Love Without Limits

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I have been thinking lately what a work for God it is, just loving people. 25 April 1891

It was my first year of teaching.  A life time ago – or so it seems.  But one incident remains as fresh as the day it happened.  My third-grade class, with a standard number of students, was squeezed into a half-sized room due to a new construction site adjoining the old building.  To add insult to injury, only a wall separated me from the desk of the principal who, by default, was an audio-witness to all that occurred within the confines of my classroom.

This day was  particularly difficult with a build-up of disciplinary challenges.  Finally, in desperate disregard of any pedagogical training, I took on the class, full voice, and basically blasted out my disappointment and frustration with my little charges.  Upon conclusion of my verbal tirade, I looked out a sea of crestfallen faces, sobered and silenced.  Having now their full attention, I attempted to reassure them that I loved them:  it was their behavior I didn’t love.  I went on to reinforce the message (and offset the damages!) by adding, if anyone had any questions about my caring about them they could talk to me personally after class.

Fast forward to the end of the school day.  I was seated at my desk when I became aware of a presence beside me.  Danny.  Danny was my Huckleberry Finn, hair sticking up in all directions, face usually smudged with dirt, dressed in siblings’ clothing several sizes too small or too large. Freighted with countless signs of disadvantage from his difficult and undisciplined circumstances, he felt deeply and fought fiercely for his very equilibrium on school turf.  Danny had worked his way into my heart.

“Danny?  What’s the matter?”  I asked the agitated little being.

“You said to tell you if we think you don’t love us.  I don’t think you love me.”

I pulled him closer to me and looking into his eyes I said,  “Danny, you are a very special person.  I love you and I love having you in my classroom.”

He stood motionless at my side.  Clearly still troubled.  “There’s something else,” he finally added.  “Sometimes I don’t love you.  Sometimes I don’t even like you.”

“When don’t you like me?”  I ask cautiously, wondering where this was going.

“I don’t like you whenever I am bad. Even if you are not there.”

All these many years later I still ponder Danny’s inability to separate even his unobserved misbehavior from resentment of one the few authority figures, at that time,  in his precarious life.  Consider the standard line of teachers and parents alike:  “I love you; it’s your actions I don’t like.”  What does the recipient really hear?  It is difficult at any age to distinguish judgment of our behavior from that of acceptance (or lack thereof) of ourselves:  our essential worth.  Of being loved.

February is the month in which romantic love is celebrated.  Valentines embellished with lace and ribbons, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, flowers or plants in pretty pots.  Dinner by candlelight.  Soft music in the background.  All set the stage to say, “I love you.”  Romantic love has managed to work its way to the pinnacle of the hierarchy of love.  Even when we know that rarely does that state of ecstasy sustain itself indefinitely.  Even when, at its best, infatuation eventually settles into the lovely, loving bulwark of security and devotion.

Unconditional love.  How we crave it!  Yet any form of love – romantic or otherwise – seems to have its limits.  Behavior certainly affects our feelings towards others – and theirs toward us.  In truth, much of love is conditional.  Limited by the fickleness of feelings, the behavior of individuals, or even disagreement over cherished viewpoints – be it political, religious or any matter of belief.  Furthermore, conveying love can be limited by time and place.   People come in and out of our lives, as with Danny, and any given relationship – however loving – is limited by life circumstances.

Certainly, this was the case with Lilias.  While “loving” was her calling – her “work for God” – the focus of her love was determined by time and place.  Leaving England at age 35, where she had intended to spend the rest of  her life “loving London,” her focus changed to the Arabs of North Africa.  Her early years she lavished her love on the Arab people in the Casbah of Algiers.  As her ministry broadened to the villages of nearby hills and beyond into the oasis communities of the vast Southlands, her love expanded to embrace ever more people – whom she could touch only briefly – and pray that God’s love would penetrate their hearts without her presence.

Unconditional love matters most with the people who matter most to us.  And this can strain our very being as we work to love the people closest to us:  home, extended family, neighborhood, workplace and, yes, church  Even as we struggle to love our so-called “loved ones” in the dailiness of life, we long for them to love us with the very love we struggle to give them.  Unconditional.  How easily we hug our slights and grievances.  How deeply we long for someone to truly understand us.  To cut us slack.  To love us – unconditionally.  But imperfect people, we love imperfectly.

It is in the recognition of that lack and longing that we begin to understand more fully the love of God.  A perfect God who loves perfectly.  Who sees our very hearts – the deepest and darkest places – and still loves us.  No matter what.  Unconditionally.  A God who has promised to love others through us when we can not muster the love ourselves.  Love without limits!

