Parables of the Cross

It is in the stages of a plant’s growth, its budding and blossoming and seed-bearing that this lesson has come to me:  the lesson of death in its delivering power.  It has come as no mere far-fetched imagery, but as one of the many voices in which God speaks, bringing strength and gladness from His Holy Place.         Parables of the Cross

I hold in my hands a facsimile copy of Parables of the Cross by Lilias Trotter.  A dream come true.  Leafing through the pages, I savor the exquisite paintings from nature perfectly positioned to augment the text:  chestnut leaf and bud, flowering rush, golden blaze of gorse-bush, sunny buttercups, wild-rose pedals, dandelion seed-globe – among others.  And I feel anew, the first thrill of opening this book in the original edition.  Even more:  the moment the seed was planted in my heart to see this book re-published in a facsimile edition.

Flashback in time to October, 1992.  Place: Loughborough, England.  My husband and I had scheduled our return trip from Israel, a 20th anniversary gift from our church, through London to accommodate a side trip to the Arab World Ministries Headquarters where the Trotter archives were housed.

Words fail to express my emotions as I opened a leather-bound page-a-day diary and saw, for the first time, her exquisite watercolors – a museum in miniature – flowers, landscapes, people, houses, sunsets and mountain ranges.  I could only briefly browse diaries, journals, pocket sketchbooks that recorded her 40 years in North Africa.  And there was much more:  reports evolving in style and format, scrapbooks circulated amongst the mission stations, seed ideas for writing, booklets in French, English and Arabic for women and children as well as devotionals for the English speaking.  I jotted down my observations in a notebook even as I vowed: I will return!

The day sped by all too fast, punctuated by a brief coffee/devotional time with the staff and a light lunch put together with gracious hospitality.  At the conclusion of the visit our host and guide – “keeper of the archives” – Alasdair McLaren asked a simple question:  “What is your purpose in coming here?”

How to answer?  How to explain the powerful impact this woman had already had on my life and spiritual formation?   How to put into words the driving desire to see with my own eyes the art mentioned only in footnote on a printed page of an out-of-print book?  All I could say in answer was simply:  “Pilgrimage.  I’m here on pilgrimage.”

Upon return to the USA, I continued to ponder that question – and my answer.  I realized that trip had put in my heart a desire to see her work re-issued in publications that contemporary readers could likewise study and ponder.  So I wrote a letter (before the day of emails!) saying that upon further reflection, I did have yet another purpose:  to see some of her out-of-print works republished – beginning with the devotional classic, Parables of the Cross.

With their blessing I began yet another pilgrimage to editors and publishers and other Trotter fans toward that end.  Elisabeth Elliot wrote, in response to my query:  “I have tried various publishers to see if I might persuade them to reprint the PARABLES. They say no – impossible to reproduce the paintings except at prohibitive coast.  Alas.  But I quote her and tell people about her whenever I can.”  (She went on to write a book, A Path Through Suffering, meditations based on Trotter’s two books, Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-life illustrated with sketches by her brother, James Howard.)  And such was my experience as well.

Until a fortuitous meeting with Marj Mead and Lyle Dorsett at The Wade Center at Wheaton College.  Dr. Dorsett, upon seeing the parable book, proclaimed this book  publication-worthy but that it needed a readership acquainted with Lilias Trotter before such an undertaking – and went on to commission me to write her  biography.

Fast forward 23 years from that first meeting in Loughborough:  two books and a film later – A Passion for the Impossible:  The Life & Legacy of Lilias Trotter; A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter; “Many Beautiful Things:  The Life and Vision of Lilias Trotter” – my original dream finally has been fulfilled:  the publication of a facsimile edition of Parables of the Cross. (http://www.amazon.com/Facsimile-Parables-Cross-Lilias-Trotter/dp/1938068076/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1444521970&sr=8-5&keywords=parables+of+the+cross)

This has not been a solo venture.  Countless people have come alongside me during the past 2 decades supporting the vision of reviving Lilias’ legacy with encouragement, ideas, research, materials, funding.  Others have caught the vision for republishing her parables, a wonderful contribution resulting from new digital printing options, resulting in at least 10 separate editions at last count.

