Lost at C

Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.

I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”

The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.

I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys  at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?

Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.

I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.

I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.

Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.

The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).

It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!

Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!

***

Lost at C

A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey

The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea

of writhing, cacophonous keys.

In the distance, as if discarded by his master,

a slave’s head bobs without a sound

amid the endless waves of splintered wood.

His suffering sets the tone.


But I’m left longing for the tone

that sounds when striking middle C,

the note among all others that would

help me place my fingers on correct keys.

A familiar place, safe and sound

on the instrument I longed to master.


In how many homes was it the master,

the symbol of domesticity? In tones

of chestnut and mahogany, the sound

made by each was like the sea,

rhythmic as a metronome, as key

to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.


If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would

still remain in the hands of a master

who’d polish its surface and clean each key,

tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,

relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C

atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?


Would someone open the lid to release the sound

and the family history locked within the wood?

Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see

that while time is something we can never master

we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones

and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key


to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key

signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound

of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone

for all that was, that is, and that ever would

be. None of us live lives made from a master,

without uniqueness, our own variation in C.


Knowing this is key to what otherwise would

be a sound failure. One cannot master his past

by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.

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!

***

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).

Waiting for Onesimus

Isaiah 55:11 reads, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” It is an oft-paraphrased verse that is usually quoted in a more stylized, King James Version kind of way—“My Word shall not return void.” Isn’t that the truth?

Every time I earnestly study God’s Word looking for a deeper understanding of Him and what He would have for my life, I come away with more than I can process in a single sitting. It provides answers…in spades! This blog may be a bit on the circuitous side, so let me apologize for that in advance. However, I felt like saying something on paper was better than letting it roll around in my head, unformulated, any longer.

This all started yesterday when I read all of Titus in my daily Bible study. I started noticing a pattern throughout Paul’s letter—the repeated use of the phrase “good works.” In fact, there are seven uses of this phrase, only two of which are variations.  The two that are different (“lover of what is good” and “disqualified for every good work”) both refer to what a Christian leader must be. The former phrase describes those fit to be elders while the latter is applicable to the people of Crete, many of whom were grossly unqualified.

Having studied Galatians, I know that works are not what “earn us a spot” in heaven. In fact, our works are nothing more than “filthy rags” before God, worthless in the scope of eternity (Isa. 64:6). However, good works are something we cannot help but produce as fruit of the spirit. Once saved, we can manifest our gratitude to the Father by serving others and bringing His light to the world.

I got to thinking about “good works” and what, for lack of a better term, “qualifies” a work to be good. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I read stories about amazing missionaries who are converting entire villages in African countries with names I can’t even pronounce and marvel. I hear about people who are fighting to stop child sex trafficking by taking in girls despite the daily threats they receive from the animals trying to sell them, and I want to stand up and applaud. THOSE are “good works” in my book. Through of actions like these, lives are lives being transformed because of the strength security in Christ provides.

What do I have to offer in return? My best example of a “good work” this week was getting a six-pack of Jello chocolate pudding down off the top shelf for an adorable old lady. How is that even comparable!?

Thankfully, we are not meant to compare our good works against others’. In fact, we are not to judge anyone’s actions, including our own. That’s God’s privilege. Paul writes:

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God (1 Cor. 4:1-5).

God knows why we do good works, and that is even more important than what we do. Buying one homeless man a meal is just as “good” as running a twenty-four hour soup kitchen if it is done with the right intentions—to show kindness to others and share the love of Christ with them.

I’ve been asking God to show me what good works He would have me do. I’ve even told Him, “Father, even if I’m afraid or what You ask makes me uncomfortable, I know You will help me to see it through. I’m willing.” When in prayer, that sounds all well and good, but I would like to think I genuinely mean it. I want to be a “good and faithful servant” and do things that honor my Savior (Matt. 25:21).

But then I read the book of Philemon and swallowed audibly.

After reading the twenty-five verses of this short epistle, I realized that there are times when God gives people moments in their lives when they have to “put their spiritual money where their mouth is” and show that their faith is more than window dressing, some sort of Christian Kabuki theater.

Here’s the backstory—Philemon was a wealthy Christian living in Colossae. His slave, Onesimus, had run away from him and attempted to hide in Rome. However, God had other plans, and Onesimus was brought to Paul who was under house arrest at that time. Paul, who had likely led Philemon to Christ, led the slave to salvation as well. Paul enjoyed Onesimus’ company and desired to keep him nearby, but he knew that healing the breach with his former master was more important and that more spiritual good could be accomplished by sending him back with a letter.