The following words, part of an ancient Jewish poem, were found inscribed on the wall of a patient’s room in an insane asylum.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade;

To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole

Though stretched from sky to sky.

These words professing God’s love in the bleakest of situations, inspired Frederick Lehman to add them to a song he was writing about the love of God.  A love bigger than circumstances or deserving.  A love that transcends and transforms the limits of human caring: a source of inexhaustible strength and comfort.

I’ve often wondered about Danny.  What ever became of him?  Did he learn of a love that trumped behavior and the inconstancy of place?  Lilias continually experienced the ache of leaving even as she longed to linger in a given place to transmit God’s love to hearts hungry for love without limits.  Who doesn’t desire to love more perfectly our parents, spouse, children, friends?  And to be loved in turn by them.  But we can take comfort for ourselves and for others in a love that transcends all the limitations of humanity and boundaries of place.  “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

Oh love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure,

The saints’ and angels’ song.

 

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Finishing Strong

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It is a very solemn thing to realize that the physical, as well as the spiritual, life depends on that channel to the Upper Springs being kept clear for the quickening of the mortal body by the Spirit that dwelleth in us, till our work is done.  

All Saints Day, of the liturgical calendar, took on new meaning to me this year.  Within two weeks, I said final “good byes” to two woman who have played a significant role in my life as well in the lives of many others.  The first good-bye was to a steadfast “saint” of the congregation my husband served for thirty-seven years.  She was recognized in our church and community for her unflagging service sourced from her love of Jesus.  I, like many others, was recipient of that unconditional love not only in acts of kindness but in a listening heart.

I had hardly put down the phone (or so it seemed) when I received another call, this time from my ancient past, informing me that a friend  from my childhood was dying.  Would I call and say “good-bye?”  Once again, with trembly voice and teary eyes, I call this “saint” who so many years ago took a young child under her wings, building  a hardback library of children’s classics.  She introduced me to Anne of Green Gables along with Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Five Little Peppers, and Alcott’s little women – wonderful “friends” who peopled my childhood.  She took me on special excursions and filled the void in my homesick heart with letters when, at the age of ten, my family moved over a thousand miles from my childhood home.

Through the lingering weepiness of the past several weeks I ponder this loss.  My loss. Not theirs. Both had lived long productive lives, well-spent, to the very end.  Each eagerly anticipated “going Home.”  One wrote concerning her recent prognosis:  “I am at complete peace.  All my life I have worshipped and loved my Redeemer and Savior and now I will get to meet Him.”  They were ready to leave this earthly dwelling – their “work done.”  They finished strong.

And that, perhaps, is my dominant take-way:  finishing strong.  The same spirit of loving and serving and giving that characterized their active years, sustained them to the end.  They lived life to the full, at each stage, even as they accepted gracefully the inevitable losses of aging and illness.  Friends and family gathered around their respective beds, during their last days, gave witness to being blessed by their presence – to the end.  And this, to me, is their parting message:  finish strong.

Charles Simeon, noted Biblical commentator/clergyman (1759-1836), upon retiring from his pastoral ministry, continued to get up at 4:00 a.m. each day to pray and study Scripture.  When a friend suggested he could take it easier now, Simeon retorted, “Shall I not run with all my might when the winning post is in sight?”   Finishing strong.

Finishing strong.  The psalmist proclaimed, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . .  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”  In his daily devotional on the Psalms, Tim Keller observes,  “If we maintain fellowship with God over the years, there is a kind of ‘freshness’ than can come with increasing age.  It is not the naiveté of perpetual spiritual adolescence.  It is the spiritual vigor that grows only out of years of trusting God in prayer, coupled with the wisdom that comes from a treasure chest of rich memories, both sorrowful and sweet.”

Moving forward to the 21st Century, our youngest son made an observation after visiting his 95-year-old grandmother:  “What an inspiring example of someone stretching and changing to meet the challenges of old age.  It is a lesson to me:  One never needs to stop growing at any age.”

Lilias was a prime example of finishing strong.  Confined to bed her last three years of life, she wrote The Sevenfold Secret for the Sufi Mystics, arguably her magnum opus.  Along with multiple projects, she wrote her love story with a people and the place of Algeria, illustrating the book, Between the Desert & the Sea, with fifteen full-color plates of watercolors, subjects culled from her forty years of dairies and journals.  Her daily log for 1927, her final full year, reveals a wide range of correspondence, personal and organizational, plans and projects for the future (without her), and the presence of individuals who peopled her life, staff and nationals.  It is out of her very weakness that she wrote:  “It is a very solemn thing to realize that the physical, as well as the spiritual, life depends on that channel to the Upper Springs being kept clear for the quickening of the mortal body by the Spirit that dwells in us, till our work is done.”  Finishing strong.

