can see why when he told people to follow him they often did, even if they backed out later when they started to catch on to what lay ahead.  If you’re religiously inclined, you can see why they went even so far as to call him Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, the Son of God, and call him these things still, some of them.  And even if you’re not religiously inclined, you can see why it is you might give your immortal soul if you thought you had one to give, to have been the one to raise that head a little from the hard deck and slip a pillow under it.”

What’s in a name?  Everything:  even life itself.

“We rest in Thee, and in Thy Name we go.”

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Soul Shelter

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Trained faith is a triumphant gladness in having nothing but God – not rest, no foothold – nothing but Himself. A triumphant gladness in swinging out into the abyss, rejoicing in every fresh emergency that is going to prove Him true.  ‘The Lord alone’ – that is trained faith.”   9 September 1902

“Mom!  Dad! Have you heard the latest weather report?!  Hurricane Irma is coming straight up Central Florida – through Lake County.”  It is 11:30 p.m.  We have been without power now for several hours.  The batteries on our radio are dead.  (So much for “buying in advance!”)  Our only connection to the world is our land phone and to our three children who have been faithfully updating us on every new development:  two  tornado  warnings, a hard hit on their childhood town of Lake Wales –  and now an unexpected change in direction, the eye of the storm predicted to come through our town.

The calls continue – reports of damages (and terror) along the relentless path northward, statistics of sustained as well as gusts of winds, updates on tornado status.  And, now, as the clock pushes 2:00 a,m., the last intrepid caller confesses, “I think I better go to bed.  I’ll call you in the morning.”

We settle back into the darkness awaiting God knows what.  I consider our preparations:  all furniture and moveable objects have been brought into the house, we’ve stocked up on soup, peanut butter and crackers and placed water bottles in the freezer to extend the cooling.  We’ve gathered together all our battery-lit candles making a dimly lit pathway from room to room.  There is nothing left to do but settle into our makeshift bedroom in the downstairs library  – the closest location to our “safe place” – and wait out the storm:  await the unknown.  That is, I await the unknown.  Dave is fast asleep!

I lay wide-eyed on the sofa.  My mind races.  What if there is a tornado?  Will I hear it in time for us to retreat to the tiny bathroom: our designated “safe place?”  With memories of Hurricane Charlie (2004) I wonder what the world will be like when the night is over.  The back screen door is slaps open and shut with the increasingly strong gusts of wind.  We should have taken up the offer to join our North Carolinian family during the storm.  We should have tested the batteries on the radio before the stores were emptied of supplies.  We are virtually alone without any means of communication.  What if we have a medical emergency?  I don’t know what is happening nor when it will end.

Reality:  I feel completely helpless – I am completely helpless – in the known and of the unknown.  There is absolutely nothing I can do but wait it out. Howling winds and strange sounds are magnified in the absolute darkness of night.  How do I pass the seemingly endless night hours of unknowing – and, yes, fear?

Fear.  Where does trust in God come in?  Are there any promises I can claim?  Any guarantees of protection?  I try to recall Scripture verses.  (I must remember to memorize more – later).  I turn to familiar hymns of the faith – easier to recall – at least the choruses.  Stronger gusts of wind batter the house and Dave stirs.  Noting my anxiety, he suggests that I sing “God of Grace and  God of Glory.”  “Shall we sing it together?” I invite.  “No, sing it to yourself.  Not out loud.  In your mind.”  (He dozes off  again!)  The words of the chorus come to me and with it insight:

“Grant us wisdom,                                                                                                                                   Grant us courage,                                                                                                                                   For the facing of this hour,                                                                                                                   For the facing of this hour.”

It’s courage I need.  And for courage I pray:  for the facing of the hours ahead.  There is no way around it:  I must pass through it.  Whatever that means.  As to promises?  There are no guarantees of outcome.  But there is, in Scripture, the repeated promise of God’s Presence. He said, “My presence will go with you, and I’ll give you rest.”  And that is enough.  The “rest” is in His Presence, not in the outcome.  Another verse, one of my favorites, comes to mind:  “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will  guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:7)  I clasp unto these promises to fortify my night vigil.