Which raises the question:  why one more?  This is the only facsimile edition, copied directly by the Conservation Center of Chicago from the first edition published by Marshall Brothers and printed by E. Nister of Nuremberg (Bavaria).  Faithful not only to text but the alignment of text to illustrations, it likewise reflects the advance in quality of color printing.

One might also ask, why another devotional book?  And one written over 100 years ago?  Bookshelves and catalogues are filled with all manner of devotional writing in up-to-date English with contemporary tone and examples.  It must be acknowledged that the text  reflects a distinct voice of the Victorian era and that the contents are not for the faint-hearted as deep and sometimes hard spiritual realities are stated and explored.

But the fact remains, this is a devotional classic, rare and true, composed of timeless verities tested by personal experience.  It was written within the window of summer/fall 1895 at a time Lilias was taking an extended break in England.  Her health, never robust, had been seriously compromised after seven years of unremitting labor in the testing climate of Algeria.  The result was this book, born of her own spiritual struggles and tempered with her depth of life experience.  It reflects her deep grounding in Scripture and is animated by her growing sensibility to God speaking through His natural world.

Parables of the Cross.  Read for yourself.  Read slowly.  Read prayerfully.  Read for insight into God’s Ways:  the unchanging and inexhaustible truths of a loving Heavenly Father.

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Posted in Cross, death, Faith, freedom, growth, life, nature, renunciation, suffering | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Desert Rose

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The wonder lies in the (desert) floor itself.  It is a layer of crystallized gypsum, several feet thick, that underlies the sand of this district, and serves the land for all building purposes.  You will see scattered along every roadside and built into every wall these beautiful crystals, several inches across, imitating flames of fire, or crysanthemums, stars or roses, as the case may be, and calcined and powdered they form the cement into which they are embedded.   Between the Desert & the Sea

The long anticipated week in England is history now, captured in photographs, journal jottings, scraps of menus, programs and other memorabilia – and in memory. The purpose of this trip was the world premier of the Lilias Trotter documentary, “Many Beautiful Things,” at the Manchester International Film Festival.  It was a thrill to see the film come to life on wide screen. . . to receive affirmations from a wide range of viewers. . . to share this culminating moment with the film maker and her husband, our patrons and their adult daughters. . .  A never to be forgotten moment, launching the next phase:  the presenting of the film to the public.  More than two years effort coming to fruition – at last!

Yet there was another event, personal and private, that ranked high in my heart at the time and now upon reflection:  the meeting of Eva Longley, the only former member of the Algiers Mission Band still living.  While not a contemporary of Lilias, she lived in Dar Naama, Lilias’s home (and AMB Headquarters in Algiers) and, during those years, worked alongside the then older women who had joined Lilias decades previous.  That alone would have made her a person-of-interest – but there was much more to the story and her unproclaimed role in preserving the Trotter archives.  A  story I learned considerably after my appropriating those very archives for the writing of the biography,  A Passion for the Impossible. and compiling paintings and writings for A Blossom in the Desert.

 A chance meeting with a friend’s son and a retired Arab World Ministries missionary connected me to a woman who, likewise, had based at the HQ in Dar Naama for many years.  It was through a telephone conversation with this contact that I was told the history of the archives and given Eva’s UK phone number.  Thus began a friendship via phone linked by our common regard for the life and legacy of Lilias Trotter.  Over the past several years I would contact her with my endless list of questions:  “Do you have any stories that her colleagues shared with you?  Any mannerisms or qualities that might better illuminate her personality?  Any foibles or weaknesses that would humanize her?  After each “visit” I felt I knew Lilias better – as well as my new friend, Eva.

But the most illuminating story was, in fact, her crucial role in the preservation of the Trotter Archives along with related North African Mission/AWM archival material.  During political unrest in the 1980s, missionaries left the country.  Eva stayed on, working her day job at an embassy in Algiers.  Every evening, for one and one-half years, Eva would attend to her greater mission: organizing the storage space filled with all manner of paper, books, pamphlets, journals, diaries and documents, keeping record until she was satisfied that she had secured a copy of everything of importance.  As individuals visited her over those months, she would entrust into their care (and suitcases) these items to be deposited at their respective destinations.  Ultimately they were gathered together in three large cardboard boxes and  stored at the Arab World Ministries UK HQ in Loughborough.  At peace that “her work was completed,” she felt liberated to leave her beloved Algeria and return to England to join her husband and eventually serve, together, in a new location in North Africa.

