“. . . in the arrangement of our day I think we must try hard for ‘gathered-up-ness’
and not leave the priceless moments just to the impulse of the moment.”
“The Letter ‘M”
September. A month for fresh starts. Even though it has been years since my schedule was regulated by school or job, when school supplies show up in grocery stores and yellow buses slow traffic I feel the inner surge that signals a new beginning. More so, really, than the start of a new calendar year which invariably spurs new resolutions: penance for my holiday excesses. September, in contrast, invites me to clean my house, weed the garden and address the muddles of my everyday living.
I welcome September as a month of ordering – or reordering – my life. Summer, with its more relaxed schedule, visits with friends and family gatherings, welcome as it is, conspires against an ordered life. Establishing an Autumn schedule, with routine and rhythm, must be shaped by the will since it is no longer commandeered by children and workplace.
Lilias understood the challenge of unstructured living inherent to the mission work of the Algers Mission Band. She addressed this in an open letter, The Letter M, published in the El Couffa, their in-house magazine. Noting the“very elastic nature of evangelistic work” she observes the tendency to “grow intellectually slack” and proceeds to define areas in which this is manifest: choosing the work of the day, arranging of drawers and boxes, keeping up with daily reports, even accuracy in their financial accounts. She challenges: “. . . we are commanded to love the Lord with all our mind, so we know we are to serve Him with all that ‘mind’ represents of thought and care and ‘gathered-up-ness.’”
I try to imagine how her words might have resonated in the hearts of her readers stationed, in pairs, along the coast of North Africa and down into the Sahara desert. It was a lonely mission with little accountability. Open hours stretched before them like the limitless span of desert. How easy it would be to become slack in schedule, muddled in purpose. Without anyone to observe their daily exactions or encourage their efforts, one could easily loose sight of their higher calling. A bit like my life – but without the ease!
I admit to a life-long struggle with time management. I tend to be an all or nothing person. All work; all play. But how to balance those elements – leisure with labor – in a way that is productive, yes, but likewise healthy and restorative? Even as Lilias challenged the workers to intentionally focused lives, she built into their yearly schedules seasonal gatherings, fall and spring, for rest and inspiration; Christmas/New Year’s celebrations; summer breaks during the hottest months of the year. Rest and relaxation were built into the daily schedules recorded in her dairies. God knew our need for balance: after all, He set the gold standard with a weekly day of rest!
The balanced life. How is that achieved? One that is both productive but allows the full enjoyment of the wonderful world God has given for our own delight and innate enrichment? At start, for me, it begins by building into the daily schedule time set apart to be alone with God. To align my spirit with God’s intentions for me through meditation on His Word, through “conversation” with Him through prayer. Somehow that sets the compass of my will toward His purposes and helps determine the priorities of my choices for the day. It includes scheduling in periods of refreshment throughout the day: a visit with a friend, in person or by phone. . . a cup of coffee and a good book or current periodical. . . a short walk or porch time listening to birds and watching butterflies sip nectar from brightly colored blossoms. . . The natural rhythms of the day and week provide the potential, likewise, to encourage balance in routine work and leisure. (Sometimes, I fantasize the cloistered life where the hours are regimented by bells and chants, days divided by meals and prayers!)
I doubt that this dilemma is unique to me or to my particular stage of life. Each person – throughout each season of life – has to figure out how to make life work for them: the mother with young children for whom a crying baby starts the day. . . students struggling to keep up with assignments and activities. . . individuals with full-time jobs that swallow huge chunks of their day. . . the infirmed whose hours are governed by pain and pills. . . The list goes on and on. Even the best intentions can be shattered in a moment with a crisis or chronic on-going issues. An unexpected interruption can disrupt a well-planned day. Yet when I have done my part to devote “gathered-up-ness” to the hours of my day, I can better accept the exceptions and interruptions.
I return to the challenge, as relevent to me, as to Lilias’ band of workers scattered over the face of Algeria. The purpose is the same: “to love God with all my mind” so as to “serve Him with all that ‘mind’ represents of thought and care and ‘gathered-up-ness.” And likewise is the means: “the arrangement of our day” so as to “not leave the priceless moments just to the impulse of the moment.”
“We have started Sunday afternoon Bible readings, in my room, on the seven carvings of Solomon’s temple. That temple seems to be in its full sense a picture of the perfect service of the Church during the reign of Christ that is to come, and therefore it behooves us to see that we are already learning the lessons that we shall put into their full use when His Kingdom comes.” Diary May 1928
“Please check out my blog – ‘Last Lessons.’” You can be sure I did just that! Rosemary Jensen, past Executive Director of Bible Study Fellowship and Founder/President of Rafiki Foundation, now in her early nineties, clearly has a lifetime of experience from which to draw these lessons. I wanted to know what she had gleaned from her life-long walk of faith and ministry. Previously, I had figuratively sat at the feet of my new friend, studying the Gospel of Matthew, when we were shut down from our study and shut out of her retirement home by Covid 19,
Last lessons. Rosemary draws from her time-line of pilgrimage – early acceptance of Jesus into her life, her love for studying the Bible, her marriage, her family and certainly, not least, God’s guiding her to a lifetime of ministry that brought her to Africa with her beloved doctor-husband, back to the States where she picked up the leadership mantle for Bible Study Fellowship from founder Miss Johnson and then, her “calling” to continue their work in Africa to orphans and widows under the name Rafiki, “friend” in Swahili. This is merely the scaffolding upon which she builds her lessons gleaned from decades of faith grounded in Scripture and the abiding belief of God’s working out His purposes in her life. Her “last lessons” touch a wide range of subjects: engagement in the world. . . civil responsibility. . . guidelines for voting. . . .practical suggestions for making a difference in public education or tools for private or home-schooling. . . meaningful gifting. . . recommended Bible commentaries and outstanding books, fiction and non-fiction. . . mentoring or being mentored. . . priorities. . . purpose in old age. . . The lessons go on and on – current tally, 96!
Simply knowing that these lessons have been culled from a life-time of experience bring a certain gravitas to the words. Knowing that they are last lessons freight them with added emotion. Whether words spoken upon retirement of a college president or CEO of a business, a writer’s last work, a beloved grandparent’s memories – their words have heightened significance by the very context in which they were given.
Last lessons. . . My husband was given a book of collected sermons from his predecessor in pastoral ministry. The concluding sermon, “If I Were Young Again,” was laden with meaning to this twenty-nine year old fledgling beginning his first assignment as senior minister. A college-age church group over a series of Sundays, interviewed elderly congregants. The CD of my mother’s interview will remain a lasting treasure for her loved ones. I remember well a luncheon, years ago, hosted by an elderly friend in honor of my friend’s grandmother. Young moms, inspired by these two beautiful octogenarians, rich in years well-lived, asked, “What advice would you give to us?” It made a lasting impression when Grandmother Gingi, who had been widowed at a young age and had weathered her fair share of challenges, advised: “Cherish your loved ones – husband, children, friends. Don’t give up on them. Relationship are all that matter in the end.”