The hours pass slowly:  endless gusts of wind followed by a sudden then prolonged stillness.  Is it over?  I venture to the front of the house and open the door to an eerie calm.  The eye of the storm.  I slam shut the door and return to my vigil.  The winds build, again, in intensity.  Will it ever end?  The sky slowly lightens promising a new day.  The phone rings.  Our daughter asks, “How are you?” and I ask her, “What is happening?”  “You’re on the other side of the storm.  The worse is over.”

Five hours.  And the worse is over.  Debris covers the ground; lack of power inconveniences our day.  But we were spared.  My mind turns to those in more precarious situations.  Without the protection of a strong roof or the presence of a strong, albeit slumbering, man.  I consider those who have recently experienced loss and destruction through flood surges.  The people who live in a constant state of the unknown due to unending war or disease or poverty.  How does one carry on when there is no relief from anxiety or guarantee of outcome?

I recall the physical perils Lilias faced in her years in North Africa.  She weathered blinding sandstorms in the Sahara – with only tent and camping gear – that paralyzed her guide who said with characteristic fatalism:  “If you die you die” or “It is written.”  She experienced suffocating siroccos and mountainous mudslides,  hostile enemies and exposure to deadly disease.  Yet, it was not the physical storms with which she seemed to wrestle.  (She probably would have slept through Hurricane Irma!)  No, it was the spiritual battles and emotional storms that sapped her energy and brought her to the lowest places.  Writing about the outward challenges of their early years in North Africa, she acknowledged that the greatest disappointments were in themselves:  “The testings on the battle-field where the inner life failed, the nerve strain with which all teems out here, – the lessons which we thought we knew and which we had ‘turned back again and again to be learnt afresh.”

I think of storm as metaphor.  How the struggles of life so aptly parallel the storms of nature.:  waves of betrayal. . . disease. . .  disappointment in relationships. . . financial setbacks. . .  depression. . .  addiction. . . to name a few.  During the storm – short-lived (as with my 5 hours of darkness) or ongoing – we don’t know what we will experience in the storm nor what will be the outcome.  Yet we can – we must – cling to our faith in who God is and what He can do.  We can rest in His goodness and His loving care for us.  He is our shelter in the time of storm:  our soul shelter.

An old seaman was quoted as saying:  “In fierce storms, we must do one thing; there is only one way:  we must put the ship in a certain position and keep her there.”  Richard
Fuller went on to make this observation:  “You must stay upon the Lord; and come what may – winds, waves, cross-seas, thunder, lighting, frowning rock, roaring breaker – no matter what, you must lash yourself to the helm, and hold fast your confidence in God’s faithfulness.  His covenant engagement.  His everlasting love in Christ Jesus.”

I admit it:  I didn’t score well in the faith department during the storm.  (My sleeping husband did much better:  having prepared for the storm he could sleep through it!)  But I did have plenty of time to think about the nature of faith and my lack thereof.  And to  learn more about myself – and some faith lessons in the process.  “My soul finds rest in God alone.” What I learned in the “storm” I must practice in the “calm” as well:  The Lord Alone.

“Faith, walking in the dark with God, only prays Him to clasp its hand more closely.”                                                                  (Phillips Brooks)

 

 

 

 

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Kind Hearts

 

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“Nothing is irretrievable with God.”  

Thomas Erskine as quoted by Lilias Trotter  23 July 1906

Dave calls on his way home from his golf tournament in Georgia.  “I had an interesting experience this morning,” he says, and proceeds to relate this incident.  He stopped along the road for a quick breakfast at a Waffle House. While his waitress was taking his order the door opened and she immediately looked past his shoulder and with a smile calls out,  “Hey Slim!”  Soon other employees echo her greeting and ask Slim “How is it going?” and other welcoming words.  Dave cannot restrain his curiosity and turns his head to view the object of their enthusiasm.  Slim is an emaciated old man, poorly kempt and shabbily dressed.  “The usual?” they ask.  He tucks in a hearty breakfast and heads off, again with farewells as warm as the greetings.  “Looks like Slim’s a regular customer?” Dave comments to his waitress.  “Yup.  He comes in here everyday.  We think he’s homeless. We all chip in and feed him breakfast.”

