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 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

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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.

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Love Without Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade;

To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole

Though stretched from sky to sky.

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

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

Oh love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure,

The saints’ and angels’ song.

 

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Finishing Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

BACKSTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Purpose of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

by Evelyn Bence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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