A Jar Full of Blessings

Thanks to the lovely, gracious, brilliant, and altogether wonderful Howlin’ Mad Heather, bloggess extraordinaire, and her recent post “Unexpected Journeys,” I have decided to start a Gratitude Jar for 2013.

Now that I’m a grown up (legally speaking at least), a year doesn’t feel as long as it used to, but it is still a pretty good chunk of time. Sometimes, I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast, so trying to remember all the wonderful things God has done for me is impossible. Especially little miracles. Those are the ones that usually slip through the cracks in my memory.

It cost about $10 to buy all the materials at Michael’s, so this is a really cost effective and simple year-long project. And when 2014 dawns, we’ll have something to look through that will help us remember just how blessed we are!

It’s so simple, even a non-crafty person like me can do it, and I bet it’s hecka fun to do with kids.

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You’ll need a glass jar with a lid, some stick on letters, card stock, a pen, and scissors. I got the least “girly” set of colors because Wayne is going to use this, too. 🙂

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Fold the paper in half and score it in six equal pieces (more or less).

IMG_1289Cut each strip into two halves. You should get twelve strips per piece of cardstock.

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Leave your strips out so anyone can throw something in the jar at any time. I just had a glass cup tonight, but I might go out and get something cuter for this purpose later on. Make sure to leave the pen with it!

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Stick your letters on the outside. Some people label it “Thankfulness” or “Gratitude,” but for me, it’s “Count Your Blessings” because that’s exactly what these things are. I may not put a slip in when I wake up every morning, but even that is a blessing.

Being thankful really is an intentional thing, and that’s something I’ve resolved to do next year—to be more intentional about everything. I think I sometimes miss what God has to teach me because I’m just too busy to listen. However, if I slow everything down , including the traffic inside my own head, and intentionally focus on the things, people, and events God places in front of me, I’ll start to see even more things for which I should be grateful.

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Place your jar in a conspicuous place. If you have a kitchen table or a family room, that would be best. That way, it’s always there to remind you about the things you’re blessed with and to record them while the thought is in your head. Oh, I’d also suggest dating them or putting something on it to help you remember the specifics of the person, place, or thing that God used to bless you.

You’ll notice one is already in there. But I won’t tell you what it says because it’s a little embarrassing. 😉

Happy 2013!!! 

Indelible Fingerprints of God

I don’t know about you all, but I am fascinated by things like stained glass. Watching the sun come up through it until it dapples the floor with color inspires a sense of wonder in me that is childlike. When I was young, I used to love going to church on Sunday mornings and sitting on the east side of the chapel so I could study the windows nearest my family’s pew.

It’s utterly amazing to me (one without an iota of artistic talent) that someone can take pieces of glass that have been colored with minerals, some soldered metal, and create works of art that tell a story and make the world a more beautiful place. However, I no longer think of man’s prowess when I look at things like this. I instead say, “This window makes light beautiful, but God made light.” God’s power and magnificence win…every single time.

To me, the fact that we desire to create something so breathtaking and fragile is evidence of the power of God in our lives. We are, in essence, seeking what is divine by crude imitation, and we can accurately judge the “rightness” of things we’ve made by examining the things He has created. After all, everything in His world is perfect in form as well as function, and we can only strive to create poor copies.

That was the inspiration for this, my first article with a by-line in In Touch Magazine! It started arriving in folks’ mailboxes this week, which means I’ve been cleared to post it here as well. If you would like to begin receiving our free magazine, all you need to do is visit our website and give us your name and address. You’ll start getting one the next calendar month.

I mentioned in an earlier post about how amazed I am that God has blessed me with a job where I can use the talents He’s given me to glorify Him and bless others. This publication of this article humbles me beyond all measure. After all, God doesn’t need me to do anything, but He allows me to be His hands and feet here on Earth. He is indeed good, and to Him alone belongs the glory.

If you would like to leave me a comment, you can do so here or on the In Touch Homepage.