Under the law, Philemon had the right to kill Onesimus. In fact, beating him within an inch of his life would have been viewed by many as merciful in the extreme. However, Paul doesn’t suggest that. Instead, he asks his friend to receive his runaway slave as “a beloved brother” because they were both a part of the family of God.  What he was asking was unheard of at that time! To show mercy to a slave, a person you had previously owned? It was nearly unthinkable.

Paul might have made it easier if he’d ordered the master to forgive the slave, but he does not. Paul writes, “…I wanted you to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion as it were, but voluntary. . . .Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phil. 1:14, 20-21).

In essence, Paul tells his friend, one of the many he brought to a saving knowledge in Christ, “I know you understand the concept of forgiveness because you have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s all well and good, but now I am asking you to practice it as well.” Philemon had every right to abuse, starve, and kill this man that Paul was sending back to him. The world would not have condemned him for any of those actions. In fact, he would draw more ire for doing what Paul was asking him to do—“Receive him as you would me” (Phil. 1:17).

I’m sure Paul sent the poor slave home, letter in hand, hoping that his fellow Christian would do the right thing having been given the choice. And that is what God does with us. He offers salvation to all, but only a few receive. He gives us the choice to heed or disregard His will, all the while earnest that we’ll choose the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13). However, the asking does not stop there. God will continue to push us, to present us with moments and times where we can choose to follow His leading and His will for our lives, leaving it up to us as we grow in faith.

According to all the records and commentaries on this epistle, Philemon did indeed accept Onesimus back into his household, even freeing him from slavery. Many even claim that he “was the Onesimus consecrated a bishop by the Apostles and who accepted the episcopal throne in Ephesus following the Apostle Timothy”! Philemon was able to exercise forgiveness and allow it to strengthen his testimony, and because of it, his formerly rebellious slave became a useful servant of Christ.

The symbolism of their names makes it altogether wonderful. Philemon means “affectionate,” and it is he who shows Christ-like affection for his lost servant. Onesimus means “profitable,” and that is exactly what he became because of Philemon’s willingness to forgive.

Had the Holy Spirit not been working in Philemon and the man himself sensitive to His leading, how many others might have missed out on seeing Christian forgiveness in action? How many might not have come to know the saving grace of Christ Jesus? This is an amazing example of practical righteousness, of Christian brotherhood and love that showed many people the way to salvation who might otherwise miss out.

After all, words and mighty ideals might sound good, but many people will not be willing to sit down and listen to a lengthy scriptural argument. Many care nothing for doctrine or spirituality, those things that show what many are doing is sinful and of the world. However, if they can see it in action and realize that being Christian is more than just a slogan on a t-shirt, hearts that might otherwise be firmly shut and locked against the Word might be opened—even if it is but a crack. That’s all the Holy Spirit needs.

Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the absurdist play, I am waiting for my Onesimus. Unlike their “friend” who never shows up, I know my moment will one day arrive. I will then have a choice to make—to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and be an effective witness or to let the opportunity pass.  Perhaps, Lord willing, there will be many such times. Therefore, I ask the Lord that I may be like Philemon, affectionate and willing to humble myself in His service , to be used as only He can use me for His glory.

 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!

Blackberry Blessing

This Saturday was spent doing two things that I never anticipated I’d spend a Saturday doing–checking on honeybees and picking wild blackberries. Granted, I sat in my lovely air-conditioned car, safely ensconced in layers of glass and metal, while the bees were given a quick once over by my husband and his friend.

I did, however, spend the better part of two hours walking around a pasture picking berries for friends. Now, I can tell you that the Georgia sun was not cooperating the day I did this, and I had more in common with a piece of wilted lettuce than I did a human being by the end of the little romp. However, the time was well spent. We had three large containers of berries by afternoon’s end, and picking them gave me time to let my brain slow down and actually mull over a few things that might not otherwise get air time.

First off, I have to be honest and admit that I’m not a naturally good harvester. For example, I was much slower than my husband, and if our being paid were dependant on the amount I brought in over the course of a day, well, let’s just say he and I wouldn’t have to worry about our daily calorie intake. We couldn’t afford to eat! As the afternoon progressed, however, I did become faster at both spotting the right ones and getting them in my pail. As my berry picking prowess manifested itself, my brain became less focused on the task at hand and began waxing philosophic about the possible symbolic meanings I could learn from it.

Too often, we all go through life in “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” mode, doing the same things over and over again without thinking about why, missing out on little unexpected joys and opportunities, and generally forgetting to live rather than simply exist. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be for a passel of reasons, the most important of which is our need to be sensitive to Christ’s call in our lives. For example, people always tell me, “God told me to pray for you” or “Jesus put the need to speak to this man on my heart.” These spiritual revelations often made me feel like something might be wrong with my salvation because I was not getting messages directly from the Almighty.