Who were these people who gave with such loving constancy to this needy man?  What was their motivation?  Did Slim fully appreciate  what he was being given?  Did he express gratitude?  We will never know the back story much less the answers to my musings.  But this we know:  they were kind-hearted.  Through their daily act of kindness – to this one man – love was manifested.

Lilias Trotter came to Algiers with a big vision:  to bring the light and life and love of Jesus to people who did not know Him.  Yet much of her everyday life was made up of what appeared, on the surface, to be random acts of kindness:  countless gestures of caring and devotion unobserved by others and seemingly undeserved.  Were they fully appreciated by the recipients?

One such person was Almed.  A person from their past, he showed up unexpectedly, clearly in need of help.   Lilias observes:  “Wreck as he is, there is something touching about him – something of possibilities yet undestroyed.”   Despite his poor track record her heart goes out to him and she longs to give him “one more chance to get on his feet.”  So they set him up with housing and a bit of work – and love – and a glimmer of hope.

What becomes of Almed?  What becomes of their efforts on his behalf?  He seems to fall off the pages of her diary much as he appeared – much as did many others in whom Lilias and her colleagues invested.  Charia. . .   Omed. . . Fatima. . . Aissha. . .   Doudja. . .  people come and go, touched by love – for a day, a week, a year – or intermittently for decades.  Lilias does not give up hope.  She does not stop loving.

This week our hearts have been focused on Texas and the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey.   We watch horrified, from the comfort of our homes, as flood waters rise and engulf homes, roads, communities.  We watch perilous missions as people are rescued by boat and plane from the waters rapidly rising in their homes. Stories begin to surface as the waters begin to subside and people return to assess the damages and begin to reconstruct their homes and their lives.  Stories of bravery and sacrifice documented by interviews and fleshed out by film: individuals risking lives to check on neighbors. . .   volunteers coming to the aid of complete strangers. . .  people turning their spaces into shelters for the displaced or homeless. . .   individuals giving sacrificially of personal resources – money, supplies, services – to help others begin to rebuild their lives.

There are poignant images etched on the public consciousness that reduce the scale of suffering, loss – and hope – to the intimate:  a gentleman picking out a haunting melody on a piano submerged in several feet of water. . .   the reunion of a son with his aged father. . .   heartbroken reflections of a couple who have lost 3 generations of family in a car swept away by flood waters. . .

Our nation unites, if only momentarily, in a massive virtual hug as we witness the loss as well as the response.  It touches something deep in all of us as we unite around our screens if not descend upon the scene.  We breathe a mutual sigh of relief:  maybe there is something decent in humanity that transcends the media negativity.

Back to Slim.  We don’t know what motivated those kind hearts to care in such a practical way for him.  We don’t know what became of Almed.  Did he make good this “one more chance” offered him?

This we do know:  acts of loving kindness bless the giver as much as the recipient.  “Compassion,” wrote Henri Nouwen, “asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain.”  When we enter others’ “places of pain” we become better people:  more fully human.  And who of us is without pain – whether hidden or obvious?

For the Christian, kindness is not an option.  It is a mandate.  Throughout Scripture, kindness is upheld as a requirement:  for the benefit of the needy, for the wholeness of community, for the health of ones’ soul, and for the honoring of God.

Kindness can take a radical even costly form as in the cases of Slim, Almed and Hurricane Harvey responders.  More often it finds expression in simple acts of  thoughtfulness scattered throughout the day:  a smile. . .  a word of encouragement. . . a gentle response. . .  a listening ear. . .   a bunch of flowers. . .   an email. . .   a compliment. . .   a card with a personal note. . .   transportation to a doctor’s appointment. . .  an errand done willingly. . .     The list could go on and on.  At heart, it lies in being attentive to the people whose lives we touch, profoundly or incidently, in the daily round of living.  It asks no credit.  It keeps no score.  It measures no results.

Joe Stowell, in a Daily Light devotional writes:  “In J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, the wizard Gandalf explains why he has selected a small hobbit like Bilbo to accompany the dwarves to fight the enemy.  He says, ‘Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.'”

“Be kind and compassionate to one another. . . “

Ephesians 4:32a

 

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