Through a Glass Darkly

It’s not in its final form yet by any means, but I wanted to get feedback from my baker’s dozen of readers about this piece. I’ve been slated to write an article for the February edition of In Touch Magazine, and this is what I pitched. The theme of the magazine is God’s beauty, and I said something that always struck me as beautiful is stained glass. Something about how the light shines through it and simply lights up a room has always had the ability to take my breath.

I visited a gorgeous episcopal cathedral in the area and took some photos. I also listened to the organist rehearse and sat in a pew taking notes and making observations. What you have below is the third draft of the article to date. I have also included the pictures you might like to see.

Please do not hesitate to leave me feedback here or via email. I am looking for any and all the help I can get!

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Through a Glass Darkly

At ten o’clock in the morning, the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows fill the east side of the cathedral with kaleidoscopic brilliance. Everywhere I look, there are shades of scarlet, cobalt, gold, lavender, emerald, and aqua illuminating tiled floors and smoothly polished columns, gracing them with glittering embellishments. Standing in the midst of this radiance, the thought suddenly occurs to me that the sight I’m enjoying is what Jesus meant when He claimed the “stones will cry out” in worship should human lips ever fall silent (Luke 19:40).

I wander through the space, drinking it in and savoring the sights before me. Every windowpane in the expansive room tells a vivid story. In one, Jesus sits at the well speaking to the Samaritan woman, gesturing towards her earthen jar that cannot contain the living water He offers. In the next window, images of Christ as the Great Physician are featured. In one, the Messiah looks upward as three men lower a paralytic in need of healing through the roof, and in another He glances down with love at the woman suffering from hemorrhages whose faith assured her, “If I only touch His garment, I will get well” (Matt 9:21).

Nearby, Jesus works His many miracles. Standing in a boat with the waves curling around its bow, He rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Hush, be still” (Mark 4:39) as His disciples look up, their mouths agape. The same disbelief is evident in those who watch as He overrules death itself, summoning Lazarus from his tomb with the words, “Come forth” (John 11:44). However, the same countenance of power and limitless pity is turned upwards in supplication in the panel depicting His evening of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The cup that cannot pass from Him floats above His head, rays light connecting them inextricably together. In a smaller portion of the frame, Judas Iscariot plots with Roman guards, as if the two moments are happening simultaneously. In each of the twenty panels that tell the story of His life and ministry, Christ is beautiful and otherworldly in turquoise robes and crimson sash, a golden nimbus encircling His head as a sign of divinity.

For some reason, however, I’m drawn to the image of the annunciation repeatedly, lingering before it longer than I do others. In this panel, Mary, clad in pale shades of rose and teal, is a picture of tenderness and vulnerability, especially when contrasted with the angel hovering above her, his angular wings aflame. One of his hands rests above her forehead in comfort while the other is raised in blessing, the words “blessed art thou among women” suspended on his lips (Luke 1:28). Mary’s hands also speak volumes, for one is open upwards, as if she is questioning the truth of the message she’s receiving, while the other hovers over her stomach, already having accepted the proclamation and protecting the womb that will shelter the long-awaited Savior.

This is the moment in which both Mary’s future and ours were forever changed by the Father’s ultimate act of love. It is framed by diamonds of royal blue, silver arches, and buds of every primary color—all manner of rococo embellishments—as securely bound as a book. There is no plaque posted nearby to describe the scene to onlookers, yet it speaks to me as clearly as if the narrative were written on the wall. It is a lesson meant to be experienced with the eyes as well as the soul.

This clarity and enlightenment was what Abbot Suger, the twelfth century clergyman, had in mind when he began the renovation of Saint Denis, his abbey church near Paris. Suger was an advocate of anagogicus mos, or “The Upward Leading Method,” and believed that light was a divine force that could compel a person to transcend the material world and better understand the very nature of God. As a result, he incorporated flying buttresses, arches supporting the church’s soaring rooftop, which allowed for taller, thinner walls with increased space for windows. The combination of high ceilings and boundless light filtering through the colored glass drew the eyes of parishioners heavenward and made it possible for everyone regardless of gender or rank to experience the spiritual in a tangible way. Also, the windows served another purpose—to communicate God’s Word to parishioners who were illiterate. That is why some refer to stained glass windows as “The Poor Man’s Bible.”