Finishing strong is not limited to ones final years.  Indeed, I have been inspired by the individuals who have touched my life directly or indirectly through their stories and note that each person ended as they lived.  Their final parting was a culmination – a continuation – of a lifetime of a series of choices to finish strong whatever their occupation or vocation.  Finishing strong was not a final flourish, a grand finish, to mark their final days.  It was a MO for living all the ages and stages of their lives, all the actions and transactions of their days.

An acquaintance whose counter-culture book on femininity catapulted her to fame in the mid-70’s – winning her a cover on Time magazine, TV talk show appearances, and contracts for future books – was challenged by a friend who was also a family counselor. “How are things on the home front?” he  asked, at the pinnacle of her notoriety. Then, referring to her teenage daughters, he warned,  “Be careful not to fumble the ball near the goal line.” Counsel she cherished – and heeded – a timely reminder of a larger perspective.

Once I was asked to fill in for a respected lawyer, to give a talk to adolescents on (of all things) the work place.  Daunted by my task (and predecessor) and short on script, I consulted him.  “What counsel did you give?”  He gave the cliff notes of his talk but one bit of advise remains with me to this day.  “Whatever your present job, however humble – clerking at Wal-Mart; cooking at McDonald’s –  give it your best to the very end.”  He went on to offer the pragmatic observation that the first recommendation your next prospective employer will seek is your last place of work.  In other words:  finish strong.

I’m saddened by the void left by these cherished friends and reminded that there will be others, beloved, who will leave this world before me.  “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons (and daughters) away.”  Yet my life has been enriched by both their presence and their example of how to live . . .  and how to die  . . .

Every day of every age and stage of life provides countless tasks and challenges to finish strong.  But the fact is, we do tire.  Become weary in well-doing.  Over time we can become jaded by life itself, loosing our early enthusiasm boosted by our ideals, our dreams.  Discouraged by disappointments and setbacks, we wrap a protective blanket of cynicism around our hearts.  Been there; done that.  We can’t seem to drum up the energy or enthusiasm to face our tasks and challenges much less finish strong.

This brings us to our true condition:  dependent both physically and spiritually on the “quickening” of both body and soul by the “Spirit that dwellest in us till our work is done.” Today and each day till the end of our lives.  No, we cannot always produce energy or vitality at will.  But we can keep open “the channel to the Upper Springs” – that refreshment from God – as we nourish our souls through Scripture and prayer.

                                         “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . .                                                         They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”                        Psalm 92:12, 14

 

 

 

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New Publication! “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus: A Story & a Song”

I am pleased to announce the release of a new publication, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus: A Story and a Song,” which is now available on Amazon!  Kimberly Wood, Communication Coordinator for “Lilias Trotter Legacy,” relates the BACKSTORY of how this beautiful publication came into being.  (MHR)

BACKSTORY

Behind every song is a story.  Some of the richest stories come from the hymns-of-old and Sunday School favorites.  Who isn’t familiar with the story of John Newton, former slave-trader-turned-clergyman writer of “Amazing Grace”?  How can one not be touched by the tragic story of Horatio Stafford, the father who lost his children at sea and wrote “It is Well With my Soul” as he passed over the very spot where their boat sank in the Atlantic Ocean?  Not surprisingly, most songs that endure the test of time touch the souls of listeners because of their powerful universal message.  And usually those messages come from deep places and experiences of the writers.

Such is the case for the beloved song, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”  The central message of this century-old hymn is thought-provoking:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face;

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.

The opening line of the song – “O soul, are you weary and troubled, no light in the darkness you see . . .” – resonates with so many people, no matter time or place.  The verses that follow, along with the chorus, bring comfort, challenge, and hope.

The story behind this song is not nearly as well-known as those of “Amazing Grace” and “It is Well with My Soul.” But for admirers of Lilias Trotter, the background story is meaningful because it was inspired by her.  Profoundly impacted by Lilias’s words in the pamphlet “Focussed,” musician and hymn-writer, Helen Lemmel, penned the beautiful song “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

While the story behind the song isn’t well known, the song itself is.  Some may remember singing it as children in Sunday school.  Others may have sung it in church settings or at related events.  It has been recorded by Elvis Presley, country singer Alan Jackson, and popular Christian singers Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Hillsong Worship.  A simple “Google search” finds it on many lists of “Favorite Hymns of All Time” or “Most Loved Hymns.”