However, the trouble wasn’t that I wasn’t getting messages, it was that I wasn’t prepared to hear them properly. I was not spending enough time in God’s word or in prayer learning how to listen and to make myself more sensitive to His call. Once I started doing those two things, I started to feel His leading in my life and be more cognizant of His will. Granted, I haven’t spoken to a burning bush yet or woken to find dew on everything but the fleece left out on the ground overnight, but I am beginning to understand what it means to have an open line of communication.

Picking those blackberries reminded me of this fact. If I stared at the bushes, which were really just scrub brush with wild vines containing the berries wound throughout, I would only see them as a whole, the ripe and the unripe growing there together. I was tempted to walk away from a patch thinking, There’s nothing worth harvesting there. When I did, I walked away from all sorts of good fruit that I could have picked. This is much like the opportunities God  sends our way. If we aren’t prepared to see them continually, we’ll simply walk right by them without so much as a passing thought. That’s not His fault; it’s ours for not being sensitive to what is placed before us.

It was difficult for me to see standing upright; however, when I hunkered down eye level with the bush, I began to get a better look at what was truly there. I was able to see through the outer layers of the brambles and through to the center where many of the juiciest berries were growing. They’d been there all along, but I had failed to see because I was looking at them the wrong way.

That’s why I think that sometimes a change in perspective is sometimes all we need to be better servants. Looking at difficulties as punishment or as a blockade God has thrown up to thwart my plans only hinders my understanding. Instead, I need to view everything God sends my way as an opportunity for growth and spiritual development. Again, God does not change; my understanding of Him does once I tweak how I view a given situation.

Even when I was focused on each blackberry shrub intently, really seeing it instead of looking through it or ignoring it altogether, it was still sometimes difficult to find the fruit worth reaching in for. Still more focus was called for on my part to discern between the darker, ripe berries and the ones that were still in the process. I also had to be able to see the difference between those that were ready and those that had passed their prime and were either dried up on the vine or so ripe to bursting that they would explode between my fingers when I gave them a stiff tug.

Also, the more I saw, the more I began to find in each patch, many of them sweet and delicious. I simply couldn’t help but see them. I couldn’t help but think it was the same sensation countless mall denizens felt the first time the three-dimensional image popped out of the posters they used to sell in kiosks. I say “I think” because I never saw anything myself due to the fact I actually have little to no depth perception. Wonky, I know.

The same is true of me spiritually. I have a bad habit of “powering down” when I’m tired or stressed. I handle only what is in front of me, what must be dealt with and leave the remainder for another day. However, sometimes God needs us to do something for Him immediately. The person who needs an encouraging word can’t wait until I feel up to it. A family dealing with grief or with financial hardship, well, their needs are more pressing and important than my desire for a clean apartment or a finished to do list. After all, when God tells us “Go” or “Do,” our reply should never be, “Sure, but only when I have a minute.”

Time is of the essence for both types of harvesting. While picking, I saw many blackberries still hanging from their vines, desiccated and withered as mummies. I couldn’t help but think what a shame it was that something like that could go to waste, but that’s what we do with many of the blessings God grants us. We never take hold of them and put them to good use. We miss out on the opportunity to bless others, to be blessed ourselves, and to please Him. John Greenleaf Whittier once said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'” How true those words are, especially when it comes to matters of eternity!

Perhaps some people never get started because they feel harvesting is too painful or costly. In fact, that day, the thorns pierced my hands and feet when I reached in the bushes or stepped around them carelessly. The heat of the day took its toll on me as well, and I spent quite a lot of  time harvesting that could have been spent elsewhere (preferably inside with a cool glass of water and a good book!) However, people have enjoyed the fruits of my labor (no pun intended), and that’s been well worth it. So, in a way, those people I mentioned earlier are correct. Service to God may come with a personal cost, but how does anything we might miss out on here compare to growing closer to the Lord through following His guidance?

In short, I want nothing more than to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” when I stand before the Almighty in heaven. After all, His goals and plans for me are already made; I just have to be willing to find them and to bring them to fruition in His time.

*****

“Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.’ Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

Writing (No Longer) on the Wall

The last few blogs I’ve written have been about patience and trust, two things I desperately needed as I waited for word on my new job. I am happy to report that I received a call from In Touch Ministries last Thursday and that I will begin work as a copy/content editor for their company as of June 20, 2011! The timing could not have been more perfect, and I know for a fact that it is God’s will for my life that I take this position and move into the next phase of my life where I will use my talents and grow in my faith.