Even now, in our modern world where structures hundreds of stories tall dominate the skyline and light can be manufactured, stained glass still maintains the power to captivate. Perhaps it’s because these breathtaking works bear the indelible fingerprints of God. The artisans whose skills are themselves gifts from the Father create their works with fire and iron using only sand, soda, limestone, salts, and oxides, none of which are manmade. Therefore, glass attests to the truth of Revelation 4:11: “You are worthy, O LORD, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.”

However, no matter how intricate the designs are, how accurate the depictions in these fragile works might be, or how long they were lovingly labored over by craftsmen, without one essential factor, they remain dull and lifeless. Without light, the first creation of the Almighty God, our works are left as half formed as Quasimodo, the famous hunchback of Notre Dame. And only God can provide the light, the divine illumination that can release the colors within the glass.

For the Christian, they are even more compelling because we recognize them as kindred spirits. Unlike darkness and light, the sky and seas, and all moving creatures, each of which was created when God simply said, “Let there be. . . ,” man was “formed” from the dust by the very hands of the Creator (Gen. 2:7). Of all His accomplishments, only we are made in the image of God and according to His likeness (Gen 1:26), and for this reason, we are the most precious of all His handiwork. Because we received the breath of life and were made to commune with our Father, we see God most clearly in that which is lovely. Also, we desire to create beautiful things in order to obtain a deeper understanding of who He is.

Likewise, we understand that, just like the window is strengthened and perfected by heat and pressure, we too are purified through trials in order to be made more Christlike (see Mal. 3:2-3; 1 Pet. 1:6-9; Rom 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). And like that gorgeous glass, the light of Christ shines through us, compelling the lost in such a way that they can no longer turn aside from the truth of Christ. As the apostle Paul said of believers:

For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord. . . .For God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. . . .For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4: 5-7, 11).

One thing, however, is certain. As beautiful as stained glass might be, it also reveals just how poor our power to present the full glory of God is and how limited our ability to fully understand Him remains while we reside in the flesh. In truth, our many-hued masterpieces undoubtedly appear to God like a child’s finger painting does to an adoring parent, paltry when compared to the extent of His skill but all the more valuable for their sincerity.

Yet, praise be to God, there will come a day when we no longer need rely on crude tools and materials for understanding because we will be in the presence of the Master Craftsman. For now, “we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . .For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now [we] know in part; but then [we] shall know even as [we are] also known” (KJV, 1 Cor. 13: 9-10, 12).

The Voice of God

I want to begin this post by saying that I am not an expert in musical theory. I took two or so semesters of it in college, and struggled throughout every single moment of it. (I did, however, earn an A in both Theory I and Theory II, which is a testament to my scholastic work ethic!) I’m all ears if you have websites, videos, or books you know of that can help me learn terms to better explain what I’m about to say.

Ok, disclaimer over. Let the blog begin…

People are always saying, “The Lord told me” or “I heard the Lord say,” which strikes me odd. I’ve never sat down and had a conversation with the Almighty, but I can tell you that He does “speak” to those who are willing to listen. Some hear His voice when they look on a beautiful landscape; others find Him in the order of nature and its creatures and cycles. I have come to find that God speaks to me through music in two ways. The first is through the sheer beauty of song. Music used for worship lifts me up out of myself and connects me to Him in a way that words (my other great love) simply cannot. It reaches me on a more unvarnished, vulnerable level on which artifice and masks are unnecessary.

Take the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s masterwork, Messiah, for instance.

