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).

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I’m Sick of Praying for People With Cancer…

I know the title of this blog may be a little misleading. I do not mean to say that I’m fed up with people who are dealing with cancer, and I certainly do not want to imply that I am tired of praying. What I am saying is that I pray for no fewer than ten people a week, all of whom are struggling with some form of this disease.

I’ve had enough of it…..Cancer, I mean.

According to the American Cancer Society’s latest data, 1,529,560 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2011. That’s just about evenly split between men (789,620) and women (739,940). For those who have cancer of any system or organ, it is estimated that 569,490 will lose their lives to it. Again, the numbers are fairly evenly split between males (299,200) and females (270, 290). Be aware that this is in the United States ALONE.

Over half a million people will pass away this year because of this malady. Yes, that’s nearly 570,000 people, which is equal to one tenth of the population of Atlanta. Some cases might have been brought on by poor lifestyle choices or work environment, but many more are simply caused by genetic and environmental factors. People who have done their level best to take care of themselves and have shied away from any and all behaviors that can tempt this disease to draw near can feel ill, head in for a visit with the doctor, and come out diagnosed with this disease.

That’s because cancer doesn’t care who you are—male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal. You can be five, fifty, or one hundred and four when it decides to show up at your door. Whether you worship God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the almighty dollar, cancer can and will take residence somewhere in the amazing body the Lord has blessed you with. It is one of the few diseases that knows no prejudice. It has no agenda other than causing havoc in your body and putting a strain on patients and their loved ones.

Who said equality was impossible?

If you divide the projected number of new cases by 365, you’ll find out that, on average, 4,190 people will find out that they have some form of cancer each and every day in this country. Today, 4,190 people will start a journey that will take them from second opinions to treatment options and from offices and work stations to the chairs where they’ll spend hours getting chemotherapy or radiation. For some, there will come a day when their own comfortable beds, covered with linens still redolent of laundry detergent and their spouse’s shampoo, will be replaced by the stiff confines of a hospital bed and impersonal sheets, starched and bleached until they’re brittle and scratchy.

Life as they’ve known it will be over.

For some people, their bodies will be weakened and their immune systems as vulnerable to attack as a village once was to the war machine of Rome. For others, their hair will do an impersonation of Elvis and “leave the building,” so baldy jokes will be made and colorful scarves bought by the dozens. 5K walks will take place, and ribbons of every color of the spectrum will be donned by friends, families, and co-workers to show support and raise funds for research.

For some, survival parties will eventually be held, and the countdown to the one-year anniversary of the happy date will begin. For others, a more somber gathering is the end result as friends and relations are left to try to understand what happened and to breathe a sigh of relief because the person who came under cancer’s tyrannical grasp and fought so valiantly has gone to a place where it can never harm him or her again.

No soul is safe, no system immune. The tongue can play host to it just as easily as the prostate or the breast. The lungs serve as its dwelling place along with the brain, the skin, the colon, the stomach, and even the reproductive organs responsible for creating life. It travels from system to system, organ to organ, as easily as a family station wagon cruises the highways and byways of the nation on a cross-country vacation. No paperwork is required; no border systems are in place to check its progress.

I’ve lost two grandparents to this disease as well as friends and students. I name some here to tell you they were real people with souls who breathed and walked on this earth. They were not numbers or statistics. I loved them all and still do today.

***

Betty Hill, my grandmother, loved to watch boxing. She cooked a mean plate of eggs, worked harder than any woman I ever knew, and apparently talked as rapidly as I do.

Leonard Hill, my grandfather, fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II and was a deacon, a Mason, and a Gideon. He loved feeding friends and family, had a fondness for dogs, and was an amazingly generous tipper.

Catie Carter, one of the brightest and most beautiful girls I had the privilege to teach, loved pink and took pride in keeping up with her homework no matter what. She approached everything with humor and love, and everyone who knew her is better off for it.

***

Today, people I love continue to fight the cancer in their lungs and their prostates, in their bladders, their blood, and their bones. And I pray. I hate it, but I pray. Why? Because James 5: 13-16 tells me:

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Praying for someone who is ill, especially if he or she does not get well, is one of the hardest things to do because it’s easy to feel like God doesn’t answer that prayer, no matter how fervently it’s offered. If you’re reading this and you’re angry with God or feel like He’s cruel and unjust, I can understand. I’ve felt the same way.

However, what I’ve come to understand is that God didn’t intend for this disease to exist. He created a perfect world without sickness and death, and it was we who lost it because of sin. What He does is allow it to occur so that those who are ailing, and those who stand by them through it all, can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and attain the reconciliation that comes with accepting Him as Savior. One day, we can all know the glory of the body we were intended to have. One day, we can see those we lost again in a place where separation is no longer a possibility. One day, cancer will be a foreign concept, an impossibility no longer cause for concern. But until then, it is our burden to bear together.

Reader, I serve a Savior who raised a man from the dead four days after the fact (John 11:1-45). I serve Jesus Christ—He who walked on water, who gave sharp eyes to the blind and nimble legs to the cripple, and who, with His death, tore the veil between me and my heavenly Father clean in two, making it possible for me to be reunited in fellowship with Him forever.