Late Spring, 1928, Lilias began teaching Sunday afternoon Bible lessons in her room, studying life “over the Jordan” as pre-figured in the carvings of Solomon’s temple – an especially poignant experience as her own life was drawing to a close, literally, in a matter of weeks (August 28,1928). One can imagine those quiet Sunday afternoons as Lilias, propped up against pillows, the map of North Africa above her head, added a life-time of wisdom to her scriptural insight. Her diary records her notes about the temple carvings, beginning with the oxen – “lowest in the scale of service” – working through the portals of the porch to the cherubim around the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. One can’t help but notice that her writing becomes fainter as her life is slowly ebbing, the last lesson short one, trailing with these last words, “Open flowers surely tell of the joy that is to run through all.” her concluding words and the following final lesson are recorded through the notes of a listener.
As she expounded on the symbolic significance of each carving and the lessons to be derived therein, it is likely her listeners noted how fully her own life had become the embodiment of those very qualities: the service of the ox. . . the fearlessness of the lion. . . the purity of the lily. . . the fruitfulness of the pomegranate. . . the victory of the palm tree. . . the joyfulness of the open flowers. . . the pure worship of the cherubim. And it seems somehow fitting that her last lessons focused on the beautiful carvings fitted for the house of worship bringing together so perfectly her love of The Creator with with her love for beauty and artistic expression as presented in these carvings.
Last lessons. . . We are never to old to “listen up” and profit from the lessons – lived or spoken – of those who have journeyed ahead of us, chronologically or spiritually. And we are never too young to consider what life lessons we would want to pass on to others, to be our legacy. Both lift us from the tedium of daily living with a bigger purpose, a larger perspective.
I conclude with the final words of Dr. R.T. Nelson’s sermon: “If I were young again, I would think of the old man or the old woman of a future day and I would try to be good to him or her. Of course, I’ll never be young again in this world, but you are young and God is asking you as He asked the young Solomon, ‘What shall I give thee?’ Won’t you ask Him for wisdom, for courage, for self-control, for faith, for love. Ask, and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock at the door of life and it shall be opened unto you.”
Last lessons. What can I learn from others? What can I leave for others?
Note: Each Sunday, beginning in July (2022) and ending late August, Lilias Trotter Legacy will post on their website, liliastrotter.com, each of Lilias “lessons” from Solomon’s Temple Carvings, consecutively, as she presented them during her final weeks on earth.
Thanks for your dear letter – & now the day after came the notice of a parcel – up has come the most beautiful surprise of the white coat & the handkerchiefs – Oh, how I hug you & your mother for them.”
“For you,” Dave smiles as he hands me the yield from his trip to the mail box. My heart lifts as I see the return address in the familiar script of my granddaughter. Following a brief apology for her delay in answering my letter (a common opener for both of us!) she continues, “Now I’ll answer some of your questions” and proceeds to explain her relationship to each of the individuals gathered around their dining room table celebrating her 17th birthday, posted on Facebook. This is just the beginning of a newsy update on her activities, sports, classes, plans for the summer – and even thoughts about after high school graduation over a year away!
I relish each and every detail. And I muse over the circumstances that triggered The Letter Challenge and my good fortune, as a grandmother, for the granddaughters who took up the spontaneous offer almost two years ago. After our annual beach vacation, a remnant of the 14 grands observed me as I sorted through a box (suitcase!) of unused letter sheets and note cards. As they queried as to whether I would really use them all I had to admit that I had more good intentions than letters in me. I offered them handfuls of stationery with the promise that “if you write a letter to me I’ll write back.” And they did. The four or five girls who left with a stack of assorted writing papers have, from time to time, gladdened my life with a letter. And each missive has given me a glimpse into their daily lives spurred by the invitation of a blank sheet of paper and the promise of my return letter which includes bits of our lives, more questions about their lives – and an initial book of stamps “to use anytime for anyone.”
Oh the joy of a letter! A little gift winging its way over time and space, landing in my mailbox. An envelop personally addressed with my name. . . a lovely stamp in the upper corner. . . perhaps pretty paper or a picture card within. . . maybe a surprise tucked inside the folds of a card. . . and always the anticipation of the contents therein. Typed or hand-written, lined notebook paper or elegant stationery – little matter – just to to receive a letter is proof-perfect someone was thinking of me and took the time, made the effort to connect. Resisting the urge to tear open the envelop I usually retreat to my red chair, armed with a steaming mug of coffee, then ceremoniously slice open the envelop with a silver letter-opener, primed to savor the moment. A kind of ritual.
Many are the surprises contained within an envelop! A card with a teabag and paper napkin – inviting me to sip and read and remember shared moments . . . an original painting by the sender on the cover of the card. . . a cross-stitched scripture verse. . . an old fashioned handkerchief . . . a book list for summer reading. . . a photograph from times-past from one culling her picture files. . . a quote card within a decorated border. . . New Yorker cartoons. . . an original poem written with different colors of ink and flourished with tiny stickers. . . pressed autumn leaves. . .
The sentiment that prompts the letter, of course, is at the very heart of the communication. Sometimes it is a straight-forward “thinking of you” or “missing you” or “thank you.” Other times it has an important message to convey – instructive, informational, sentimental – words, perhaps easier written than spoken. “I’m sorry.” My mother, emotionally reticent, found it easier to praise and affirm – to express her heart – in written words than spoken. Her letters I cherish, not only as a tangible remembrance of a mother no longer living, but to read and reread when I crave those maternal words of love. She, in turn, realized the value of the letter. When her life-long “best friend” died, she reread her correspondence (a final visit), then folded them in pretty tissue, secured them in a satin ribbon and sent them to her friend’s eldest daughter – an entirely new and welcome glimpse of the mother she mourned.
I have long valued the annual Christmas card exchange as our single link to some friendships that go back to childhood and youth. A means to keep relationships from afar current with our changing lives. But my husband’s four unexpected and unrelated surgeries this past year (each with a good outcome, thank God) demonstrated to both of us the importance of a card: some a simple “get well” or “thinking of you;” others with a note or message, a quote card or a scripture verse enclosed. Who would have thought such simple greetings would have such a powerful impact. To know you are being thought of . . . prayed for. . . Each card I read in the moment; many of them Dave read later. Again and again. Lesson learned: It is the thought that counts.
A letter is, sometimes, all we have of a loved one. I regretted my recent purge of paper – a rare discipline – when I learned of the unexpected death of a friend from England who wrote like she talked (“I’m writing this on a cold and frosty evening and realising that winter has finally set in as I don a second long-sleeve jumper and turn the heating up!”) inviting one into her heart as she shared her setting along with her thoughts. Later I chanced upon a cache of letters that survived the purge and retrieved a half-dozen vintage letters from that friend. I brewed a pot of tea and luxuriated in her choice words and tender heart – a piece of my friend that cannot be taken from me. Yet another perk of letters.
Lilias was a consummate letter writer. How she found the time to attend to that discipline is beyond my ken. Perhaps it was, for her, not only a means to convey information but a life-line to friends and acquaintances separated by a continent. The few surviving letters (outside those printed in early biographies) reveal a personal aspect that biography alone cannot express. Her special relationship with her niece Sibyl is well-documented but facts about that relationship don’t compare to an intimate glimpse into their “conversation.” It is through the printed words scrawled on tissue-thin ivory paper that we feel her heart. Playfully chiding Sibyl for sending her handkerchiefs and “such a lovely jerkin” – “such perfectly scrumptious things – they are just perfectly beautiful & fitting into real needs . . .” – she notes “we find ourselves exceedingly chilly with the snow far down on the hills” during a wintry January. She concludes with “Oh such hugging thanks -” “All lovingest wishes – Your loving I. L.Trotter.”