Everyone knows it, has maybe even sung it either for fun or for a performance, but not very many people know about the oratorio as a whole. Messiah is divided into three parts. The first tells of the prophecy of the Messiah in the book of Isaiah and extends through the annunciation of His birth to the shepherds. The second tells of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension as well as the spread of the Gospel around the world, and the third tells of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven. The “Hallelujah Chorus” occurs at the end of part two, and in the scene before it, the people of the world have rejected the Gospel and have instead chosen to battle it and one another. However, when this piece begins, the gates of heaven have opened where all can see Christ glorified.

The people you see standing up in the audience are doing so in keeping with the tradition supposedly begun when King George II first heard it performed in London. According to musical lore, the king was so moved by the revelation he heard that he stood up early in the chorus and remained on his feet throughout the piece. Whether or not it is true, folks who know their musical history stand from the moment the piece begins. It’s a great tradition, regardless of whether or not it’s totally accurate. If there was ever a moment worthy of getting to one’s feet, this is it, my friends!

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The other thing about music that reveals God’s voice to me is the undeniable logic of it. I’m not getting into major and minor, diminished or augmented here. There’s simply not enough space in the world to discuss all that. Suffice it to say there is a great deal to be garnered from learning about the Circle of Fifths and Pythagorean Tuning; both can teach you just how logically arranged sounds are. There is no happenstance with music. Pitches vibrate in harmony with one another to create pleasing sounds, and dissonance is all the more beautiful because it shows what can occur when God’s balance is not maintained. That relief you feel when a chord resolves into harmony is God revealing Himself to you!

Music is mathematical, and that is where my ability to explain it to you comes to a screeching halt. I am mathematically inept and can in no way explain mathematical relationships in music. If you are interested, try a book like Math and Music: Harmonious Connections or The Math Behind the Music. The basic point I’m trying to make is this–just because He isn’t using words, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t speak and present Himself to us. We only need to understand the language He’s choosing to employ.

Here are two videos that have made the rounds on YouTube and Facebook recently, both of which might better explain what I mean. The first is a musical presentation of the mathematical constant, ∏ (otherwise known as pi), or the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.

However, tau, the circumference of a circle divided by the radius, can also be represented musically.

I find it interesting that both of these irrational numbers measure a circle, one of the greatest symbols of love and continuity I know of. By the way, for those of you who, like me, are absolute crap at math, here’s what an irrational number is according to Wikipedia.

An irrational number’s value cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction, the numerator and denominator of which are integers. Consequently, its decimal representation never ends or repeats.

Think of it! These numbers that measure a circle never end or repeat, just as everything God creates is unique and specially designed, and that includes you and me. None of us have the exact same fingerprints or retinal patterns, so, in a way, we are like these numbers in that we never repeat. I’m not even going to pretend I’m intelligent enough to understand the level of mathematics involved in this, but once I listen to the beautiful melodies contained within the decimal places of these two numbers, I cannot help but think that the same beauty is hidden in the construction of all living things, but because of our sin and fallen nature, we can only hear a fragment of what God is saying to us. Happily, that does not have to be the case eternally! Jesus Christ is returning, and all will be as He intended for those who have accepted Him as their Savior, the one who paid their sin debt.

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One of my favorite poems is John Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.” It was written to celebrate St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music and speaks of the beauty of music, the creative power of God, and the Second Coming of Christ. It reads:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head, 
The tuneful voice was heard from high:
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey. 
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the corded shell,
His list’ning brethren stood around,
And, wond’ring, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound, 
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangor 
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum 
Cries, “Hark, the foes come!
Charge, charge, ‘t is too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains and height of passion, 
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love, 
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre; 
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared–
Mistaking earth for heaven.

GRAND CHORUS

As from the power of sacred lays 
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the blest above:
So, when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.

