Desert Rose


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:

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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

Lilias_Portrait_Build_01 (1)


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

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A Story & A Song


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

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TROTTER_F001_041 (2) red clothed figures

The results need not end with our earthly days.  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 know the endless possibilities that lie folded in each one of us!  Parables of the Cross

I began writing this blog, summer of 2012.  My mother had died a few months earlier leaving a vacuum in place of my almost daily phone conversations and increasing interactions with her doctors, nurses and caring friends.   It also left a hole in my heart.  This woman who bore and birthed me, who nurtured and shaped me, who was the fixed point against whom I tested and challenged my beliefs and to whom, increasingly through my adult years, I shared my struggles and joys – no longer existed in this world.   My world.

And so a block of time emerged to implement something I had considered for years but for which I had neither the time nor the technical skills:  writing my reflections on the paintings and writings of Lilias Trotter.  But it took the combined skills of my adult children to thrust intent into reality.  Daughter Kimberly set up a WordPress home page replete with heading and subtopics; son Jonathan hacked my Facebook account, “Algerian Camel,” (“If you want to see pictures of your grandchildren. . .”) and, without my permission, restored my rightful name and identity plus found me a short list of “friends.”

Thus began the two-year discipline and delight of writing weekly posts.  I identified themes in Lilias’s life and explored their meaning in my life.  (Objectivity is the duty of a biographer; subjectivity the luxury of a blogger.)  It was, I suppose, my way of coming to terms with her impact in my life by processing it with others.  And, perhaps, it was part of a subliminal end-of-the-journey catharsis.  Putting Lilias to rest.

Not so.  Little could I have guessed what God had intended for Lilias’s Legacy nor the ways and means by which He would do that.  Enter Sally and Brian Oxley.  They had been introduced to Lilias through Amazon books, the writings of Amy Carmichael referring them to books about Lilias:  “Frequently bought together.”  Their personal passion to channel the power of film for Kingdom Purposes led them to me, to explore together the possibility of a documentary on the life and legacy of Lilias Trotter.

This new collaboration would draw from my research but take it to places beyond my wildest imaginings much less resources.  The first venture was to find, secure and preserve some priceless journals and sketchbooks that I feared might be lost in unnamed auction lots.  Katherine Anderson, captured this adventure, in part, in an article for Wheaton Alumni magazine referring to “the treasure hunt for missing pieces – including a hasty flight to London in search of the journals and sketchbooks that Miriam had seen years earlier in Surrey.  Miriam received word that Lilias’ grandnephew had died, and though she despaired of ever seeing the journals again, the Oxleys made a quick flight.  They located the grandnephew’s son who invited them in.  Brian himself found two journals high on a dusty shelf, and the son later found the rest, hidden away in the attic.”  (Read the full article, “For the Blessing of Souls Unknown,” on © 2014 by Wheaton College, Illinois.)

Another venture was to locate the “forty-some” letters that the famed art critic and noted Victorian, John Ruskin, had written to Lilias.  While I knew that they existed, documented by the sale to Sotheby’s by her niece and followed by their purchase by a New York City bookseller – the trail had gone cold.  For almost two decades, I (and friends!) explored every known lead – to no avail.  Then:  Sally found them!  These important letters are threaded throughout the film documentary, “Many Beautiful Things,” providing an extraordinary glimpse into this unique friendship.

Which brings me to the film.  Yes, it has a name:  “Many Beautiful Things:  The Life and Vision of Lilias Trotter.”  And it has a Facebook account:  “Many Beautiful Things.”  Herein will be the answers to the questions I have been asked as new developments unfold.  If you are interested in when and where it will be available, or a glimpse of the film through its trailer (when completed) then check out this site and sign up for information as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, I gaze back in awe and amazement over the past three decades and see the countless ways in which God has been working out His Purposes.  I join hands with other individuals – essential to each and every aspect of this saga – collaborators, I like to think, with God’s intentions.

Lilias loved to find “linkings” as she looked back and witnessed, in retrospect, how God had worked out His purposes in countless ways, great and small.  Sometimes she wrote and published these linkings for the benefit of others.  More often she simply recorded them in her diaries for the strengthening of her faith – and in gratitude to God.

There are countless “linkings” that I have recorded in my journals, the unmistakable evidence (to my eyes of faith) of God working out His Ways through people and places and events – and time. Many of these linkings will emerge on screen as our search and her story merge.

My prayer is that those who view this film will be challenged and strengthened in their faith – or, perhaps, come to belief in Jesus.  That they will perceive faith-building events – inner and outer – in the life of Lilias Trotter and see beyond that one life to the Father of our souls, who directs and guides His children as we embrace Him and His time-tested truths.

“. . . for He already had in mind what He was going to do.”

 John 6:6b

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