The last year of her life, her correspondence was faithfully recorded in her Log Book, documenting individuals whose lives she touched through paper when she could no longer connect in person. It is daunting in scope – often writing as many as 15 letters a day – ranging from counsel to local Algerians to Amy Carmichael in India. She wrote the mother of a young English woman joining the Band, reassuring her that her daughter would be well loved and cared for. She sent no less than 52 calendars with quotes from Edith Hermann’s Creative Prayer, as she herself continued to explore the mysteries of prayer. Congratulations for babies, condolences for deaths, thank you’s for services given were written alongside letters of vision for the future of the Algiers Mission Band and the cover design for a new magazine The Thirsty Land. While we would love to see her letters to John Ruskin, the decades-long search for the “missing Ruskin letters” to Lilias was rewarded with the discovery of 47 letters that reveal a range of his thoughts and emotions in the unique relationship between two friends and correspondents.
Lilias joins a long line of letter-writers who both inspire and challenge with their indomitable discipline. Consider the Apostle Paul. An estimated 28% of the New Testament is a collection of his letters. History written in letters. My bookshelves are lined with compilations of letters: the unlikely company of E.B.White, Colette, Virginia Wolf, Van Gogh, Rilke, Elisabeth Elliot, Bonhoeffer – to name a few. “Too busy to write,” I protest. Some of the busiest people I know – college president, best-selling author, sought after speaker – somehow have found the time, mustered the discipline to respond, in print, to queries or to gratitude for a word of encouragement. C.S.Lewis was famed for a commitment he made to God, before he was “famous,” to write back to anyone who valued his work or advice enough to write to him – a promise he kept long after it became a daily challenge, costly in time. (Wish I had written him!)
Letters nourish old friendships and help cultivate new ones. They form bulwarks against loneliness and isolation; they elicit intimacy and a sense of immediacy. They provide the possibility of savoring special sentiments or a loving turn of phrase. Letters may, for some, give wings to thoughts and emotions difficult to verbalize. We can return to them when our spirits need refreshment. They provide material upon which to reflect or to relish in the rereading that was skimmed over in the living. Permanency. Often they provide documentation of lives well-lived, relationships well-loved. Posterity.
Having extolled the virtue of letter writing, I must make a confession: I have more stationary than time; more good intentions than action. My planning calendar keeps moving my correspondence forward to the next week. My letters to my beloved granddaughters more often than not begin with an apology – noted in the most recent letter: “Dear Grandma, It seems as though we both always start off our letters apologizing for the delay. But I guess it just means there’s more to share!” Letter writing is a shared experience. And good intentions are as good a starting point as any.
So I champion the gift of a letter. I am a cheer-leader for the United States Postal Service. Even with the rising cost of stamps, I find myself praising the postal system while a worker weighs a mailing (“Stamps please. No meter mail.”). “This is probably the best value around,” I add. “Think, for this small price, my letter will travel over miles – sometimes oceans – and be delivered to the very doorstep of the intended.” What a deal!
Musings, spurred from today’s mail, have taken me on quite a journey. I’ve effused over the joy of receiving a letter and lauded the merits of the same. I’m both inspired and convicted by the example of a host of letter-writers. But what is my take-away? “Do unto others what you would have done to you,” is my point of personal challenge. I love to receive letters. I can assume others do as well. I will never go down in history for volume, frequency or brilliance in letter-writing but. . . I can do better. One letter or one card a week won’t break my schedule nor make another person’s life. Yet it might bring a jolt of joy into someone’s day. A “thank you” for a kindness given. A memory shared. “Thinking about you” to someone living alone. A compliment for a virtue or job well-done, past or present. I can draw from the well that has refreshed my spirit.
“Yesterday we got the old mosque into order, with rough matting round the walls & on the floor & our hymn roll hung above the well, & this morning we had our first meeting in it. It looks so beautiful & simple, with the whitewash & pillars & brown matting, & a gleam through the open door of the richly coloured tiles of the “skiffa” – later I hope to curtain off a corner of the mosque itself so that we can see both men & women from where we sit, without their seeing each other. We have morning prayers there every day in Arabic – ourselves.” 6 June 1893
Sunday morning. I sit in the pew, enveloped by music from the pipe organ. Sunlight illuminates the familiar designs of the stained glass windows. I view familiar and new (to me) people take their places for an hour of worship. It has been almost thirteen years since we left this church home of thirty-seven years. Memories flood my very being: sitting as a family with Dave leading worship, baptisms and weddings, conferences and concerts, fellowship and friendships. A cycle of activities and celebrations – year in and year out – anchored in this weekly sacred hour.
This is the capstone of an emotional weekend, coming back to Lake Wales, lodged in the church’s charming Mission House – “The Dandelion Cottage.” We visited Bok Tower Gardens, a place of significance to our family (day trips with young children, moonlight concerts, Easter Sunrise services) as well as for me personally as I retreated regularly, through the years, to the Garden Cafe to write – a break from the same children whom I now long to see. Our hearts are filled to overflowing as we connect with old friends and meet new people, now part of the church family.
The purpose of this weekend was an invitation to speak at a Tapestry Tea hosted by women of the church. The setting – Fellowship Hall filled with beautifully decorated tables laid with linen and set with lovely china plates and teacups, centerpieces of roses and greenery – ministered to the spirit with beauty and the love that went into the preparations. I was given a text (Hebrew 10:23-25), which prompted the topic: “Women Meeting Together.” The heart of the passage spoke to point: “Let us not give up meeting together.” A subject particularly apt given the pandemic-related season of isolation.
But now, sitting with our long-time “family of faith,” – spanning a fifty-year relationship – I find myself applying that admonition to the larger community to whom the writer of Hebrews intended: the church. Admittedly, emotions blur imperfections, remembering all the benefits of being connected in study and service and worship and fellowship – in community, this community – over time in countless ways. Yet I’ve lived too long to be sustained by sentiment. Church is not without flaws. People have been wounded or, inadvertently, slipped through the cracks when they most needed support. Church, for some, is a place of pain. For all the perks of community, it is not hard to see why some would choose to leave – or, to quote the author of Hebrews, “give up meeting together.”
Furthermore, I must admit that there have been aspects of pandemic-Sundays that we have come to enjoy: luxuriating in relaxed unstructured schedules, padding down to the den in comfy clothes, grabbing mugs of coffee and a slice of Sara Lee breakfast cake and settling in to a feast of sermons – listening to our two sons preach live in their respective pulpits, tuning in later to other favorite services. Home together alone. Quite nice, really.
“Let us not give up meeting together” – the writer instructs, adding “as some are in the habit of doing” making it clear that he is speaking to a specific people and situation – not just opining vague theory. Not only is there a clear directive in this particular passage but it is a theme threading throughout Scripture. Why is this so important? Or more to the point: “Why church?!”
I suppose because God instructs us to “meet together” should be reason enough but surely there is reason behind the instructive. At start, Scripture teaches that there is both a vertical and a horizontal aspect to relationships. We are made not only to be in relationship to God but in relationship with other people. To be perfectly honest, it is the horizontal – person to person – that gives us the most trouble. As someone said, “the only problem with church is the people. Yet, the people are the church. And the church is our “family of faith.” Just as within our nuclear families we have relational challenges, so it is with our church family. And it is in that very struggle that we are refined, rough edges sanded. Catherine Marshall wrote: “In relation to others we become full persons.”