In other words, when God created the heavens and the earth as it is told in Genesis, harmony, the “music of the spheres,” is what He used to do so. God spoke, and all things were created. One word from Him, and the “jarring heap of atoms” became ordered, and the greatest of all these orders is man. We are the perfection of God’s celestial symphony. That is why we respond to music as we do, be it from the rousing tones of the trumpet, the mournful sounds of the flute, or the powerful voice of the organ that fills a cathedral and draws our ears heavenward as surely as a vaulted ceiling draws our eyes. Music is anywhere and everywhere around us, and it will be there on Judgement Day when it “untune”s the sky when Christ returns to take His children home.

And with that glorious thought, I’ll leave you to listen to Bach’s “Cantata 140,” which was written for the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year when one’s mind is on the beginning of the new, particularly the second advent of Christ. You may read the libretto, which was taken from Matthew 25, here or simply listen to the beauty of the music itself.  Soli Deo Gloria!


Etch A Sketch Moments

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a tendency to get into ruts. I become comfortable in a routine, and I stay there so long I border on turning into an Ent.  Now, while there is some pleasure to be taken in routine, especially in the security and predictability it provides, it is also dangerous because it makes me myopic. I tend to only see what is directly in front of me, and like a Beagle after some elusive scent, I put my proverbial nose to the ground, only to look up several miles later in a place I don’t recognize and without a clue as to how to get home.

However, I can always count on God to provide me with something I’ve come to term “Etch A Sketch Moments.” If you’re my age or older, you remember the toy I’m talking about. The red frame, the dual knobs, the line that snaked its way across the flat, gray screen as we turned them in frustration. I don’t know about the rest of Generation X, but more often than not, my tongue was often stuck in the corner of my mouth in total concentration as I tried to draw Castle Grayskull or Soundwave, my favorite Transformer. Unlike the talented soul who created the reproduction of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the image to the left, my attempts at art often ended up looking more like something Salvador Dali might have created after a long night spent consuming Ouzo and playing Cootie (in that order). All I ever created were lopsided stick figures all connected by a tether, because I could never figure out how to double back and cover my lines, or the generic depiction of a house–blocky, square windows, triangle roof with a smoking chimney hanging off it at a perilous angle, and a door smack in the middle.

Not Mine, But Close!

When I put my creation on display, my poor family members would all put their heads together to try to discern the meaning of the Rorschach Test I’d created, hoping to guess correctly and avoid hurting my feelings. When they’d guess “Choo Choo Train” instead of the Thunder-Tank from Thundercats or drew a blank at my rendering of the scarf wearing and umbrella toting fawn, Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I’d perform my patented eyeball roll (which could never be interpreted as anything but exasperation) and shake the poor Etch A Sketch until my otiose attempts at creating visual art were no more.

I’ve often wished that my mistakes were as easily erased as those crude drawings, but alas and alack, life is not as simple as the Ohio Art Company would have it to be.

However, when I say God provides me with “Etch A Sketch Moments,” I don’t mean he gives me some sort of celestial mulligan. I mean that He sends someone or something into my life to shake me out of a certain way of thinking, to erase some stale and lifeless pattern I use to interpret the world. He removes all those limits I and others have placed in my life and makes me see the world in a different way.

Today, a wonderful gentleman named Christopher Coleman spoke at our weekly chapel at In Touch Ministries. You can click on his name and visit his website where a more detailed testimony can be found, but here’s the long and short of it. When he was born, the doctor’s pronounced him dead and went on to work on delivering his twin sister. Fifteen minutes later, after another doctor worked on him, he began to cry! He had been without oxygen for fifteen minutes, and doctors told his mother to send him to a home and forget about him because he had cerebral palsy and would never walk, talk, or speak.

Well, thankfully, she didn’t…and he did.

Now, he’s a college graduate (the only one in his family) who travels around the world telling his life’s story and showing people that God is truly able. When Christopher was called by God into ministry, he asked the Lord, “Do you see me? Do you see my hands that won’t stay still, my feet that go in every direction but the one I want? Do you hear my voice that’s so hard to understand?” God replied to him, “I don’t have to look. I made you. You are exactly what I planned for you to be because I don’t make junk.”