Stories have been shared online about the impact of this song:  it has been a comfort at the bedside of those who are sick and a favorite at funerals; it has been an encouragement during hard times and an “altar call” to give one’s heart to Jesus. It has been simply a daily reminder to people – in the midst of the busyness of life – to keep their eyes focused on Jesus.  It “refills my soul” as one reader wrote and “moves me to tears,” as penned by another.

Brian and Sally Oxley – who had the vision to turn the story of Lilias into film – have also had the vision and desire to make better known the story of “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”  Knowing that Miriam Rockness’s first introduction to Lilias Trotter was actually through the same leaflet that inspired composer Helen Lemmel to pen “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” they encouraged her to write the story behind this song and invited award-winning artist Tim Ladwig to illustrate it with his beautiful paintings.

And so, their vision has come into fruition.  We are delighted to announce that Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus: A Story and a Song, is now available for purchase.  This book is a lovely keepsake – both for yourself and to gift to others.

Click here to purchase Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus: A Story and a Song.

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The Purpose of Life

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Lord, we have not much to give Thee – but we give Thee our hands today.”   Diary

Mr. Rogers.  Who of us parents, who sat our children in front of the TV screen to watch “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” would have dreamed that a half-a-century later the same Mr. Rogers would be the star of a mainstream documentary, a counter-cultural hero?!  The soft-spoken, kinda quirky, maybe even a bit goofy presence of a children’s broadcaster was, at that time, somewhat of a conundrum to an on-watching adult.  Yet there was no doubt that from the moment he hung up his jacket, pulled on his sweater,  tied his comfy tennis shoes, and addressed his viewers with slow and measured words, that his pint-sized audience was drawn into his neighborhood.  They were reassured by his deliberate handling of daily situations, little and big – hurt feelings, mistakes, friends or lack thereof, bullies, nightmares, divorce, bombs – and by his acknowledgement that they were special.  They mattered.

The recent release of the mainstream documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” became an instant box office hit triggering the question:  What was so special about Fred Rogers?   Some have suggested that the film was a “nostalgic museum tour of a TV moment” – a flash back to a simpler gentler time.  Really?  Think about its time of debut:  the wild 60’s with a culture of hippies, peace signs, sex, drugs and hard rock.  Others note the voice of sanity in juxtaposition to that very culture:  clean and kind and tender and, dare I say, loving?  Whatever it was then has touched a nerve now as we review his life and his message with the wisdom of hindsight.

What was his secret?  What made him “tick”?  Fred Rogers prophetically answered that question in a short documentary filmed many years ago.  The interviewer was walking Fred Rogers through a short tour of his alma mater, Rollins College, when Fred took over the direction of the tour.  He guided him to a wall near Strong Hall where engraved on marble were these words:  “LIFE IS FOR SERVICE.” Rogers reached for his wallet and pulled out a photo of that very engraving noting that daily he walked past it while enrolled at Rollins.  He has kept this now well-worn photo in his wallet ever since.  It has been his motto and his muse.

His Christian faith is no secret.  He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He made no pretense that his motive power came from any source other than a  personal relationship with Jesus – as did his message of love and service.  Someone defined service in this way:  “Service is love in action.  Christian service is Christ made manifest.”

This was a challenge that Lilias faced over a century earlier with the young Arab believers:  How to convey to them that Christ’s love was not intended to be solely received.  It was meant to be passed on through the recipient to others.  She records in her diary her joy of any indication of progress towards that end:  “Another little step onward today – the starting of a little working party – half a dozen or so of the women who will come for the dawning love of Jesus to make garments for the women of Central Africa . . .   They made a dear group getting on a mat in their court – &  in the little prayermeeting at the end, Taitum prayed, ‘Lord we have not much to give Thee – but we give Thee our hands today.'”   

Life is for service.  Service is more a way of life than any specific action or deed.  It is more often an attitude demonstrated in the everyday menial tasks than in the grand gesture.  Moreover, the area of service assigned for us may not even be of our own choosing.  Oswald Chambers writes:  “God engineers everything; and wherever He places us, our one supreme goal should be to pour out our lives in wholehearted devotion to Him in that particular work.  ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. . . ‘”
(Ecclesiastes 9:10)

Jesus defined and demonstrated love through service when He washed the feet of His disciples.  “I have set for you an example that you should do what I have done.” What are the day-to-day opportunities for loving service  in the mundane and menial of my life?  How does God want me to serve – today?

 

 

 

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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

clover

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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