Why Church? As I gaze out over the congregation – the family of faith that nurtured me and helped us raise our children, that question becomes intensely personal. I picture our children being baptized, us parents pledging to raise them in the Christian faith, the congregation giving their assent by raised hands to support us in our endeavor. And they did. I remember Sunday School teachers who taught them Bible stories and nursery help who gave us space from squalling infants and rambunctious toddlers. . . youth leaders who provided a Christian world-view through weekly meetings and small groups and took energetic teens on retreats and offered group activities all the while re-enforcing Christian life-style in their peer culture. . . individuals who encouraged our young with notes or words of encouragement, who modeled for them what Christian life looked like – in practice. . .
My own faith journey can be mapped, in large part, by the instruction provided from the pulpit and augmented by teachings in smaller gatherings – Sunday School or Circle or Fellowship groups – where there was the freedom to discuss, even debate, what we’d read or been told. Holy Days – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – we celebrated together the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of His brief life on earth, seasons of joy and penitence (Advent, Lent) and the ordinary days in the remaining weeks and months of the liturgical year. “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon and stars in their courses above.” And, of course, the sacraments – baptism and communion – reminding us along our plodding journey who we are – Whose we are – in light of Eternity.
Then there is worship! Oh, I can lift my weak voice in words and songs of praise but (!) when my voice is supported by the prayers and praises of other believers, my song under-girded with the swell of the organ or keyboard and choir – I am often transported to higher realms of worship.
Perhaps the value of community is most appreciated in the context of need. In times of woundedness – emotional or physical – placing the name of a loved one on the prayer chain (however broken it sometimes seems) insures that our need will be recognized and that some will respond in prayer – or maybe with soup bowl or flower pot. This past year when Dave experienced four unexpected surgeries, cards and calls from two congregations, past and present, brought unspeakable comfort and made us aware in a whole new way what it means to be part of a community of caring.
There are the benefits that come from corporate giving that ones single efforts can not duplicate. My small monetary gift, added to other gifts, can make a bigger difference than mine alone to both the operation and ministry of the larger body of Christ. The same can be said of service. Shoulder to shoulder, figuratively speaking, acts of service – church and beyond – likewise have greater impact together than alone. When we meet corporately – whether for a Missions Conference or a Women’s Luncheon or Church Family Retreat – we have the benefit of combined resources to provide the special speaker or event to edify our faith and inspire us in our daily walk.
No one understood this better than Lilias. She longed for a church visible in Algeria. From her earliest days in North Africa that was a defined goal: Christians gathered in community. Church. When in 1893, five years after their arrival in Algiers, they purchased their first home in the Casbah of the ancient city, Lilias was elated to discover an old mosque, amongst the rabbit-warren of many rooms, from a previous era. She immediately began to envision adapting this for their purposes – a sacred space – and set to work designating areas toward that end: an old masonary tank converted to a baptistery, mats on the ground for sitting as was their custom – even planning a curtained area to separate men from women, a requisite requirement, with leaders in view from both sides. She joyfully reports in her diary a fledgling meeting with three women on one side of the curtain, several men on the other side – harbinger of a church – but alas, this would not materialize in her lifetime. Young Christians – “baby souls” she called them – would have to struggle individually without the support of a Christian community. It must be noted that now, a century after her life, there is a church visible in Algeria! It is credited, in part, to seeds planted by Lilias and her fellow-workers along with others of like heart. What is planted for Eternity will produce fruit eternally. .
Why church? There are countless reasons to meet together beyond those of my musings. And, admittedly, there are many reasons not to risk community. Church is not always – in truth, ever – the place that it should be in ideal. Just look at the early church and the letters to young congregations calling out divisions or argument or false teachings. Indeed there is a case for both sides. But, on balance, in a time of fragmentation and undermining of values that have, in the past, sustained our society, church has the potential of providing ballast to our fragile souls adrift in a rough sea. By simply showing up we make ourselves aware of need, present to help and available to the Spirit’s leading in and through our lives. We make ourselves vulnerable to be helped. To forgive and to be forgiven. We were not meant to go the journey alone.
Meeting together can be a refreshing cup of cold water. It can, at times, save our lives. We can shore up each other’s faith in a culture where Christian faith is trivialized, even mocked. When our faith is flagging or wavering due to circumstances or intimidation by the world around us, we are encouraged – heartened, strengthened – by each other. Tish Harrison Warren wrote: “Belief isn’t a feeling inside us but a reality outside of us into which we enter, and when we find our faith faltering, sometimes all we can do is to fall on the faith of the saints. We believe together. Thank God belief isn’t left to me and my ever-fluctuating faithfulness.” James K. A. Smith puts it this way: “Some days I show up at church with my doubts and I’m kind of counting on you to sing for me.” We need to sing for each other. We can be a life-line to each other in pain, struggle or doubt. And joy.
I leave this sanctuary with a refreshed heart and renewed conviction as to the importance of church – yes, church with all its flaws. I’ll return to our community of faith in Mt. Dora buoyed by this reunion and with revived appreciation for our present church-visible and for the Church Universal which unites Christians in all places and all time: past, present, future. And I will remind myself of the admonition of Scripture:
Let us not give up meeting together
Let us encourage one another
Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds
Oh the joy of being here (Cornwall) again and then the joy of a fortnight alone crowns it all – it is a gift from God. I have been making some first attempts with my “Brownie” (camera) . . . last year’s (diary) was a very dull one as regards illustrations, for want of time to get into the spirit of drawing, specially in Algers. When one gets away one’s storing of mental photographs & incomprehensible scribbling come back against the leisure of a resting time. Diary 1900
Lilias rhapsodizes over the pure joy of getting away, alone, sifting and sorting the events of the past crowded months. She recently had returned from a rigorous albeit invigorating “Spring Tournee” to several villages in Teniet then down into the Southlands to Tolga where, outside their primitive rented-house, Lilias and a co-worker received a constant stream of visitors for Scripture readings and follow-up conversation. Here also they had their first encounter with followers of the Sufi Brotherhood resulting in the unprecedented invitation to their fraternity house. Exhilarated but exhausted she took her summer break, in England, with the specific intention of catching up with her soul “against the leisure of” this annual time of rest – as would be her lifetime practice.
This year, as always, Lilias sought out a place of solitude and beauty and once again feasted upon God’s created order: “Today I sat for hours among the boulders on the slope of the cliff of a little bay, looking across to the goldenbrown cliffs opposite, with one huge cavern like a cathedral door – The sea below every shade of emerald & sapphire & lapis lazuli, with deep purple shadow where the seaweed covered rocks shews through & above the tilt of moor – tawny turf & amethyst heather, broken with the grey-green of the rocks – & a strip of quiet sky above looking down on it all.”
Part of this resting time for Lilias, included the documenting of her daily life – outward and inward – reconstructing events from “mental photographs & incomprehensible scribblings” into journal letters (1888-1898), page-a-day diaries (1899-1928) augmented by travel journals. A practice that spanned the four-decades of her years in North Africa.