That is not to say that this transition has been without stress. Yes, I love the idea of never having to grade another essay or quiz ever again. I’ve been in the business of education for eleven years now, and my life has always been filled with papers, red ink, parent conferences, continuing education, lesson plans, tutoring, and all the other rigmarole that comes with that territory. I’ve worked hard to teach students not just to read and write but to think for themselves. I’ve tried to show them the value of reasoning and evaluating the world like they do the novels, poems, stories, and essays we’ve analyzed together in class. Some have come back and told me about how they sailed through college composition courses because of what we covered in high school; others have even taken the bold step and become English majors and English teachers themselves (despite my insistence that they choose something practical like engineering or business management!)

Granted, I was never the best English teacher; there were others who had been at it much longer than I and who had it down to an art form. After many years, I still struggled to find the best or most efficient way to teach a lesson, but I can honestly say that I tried each and every day to do my best and that I did grow and develop during my decade behind the big desk.

I am now moving into a new field, one that will allow me to continue using my ninja editing skills to their fullest, and I find the prospect both wildly exhilarating and utterly terrifying. After all, since graduating from Valdosta State University with my Bachelor’s Degree in English in 2001, I have been involved in the business of making someone somewhere smarter in some capacity. I’ve taught middle school, high school, and college classes in literature, language arts, theater, creative writing, music, and Bible. I’ve been a tutor, a student aide, and a manager of other teachers at a Sylvan Learning Center. I’ve been a teacher for so long that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever going to excel at anything else. It’s become so much a part of who I am that I’m afraid to let go of it.

No matter how much I want to do away with teaching MLA for the nine billionth time or grading another persuasive essay, I find myself holding on to them both. I think the reason why is because they’re “safe.” They are “known entities.” Yes, I’m tired of them, and I no longer fully enjoy the tasks themselves, but they have become the devils I know. I don’t have to worry if someone looks at me and says, “Hughes! Your task today is to teach students how to craft an introductory paragraph!” I could do that with my eyes sewn shut and my thumbs tied firmly to my big toes. No need to worry, and no stress involved.

Now, that all changes. I’ll no longer be the master chief on deck or the lieutenant colonel in the field. I’m back to private first class status with very few medals on my chest and a lot of unanswered questions in my head. No longer am I recent college graduate with a shiny framed diploma and a litany of excuses as to why I don’t know something. Instead, I’m thirty-three and making a jump into a new industry. I’m expected to know quite a bit, and I don’t know if I do just yet. I’m becoming a member of a large, well-established, and well-respected publishing house, one that has the high calling of spreading the Gospel around the world in order to create disciples. It takes some time to process to say the least.

I decided that in order to make myself feel a little less “teacherish,” a little less like my old self, I needed to do a Publisher’s Clearing House impression. I’m talking a total, full on freebie giveaway. In case you aren’t a teacher or know someone who is, teachers tend to be savers by nature. We enjoy finding ways to keep things in files, folders, drawers, or boxes just because we might one day find ourselves in need of them. Whether it be handouts, example student essays, a well-written editorial from the local newspaper, a comic strip that happens to make a literary joke, or a poster, teachers will poke things away like squirrels preparing for an eternal winter.

I gave away a few non-literary things when I left my high school job, and I even left my lesson plan notebooks for the teacher replacing me to use and copy for herself. (Naturally, I got those back first thing.) 🙂 However, I was going to another teaching job and was loath to loosen my grip upon my precious teaching materials.

Now, the job has nothing to do with education, and so many of the things I treasured have been rendered unnecessary. I am also moving into the city and must do what every good move dictates–perform a culling. I am aware that this is at odds with the teacher’s inborn need to save everything, but what can I say? I am a multifaceted creature.

I have learned the need for organization and efficiency through a lifetime of experience. Growing up, I moved a lot, usually every two years or so. As a result, I have a very low tolerance for clutter. If I didn’t want to put it in a box, lug it to the new place, put it back out, and then repeat the same action a scant two years later, I decided someone else could use it more than I, and off to Goodwill it went.

As you can see by the photo, the items I chose to give away first are the laminated posters I brought with me. These have decorated the walls of every classroom in which I’ve ever taught. They filled space, gave the room some color, and even helped the occasional astute student who thought to look at them during a poetry terminology quiz! I packed them up and toted them over to the learning support center where a crew of wonderful and able-bodied teachers serve as student tutors and editors for a portion of our student body. Their shared space is very bland as their budget is non-existent and teachers cannot often afford to shell out their hard-earned pennies for something as trivial as posters. They were thrilled to get them, and I was pleased to see that these things I’d purchased with my own classroom in mind can now be used in another to help further educate people I might never meet.

I know that shedding posters like a snake sheds its skin will not automatically transform me into a new person. That process requires time and focus as I test the waters of my new career and see where and when I excel. However, today I feel like I took the first step towards a fruitful and fulfilling change in my life. I’m truly looking forward to the new things I’ll learn, the new friends and contacts I’ll make, and the new things I’ll use to define myself with in the future.