The six hours we spent together in London will be etched forever in my heart.  This tiny but resilient soul in her early-8o’s, battled her way to the city whose transportation system was crippled by a 24 hour tube strike – with subsequent overload of buses and taxis.  We sat in the tearoom at Selfridges for 4 hours and listened to her stories – and told her ours.  Finally, we waited with her for two hours as one bus after another passed by, filled with passengers!   (It would be another 2 1/2 hours before she made it back to her apartment the opposite  end of London!)

Before leaving, she reached into a shopping bag and presented me with a smaller bag.  I unwrapped the tissue and lifted from it an exquisite rock formation.  “It’s called a ‘desert rose.’  They are found  in certain arid desert regions of Algeria, made of sand and minerals (often gypsum) and shaped by sand and wind and water into lovely formations.  I see it as a parable of our lives:  to use the dry and hard things of life to create something beautiful.”

I looked at this beautiful woman, weathered with age and shaped by life experience:  a desert rose.  I felt the honor and privilege to be in her company, to be considered a friend, and to have collaborated with her (unbeknownst to either of us at the time) in the effort to preserve and present Lilias’s legacy of faith and beauty.  And I thought of Lilias who had fallen in love with the people of this particular region – the Souf villages of hidden palms and beehive dwellings, the desert roses lining the roadsides, walls and underlying the sand of this district, and lovely “maidens” (wrapped in their indigo cotton drapery) “full of grace” and “frank sweetness.”  “It wins our heartstrings in our rare visits, and it keeps them.”  Little wonder that Lilias dreamed of ending her days amongst the Souf people.  As one last gift to herself, before leaving the district in 1895, she took desert roses, fresh and sweet out of the ground, “. . . a pledge of the blossoming that is coming to the desert when the Lord is king.”

So I have my bit of Algeria on a shelf, above my computer, at our home in Florida.  It reminds me of Eva, of course, and Lilias.  And it speaks to me of all the Evas and Liliases of this world who, like them, have spilled out their lives in service for God – in far away lands and at home  – simply being faithful to God and obedient to His bidding.  Missionaries and ministers, yes, but teachers and plumbers and nurses and business owners and workers, mothers and fathers.  In short, all people who radiate the love of God and convey it to those whose lives they touch – intentionally or inadvertently.  People for whom there will be no “honorable mention” (at least in this world), no books nor films to highlight their good works.  But for whom God can say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

We all can be “desert roses” – shaped by the hard and difficult things of life into something beautiful for God!

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A Night of Many Beautiful Things

At last I have specific information about the screening of “Many Beautiful Things” that many readers have requested.  After more than 2 years of planning and praying and the coming together of talented individuals to bring to screen the life and art of Lilias Trotter, we announce a “premier event” – An Evening of Many Beautiful Things – which will launch the public availability of the film.  Perhaps you would like to host a screening in your church or local theater.  Information on the where and how of such an event – and the future of other possible screenings is explained in the following link.  And, there will be more information to follow about facsimile editions of Trotter sketchbooks and her devotional classic:  Parables of the Cross.

Check out the following link:

https://www.facebook.com/manybeautifulthingsmovie?fref=nf

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Endless Possibilities

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God only knows the endless possibilities that lie enfolded in each one of us!                                                                                                           Parables of the Cross

It was the fall of 1858.  Lilias’s father, Alexander Trotter, was preparing to embark upon an extended visit to the United States, to visit overseas clients and investigate the railway companies on behalf of Coutts Bank, broker to a number of foreign railway companies.  Isabella Trotter, Lilias’s mother, gave her consent on one condition:  that she would accompany him – little imagining that he would make good on her offer!