The documented life. What sense is there in borrowing time from an already busy life to relive and record the same? Is it the egotistical belief that what one has to say holds importance for posterity? The excessive indulgence of the self-absorbed? What then does one do with these records? Frederich Buechner wryly wondered in his memoir, The Eyes of the Heart, “What will happen when I die. . . to all the documents and photographs I have amassed and filed away along with the diaries I have kept for the past forty years or so with their relentless and nearly illegible account of where we went and who went with us and what we did when we got there.” I discovered to my dismay, that my mother before moving to their retirement home, reread her journals then ceremonially burned them, one after the other, in their fireplace!
What is the purpose in documenting one’s life? There are, most likely, as many reasons as persons but a careful study of Lilias’ recordings clearly reveal a pattern and a purpose. Her pattern was to balance periods of intense activity with times of reflection implemented, in part, through writing and painting. Her annual breaks during her early years to the continent, United Kingdom or Switzerland, or in the later years to places of retreat in North Africa, provided a precious couple weeks of uninterrupted solitude, Additionally, throughout the working months in Algeria she continually sought to find time to keep current her recordings. To document her life.
Her purpose, it seems, was two-fold. First, to preserve a record of God’s workings and His ways. Her leather-bound daily diaries appear to be the primary source from which her mission reports and devotional insights were drawn. She indicates as much in her Last Will & Testament, leaving those diaries as a permanent record of and for the fledgling Algers Mission Band. “A tracing of God’s ways,” to quote Lilias.
Secondly, it is evident that she was processing these events through deeper spiritual realities: examining God’s purposes in the setbacks and disappointments as well as the joys and triumphs. Her soul seeps through her writing in the short paragraphs and empty spaces during times of testing or sorrow; a rush of words – two lines to a space – crowd her telling of wonderful surprises, God’s dealings or unfoldings. Seeking out places and spaces of natural beauty – garden, desert oasis, sea coast, mountainside – her heart was fully attuned to God’s revelation of Himself through His created order. She would thus pen in parables insights gleaned from nature and illuminate them through paintings of the same. Lilias regularly carved out of her busy schedule time to process and preserve – document – her inner and outer life. Like breath to ones lungs it was life for her soul.
Through the years of my life I, too, have taken to pen to record my thoughts and feelings, observations and reflections, questions and doubts. I have run the gamut in journals: my first 5-year diary bound in blue leather – an embarrassing chronological account of my development (or lack thereof) from sixth grade through my sophomore year of high school, spiral notebooks of varying shapes and sizes to pour out adolescent angst and parental ponderings, my current red leather-bound journals more selective in content and restrained in verbiage (thank God for little things!). Putting my life into words has helped me to come full circle with my experience, to reflect on life and to become more observant of the world around me. Yes, to catch up with my soul.
But words are not the only way to take stock and preserve matters of significance. The artist with canvas, the musician with notes, the dancer with movement, the seamstress with needle and thread, the potter with clay, the gardener with spade and seed – each pause and ponder in his or her unique way. I think of one woman whose boutique shop was filled with objects of art and beauty. Over time her store-front windows were increasingly inhabited by sculptures of larger-than-life sized women clothed in gauzy white garments. There was something spectral, even haunting about them, evoking questions and comments from passersby. I worked up the courage to ask if she would be willing to comment on them. Or would the artist prefer to let the work speak for itself? Hesitatingly she ventured. “Those figures represent my life. I’ve come to a point where I must make sense of my life and this is how I am attempting to do it.” Pointing to the first sculpture, a woman grasping a scroll in her hand, Natalie said, “That is my mother. Rather than deal with raising a black-and-white child alone in the South, she had decided to offer me up for adoption. At the last hour, she changed her mind. The scroll is my reclaimed adoption papers.” That was the beginning of processing and preserving her life – through sculpture.
Whatever the purpose or venue in “documenting” one’s life, something happens in the very process. One slows down. Separates one event from the next. Steps away momentarily from routine and duty – and pauses. The very act of picking up pen or brush – whatever one’s tool of choice – slows the pace and creates the space to reflect. . . ponder. . . attend. . . To come full circle with one’s experience. To make sense of one’s life. And to act accordingly, with the implications of God’s revelation of Himself – and one’s own identity.
Before me is an unmarked journal, Beholdings, which contains short quotes and cameo paintings culled from the very repositories in which Lilias documented her life over one-hundred years ago. A bit daunting are the lined and blank spaces inviting me to document my life. I hesitate to mar the beauty with my scattered thoughts and illegible markings. Then I recall her original diaries: crowded script, crossed out words, penciled notations (“sap green for leaves”). Pasted on or tucked between pages are canceled stamps, pressed flowers, photographs and news clippings yellowed with age, quotes and poems from writers, ancient and current, even government documents.
I cannot model her diaries – much less her depth of insight or brilliance of artistry – but I will allow her example to inspire me in my efforts to document my life. This lovely journal, lavish with Lilias’ writings and watercolors, will be a tool to help me slow down and, prompted by her wisdom, reflect upon the wonders of this world – and the God Who created all things. To behold!
“Our meeting place with God, and our beholding His glory, lies not in our going up to Him, but in His coming down to us in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. “God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ” the divine radiance for our soul.” The Way of the Sevenfold Secret
Afterglow of Christmas. The house is still adorned in holiday finery – greenery draped on mantel and doors, creches and candles on table tops, the tree shimmering with tiny lights and sentimental ornaments. I’m embraced by the stillness and beauty – memories of Christmases past and present – the “work” of preparation now history for this year.
Throughout the house stars shine in various form and function bringing me back to a different time and place – and the dear givers of these many luminaries. A group of high-school girls drafted me to lead a “small group” at our home. Having previously retired myself to make room for a younger leadership, their appeal was persuasive: “We’re struggling to maintain a Christian walk among our peers as we enter high-school. Won’t you meet with us weekly for Bible Study and support?”
Thus began the Sub-Club (named for our weekly meal of subs from a local deli), a time of sharing and studying Scripture. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians was our first text and early into our study we read the verse that became our theme: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe, as you hold out the word of life. . .” In short: SHINE!
Our focus shifted from the darkness they faced daily – drugs, alcohol, sexual permissiveness to name the most obvious – to their unique opportunity to “shine” in the midst of the darkness. To be a light. The darker the surrounds the brighter the light. “SHINE” became our mantra re-enforced verbally at school and beyond and, visibly, through gifts of stars in all shapes and sizes. Candleholders, charms, ornaments.
A century earlier, Lilias likewise experienced unimaginable darkness. The world she inhabited, the Casbah of Algiers, was darkened by sin so grave she would not name them to her prayer partners in England. Her heart broke for children born into families to be married off at the tender age of ten or twelve, only to be discarded for younger versions in a matter of time. Women were helpless subjects to men – husbands or male family members – without recourse if abused or abandoned. She witnessed men, women and children live in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, drugging and charms a common form of control. She ached for their souls.
And she resonated with images of light. She wrote a booklet for mothers, “Heavenly Light on the Daily Path,” to provide direction for living within their difficult circumstances. She pictured raising children, pure and clean, like lilies drawn by the sun through the mud and mire of their surrounds. How she loved the image of Jesus, self-proclaimed “light of the world,” as a morning star! “It is so utterly like Him in its pure glory!”
Fast forward. Once again I’m in a study group, the text Philippians. Together we women explore what it means to “shine like stars” in a society in which our most cherished beliefs and values are challenged. We wonder, is the present state of the world unique in its challenges? How could it be worse?! Households polarized by politics. . . social interaction limited by pandemic, past and present. . . fear for our children raising their children in a culture that disdains constructs, ethical and moral, we believe to be God-ordained. Newscasters report, 24/7, devastation and disaster globally. War. Famine. Homelessness. Trafficking of drugs and humans.
How do we survive, much less “shine like stars” in a darkened world? What difference can my faint flame make in a jet black sky? At the risk of being simplistic, I offer, in response, several observations and suggestions.
First, the spirit of fear is not from God. Scripture has made it clear that fear is not His intention for us nor should it be the motive for our actions or reactions. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7/NIV) To cower or despair is not of God. To act from fear is a denial of the power, love and soundness of mind intended for Christians.
Rather than despair, with the proverbial throwing up of arms protesting “What has this world come to?!” let us see in that very darkness its potential: to be the foil against which we can SHINE. Even a dim light can brighten the darkness.
Perhaps in our frustrated efforts to “change” the world we overlook the simple things we can do to make a difference in our here and now. It begins with our response to our daily challenges – what each day brings – and how we live out lives of integrity, faith and purpose. It continues with hearts attune to needs we encounter at home and beyond. Paul sets the bar high but he makes the point in no uncertain terms: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation – in which you shine like stars . . . as you hold out the word of life. . .” SHINE!
As overwhelming as it may seem to stand up or stand out amidst the daily challenges, we must remember that, in truth, we can’t do it on our own. It was never expected of us. If we are to be that light that shines in darkness, we must receive that light from the true Light. It is as we live in Christ’s light, through Scripture, through communion with Him by prayer and fellowship with other believers, we reflect His light. Churches all over the globe recently have played out this dynamic in their Christmas Eve Candlelight Services. The flame from the Christ candle becomes the primary source from which all the other candles receive their light – one candle, one person at a time – eventually flooding the entire sanctuary with its collective light. SHINE!
Yes, it is a challenge to live as a minority in what was once considered, if naively, a “Christian nation.” New York Times columnist, David Brooks, speaks to that challenge in a piece about “living in the age of the creative minority.” Noting that many people today “feel like strangers in their own land,” he explores several ways to cope with that reality then recommends the following: “Integration without assimilation is the only way forward. It is, as the prophet Jeremiah suggested, to transmit the richness of your own cultures while seeking the peace and prosperity of the city to which you have been carried.” (1) Perhaps this is the light and salt of which Jesus speaks. Being in the world but not of it. Bringing peace not argument and division. Shining like stars.
I wonder, with George Herbert, what difference I make, so faint a flame – and affirm his conclusion:
“Lord, how can a man preach Thy eternal word?
He is a little crazy glass. . .
Yet in thy temple Thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place
To be a window, through thy grace.
. . . Making thy life to shine within. . . “
“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”(2) SHINE!
1 “We’re Living in the Age of the Creative Minority,” December 2, 2021
All these things are so wonderful to watch – all the more wonderful from the watching being from a quiet room full of flowers, instead of from the din and dust of the battlefield, good though that was when God gave it. Only now it is easier to trace the working out of these “parts of His ways” and to almost see the still-unrevealed thoughts that links them. 18 January 1927
For several years, Dave & I have been reading aloud our lives as recorded in my journals of the past two decades. On such occasions, after breakfast, we advance to the living room and settle into comfortable chairs. I open the “current” red leather journal to the place we left off and, fortified by steaming mugs of coffee, we continue our journey back in time. We are continually amazed at what we have forgotten – and how differently events and feelings seem from the perspective of time.
Remembering. . . different times and places, the changing ages and stages of our three children, visits to aging parents no longer with us, struggles and heartaches that seemed insurmountable at the time, joys and experiences that make us ache with laughter even all these years later. We re-live graduations from high school then college, first meetings of the persons that would become our children’s life partners, weddings, the lengthening list of grand-babies, beach vacations with extended family and growing relationships with cousins. Life after retirement. Loss and gain. Woven throughout the narrative are beholdings of everyday wonders, captured in words and images. In the remembering, we experience anew the interior landscape of our souls throughout the passing years.
Something good happens when we remember. We see patterns not apparent at the time. We see how we survived situations for which solutions seemed impossible. Hurts and grievances fade with time; many forgotten completely. Memories sustain us during the rough patches in the present as we witness God’s provision in the past. The overwhelming takeaway, in the looking back, is the observation of God’s Presence – even when, at times, He didn’t seem present. And how He worked through those very events – outer and inner – for His redeeming purposes.
Lilias understood the importance of remembering. March 9, the day of their arrival in harbor of Algiers. was celebrated each year. That day was set aside to remember the outworking of God’s grace and to give thanks for His Divine Presence. For their 25th Anniversary, she wrote a booklet, “Backwards and Forewards” detailing the “poetry of God’s ways” through their first quarter-century. The year before her death, confined to bed, she looks back over almost forty years noting that in the remembering – “It is easier to trace the working out of these ‘parts of his ways’ & to almost see the still-unrevealed thought that links them.”
In truth, we are good little forgetters. Caught up in the considerations of today or the concerns about tomorrow, we forget the context of our personal past. Fortunately, God who created us, recognized our inclination to forget. He not only instructed His forgetful children to remember but provided ways and means to do so.
Consider his wayward children: the Israelites. God guided them out of their bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land. Along the way, when He intervened with protection or provision or promise, He likewise instructed them to build altars – with stones of remembrance. He instituted feasts and special days to recall His mighty acts of love. To remember. . . Moses, who never did set foot in the Land of Promise beseeched them: “Remember what your children have not seen – tell them what great things God has done – that you saw with your own eyes!”
Jesus, likewise, told His followers to remember. Remember? Remember that last supper with His forgetful disciples? He offered them the cup then the bread saying, in essence, “This is my body and my blood given you. When you eat the bread and drink the wine, do this in remembrance of Me.” And ever since, over the millenniums, Christians gather regularly to eat and drink – and remember.
Why is it so important to remember? Especially when some – maybe many – memories are, in fact, painful. What is the value of resurrecting the past – old wounds and hurts and losses – when they may best be forgotten?
To begin with, to better understand ourselves. We are the sum of all our life experiences – for good or for bad. Perhaps we can be more generous in our judgment of our younger-selves from an adult perspective. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently wrote: “The important part of people’s lives is not what happened to them but how they experience what happened to them.” He notes that “remembering” involves more than a recitation of past events rather “seeing it from wider perspectives, coating it with new layers of emotion, transforming it, so that, say, an event that was very hard to live through is now satisfying to remember.”
Furthermore, we can learn important life-lessons by remembering. Many years ago, the president of the college we attended, preached in our local church. It was a privilege for our congregation to hear him. We were thrilled to spend some time with him, afterwards, on the drive back to the airport. I’ll never forget his advice couched in the context of having been a historian before an administrator. “I love history because I believe we can learn from history. We don’t have to repeat our mistakes.” He went on to tell us that he takes every opportunity to share with young couples a lesson he wished he had learned earlier in his marriage: to make time to be alone together – whether a weekly date night or a monthly getaway. “No matter how busy you are you are never too busy to neglect this most important relationship.” He went on to express his hope that their experience could be redeemed as a lesson to others.