He shared several scriptures with us during his presentation–my life’s verse, 2 Corinthians 12:10, and the story of the cripple at the Pool of Bethesda found in John 5. With regards to the latter, Mr. Coleman pointed out that Jesus Christ asks an odd question, one that bears some consideration. He asks the crippled man, “Do you want to be made well?” What is this man’s answer going to be “No”? He’d been a cripple for thirty-eight years, unable to provide for himself or move without aid. Of course he’d love to be healed! However, Christ asks him because, if made well, this man would be compelled to spend his days walking and telling as many people as possible about the blessing he’d been given by Jesus. He would no longer be living for himself because his body would be a living testimony to Jesus’ power and mercy. I’d never considered it that way before but the truth is that Jesus understands our wants better than we do. I love it!

Throughout his talk, Mr. Coleman amazed me with his wit, his positive attitude, and his joy. He said that people often look at him and wonder, “How can he, with all his physical challenges, be so happy when I am whole and miserable?” The answer is a relationship with God! Not having that one amazing thing can alter and skew our perspectives in such a way that we forget just how blessed we are–how loved and how cherished we are by God the Father.

Sure, I could always want for more money, more things, more security, but no matter how much I acquire, none of it will never make me happy. Thankfully, that’s not what makes me feel joyful. From time to time, I do get into ruts as I mentioned earlier, and I forget the things for which I should be truly grateful. I can look over those things, take them for granted, and forget just how marvelous they truly are. For instance, I am, above all, a child of God who will one day be with Him in heaven. That alone is cause enough for lifelong celebration. However, while I am here, He blessed me with an amazing family who loves me unconditionally, a husband who cherishes and cares for me, a mind that is able to handle complex ideas and problems, and a body that is healthy and whole despite my illness. Yes, I have Multiple Sclerosis, and I tell you that I am thankful for it because it is what keeps me mindful of God’s hand on my life. Without it, I was on the completely incorrect path. I wasn’t relying on Him, and I wasn’t living the way He would have me live.

Now, I wake up most days and wiggle my toes to make sure I can still feel them. I blink my eyes and check to make sure I can still see. For seven years, I have been able to do all that and more! Let me tell you, when you have MS, it can compromise your life in a multitude of ways, so when I wake up each day and discover that I can walk, talk, see, and do any and everything I want, every task I complete is done in joy. Taking out the trash is more fun than a field trip to the zoo, and running errands is more fun than a shopping spree on Fifth Avenue because I can do them without a struggle! However, there are some days I roll out of bed and don’t think about that simple truth, and that’s when little things frustrate me. I lose my gratitude, my perspective gets skewed, and my life is much less mirthful for it.

Mr. Coleman was God’s way of sharing that truth afresh with me today. I am like him in that I have that thorn in my flesh that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians. But my thorn is not Paul’s thorn, and it isn’t Mr. Coleman’s thorn. Ours were given to us at different times and for different reasons because we all have our own roles to fulfill in the furtherance of God’s kingdom. However, as I looked around the chapel today and saw my co-workers being taught and blessed by him, I was reminded again that, like the cripple by the pool, my body is healed so that I, too, can be a witness for Christ. Like I often did with my Etch A Sketch, God shook me up today and erased all the crooked lines in my mind, and He will no doubt help me create a more accurate rendering of my world.

I have but to consult Job 5:6-9, 17-19, the words of Eliphaz, to keep my perspective accurate. He tells his friend Job:

For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.But as for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause—Who does great things, and unsearchable, marvelous things without number. . . .Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore, do not despise the chastening of the Almighty.For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole. He shall deliver you in six troubles.Yes, in seven no evil shall touch you.

My Good Book

Several weeks ago, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black delivered the message at First Baptist Atlanta, and while he made several salient points that were uplifting and edifying regarding how to be “Free Indeed” while on this earth, I was most fascinated by the point he made regarding a person’s devotional Bible. It was a side note, a five-minute tangent in a forty-minute sermon, one designed to add to his overall purpose, but it set me to thinking.