Isabella, anticipating the impact of this separation on five-year-old Lily, purchased a sketchbook for her daughter and presented it with this simple inscription:  “Lily – Sept. to Dec. 1858.”  Upon their departure, Lily faithfully recorded pictures depicting their departure, waving to a ship from a wooden dock, and concluded her sketchbook with evidences of the advent of Christmas and the anticipated return of her parents.  Within the pages, were images and imaginations of a Victorian childhood:  tree house and castles, beach coasts and bathing machine, pipe smoking gnome.  Kittens and cats scamper through the pages decorated with alphabet books, toys and other vestiges of childhood.

Her mother, in turn, faithfully wrote to “My dear little girl” recording experiences and views of the “new world” with vivid descriptions of places and landscapes comparing them to Lily’s known world in England.  At one point, she left a blank space for her “to fill up with her imagination, for no words can convey any idea of the scene.” Without the slightest trace of condescension, she likewise shared viewpoints she observed, urging her to take her comments about the racial conflict (just before the Civil War!) – “I shall give you the testimony of everyone as I gather it for you to put together that you may be able to form your deductions.”  (These letters were later published as First Impressions of the New World on Two Travelers from the Old.)

Clearly, this mother recognized a budding artistic talent in her young daughter and provided the tools and incentive to encourage and develop the same.  But could she have even imagined the other abilities that were latent in the unformed child?  How could she possibly have surmised the leadership abilities, the vision, the faith that would mark the adult life and legacy?

Possibilities.  Who knows what possibilities lie within a human being.  Never is one so aware of the mysterious potential than when in the presence of a child.  What gifts lie hidden within that unformed being?  What circumstances and events will shape and cultivate their innate gifts and guide the very direction of their lives?

Lilias’s developing talent is presented in a recently published picture book for “children of all ages,” Lily: The Girl Who Could See.  Here the simple narrative of her life is compellingly related by Sally Oxley and beautifully illustrated by Tim Ladwig.  (See Amazon Books)

What distinguishes Lily’s artistic journey is her understanding, from an early age, of her creative gift in relationship to The Creator.  This belief that she could only be all God intended her to be in relation to Him – as a person and as an artist – informed the most important decisions of her life.  And, her joyous conclusion, that only way to true joy and satisfaction is in full surrender to God, is an inspiration for persons of any age.

She concludes her Parables of the Cross with a painting and reflection on the new-born wood-sorrel writing:  God only knows the endless possibilities that lie folded in each one of us!  Shall we not let Him have His way?  Shall we not go all lengths with Him in His plans for us – not, as these ‘green things upon the earth’ in their unconsciousness, but with the glory of free choice?    

The creative “possibilities” are not just for the young with years ahead to plan and develop their innate gifts.  With God, each day offers possibilities to grow and serve Him – regardless of the circumstances – at each and every age and stage of life.  True creativity is not the result of a  free, unbridled spirit but it is a way of being:  the creature in right relationship with the Creator.  “Shall we not go all lengths with Him in His plans for us?”  

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At Last: The Trailer for Many Beautiful Things

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At last:  a glimpse into the film, Many Beautiful Things, via the trailer.  A taste of things to come!

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/06/exclusive-watch-trailer-for-art-doc-many-beautiful.html

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A Story & A Song

focussed

Gathered up, focused lives, intent on one aim – Christ – these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness.  It is “all for all” by a law as unvarying as any law that governs the material universe.   Focussed:  A Story & A Song

Have you ever wondered how a song comes into being?  Which comes first?  The words or the music?  How is a song presented to the world?

The story of the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” is about two women – Lilias Trotter, Helen Lemmel – each remarkable in her own right, and how their unique talents merged to create one of the most beloved spiritual songs of the 19th century, enduring to this day.

I have immersed myself in the life of Lilias Trotter for almost thirty years,  but I have known little about Helen Lemmel until recently.  While they never met each other, Helen, born  a decade later, in 1863, had much in common with Lilias. Like Lilias, she was born in England, however of modest means her father being a Wesleyan Methodist pastor.  She had a normal childhood which was changed enormously when in 1875, at the age of 12, her family emigrated to the United States eventually settling in Wisconsin. She, like Lilias, was artistically gifted.  A great musical talent was identified in young Helen, gaining her a reputation as a brilliant singer.  Music was her passion.  As a young woman she traveled widely throughout the Midwest giving concerts in many churches.