Some of the most powerful lessons in human history are acquired by remembering. Who can read the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust without revulsion and outrage? Through the years, many survivors have achieved liberation from their inner demons by telling their story with the purpose of reminding us that these things did happen. And could happen again. If we don’t remember. After several decades of relative silence, memorials have sprung up throughout the world in places of suffering. So that we don’t forget. So that we don’t repeat our inhumanity.
Recently I read a book in which the author made an interesting statement about ones life in review: “We can choose our own narrative.” Is that rewriting history, I pondered? Denial? I concluded that “choosing ones own narrative” had less to do with tampering with facts and more about how we regard them. Do we view disappointments and setbacks with bitterness and anger – casting ourselves as victims? Or do we choose to see the good that came from those very things: lessons learned, God’s redemption of our tangle of sorrows, tragedy, even sin? Victors!
This week, as a nation, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day after one of the most difficult years in recent memory. The presidential election dividing the country politically; the pandemic isolating individuals socially. We can focus on the collateral damages from both. Or we can “choose our own narrative” and remember all things good and glorious. The comforting ordinariness of everyday blessings. In the words of the Apostle Paul; “. . . if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
“Walk independently of self, and straight to God. What is anything, when you think of Eternity, except a means to get there; so laugh at everything, and go on in God’s name.”
Recently I was made aware of these words of Lilias, as if for the first time. They simply had not resonated with me until now. I must admit, this quote was jolting to my sensibilities. Especially now. A now that is reeling from a world-wide pandemic and a brutal killing eliciting civil protest that erupted into revolt and chaos nationally with ramifications globally.
Laugh? “Laugh at everything?” Laugh when people are dying in massive numbers, alone, banned from loved ones? Laugh when people are separated from each other physically by stay-at-home mandates and/or relationally by ideology? Laugh when livelihoods are at stake, jobs lost or furloughed, economy once perceived stable now in jeopardy. Laugh when any trace of satisfaction in historical gains in racial equality has been shattered by exposure to divides deeper than meet the eye?
These past weeks have been a time of soul-searching for me. Plenty of time to think. Much to ponder. I’ve made some unsettling observations about myself. 1) I don’t like living with ambiguity. It is a kind of virtual “No Man’s Land” with few clear conclusions. When will it be safe to socialize? Who do I trust? How will we emerge – personally, nationally, globally – after the pandemic, after our presidential election? 2) I want to ascribe blame or motive – to someone, something – in the hope, perhaps, of making sense of matters which are, in fact, beyond logical explanation much less solution. 3) I like to be in control. I just want to know how much longer!
Bottom line: One discovers a lot about oneself when alone with oneself – and the media! Fears. . . anxieties. . . inadequacies. . . biases. . . . An article in a recent New Yorker magazine cites one therapist’s conclusion upon working with clients during the pandemic: “. . . what people bring out of a crisis is the strength that they had before the crisis that helped them survive it.” I suspect there is much truth in that observation but does that have to be the only take-away?
Is not “hope” at the very heart of the Christian faith? And does not that hope have currency in the here-and-now as well as eternally? I want to believe – no, I choose to believe that we need not be stuck at any one place in our spiritual journey. . . that there can be a redemptive aspect to crisis: insight, change, growth. Suffering needs not be wasted.
This brings me back to Lilias’ statement, not so much to defend but to understand her. I note these words were written near the end of her life hence bear the full weight of her life experience and faith walk. While she was born into privilege, from youth to the end of her life, she chose to engage with the disadvantaged, the suffering, the “lost sheep.” Her early London years she devoted to the prostitutes at Victoria Station, the working girls with little opportunity for ease much less pleasure; later, in North Africa, she chose to come alongside the marginalized women and children in the Casbah of Algiers, the soul-hungry seekers of the Southlands, Arab families struggling for daily survival – unemployment, epidemics that regularly and relentlessly took the lives of the young and the aged, as well as members of her own mission band. She did not speak theoretically nor were her words without context.
Rather, they were words of hope – and perspective. Laughter, for Lilias, was in the light of an eternal vantage point that was not dismissive of temporal pain and suffering but understood it as part of a journey – a pathway to Eternity – a pilgrimage during we are shaped for our ultimate destination: HOME. Implicit is the understanding that we do live in a broken world. We don’t have answers for suffering. Only the promise that God will be us with throughout the journey – if we invite Him. This eternal perspective shapes how we live today: “walk independently of self, and straight to God.”
Laughter, as Lilias meant it, could be called “holy laughter.” When one is liberated from the petty concerns of self – opinions, fears, pride, greed – we can experience joy, even laughter(!), amidst adversity. Karl Barth stated, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” One might say that God established His nation of Israel on the ground of laughter when Sarah, aged 90, doubled over with laughter upon learning she was going to have a baby. It seems God endorsed her laugher as fitting and proper by naming the wonder child Isaac, which in Hebrew, means laughter.
Laughter is therapeutic. Our youngest son called recently to vent his frustration as he, pastor of a church and father of five, attempted to process the overlapping issues that dogged him as a person, parent, pastor. It was grim as there seemed to be no easy solution. Well into the conversation someone (probably said son!) made a comical comment that cut through the angst and left us both, like Sarah of old, breathless with laughter. I cannot remember what was said, only what laughter did. Nothing changed except the spirit atmosphere. “Laughter,” wrote Chuck Swindoll, “is the most beautiful and beneficial therapy God ever granted humanity.”
Holy laughter. Laughter knowing full well the pain of the moment but trusting fully, as Julian of Norwich famously stated, “that all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” – with God in control. We can anticipate a time and a place where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Meanwhile, we fully acknowledge our reality – pain and joy, injustice and rectitude, hatred and forgiveness, mortal loss and momentary gains – and strive to do our part, however small, to shed the light and life and love of Jesus along the pathway Home. We “go on in God’s name” – independent of self and straight to God.
Should Jesus tarry our works will follow us. God may use, by reason of the wonderful solidarity of His Church, the things that He has wrought in us for the blessing of souls unknown to us. . . . God only knows the endless possibilities that lie folded in each one of us! Parables of the Cross
Labor Day, in essence, is a holiday or day of festivities, held in honor of working people. Ironically, we celebrate “work” by taking a break from the same!
Whether employed in a vocation that offers a rich sense of purpose or engaged in a job solely to provide income, work is a defining aspect of life. It affects how we feel about ourselves and often how others regard us. It determines, in large part, our personal sense of worth – even our very purpose in life.
Lilias, who by virtue of inherited wealth could have lived a life of relative leisure, recognized the inherent importance of work: for the dignity it conferred to the worker through purpose, productivity and self-sufficiency. Both in England and Algeria, she worked to provide meaningful employment as well as improved working conditions for others.
During her young adult years in London, she volunteered time and energy to the fledgling YWCA, helping to set up Institutes for the working-class women, providing housing and food at reasonable rates as well as training in respectable skills for women who had turned to prostitution out of financial desperation. As she came alongside the working-women, she recognized their need for a place to eat lunch, setting up the first public restaurant for women in London. Recently I discovered an advertisement that she placed in woman’s periodical (1886) asking for “books for tired girls” – explaining that they were opening a “little reading-room and library for business girls . . . whose minds are hungry after the day’s mechanical work, but who are too weary to take up a prosy volume.”