As a chaplain, he’s officiated at many a funeral, many for people he did not know personally. Therefore, in order to better understand the deceased and prepare more personal remarks, he often asks a family member for that person’s Bible.

Sometimes, he finds a Bible that still creaks when he opens it, the pages stiff and the spine unbent in order to lay the book open for study alongside a prayer journal or study guide. Some have neither name nor gift date written on the opening page, and no marriages, deaths, or births are recorded for his family’s posterity. Other might have still been in the box that protected the precious word of God when it sat on the bookstore shelf, the smell of fresh leather still clinging to it and its pages as pure as the wind-driven snow.

Those that have been opened have been studied still vary in degree. Some have a few key passages marked or a sticky note here or there, and there are a few he’s seen that are filled with underlined passages and highlighted footnotes; these usually have notes scribbled in the margins and study outlines on many pages spanning from Genesis to Revelation.

This is what I found fascinating. Chaplain Black stated, “I can gauge a person’s level of spiritual fitness by perusing his Bible.” I had never thought of it that way! He can see what passages shaped the course of a person’s walk with God and what difficulties that person overcame by immersing himself in the Word. With those Bibles, Chaplain Black says he can deliver a eulogy that is more than just platitudes or generic phrases because, as he put it, “I have a copy of [that person’s] autobiography” and can tell anyone the story of his life.

Chaplain Black then asked his listeners, “If someone who didn’t know you had to deliver your eulogy, what would your Bible tell them? That’s a pretty revealing question, one that might make quite a few Christians uncomfortable. I know it would have made me squirm uncontrollably several years ago because my Bible was often placed high on a bookshelf, taken down only to go to church or to read a passage when a moment of whimsy struck me. Thank God that is not the case now!

So what does my Bible say about my spiritual fitness?

Well, in the front pocket of my Bible cover, there is a white handkerchief, one that is folded over on itself four times and spotted with oil. When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis seven years ago, my great uncle, James Qualls, had some members of his church in Illinois pray over this object, anointing it with oil. He then mailed it to me and told me to keep it as a reminder that I was loved and was in the prayers of many. He also promised me that God would use my illness to do a great work in my life, and that is exactly what has happened. I keep it with me always to remember God’s goodness and often hold it during times of prayer.

Resting atop my Bible are prayer sheets—from Bible study classes or from work—that remind me that I must pray specifically as Jesus instructed in John 14:12-14:

 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

I haven’t always done this, but I’m finding having these lists ready for my daily prayer and devotional time helps me to stay focused and to speak more directly to my heavenly Father.  I cannot recommend it enough because it keeps me from “letting things slide” or telling God, “You know the rest of those prayers I forgot to mention.” It’s keeping me from being spiritually lazy, which is what I’ve been for far too long.

Books I’ve tried to study in depth, such as Romans, are fairly well marked in pen and highlighter, and I have notes tucked inside that can help me define words like “propitiation,” “justification,” and “reconciliation,” which I will need if I ever use this epistle to witness to an unbeliever. Sometimes, the differences among these words are slight, but even a small variation in meaning might hold the key that unlocks a person’s heart and allows the Holy Spirit to do His great work in his life. I want to be prepared!

I have memories associated with certain passages. For example, Matthew 23:25-28 is underlined. I remember doing so when I prepared a lesson on spiritual hypocrisy for my students several years ago when we were discussing The Picture of Dorian Gray in an Advanced Placement Literature course. It was a blessing to be able to learn the difference between outward righteousness, such as that of the Pharisees, and genuine and inward cleanliness before the Lord!

As I’m sure is the case with many Christians, not all books are marked equally. For instance, of the four Gospels, the one most marked in my Bible is that of Luke, which makes me think I’m like the Gentile doctor who wrote it—obsessed with detail and focused on the humanity of Christ. Some of my favorite Biblical narratives—the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—are only found in the book of Luke. Also, of the four, Luke devotes the greatest amount of scripture to the role of women in the early church, and I’ve searched them all in my quest for godly role models.

