Ponderings from the Pew: Why Church?!

“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

(from Hebrews 10:24,25 NIV)

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The Documented Life

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!

“Be still and know that I am God.”

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SHINE!

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

2. Ephesians 5:8

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Remembering. . .

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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.”

Remember.  And give thanks.

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Holy Laughter

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“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.

Posted in suffering, testings, trials | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

The Glory of Work

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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)

“Teach me, my God and King,

In all things Thee to see,

And what I do in anything

To do it as for Thee.”

George Herbert

Posted in Uncategorized, work, worship | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Interview with Miriam Rockness – New Devotional Edition of “Images of Faith: Reflections Inspired by Lilias Trotter” (Volumes 1 & 2)

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 of Faith:  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, Images of 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.

Posted in Lilias Trotter, meditation | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Love Without Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade;

To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole

Though stretched from sky to sky.

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

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

Oh love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure,

The saints’ and angels’ song.

 

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Finishing Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

BACKSTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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