Algeria presented new challenges as she discovered the plight of young girls, sold from their father’s harem to be married at the tender ages of eleven and twelve – only to be discarded, in time, for yet younger wives. Concerned with equipping women and girls for independence both economic and spiritual, she engaged the services of a French woman, keeper of an embroidery shop, to instruct them in “girgaffe” – native art of embroidery – to produce articles to be sold in her shop. She brought male workers alongside her vision to teach carpentry to the men and decorative brushwork to the boys. One of her most ambitious projects toward economic independence was the purchase of land for an industrial farm to provide a living for inquirers and converts to Christianity.
She sought to elevate the meaning of work – regardless of income or recognition – writing a booklet for Arab women: Heavenly Light on the Daily Path. (See Unpublished Manuscripts) Here she encouraged women to see the dignity and importance of motherhood and homemaking, relating the chores and duties of a woman’s everyday life, challenging the manner and spirit in which a humble job is performed – even deriving spiritual meaning from those very tasks. By example: “The Lesson of Sweeping.” There are two ways of sweeping – a good way and a bad way. You can tell a clever woman from a foolish idle woman by the way she sweeps her room – contrasting the sensible one (who sweeps the dust into the open and removes it from the room) to the shortcut of the idle one (who sweeps it under the bed!).
Scripture has much to say about work: from the very beginning. First off, God worked. Then He rested. Tim Keller states: “Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later or something human beings were created to do but that was beneath the great God himself. No, God worked for the sheer joy of it.” And He intended the same for us. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Work gives us a sense of dignity, purpose, meaning in life. It is, in fact, one of our most importance purposes in life – intended by God and prepared in advance by Him for us. Work, of course, is necessary for our basic survival, sustenance to say nothing of maintenance of what we have been given and/or worked for.
In reality, however, work can be hard or unpleasant, given the nature of the task or the conditions in which we work, whether the physical space or the people inhabiting that space. Even the most rewarding vocation can be frustrating even disappointing – not what we hoped it would be. But it is not the nature of the work itself that confers dignity rather but the manner in which we approach it.
Ultimately, any job, task, bit of work – however menial, routine, unpleasant – can be elevated by the spirit in which we perform it. It can be become an act of worship – if done to the glory of God. C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which ones own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the ‘duties one’s station’ impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit-hutches) can be done to the glory of God.”
Labor Day or any day – work or play – let us heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
With the release of the new devotional edition of Images of Faith: Reflections Inspired by Lilias Trotter (Volumes 1 & 2), I was invited to address the uniqueness of this publication. The interview was launched with the cover painting and quote of the “desultory bee” – a motif which continues throughout the book:
“A bee comforted me very much this morning concerning the desultoriness that troubles me in our work. . . He was hovering among some blackberry sprays, just touching the flowers here and there in a very tentative way, yet all unconsciously, life-life-life was left behind at every touch, as the miracle-working pollen grains were transferred to the place where they could set the unseen spring working. We have only to see to it that we are surcharged, like the bees, with potential life. It is God and His eternity that will do the work. Yet He needs His wandering desultory bees.” (Diary 9 July 1907)
Congratulations on the publication of the new edition of Images of Faith! Can you explain how this edition is distinct from the previous Image book?
Yes! It is distinct in several significant ways. First, this revised devotional edition of Images ofFaith: Reflections Inspired by Lilias Trotter, contains the complete body of work:both Volumes 1 & 2. It has a devotional format, bringing together on a single page Lilias’ quotes and paintings which serve as a springboard for each related and, I believe, relevant reflection. It is reader friendly in its size and layout. Its reasonable pricing makes it a perfect option for gifting as well as owning.
Why is this particular edition so important to you?
Good question. At start, Imagesof Faith is by far my most personal Lilias offering. The biography (A Passion for the Impossible) and the compilation of her art and writing (A Blossom in the Desert) were, by intent, objective: my determined effort to allow Lilias to speak for herself. In contrast, Images of Faith is an intensely personal, subjective record of how Lilias has spoken to me. Over the past three decades in which I have read, researched and studied her life and works, she has been instructing me in mind and spirit. It would not be an overstatement to say that in this book I share my very soul and how it has been informed by Lilias.
This particular devotional edition has surpassed all my hopes. The format, compact and color-filled, invites the reader into Lilias’ heart through her timeless quotes and exquisite watercolors that launch each reflection. The beauty of the cover and layout are a tribute to Lilias’ beauty-loving spirit. It welcomes penciled notes and under-linings from the reader.
You mention the cover of Images of Faith. Would you like to comment on that choice?
The cover features one of my favorite Trotter watercolors: the “desultory bee” hovering over a spray of blackberry blossoms. I remember when I first “discovered” it – buried within her page-a-day diaries she kept from 1899 until her death in 1928. It was October, 1995, and I was spending the month at the Arab World Ministry headquarters in Loughborough, with the intent of going through her archives and xeroxing the same for further study. As the three cardboard boxes of archival material had been buried in storage, I had the privilege of sharing with the staff my “discoveries” during their daily prayer & share time.
Little did I realize how that tiny bee would continue to speak to me as I tried to make sense of the desultoriness of my daily life – and to explore the potential, like the bee, of leaving “life . . . life . . . life . . .” to what I touched – but especially the single significant condition: that I first be “surcharged’ with God’s life. I wear a little gold bee on a chain around my neck as a constant reminder of this parable from nature.
When it came to this publication, it made sense to call attention to that life-infusing truth first, visually, on the cover of the book, and then with the opening “bee” quote, setting the tone of the entire book. The image of Lilias’ bee flitters throughout the book – title pages, sectional breaks – a continual reminder of the importance of drawing daily, from God, the life-giving pollen throughout ones walk of faith.
Do you have any special hopes for this book?
This, I suppose, is my heart desire for this book: that the readers will be encouraged in their own personal walks of faith to be intentional in seeking ways of being “surcharged” with the life-giving “pollen” that God offers through His Word and His world . . . that the readers will be inspired and challenged by Lilias’ words and watercolors to explore the many means of grace that God provides for the soul in pilgrimage: ways of drawing closer to the very heart of God.
How does Images of Faith encourage this journey of faith?
I believe that Lilias’ words are as relevant today as when she wrote them. They were formed by her own daily walk with God, nurtured by prayer, Scripture, and service and tested by a life-time of living. Today, we have the distinct advantage of being able to look into Lilias’ life, through her diaries, at the events or circumstances she was facing when she penned or painted those insights and to see how she interpreted her daily walk through the light given her from God’s Word and His world. Her wisdom is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago – the truth for which, I believe, our hungering spirits long. These lessons are grouped into eight sections, each with a unique focus: Images of Joy, God, Redemption, Spiritual Growth, Prayer, Service, Refreshment, and Faith.
How has the process of writing your reflections on her work impacted your life?
Writing my reflections on her insights was pure luxury! To simply soak in her world, her art, her words – her “beholdings” – was a joyful privilege which continues, for me, beyond the last sentence of the book! Appropriating these lessons is, for me, an ongoing process.
Thank you, Miriam, for taking the time to share with us your heart about this book. To purchase the Devotional Edition of Images of Faith, click here.