I see a lot of myself in Paul, and I spend as much time with him as I can, leaving marks scattered throughout his epistles to remind me of the perfection of God’s grace, the need to refrain from legalism, and the fact that trials and sufferings bring about spiritual growth. James, too, is a friend (one with whom I share a name!) who has taught me the practical way to live as a Christian, and from his letter, I learned that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).

I’ve marked the hard lessons, the ones that hurt me to read but that are essential if I am to walk the path that leads to the narrow gate:

 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23).

However, I’ve also read of God’s miracles and Christ’s healing of the blind, the leprous, and the lame. I’ve been promised that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), that I will have life more abundantly (John 10:10), and that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

I marvel at those scriptures that tell me how the same God who created the heavens and the earth knows my name; He knew me even before I was formed in my mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5). It was He who loved me enough to reconcile me to His holiness, He who brought me up “out of the the mire clay and set my feet upon a rock” (Ps. 40:2). This is why I’ve poured over the words of Jesus’ intercessory prayer for believers, the prayer sent up from the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in John 17, leaving marks like bread crumbs to lead me through further readings later in my life. The Bible is God’s love letter to me, the guidebook He’s blessed me with so that I might be more Christ-like each day, and like David, I ask:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:3-5).

There are gaps in my studies, oh yes. Many books in the Old Testament are without one line or circle to show my time spent there, and the many that pepper the book of Revelation reveal my frustration when attempting to discern what awaits us before Christ’s return. However, instead of looking at those gaps as failures, I see them as unexplored territory on a map. I have a guide to lead me through them when the time is right and I am spiritually ready, and I am ready to follow the Holy Spirit through each page.

When I die, I want the pastor who delivers my eulogy to know me, to be able to say with blessed assurance that I am home with my loved ones and walking the streets of gold. I want them all to know that I have heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” and that there is no need to grieve because they will see me again in glory (Matt. 25:21). I want my “spiritual autobiography” to be one worth reading, one that my family can keep as its spiritual heritage. Lord, help me make it so!

Letting Patience Have Its Perfect Work

Patience, Hard Thing! The Hard Thing But to Pray

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks    
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;  
To do without, take tosses, and obey.        
  Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,          
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks 
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks        
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.    

  We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills    
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills       
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
  And where is he who more and more distils  
Delicious kindness? — He is patient. Patience fills   
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

This beautiful poem from the pen of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest and scholar, is on my mind this evening. In it, he recognizes the importance of patience for a Christian, a willingness to wait on the will of God. However, he acknowledges that it is indeed difficult to sit and wait. This is especially true of those of us caught up in our on-demand culture. What God wants for us may require us to wait patiently while things pass us by that seem to count for losses. However, those things we “lose” and those scars we bear are where “patience roots” and nowhere else. Without challenges and a few nicks and chinks, nothing else can take root  in us. We will never develop spiritually without this necessary hurt. However, after the injuries, the patience we learn by waiting upon the Lord covers us like broad spans of ivy, making us better and more beautiful for our willingness to, as John Milton put it, “stand and wait.”

However, what we want and what God wants for us might always be at odds. We often struggle to patently submit ourselves to Him, to “bruise [our hearts] dearer” by relinquishing what remains of ourself to Him. However, that is our goal, to “die to self daily,” or until that is truly possible to “bid God bend to him even so.” In essence, we must first want to want to obey God. However, once we are still and patient, willing to wait on God no matter how long His reply is in coming, there is a reward unspeakably beautiful. Patience comes “the way we know,” which is through prayer, and we gain the delights of “delicious kindness” and that peace “which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). This is what we store up, our treasures for the hereafter, much as a bee stores honey in his “crisp combs.”

Lord, I ask You to make me patient, make me willing to carry our Your perfect will for my life. Fill up and cover over the broken parts of me and transform what is bitter into something sweet and pleasing to the senses. All to you, I surrender.

***

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” — James 1:2-7