In 1904, at the age of 40, she moved to Seattle, Washington, where she was able to merge her remarkable literary abilities with her love of music becoming the music critic for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer.

She moved to Germany in 1907 where she spent the next four years continuing her study of voice with private lessons.  While in Germany, she met and married a wealthy European.

Upon the completion of her studies, she moved back to the Midwest (1911) where she entered an active period of concertizing throughout the United States.  She gave concerts in churches and traveled on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular performance venue of that era.  She was greatly in demand throughout the United States, performing her own patriotic compositions for soldiers in Military Camps as well as providing programs of her own stories and songs of a wide range of subjects.

Even as she experienced success in secular venues, her first love and loyalty was to her Christian faith.  She continued to give concerts in churches and eventually became the vocal music teacher at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, even leading a woman’s choral group for Billy Sunday during the peak of his career. At the same time she continued her literary pursuits writing hymns as well as stories and poems for children.  Her book for children, Story of the Bible was met with wide acclaim.

Then a tragedy struck that would have a life-altering effect.  She was diagnosed with an affliction that would result in blindness.  Her husband, unable to cope with that reality, abandoned the marriage, leaving her to cope on her own.  What might have been a debilitating experience physically as well as emotionally, only turned her more completely to God and to her most compelling vocation:  the composing of hymns from the depths of her heart and life experience.  She authored around 500 hymns, lyrics and music, many in circulation to this day.

She moved back to Seattle, Washington upon retirement where, living in reduced circumstances, she continued to write out her soul in poems set to music.  Now totally blind, she would pick out the notes on a small keyboard and call upon friends to record them before she forgot them.  When asked “How are you?” her frequent reply was, “I am fine in the things that count.”  Like Lilias, she continued to write until the end of her life.  She died at 97 years of age.

How then did collaboration between Lilias Trotter and Helen Lemmel take place?  How did one song merge from two women who never met each other?  In a previous post,  Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (October 26, 2012), I have detailed how Lilias wrote and Helen “discovered” the little leaflet, “Focussed,” almost 2 decades later.  It contained  a statement that had profound impact on her:  “So then turn your eyes upon Him, look full into His face and you will find that the things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.”  The rest is told in Helen’s own words:  “I stood still and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with no one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme or note to note to make melody.” A few years later, it was published in a book of 67 songs written by Helen, Glad Tidings, used as the songbook for the Keswick Convention – where it became their theme song, the summer of 1924, launching its popularity.

I marvel, in reflection, at the Divine collaboration through which God used people and so-called circumstances to further His Purposes.  How could Lilias know when she set off for a brief time alone with God (1901) that her reflection on a dandelion recorded in her diary – “The word of the Lord came to me this morning through a dandelion.” – would become the inspiration for a song that would withstand the test of time, speaking to one generation after another of the importance of “turning full face to Jesus.”   

Likewise, as I view the years between Lilias’s death and the present, I marvel how God has chosen to keep Lily’s legacy alive – first through the colleagues of Lilias who recorded her story and various writings in published works. . . the devoted missionary (Eva Longley) who remained in Algeria until she had seen the passage of Lilias’s archives – journals, diaries, papers, paintings  – to safety in Europe. . .  the generosity of the staff at the Arab World Ministries Headquarters in the UK who gave me full access to those archives for research  . . .  the individuals who underwrote the costs of publishing a biography and contributed to a compilation of her writings and watercolors. . . and the couple who came alongside with their vision of translating this story into the medium of film . . .

As we stand on the brink of the release of the film, Many Beautiful Things, I am in awe that God is now “resurrecting” her legacy through this visual medium – and the ways and means by which He “used” countless individuals to accomplish His ongoing purposes.  John Stott wrote, “God invites us to share in his work.  Indeed, our work becomes a privilege when we see it as a collaboration with God.”  (Through The Bible)

And that, for me, it the bigger story.  God is at work in our individual lives and in the family of faith, using our meager gifts and offerings in the ordinary course of daily living.  We may never know how and where and when a word, a touch, an action will be transmuted by God into something beyond our intentions.  Lilias didn’t.  But we carry on.  Who knows when our prose will become a song?!

