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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting from Parables of the Christ-life 

 

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Just Enough Is Plenty

tolga house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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