As much as I might pray for it, I know God’s will is not that we all be spared from cancer. Some of us will have to walk that road in order to be brought to a place where true healing can occur. When our bodies betray us, our spirits begin the search for answers and find the Almighty had them all along. As one who God allowed disease to touch for His glory, I echo the words of the apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

My sickness led to my salvation, and that is why I would not ask for it to be removed from me were it even possible. My thorn in the flesh made me humble, dependent, and wise in the ways of the Father, and I am well in soul though I am weak in body. So I continue to testify to the goodness of God, to worship He who is already in my tomorrow, and to pray that His will be done in all things.

***

If you have cancer (or any other disease that is affecting you physically or spiritually), you are in my prayers. Post a reply, and let me know your story. More importantly, keep fighting! Keep following Dylan Thomas’ advice and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Life is precious, and we have so much to do before it’s over.

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!

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.

The Rainbow Connection

As a proud member of the small but mighty, idiosyncratic group of people called Generation X, I’m a middle child of history. Unlike my cousin, a child who’s always had the Internet, handheld video games, instant downloads, and GPS, I remember life before technology. I remember VCRs, answering machines, and being my parents’ remote control. I remember the method by which we would contact each other in high school, without the aid of cell phones and texting,  if our plans went awry at the last minute. (Remember phone trees and cruising?) If pressed, I could still locate data and create a research paper without the help of a computer. I liked waiting on pictures to be developed to see what I’d captured. I enjoy actually buying CDs to read the liner notes and experience the CD visually as well as aurally. I honestly miss getting letters in the mail.

Suffice it to say, sometimes the world that is opened by the Internet is something that can, at times, cause me to marvel. For instance, with The Herscher Project, my online writing group, I am what I consider to be good friends with a good many people I have never met. In fact, the group’s founder, James Bowers, and I have had many discussions about writing and life in general, and I have confided things to him that I reserve only for friends. I’ve never physically laid eyes on the man, but he’s part of my inner circle despite that fact.

Facebook, despite its many faults and its tendency to brainwash anyone using it who’s under the age of eighteen, has allowed me to connect with people from all the schools I’ve loved and lost in my long journey as a Wal-Mart refugee child. People I’d thought I’d utterly lost track of now inform me about their children’s daily victories and the fun up-and-coming events in their lives with the click of a mouse. It’s like watching a scrapbook being made digitally.

The same goes for this blog. I’ve had people visit here to read my two cents on a given matter, and many interesting things have happened as a result–some positive, others less so. I’ve begun to read the thoughts of others, too. For example, I enjoy the blog Francopolis, written by Michael Franco, a fellow English teacher who is slogging through life like I am, trying to do the best he can with what he has. I root for him, identify with him, and give him support when I leave comments. All this with a man I’m never likely to meet! However, I think my life would be far less rich without knowing he’s out there.

I love the posts from Lovely Shades of Nostalgia written by a young lady who, like me, takes joy in things that aren’t technological. Yes, I see the irony in using technology to write about what technology is missing, but that’s part of the joy, too. Kids like my cousin, those who don’t remember the absolute, make-your-colon-want-to-explode excitement that came over you when The Grinch Who Stole Christmas came one (because it only aired once each Christmas season, not on demand or on DVD) or just how cool having a pen pal in Brazil can be, can read her blog about “the good old days” and understand a little more about a world they never knew existed.

One of my favorite blogs is Accidental Stepmom, a hilarious look at life raising five stepkids when you never expected to have any yourself. The author, J.M. Randolph, is an honest and altogether awesome quirky gal who manages everything with humor and a wry wit that never fails to amuse. I look forward to her updates, and although she and I are fairly dissimilar in lifestyle and ideology, I have found a kindred spirit in her, someone I can look to and learn from.

Here’s where the Kermit playing the banjo bit comes in.

Last week, she had a “photo caption” contest on her blog, and I entered it. You can read all about it here. Well, my caption won first prize, which happily happens to be a $10 gift card to Starbucks. I received it in the mail yesterday, and it even came with a lovely note!

I now have something written in her handwriting, something from this amazing person I might never meet in the flesh but who I know well through the thoughts and stories she takes time to share online. In it, she tells me about her passion for stationary and how she buys too much of it, knowing she can never use it all. The same irrational need to buy it comes over me when I’m in a bookstore. She informed me that she’s been to my new town, Atlanta, and remembers it fondly when the show she was working for played the Fabulous Fox Theater. Most of all, she thanked me for a laugh, something that cost me nothing to provide and gave me great joy to do.

This connection, the exchange of information and happiness, would have been impossible without the technology we have available to us today. While I shun a great many technological trappings such as Twitter because it is impossible to have any meaningful conversation in fewer than 140 characters, I still marvel at things like blogs and vlogs that allow people who might never have otherwise know the other existed the chance to say hello, exchange information, and even send an artifact or two to one another to make that connection tangible. That’s what makes it so amazing to the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

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