Sketch:  cover for revised version of leaflet,  “Focussed:  A Story & Song”

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The Path of Life

img-909101508-0001   “Death is the gate of life.”  Does it look so to us?  Have we learnt to go down, once and again, into its gathering shadow in quietness and confidence, knowing that there is always “a better resurrection” beyond?     Parables of the Cross*

Palm Sunday.  We come out the shadows of the Lenten season, for one glorious Sunday, shouting our glad “Hosannas!” as we commemorate Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.  But even as we share in the glory-past, it is over-shadowed by what we know lies ahead.  We will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Holy Week.  We will trace the footsteps of Jesus from that brief exultant moment of waving palm leaves and shouting crowds:  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We will descend with Christ, figuratively speaking, through His last days and last hours, through the shadows into complete darkness.

“Via Crucis; Via Lucis.”  With these words, Lilias sets forth the premise of her classic devotional, The Parables of the Cross, which explores this paradoxical truth:  The Way of the Cross; The Way of Light.  Observing the stages of a plant’s growth, “its budding and blossoming and seedbearing,” she draws a vital lesson: the lesson of death in its delivering power.  The path of life.

The season of Lent, more than other of the church calendar, focuses on the darker side of the Christian faith.  Dying.  Dying to self.  Dying to live.  This is reflected in our Sunday worship – Scripture, music, prayers.  Depending on ones personal practices, it might also be represented in an action – devotional reading, sacrificial giving, denial of appetites (chocolate, desserts, rarely vegetables!) – to indicate an awareness of this period of suffering leading up the death of Christ.  The death that led to life Eternal.

For some it is a forty-day period of reflection – and even denial.  For me, this year, I must admit, it will be one week.  One week when I wear a crucifix – a treasured gift from an appreciative friend – a daily reminder of the suffering of Jesus.  I will make a determined effort to focus my heart and mind on scriptures and texts of hymns that train my spirit to reflect and repent and return to the heart of God.

One week.  Small acknowledgment of a big gift.  But even that is discipline to my wayward heart.  My mind wanders.  There are joyous moments during this somber commemoration. Phone conversations with friends.  Facebook posts with pictures of grand children.  Dinner out.  A walk downtown.  A bit of gardening.  Some baking.  Preparations for Resurrection Sunday.

Can’t stay somber long, it seems.  And it comes to me that life is, indeed, a mix of sorrow and joy.  Even that last long week of Jesus on earth – Passion Week – was threaded with joy:  visits in the home of friends, one last lingering supper with His closest disciples.

And just as joy and sorrow are mingled, so are death and life.  It is an ongoing interconnected process.  Unrelenting sorrow would be unbearable.  Never-ending joy unimaginable. It is, in fact, our very sorrows that so often turn us to God.  It is in that crucible of suffering that we begin to die more fully to self – so that we can live more completely for God.  Shadow and light merge.

I remember commiserating to my mother during one particularly difficult stretch of time.  She listened, as always, patiently.  Then she began to remind me about all the wonderful things that were going on in my life at that very time.  She read to me a thought from Rick Warren which she later sent in the mail.  Recalling that at the very peak of joy in ministry he and his wife were confronted by the challenge of her illness, Warren wrote:  “Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that need to be worked on.  And no matter how bad things are in your life there is always something good you can be thankful for. ”

So this is a message for the week ahead. Mountains and valleys.  Light and darkness.  Joy and sorrow.  Life and death.  They are all present, to different degrees. I will attempt to walk the path of the cross – with Christ – but I know that as I do the way of life is ahead:  glorious and dazzling.  The Resurrection of Jesus!  Breaking the power of death now – and for eternity.  Hosanna!  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

* A facsimile edition of Parables of the Cross (1895) is available at Amazon.

Painting:  Parables of the Cross

Posted in Lent, life, light, suffering | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments